The Energies of Words

How Poetry's legendary 1931 Objectivist issue came to be, from Pound's harangues to Zukofsky's essays.
"Hermeneutical mysteriousness is the single most important reason why Objectivist ideals have endured in American poetry." Peter O'Leary digs deep into the Poetry magazine archive to uncover the origins of the Objectivist movement.

The Objectivist movement didn’t yet have a name when Harriet Monroe sent a letter of recommendation on behalf of Louis Zukofsky to the Guggenheim Foundation in November 1930. The 26-year-old Zukofsky, she wrote, was “a member, perhaps the leader, of a ‘new group’ of poets who are doing very interesting, more or less experimental work in poetry and in authentic criticism. . . . I have such confidence in Mr. Z. that I am handing over to him the editorship of an entire issue of Poetry.”

The month before, Monroe had offered Zukofsky the chance “to put in whatever poets you like up to 30½ pages of verse and 20 more of prose.” Zukofsky’s reply provides an orienting credo for the Objectivist movement:

If we can get part of a Canto of Pound’s—and if I find it good which is highly probable—I don’t see why we should shun it. The energies of words are hard to find—I should want my issue to be entirely a matter of the energies of words.

Zukofsky had Ezra Pound to thank for Monroe’s invitation. Early in the magazine’s existence, she had appointed Pound her foreign correspondent. His legendary scouting reports from Europe included work by William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and Rabindranath Tagore. By 1920, eight years after the magazine was founded, Pound and Monroe’s relationship had cooled. Nevertheless, Monroe kept in touch, and Pound sent her periodic advice and harangues, such as this characteristic bit from November 1926:
Dear Harriet: Have been looking through your last 18 or more numbers, find many of ’em uncut.
My impression is that you have tried ladies’ numbers, children’s numbers, in fact everything but a man’s number. And that you tend to become more and more a tea party, all mères de famille. . . . Fraid I will hav to take the bad boys off your hands and once again take up the hickory.

Writing in March 1930, Pound urges Monroe to notice Zukofsky: “I think you miss things. Criterion and H[ound] & Horn both taking on Zukofsky. If you can’t liven up the verse; you cd. at least develop the critical section [with his work].” In late September 1930, Pound wrote to again suggest that Monroe include work by Zukofsky
Dear Harriet,
Before leavin’ home yesterday I recd. 2 essays by Zukofsky. You really ought to get his Reznikof [sic]. = He is one of the very few people making any advance in criticism. = he ought to appear regularly in “Poetry.”

Twenty years had passed since Pound first became famous for agitating on behalf of literature, and he may have felt removed from any literary center and eager to dive back into the scrum. “Hang it all,” he continues, echoing the eventual opening to “Canto II,” “—you printed my ‘Don’ts’ + Ford’s essay in Poetry, in 1913. etc. + they set a date. You ought not to let the magazine drift into being a mere passive spectator of undefined + undefinable events.”

Pound’s relationship with Monroe was arguably one of the most significant collaborations in the history of American poetry. Neither would have accomplished as much as they did without the other: Monroe supported Pound’s ideas when other venues found them tedious; Pound pushed Monroe to broaden her horizons. In the same letter, Pound rails, “A prominent americ. homme de letters came to me last winter saying you had alienated every active poet in the U.S.—one ought not to be left undefended against such remarks,” adding, “Zuk has [a] definite critical gift that ought to be used.” He included Zukofsky’s address just to be sure she took his point. Later, more gently, he assures her, “You cd. get back into the ring if you wd. print a number containing [Zukofsky’s work],” adding “Must make one no. of Poet.[ry] different from another if you want to preserve life as distinct from mere continuity.” In the upper front corner of Pound’s letter, Monroe—presumably—has penciled in the notation: “Sug’d a Zukofsky number.”

In recommending Zukofsky, Pound was essentially anointing the young poet as the head of a new movement, one that he felt deserved a manifesto as galvanizing as Pound’s essay “A Few Don’ts ” had been to the Imagists in 1913.

Taking Pound’s cue, Monroe asked Zukofsky to formulate the February 1931 issue of Poetry as the announcement of a new literary movement, specifying that he should write an essay summarizing the merits and intentions of its work. “I shall be disappointed,” she wrote to Zukofsky on October 13, 1930, “if you haven’t a ‘new group,’ as Ezra said.” Zukofsky did what most young poets in such an unusually fortunate position would do: he solicited work from his friends and acquaintances. Even though he knew these poets didn’t actually constitute a group, he hedged when he wrote to Monroe describing his progress:
I shall probably—in fact, most certainly,—have more of a group than I thought. The contributions I have already—McAlmon, Rakosi, T.S. Hecht, Oppen, Williams, my own—tho never talked over by us together, go together. The Rakosi I received yesterday is excellent – the man has genius (I say that rarely) and he says he stopped writing five years ago—a curious case.

Making these poets “go together” would require novel thinking as well as a memorable label. Zukofsky first introduces it in “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931,” one of two essays he wrote for the issue.

What is Objectivist poetry? Strictly speaking, it is a tradition emerging from the work of four of the American poets that Zukofsky featured in the issue: George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and himself. Though he included many other poets, these four are lastingly thought of as the Objectivists. Basil Bunting, a British poet whose work also appears in the issue, is sometimes considered an Objectivist, reflecting more his affiliation with Pound, whose disciple he was, than any aesthetic similarity. Lorine Niedecker, later included in this school, would strike up a lifelong friendship with Zukofsky after reading the issue. In varying ways, the work of all five of these poets advanced the poetic principles of their forebears Pound and William Carlos Williams. (A poem by Williams is also included in the issue.) The principles of Pound and Williams can be summarized by Pound’s 1913 statement that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol” in a poem.

For an issue that launched a movement, it’s not particularly memorable for its poetry, most of which was written by second-rate poets who happened to be friends of Zukofsky, or by now canonical poets who are not regarded as Objectivists, such as Williams, Bunting, or Kenneth Rexroth, a progenitor of the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s.

Then why is this issue of a magazine among the most influential magazine publications of the 20th century? Put somewhat crudely, it provides the diagrams and all the materials for constructing a canon, a model that has since been often repeated. In focusing the issue on four key poets, surrounding them with largely forgettable, frequently limp free-versifying, and then framing the four poets’ work with a nearly impenetrable critical vocabulary, Zukofsky created a tactical and aesthetic strategy that has influenced successive groups of poets and critics. In some cases, this strategy has involved actively modeling a movement after the Objectivists, as the Language poets did. Seminal essays by such poet/critics as Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Lyn Hejinian provided the theoretical basis and manifestos that inspired the work of other Language poets. For the Black Mountain poets, the manifesto was provided by Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse.” Exactly how the young Zukofsky more or less pulled off launching the Objectivist movement remains a remarkable story.

“Desire for what is objectively perfect” : The Theory

In his book The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, Mark Scroggins wonders whether Zukofsky’s choice of the term Objectivist was “a deeply considered description of the commonalities his poetry shared with that of George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and William Carlos Williams,” or “an ad hoc formulation, a hastily conceived banner under which he could advance the poetry and careers of himself and his friends?” As shown by the letters between Monroe and Pound, and Pound and Zukofsky, it’s safe to answer yes to both questions. Zukofsky’s designation of the term Objectivist poetry is both deeply considered and completely provisional.

Objectivist poetry is best defined by the terms with which Zukofsky characterizes it in the essays he wrote for the issue—the principles of “sincerity” and “objectification” cohering in “the energies of words.” Accordingly, sincerity is to be true to living in the world; objectification is to represent its facts.

Though the title of the first essay, “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931,” implies that Zukofsky is defining a new school of poetic theory, he isn’t. Rather, he is offering a perplexing definition with similarly perplexing extraneous matter (for instance, bizarrely, a lengthy quotation from a Hemingway poem). In the essay’s opening paragraphs, Zukosfsky defines what “an objective” for poetry would mean:
An Objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use)—That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

A poem’s objective, Zukofsky seems to be saying, can be understood through the analogies of a microscope and a military target. Does Zukofsky mean that a poem functions in the same way an optical device functions—focusing on an idea or object, targeting it in a military sense, in hopes of achieving an objective perfection that is equivalent to deducing the direction of historic and contemporary trends? Who knows? Zukofsky’s ideas are easier to understand if one applies them to his personal poetic program: remaking the epic poem through a language of philosophical, historic, and musical particulars, chiefly in his poem “A,” begun in 1927 and composed over several decades. For instance, when he further explains in the essay what he means by “historic and contemporary particulars,” Zukofsky slyly refers to events that he has already written about in the early parts of “A.”
It is understood that historic and contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events: i.e., any Egyptian pulled-glass bottle in the shape of a fish or oak leaves, as well as the performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion in Leipzig, or the Russian revolution and the rise of metallurgical plants in Siberia.

The subject of the opening section of “A” is a performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion. By mentioning the Russian revolution and the prospect of steel plants in Siberia, Zukofsky, a Marxist, was not only nodding toward the past but also winking to his leftist comrades (Scroggins refers to this as one of the “red flashes” that flare throughout the issue). And perhaps he wanted those few readers of Poetry who were already familiar with his poem to think that his work was “objective,” which is to say “objectively perfect” and aimed “inextricably” toward both the past and present.

Baffling as this definition of “Objective” is, the remainder of Zukofsky’s opening essay does little to clarify what he means. It is in his essay about Reznikoff’s poetry, “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff,” that Zukofsky more fully develops his theories.

The essay defines the two operative terms of Objectivist theory: sincerity and objectification. Sincerity occurs when writing “is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.” In other words, sincerity is describing things as they are in a musically memorable way. “Shapes suggest themselves,” Zukofsky goes on, “and the mind senses and receives awareness.” As an example of sincerity, Zukofsky cites a line of Reznikoff’s—“The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water”—noting it for “possessing remarkable energy.” He seems to be gesturing toward elements of visual and musical beauty contained in a line, what he would call in his 1948 book A Test of Poetry the “sight” and “sound” of a poem.

Objectification, on the other hand, is a nearly mystical expression of “rested totality”—a talismanic phrase and the poetic property that Zukofsky more highly valued. “This rested totality may be called objectification,” writes Zukofsky. “[T]he apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.” Objectification is [to be] related to what Zukofsky calls “intellection” in A Test of Poetry, a variation of Pound’s logopoeia—“the dance of the intellect among the words.” Rested totality, in Zukofsky’s thinking in his 1931 essays, is the mind’s comprehension of the poem that is in Oppen’s phrase “concerned with a fact which it did not create.”

To make his case for objectification in poetry, Zukofsky offers some examples in the Reznikoff essay: five of Williams’s poems in Spring and All, Moore’s poems “An Octopus” and “Like a Bulrush,” Eliot’s “Mr. Apollinax,” and, equivocally, some of cummings’s lyrics. Zukofsky, though, reserves his real admiration for Pound. “In contemporary writing the poems of Ezra Pound alone possess objectification to a most constant degree; his objects are musical shapes.” They are, to reiterate what Zukofsky wrote to Monroe in his October 1930 letter, “a matter of the energies of words.” Zukofsky concludes his long paragraph of examples and explanations in the essay with a curt appraisal: “The degree of objectification in the work of Charles Reznikoff is small.”

What can we make of these terms, more than 75 years later? In truth, we make of them what Zukofsky’s vocabulary permits us to make. Scroggins reads objectification as form—“Not the form of the poetic handbooks . . . but form as a sense of unity, as an impression of ‘rested totality’ in the reader’s mind.” But notice here how Scroggins must rely on the vocabulary Zukofsky has provided to explain what Zukofsky means. Scroggins, like many before him, clarifies Zukofsky by perpetuating his language. Though it’s impossible to exactly paraphrase their meaning, Zukofsky’s presentation of sincerity and objectification as philosophical facts created the foundation for the Objectivist movement and its subsequent influence.

Reznikoff would later clarify Zukofsky’s Objectivist theory by relating it to factual evidence. Drawing on his long experience as a lawyer, Reznikoff wrote in “First, there is a need,” a pamphlet published in 1977 by Black Sparrow Press:
With respect to the treatment of subject matter in verse and the use of the term “objectivist” and “objectivism,” let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law. Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusions of fact: it must state the facts themselves. For example, a witness in an action for negligence cannot say: the man injured was negligent crossing the street. He must limit himself to a description of how the man crossed. . . . The conclusions of fact are for the jury and let us add, in our case, for the reader.

Poet Norman Finkelstein has written that “Zukofsky’s dream of the poem as the totality of perfect rest . . . is surely one of the most hermetic texts in the annals of twentieth-century poetics, and as such, it is open to endless Talmudic interpretation and disputation.” This hermeneutical mysteriousness is the single most important reason why Objectivist ideals have endured in American poetry. “Rested totality” stands for that part of the imagination that is receptive and mainly intuitive. Perceiving such “totality of perfect rest” is, as Reznikoff understood it, a practice of providing poetic evidence, a testimony in the strictest sense of the term, from the Latin testis, for witness. The Objectivist poem is a witness to reality, both imagination’s and the world’s.

“Words will do it” : The Poetry

How does one witness reality in a poem? To propose an answer to that, we can turn to the poems Zukofsky gathered for Poetry. Pound had written to Carl Rakosi in the late 1920s and in 1930, encouraging him to get in touch with Zukofsky, who then in turn wrote enthusiastically to Monroe about his “genius.” Is it evident in the group of poems Zukofsky selected for the issue? Consider Rakosi’s “Orphean Lost,” which opened the issue:
The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

The scene of the poem seems more Romantic than Objectivist, hinting vaguely of sexual malaise. In a strictly Zukofskyan sense, it lacks any objectification, any totality of perfect rest. It seems, instead, suggestively but mildly agitated.

Zukofsky followed Rakosi’s poems with his own contribution—the Seventh Movement of his epic poem-in-progress, “A,” a series of seven menacingly, skillfully rendered sonnets that recapitulate all the themes involved in his poem up to that point. Subtitled “There are different techniques,” the series begins with this sonnet:
Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words
Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but
They have no manes, so there are no airs, birds
Of words, from me to them no singing gut.
For they have no eyes, for their legs are wood,
For their stomachs are logs with print on them,
Blood-red, red lamps hang from necks or where could
Be necks, two legs stand A, four together M.

“Street Closed” is what print says on their stomachs;
That cuts out everybody but the diggers;
You’re cut out, and she’s cut out, and the jiggers
Are cut out, No! we can’t have such nor bucks
As won’t, tho they’re not here pass thru a hoop
Strayed on a manhole—me? Am on a stoop.

Zukofsky, in seemingly natural yet carefully rhymed lyric language, is describing a strictly urban scene: sawhorses at a work site. The “A” of his title is one sawhorse; two (now four-legged) make an M, an alphabetic objectification of the world.

The syntax of the last six lines is gymnastic, landing after all its twisting on the image of Zukofsky, sitting on a stoop, looking out toward the work site on the closed-off street. While this poem is excellent, technically speaking, is it Objectivist? Following Zukofsky’s initial definitions of “An Objective,” relying as they do on a language of focus (from optical focusing, to military targeting, to a poetic directing of historical particulars), we can say yes. The animal archetype, horse, yields “manes,” which happens to be the first word of The Iliad, meaning “rage” in Greek, invoking a mythical military campaign reflected in the situation of a street in Manhattan being closed off for repairs. All of which, through a series of ingenious rhymes, leads to Zukofsky himself, presumably as a boy, sitting on a stoop, observing the scene. It’s a pretty amazing achievement: if not rested totality, a virtuoso assaying of it to be sure.

Of the major Objectivists, the work of Charles Reznikoff appears next. The page-long selection of short poems exemplifies the type of poem that came to define Objectivist poetry: an almost purely descriptive, modestly lyrical depiction of an urban scene:
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, itself among the rubbish.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1959, George Oppen, writing to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan, would say of this poem, “Likely [Reznikoff] could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Oppen is best known for the poetry he wrote after a 25-year silence that he initiated in 1934 in order to dedicate himself to the Communist Party. The two Oppen poems included in the issue appear in Discrete Series from 1934, his only book of poetry published before 1960. The poems Oppen wrote beginning in 1958 are much more expressive of Objectivist positions than the two included here. (“Of Being Numerous,” Oppen’s masterpiece from 1968, begins with an Objectivist credo: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’”) His second poem in the issue begins:
The knowledge not of sorrow, you were saying, but of boredom,
Is of—aside from reading speaking smoking—
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was, wished to know when, having risen,
“Approached the window as if to see what really was going on”

The appearance of Maude Blessingbourne sounds closer in tone and spirit to the characters who show up in Eliot’s “The Waste Land” than to the scenes evoked in the poetry of Rakosi, Reznikoff, or Zukofsky. The poem concludes:
And saw rain failing, in the distance more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-glass—
Of the world, weather swept, with which one shares the century.

While the last line could possibly be describing the “direction of historic and contemporary particulars,” it’s hard to find any rested totality, or even anything particularly sincere, in these lines. (The dramatic setting could possibly reflect, among other things, Oppen’s interest in Henry James.)

The work of two other poets in the issue deserves mention: Bunting’s and Williams’s. Bunting’s contribution, a single poem titled “The Word,” would subsequently be divided by the poet into two different poems in his Collected Poems. The second appears in Poetry under the subheading “Appendix: Iron,” and runs:
Molten pool, incandescent spilth of
deep cauldrons—and brighter nothing is—
cast and cold, your blazes extinct and
no turmoil nor peril left you,
rusty ingot, bleak paralyzed blob!

Are these lines Objectivist? I don’t imagine Bunting ever thought so, but they do ring with the rhetorical soundings of Pound’s early Cantos. Truth told, Bunting was a friend, a connection soldered by Pound, rather than a member of this new poetic movement. The same was true of Williams, whose appearance was emphatically meant to signal influence and ancestry for Zukofsky’s “new group.”

Zukofsky was 24 in 1928 when he struck up a friendship with Williams, who by then had been publishing poetry for 20 years, although he wasn’t especially well known. In letters he sent the younger poet in 1930, Williams worries repeatedly about making some money from his fiction and finding time to write. Responding to Zukofsky’s request for work for Poetry, Williams writes, “By some trick of the imagination I have persistently kept the Alphabet of Leaves thing for just the purpose you want it for. When you want it, yell.” Williams means “The Botticellian Trees,” a poem that would conclude the sequence titled “Della Primavera Transportata al Morale” in the various collected/selected poems of Williams published over the years. It’s arguably the finest and best-known poem in the issue, and Zukofsky was unequivocal in his praise: “Your poem is the best (I’m not kiddin’ either!) in my issue and I have some splendid material by Rakosi etc etc. Bob McAlmon, too.” The poem begins as a model of the kind of poetry Zukofsky meant to assemble:
The alphabet of
the trees

is fading in the
song of the leaves

the crossing
bars of the thin

letters that spelled

Monroe seems to have been pleased with this inclusion as well: the November 1931 issue announced that Williams had won the Guarantor’s Prize of $100 for “The Botticellian Trees” and for his service to poetry in general—“a recognition of the value and very individual quality of this poet’s work.” In writing to thank her, Williams told her that he planned to use the money (about $1,200 in today’s dollars) to help finance the publication of his next book; he had yet to find a publisher willing to print and pay for it.

The rest of the poetry in the issue, for the most part, is decidedly minor. (“Only a small part of any epoch or decade survives,” wrote Pound to Monroe in 1931.) Several of the poets were leftist intellectual friends of Zukofsky’s from New York, including Harry Roskolenkier, Henry Zolinsky, and, most famously, Whittaker Chambers, who as a Communist in the 1920s and early 1930s was recruited to work as a Soviet spy in Washington. When he defected from the Communist Party in 1939, he began a career of informing to the FBI on members of his circle, naming Alger Hiss as a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948.

Other minor poets of note in the issue include John Wheelwright, an eccentric Boston Brahmin who would go on to exert a considerable influence on John Ashbery; and Robert McAlmon, who had been married to H.D.’s eventual companion Bryher, and who for a period ran an important press in expatriate Paris, publishing Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

Kenneth Rexroth is the most anomalous poet in the issue. Monroe was unfamiliar with elements of Rexroth's poem 'Last Page of a Manuscript,' whose manifestly Christian and mystical language set it apart from the other poems.
The sliver in the firmament
The stirring horde
The rocking wave
The name breaks in the sky
Why stand we
Why go we nought
They broken seek the cleaving balance
The young men gone
Lux lucis

Responding to an editorial inquiry that Monroe sent him about the line “The chalice of the flaming byss,” Rexroth replied pedantically,
The term is byss, your printer made no mistake. The term is late Neo-Platonic, and is used for the plenum, roughly, Being as contrasted with Not-Being. It emerges in western culture with John Scotus Ereugina. Pico uses it. Also Jacob Boehme, who makes much of it.

“A number I can show to my friends” : Reactions

Soon after receiving the January 1931 issue of Poetry, Pound sent a typically hectoring letter to Monroe, accusing her of squandering the value of the magazine he had helped make great. In a postcard dated February 12, 1931, however, he requests four additional copies of Zukofsky’s issue. “This is a number I can show to my friends,” he wrote. In pencil, at the top of the card, Monroe wrote, “Ezra is pleased.” On the reverse side, Pound indicated the names of magazines to which review copies should be sent.

Monroe would quote Pound’s postcard, along with its addendum, in the “Correspondence” section in the April 1931 issue: “If you can do another eleven as lively you will put the mag. on its feet.” To which Monroe replies, chidingly, “Alas, we fear that would put it on its uppers!”

Jokes aside, Monroe had little intention either of doing another issue similar to the Objectivist one or of following Pound’s advice very closely. In March 1931, citing problems that had arisen because of Zukofsky’s distance from Chicago, Monroe suggested to Basil Bunting that they hold off on the British poetry issue Pound had urged them to undertake. One month after the February issue, Pound’s annoyance toward Monroe reignited. “Yet again: say the Feb. number doesn’t ‘record a triumph’ for that group. GET some other damn group and see what it can do. . . . Tell your damn guarantors I consider ’em as holy lights amid a great flock of cattle (millionaire illiterates, dumb and speechless tribes of unconscious pawnbrokers.)”

Readers reacted to the Objectivist poems with a mixture of enthusiasm, repulsion, and sharp criticism. Monroe printed their responses in the April 1931 issue. She particularly notes a Princeton student “who congratulates us upon achieving an interesting issue at last,” and the Long Island editor who wrote an Objectivist parody begging for “my money, my god, my money!” to be sent back. She included a letter from Horace Gregory praising the issue somewhat equivocally, a strange paragraph from a Rexroth letter “too long to quote,” and a bilious but impassioned letter from a very young Stanley Burnshaw, along with Zukofsky’s defensive, dismissive reply.

Burnshaw raises questions still relevant today: “Is Objectivist poetry a programmed movement (such as the Imagists instituted), or is it a rationalization undertaken by writers of similar subjective predilections and tendencies . . . ? Is there a copy of the program of the Objectivist group available?” Zukofsky answered, speaking of himself in the third person, “The editor was not a pivot, the contributors did not rationalize about him together; out of appreciation for their sincerity of craft and occasional objectification he wrote the program of the February issue of Poetry. . . .” In reply to Burnshaw’s admitted confusion about the meaning of “objectification,” Zukofsky pointed to some of the poems in the issue—particularly Oppen’s poems, but also, more faintly, Reznikoff’s sequence—without entirely clarifying it. He concluded by trying—futilely—to clear up another of his chosen terms: “The quotes around ‘objectivist’ distinguish between its particular meaning in the Program and the philosophical etiquette associated with objectivist.

For a short period following the issue’s publication, Zukofsky continued to work in the Objectivist vein. In 1932 he edited An “Objectivists” Anthology, issued by TO Publishers (an acronym for The Objectivists), a small press begun by Reznikoff, Zukofsky, and Oppen and his wife, Mary, and funded by Oppen’s modest trust. The anthology was reviewed unfavorably in the pages of Poetry by Morris Schappe in the March 1933 issue, prompting an acidic letter to the editor from Zukofsky. Once again speaking in the third person, he insisted that he “proceeded in that volume very closely along the lines of revolutionary thinking, both in his presentation of the poems of others and of his own poems.”

For a few additional years, there was energy and momentum behind the incipient Objectivists. When Oppen’s money began to run out, the Oppens changed the name of TO Publishers to the Objectivist Press and managed to publish a collected edition of Williams’s poems, as well as Oppen’s Discrete Series in 1934. The press folded in 1936, by which time the Oppens had joined the Communist Party and Oppen had stopped writing poetry.

Oppen’s silence is typical of the neglect and strained personal circumstances that characterized the careers of nearly all the Objectivists until the 1960s, when groups of younger poets in America and England rediscovered, celebrated, and rejuvenated their work. While the quiet 1940s and 1950s must surely have been disappointing to most of these poets—even to Oppen, who had chosen his silence—they lend an aura of authenticity to their poetry and to their commitment as poets. Without this period of decreased visibility, I doubt that the obscure terminology by which Zukofsky had defined this group would have acquired such meaning and mystique. From the vantage of the 21st century, it’s clear that without the initial efforts of Zukofsky in 1931, none of these poets, including Zukofsky himself, would have the place in American literary history they presently occupy.

* * *


I was greatly aided in the writing of Part I of this essay by the help of two friends: poet David Pavelich, a librarian at the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago Library, who helped guide me through the extensive Poetry collection, and otherwise gave freely of his excellent company and knowledge; and poet Mark Scroggins, who supplied me with an electronic proof copy of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky that provided answers to nearly all of the questions I had, as well as much of the background detail that makes the story told in this essay coherent. Sincere gratitude to both of them. Thanks are due as well to Daniel Meyer, University Archivist and Associate Director of the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago Library, who granted permission for the use of quotations from letters in the Poetry collection. In researching this piece, I made use of the “Objectivist Poets” entry in Wikipedia,, as captured on September 4, 2007.
Originally Published: June 12th, 2008

Peter O’Leary was born in 1968 in Detroit, Michigan, and earned a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His recent books of poetry include The Phosphorescence of Thought (2012), Luminous Epinoia (2010), Depth Theology (2006), and Watchfulness (2001). He is the author of the critical study Gnostic Contagion:...

  1. June 13, 2008

    Dang. That was educational.

    I only read this because I was at a chicago poetics conference recently where the author added some insightful comments and anecdotes and seemed like a real bright poet. I'm very glad I gave it a shot. I didn't know anything about the objectivists before this. I feel like this is going to act as a base to jump from to explore this whole school further. If you read this, Peter, know that the analysis you provided for Zukofsky's "A" sonnet really gave me access to an appreciation for the poem that I would've have been totally unable to reach otherwise. Thanks. You did it great justice and have made me eager to read more.

    Nick Demske

    [email protected]

  2. June 15, 2008
     Majid Naficy

    I wonder how Zukofsky, a jewish Marxist, could bear Pound, an anti-Semite?

  3. June 15, 2008
     Mark Scroggins

    Very nice job, Peter.

    Majid -- the entire saga of Zukofsky's

    relationship with Pound, which is as you

    point out full of contradictions that

    make rather painful reading (Zukofsky

    tended to either minimize or play along

    with Pound's anti-Semitism up to a

    certain explosive point, though he

    would argue politics with him at great

    length), can be followed in Barry

    Ahearn's edition of the two men's

    correspondence (New Directions, 1987).

    And of course I discuss it in some detail

    in my The Poem of a Life: A Biography

    of Louis Zukofsky (if that isn't too

    egregious a plug).

  4. June 16, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Poetry magazines & anthologies being essentially toy collections, it's interesting to see (in this fine article) how Zukofsky, at the instigation of Pound & Monroe, developed a theoretically-branded product - "Objectivism" - in which the good poem is defined, basically, as the perfect toy.

    Curious too how the Language Poets, & now the so-called Conceptuals, learned from this diffident fellow how to follow suit.

  5. June 17, 2008

    Literary critics' and theorists' gobledygook makes that of our politicians appear lucid in comparison. Please! More poetry and less jabberwocky!

  6. June 19, 2008
     robert adamson

    Peter, this is first rate. A lot of work

    that pays off in this focus on the 1931

    issue of Poetry. You've mapped out a

    plan for both an editorial philosophy

    that worked for Zukofsky and that

    others have followed, another one is

    Black Mountain Review. I have a email

    from Creeley in 1999 giving me

    permission to quote his 'editorial

    advice' in my autobiography:

    This is the the guts what influenced the

    editorial direction of both magazines I

    have been involved with as an editor

    here in Australia: 'New Poetry' from

    1970 until 1984 and Boxkite 2000 to

    2005, here it is:

    'What he (Pound) did give me, with

    quick generosity and clarity, was a kind

    of 'rule book' for the editing of any

    magazine. For example, he suggested I

    think of the magazine as a centre

    around which, 'not a box within which/

    any item'. He proposed that verse

    consisted of a constant and a variant,

    and then told me to think from that to

    the context of a magazine. He

    suggested I get at least four others, on

    whom I could depend unequivocally for

    material, and to make their work the

    mainstay of the magazine's form. But

    then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly

    half, be as various and hogwild as

    possible, 'so that any idiot thinks he has

    a chance of getting in'

    And here we must wonder: did Pound

    give this same advice to Zukofsky in

    relation to to 'objectivist' issue of

    Poetry? Well, more than likely!

    Both Pound and Creeley here are both

    breath-taking with their (refreshing for

    these times) up-front honesty.

  7. June 27, 2008
     Mark Sink

    Reading Zukofsky's sometimes arcane/abstract descriptions of Objectivist criteria and intent I was on occasion reminded of the mock-serious preface/manifesto of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, who for 'fun' in 1916 created a phony “school” known as the Spectrists," (Google Spectrists book). Since this manifesto must itself have had similar antecedents, it led me to wonder to what extent, or sense, Zukofsky really had "provide[d] the diagrams and all the materials for constructing a canon, a model that has since been often repeated," and if perhaps Zukofsky had used an earlier example as a model for his own movement-defining critical pieces.

  8. July 28, 2008
     Kerry O'Keefe

    I very much appreciate the care with which this article is written I am reading it in my kitchen while eating Hershey's chocolate, and marveling at the patient scholarship. As ever, the voice of Ezra Pound anywhere is a great relief. As for him being anti-semitic - he apologized, dear lord, he apologized. Even to Allen Ginzburg did he apologize. As for Creely and Ezra Pound being refreshingly (life-savingly) honest - I do not believe either of them were thrashing for tenure, or to finance the family summer vacation to Provence...using poetry...

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