Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Objectivism Begins - 1929

It's interesting to go back and browse old literary magazines from the first half of the 20th Century. 19th Century American and British literary magazines now seem impossibly remote, and alien to our sensibility, but it only takes a little imagination to conjure up a sense of what it may have felt like to read periodicals like Poetry (Chicago) Magazine, in the 1920's, which in those days had no internet (electronic) presence, and could only be read in its material text incarnation. There weren't many places that poetry could be published before World War I--nothing like the explosion of academic journals and little magazines which became increasingly common in the succeeding decades, reaching a crescendo in the 1960's with the mimeo revolution

After an auspicious beginning in 1912, Poetry could boast important appearances by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Moore, Millay, Frost, for instance, in its first decade of existence. By the mid-1920's, however, it had begun to feel a little drab, and the list of contributors now reads like a 3rd rate collection of best-forgotten has-beens: Ernest Walsh, Marion Strobel, Eunice Tietjens, Frances Shaw, Violet Allyn Storey. When was the last time anyone mentioned any of these names? I recall once the critic Richard Kostelanetz saying in a review of a memorial issue of Poetry, how awful its selections had been over the years, and I had to concur. So many bad poems, so many bad poets. 

Poetry struggled along for many years on a shoestring budget, and it might have folded had it not quite unexpectedly been surprised with a jumbo bequest from the estate of Ruth Lilly, who had years before received a kindly worded declination to a submission she had made to the magazine--a bequest in 2003 totaling some $200, 000, 000!!!  Overnight, the magazine went from a fly-by-night affair, chronically on the verge of bankruptcy, to a major corporate (or foundation) player in the philanthropy-sphere, spawning contests and awards and new buildings, and supporting a professional staff with real salaries. Whether any of this new flush solvency will have a positive influence on the quality of poetry in America is debatable. 

The glowering new foundation quarters of Poetry (Chicago)

How quaint the old Poetry magazine now appears, when compared to the pristine, confident, streamlined modern version! Of course, many famous poets have published work in Poetry over the years--Yeats, Williams Stevens, Bunting, Rakosi, Cummings, O'Hara, Ginsberg, Joyce, etc. But as Kostelanetz points out, it was invariably not their best work, and frequently was nothing more than a token belated recognition of their accomplishments outside the world which Poetry had come to represent over the years, i.e., an uncomfortable mediocrity. 

By the mid-1920's, Poetry no longer represented an harbinger of new and daring experimentation, but had become a repository of staid, predictable, safe, reactionary writing. Despite the imprecations of editor Harriet Monroe's redoubtable correspondent, Ezra Pound, the magazine continued to shy away from challenging work, preferring to stick with polite, quiet, sensible poems, with little to recommend them aside from their timid propriety. (I'm not the first person of course to say this, but any magazine which begins with a manifesto to publish "the best" or the "highest standard" without regard to program or vision, is almost certain to select work which is imitative, meretricious, bland, ephemeral, and cheap. Literary movements come and go, but the driving force behind any publication is invariably the eccentric or unusual attitude of its editor(s), and when the energy or functional purpose of that editor is exhausted or complete, there is little pretext for prolongation.) 

This is as true today, in 2013, as it was in 1924, when Louis Zukofsky published his first poem there, a "stale cream-puff" entitled "Of Dying Beauty." You could with justice have decorated the margins of this poem with Corinthian columned designs, festooned with aesthetically posed curling vines, and peopled with Greek goddesses tricked out in flowing pale broadcloth robes, leaning sideways with languorous attitudes. It was work that mightn't have seemed the least bit modern to the eyes of William Morris (in 1890) or Alfred Tennyson (in 1880). Indeed, the "dying beauty" he described could well have been the rotten state of American poetry, in 1924. Aside from Frost and Eliot and Pound and Stevens and Moore, almost no good poetry was being written by Americans in those years--and much of it was being done abroad, by Americans in Europe.         

Of Dying Beauty

“Spare us of dying beauty,” cries out Youth,
“Of marble gods that moulder into dust—
Wide-eyed and pensive with an ancient truth
That even gods will go as old things must.”
Where fading splendor grays to powdered earth,
And time’s slow movement darkens quiet skies,
Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth
And molds again, though the old beauty dies.
Time plays an ancient dirge amid old places
Where ruins are a sign of passing strength,
As is the weariness of aged faces
A token of a beauty gone at length.
Yet youth will always come self-willed and gay—
A sun-god in a temple of decay.

Poetry, January 1924

But something happened between 1924 and 1929, when Zukofsky's next publication in Poetry appeared. It is probably disingenuous to use Poetry as a platform for a comparison of changing literary values during this period, since there were other venues. Gertrude Stein was conducting her salons in Paris. In Russia, strange occurrences were taking place. There were distant rumblings, but they seem not to have reached the ears of Harriet Monroe. Still, some light may have pierced the editorial offices in Chicago, because the June 1929 issue contained an interesting series of poems by young Louis Zukofsky, the same man who'd debuted five years before with that distressingly antediluvian specimen "Of Dying Beauty."

For me, American poetry begins with Zukofsky's poem "Siren and Signal," on page 146 of Poetry Magazine, June 1929, Volume IIIVI, Number 111. The Zukofsky of 1929 has come so far from the author of "Of Dying Beauty" that one wonders how it could be the same person. The poem as published in the magazine is in seven parts, but when he collected his early work in 55 Poems  (1923-1935) in 1941, he managed to salvage only the two best sections--numbers IV and V. He dispensed with the title Siren and Signal of the set, keeping IV ("Gleams, a green lamp") and V, and separated them ("Cars once steel"), where they appear in All: The Collected Short Poems, as numbers 5 and 17. As brief, concise lyrics, they are among the earliest examples of what would come be called "Objectivist" poems. Monroe invited Zukofsky to guest-edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry, the "'Objectivist' 1931" number, which included work by Rakosi, Reznikoff, Oppen, Bunting and a section from LZ's own long poem "'A': Seventh Movement: 'There are Different Techniques'" along with key two prose essays--"Program: 'Objectivists' 1931" and "Sincerity and Objectification." 

In them, LZ makes several extravagant claims for the kind of poetry he's advocating, which might seem extreme, if not for the sorry state of the art generally during this period. By "sincerity" as LZ uses it we might summarize it by saying it (the object of representation in a poem) refers unflinchingly to the actual social, political and aesthetic context within which it exists; the revolutionary political implications of this are obvious. By "objectification" we might derive that this is a scientific fidelity to observed fact, as opposed to the halo of distraction which tends to blur our apprehension of its actual presence. He is careful to point out that the best poems--of those he cites--may contain elements of both characteristics in unequal measure: Reznikoff, for instance, is more a poet of sincerity than of objectification, his poems record event and character rather that observing and defining. But "accuracy of detail in writing--which is sincerity" links the two concepts as but different aspects of the same quality. What Reznikoff, Williams, Oppen, Rakosi, and Moore have in common, according to LZ is a fidelity to perceived fact (reality) and a method which functions to portray it accurately, to attach immediate feelings to perceived event or object. One could say, with some justice, that Objectivism is Imagism refined into an intellectual critical principle.             

"It is more important for the communal good that individual authors should spend their time recording and objectifying good writing wherever it is found (note the use of quotation in Marianne Moore from Government guide-books, Pound's translations and quotations in the Cantos, Carlos Williams' passages out of Spanish and early American sources in In the American Grain; cf. Reznikoff's The English in Virginia in Pagany IV 1930) than that a plenum of authors should found their fame on all sorts of personal vagueness--often called 'sophistication.'" The evocative, generative and crucial word here is of course "communal."* 

"In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness . . . Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion which does not attain rested totality . . . This rested totality may be called objectification . . . The codifications of the rhetoric . . . may be described as the arrangements, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words the resolving of words and their ideation into structure . . . Granted that the word combination 'minor units of sincerity" is an ironic index of the degradation of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each word in itself is an arrangement, it may be said that each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree; but that the facts carried by one word are, in view of the preponderance of facts carried by combinations of words, not sufficiently explicit to warrant a realization of rested totality such as might be designated an art form . . . Yet the objectification which is a poem, or a unit of structural prose, may exist in a very few lines."  

Objectivism, as seen by Zukofsky and defined for the purposes of his two guest essays, begins in the work of Reznikoff (1918, Five Groups of Verse), Williams (1923, Spring & All), and Moore (1924, Observations). Though Eliot, Hemingway, McAlmon, Cummings, Pound and Stevens are mentioned, they are not part of the process. Zukofsky himself exhibits the tendency in the poems printed in Poetry in 1929, in the set of verses entitled "Siren and Signal." 

"North River Ferry," as I have noted, was later dissected out and presented retitled simply as "Ferry."

Gleams, a green lamp
In the fog;
Murmur, in almost
A Dialogue

Siren and signal
Siren to signal.

Parts the shore from the fog.
Rise there, tower on tower,
Signs of stray light
And of power.

Siren to signal.
Siren to signal.

Hour-gongs and green
Of the lamp.

Plash. Night. Plash. Sky.

(The only revision of the poem being the separation of the last line from the previous stanza.) Chosen from among his earliest expressions of a "combination of units" of objectified sincerity, or sincere objectification, the poem stands like a beacon of LZ' vision of new writing circa 1918-1929. Composed in free verse, with no  concessions to formal prescription, it adheres to the priority of perceived actual event, and its time and rhythmic motions are apt to the case. It is sincere, but without emotional "sophistications" typical of the contemporary poetry of the time. The verse stands as resistant to distractions which blur or mar our apprehension of actual social, economic, political and aesthetic facts. Clear-eyed seeing, for LZ, was the crucial duty of the artist, to record history as happening in memorably direct form. Concision and commitment (emotion) would follow as a direct consequence of the simplicity of the devotion to objectivity. It was an ideal suited to the moment, a thread of artistic intention that would flourish throughout the 1930's, as the Great Depression fueled unrest, and artists and writers would find themselves in commitments that acknowledged the economic and social facts of the system which had failed. 

LZ's formulation of the movement known as Objectivism occurred publicly in 1931, but for me, it really begins here, in 1929, with "Siren and Signal." It may have seemed, in a humorless cul-de-sac of time, that the call to action led down the path of conflict and rigid opposition. Looking beyond the ferry light towards the skyline of Manhattan rising "tower on tower . . . of power" the poet conjures up a splashing or spattering of light, perhaps caused by reflections in the water, not unlike the illuminated sky over a fire, or explosion, or some other cataclysmic occurrence. It's a phenomenon which seems to have no specific object, an indeterminacy--of more than the language could bear.                   


*With the closing down of the communal after the events of WWII, LZ's scope of concern contracted to the familial and intimate. 


Chad Scheel said...

I firmly believe that "Ferry" is one of the finer indicators of the breadth of Zukofsky's work. On one side you have such direct and clear image. What is better yet is the attention to sound qualities that reach their peek in the "Eyes" sequence. Williams like to call poems "machines" an idea I've often taken to suggest the superiority of a poem 'doing' the thing rather than speaking 'about' it. The inverted beats with in the words 'siren' and 'signal' both call to mine the 'wee-oo, wee-oo' of a small child's siren and the seeming change in speed as a beacon light circles.

Thanks again Curtis for the historical perspective.

מבול said...
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Ed Baker said...

my guess is that you have never heard of or read any Marinetti or his Fututrist pals, long about 1909-1915
and beyond ...
that Manhattan group never did call themselves "Objectivists"
the labels came
via a need to package things neatly into
some "teachable" (marketable) package ..

p.s. was all of this cleared with Paul ?

Curtis Faville said...


Of course I know about Marinetti, but what does Futurism have to do with Objectivism?

I think of Objectivism as uniting a "scientific Marxism" to new kinds of formal approaches to poetry and social responsibility. It really gets going in the 1930's and the Depression. I don't see Futurism as sharing those aspects. It was more about streamlining and technology and anarchism.

Ed Baker said...

meant the guy with the Hebrew name, not you.... and, I did understand what I meant but, I can't explain it. Something to do with "using" ones self and one's actions and one's productions as simultaneously Object and Subject ...and then making "isms" out of either and ?

well, this just up which boggles my mind:

מבול said...
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