The Objectivist Poets

The term objectivist was coined by Louis Zukofsky in 1930 for “‘Objectivists’ 1931,” a special issue of Poetry for which he served as guest editor. Of the many poets included in that issue and in its follow-up anthology, AnObjectivistsAnthology (1932), the poets now most often associated with the label are Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and (sometimes) the Englishman Basil Bunting. Lorine Niedecker, a Wisconsin poet, is also often included among the objectivists. The four core members of the objectivists—Oppen, Rakosi, Reznikoff, and Zukofsky— were all Jewish, urban, intensely intellectual, and (except Reznikoff) politically left-wing, and their poetry reflects these backgrounds and inclinations. These poets, who all began seriously writing and publishing in the 1920s and 1930s, remained largely unknown until the 1960s; since then they have received increasing critical attention and have been recognized as an important set of influences on more recent poetic movements, including many of the poets anthologized in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960 (1960) and, later, the Language School. The objectivists, it can be argued, are a crucial bridge between the high Modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the postmodernism of these more recent movements. In large part because of their steadfast adherence to poetry’s truth-telling ambitions, the objectivists’ work stands as an important model of how political and ethical concerns can be incorporated into a poetry of formal experimentation.


Louis Zukofsky

The most important statement of objectivist poetics is Zukofsky’s essay “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff,” first published in “‘Objectivists’ 1931.” In this essay he lays out the fundamental principles of his own poetic practice: The poet ought to compose always with “sincerity,” the most scrupulous attention both to the objects and events about which he writes and to the particulars of his own language, and the finished poem ought to exhibit “objectification,” an object-like, tangible form as if language were material. In these principles objectivist poetics goes beyond the imagism of Ezra Pound, which prescribed rules for dealing with images and using language but largely failed to discuss the finished form that the poem ought to assume .

Zukofsky’s theory deeply influenced some of the poets among the objectivists, particularly Oppen, Rakosi, and William Carlos WILLIAMS; others of them, less closely associated with objectivism, including Reznikoff and Kenneth REXROTH, seemed largely oblivious both to the theory and to the overall label. Indeed while Zukofsky seemed to view the objectivist “movement” for some years as a useful marketing device for his and his friends’ poetry, he was well aware that the objectivist poets were by no means a coherent group or school: He had arrived at the critical terms “sincerity” and “objectification” without consulting the other poets included in the Poetry issue, and he would always insist that there was no such thing as “objectivism.”

Charles Reznikoff’s poetic style was largely formed before he came in contact with Zukofsky and the other objectivist poets, and he interpreted Zukofsky’s term objectivist as referring not so much to the shape that the poem ought to take as to the poet’s stance toward reality: Reznikoff’s own poetry, deeply influenced by training in law, often takes the form of objective testimony, as in his long poems Testimony (1975) and Holocaust (1975), which draw directly upon court transcripts. His short poems are notable for the laconic, precise manner in which they present both moments of interpersonal emotion and the varied tableaux of the Manhattan streets that Reznikoff walked obsessively.

Rakosi’s work is often far more playful, sometimes even “light,” than that of his companions. He began writing much under the influence of the imagists and Wallace Stevens, though his association with Zukofsky turned his work in more angular, compressed directions. While his early work is often biting and startling, the poems Rakosi wrote after his return to poetry in 1965 are more relaxed, gentle, and good-humored, often taking the form of a loose series, such as “Americana” (1967–86). The progression of his career is largely obscured in his Collected Poems (1986), for which Rakosi rearranged and often revised his earlier work, but is clear in Poems 1923–1941, which Andrew Crozier edited in 1995.

The Wisconsin poet Niedecker was inspired to get in contact with Zukofsky when she read the “‘Objectivists’ 1931” issue of Poetry, and she and Zukofsky shared an almost four decades-long friendship and correspondence. Her poetry, which began with experiments in SURREALISM and modifications of the forms of nursery rhymes, has much in common with Zukofsky’s in its striking images, juxtapositions of language, and short lines. In the last decades of her life, she wrote a number of major sequences revolving around various historical figures and around the history and geology of the American Midwest. While she remained largely isolated from the other objectivist poets, her work (like Zukofsky’s) was championed and published by Cid Corman, editor of Origin magazine, and Jonathan Williams, editor of the Jargon Press, in the 1960s.

Oppen and Zukofsky, though they renewed their friendship in the late 1950s, when Oppen returned to New York after a decade living in Mexico, eventually broke with one another. One reason for their estrangement was their attitudes toward difficulty in poetry. Both men had written dense and oblique lyric poetry in the early 1930s, but Zukofsky’s work—in particular his long poem “A”—grew more and more obscure over the course of its composition and serial publication. While Zukofsky was capable of writing lyrics of great beauty and limpidity, he was also enamored of complex forms and recondite reference. As “A” moves into the second half of its 24 sections, the poem seeks to wind in more and more information, doing so in more and more oblique, “coded” manners. Zukofsky saw this merely as an extension, a following-through of his objectivist rhetoric of the early 1930s. His goal was to make the poem a continually “musical” object, and to do so he experimented with various forms derived from classical music. Early parts of “A”, for instance, imitate the form of the baroque fugue, often to dizzying lengths, while “A”-13 is a formal imitation of the rhythms of one of Bach’s partitas for solo violin.

Oppen’s later work is also difficult, but his difficulty stems not from the complexity of formal devices or the variety of literary, historical, philosophical, and personal references, as in Zukofsky, but from the gravity of the philosophical and ethical issues with which his poems seek to grapple. Oppen’s later poetry is obsessed with problems of communication and community and derives much of its weightiness from his reading of the presocratic philosophers and the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. For Oppen, the issue of difficulty in poetry was ultimately an ethical matter. Oppen felt that the obscurity of Zukofsky’s poetry was a mere superficial complexity, a screen by which Zukofsky could repel the casual reader, while his own poetry, in contrast, dealt with inherently difficult problems.

While there is no single objectivist “style” shared by all the poets associated with the name, there are a number of characteristics that their poetries share. They all tend to write free verse (though Zukofsky and Niedecker experimented with forms derived from tra- ditional meters and rhyme schemes). They are intensely aware of what Zukofsky calls “historic and contemporary particulars” (“A”-24, 1978) including both the political and the historical implications of whatever they might be writing about. (Indeed Oppen, Zukofsky, and Rakosi worked on behalf of Communist Party causes during the 1930s and remained politically aware throughout their lives.) And, perhaps most importantly, they write in conscious opposition to establishment verse culture: the refined formal verse promoted by the poets and critics of the New Criticism during the 1940s and 1950s (see FUGITIVE/AGRARIAN SCHOOL), and later what was perceived as the limp, personal, diaristic verse promoted by American creative writing programs.

And while the term objectivist can only with difficulty be used as a stylistic description of these poets’ work, the objectivists share certain fundamental stances toward the world and the poem. All of them insist upon the utmost precision in the use of language and the most careful adherence to the facts of perception. This is what Zukofsky calls “sincerity,” what Oppen means when he says that “the poem is concerned with a fact which it did not create” (2), and what Reznikoff intends when he relates the poet’s words to the sworn testimony given in a court of law. The objectivist poets, then, share a sense that the relationship of the poem and the world must be in some sense a relationship of truth—an ethical relationship. They may not write in superficially realistic styles, but their work always bears an ethical responsibility to the real as perceived and experienced.

After the publication of the “‘Objectivists’ 1931” came An “Objectivists” Anthology, which was published by To Publishers in 1932. To was a short-lived imprint run by Oppen and edited by Zukofsky himself, and it folded soon after, having printed books by Williams and Pound in addition to the anthology. In 1933 Oppen, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, and Williams combined to start the Objectivist Press, a cooperative venture which would publish self-funded volumes. The Objectivist Press printed books by Williams, Reznikoff, and Oppen before it too folded. (The imprint was briefly revived by Zukofsky’s wife, Celia, in 1948 to publish his anthology A Test of Poetry.)

Whatever momentum the objectivist movement had initially generated among its participants was largely dissipated over the 1930s, and the objectivist poets drifted out of touch with one another; Rakosi and Oppen, in fact, completely abandoned writing poetry for some years. The name, however, was revived in the early 1960s when James Laughlin’s New Directions Publishers, in collaboration with the San Francisco Review, began publishing books by Oppen, Rakosi, and Reznikoff, and in 1968 L. S. Dembo, editor of Contemporary Literature, conducted a series of interviews with Oppen, Rakosi, Reznikoff, and Zukofsky that helped to solidify the critical association of the four poets as “objectivists.” (While Oppen, Rakosi, and Reznikoff accepted their rediscovery under this banner with good grace—and perhaps bemusement—Zukofsky would have nothing to do with a revived objectivist movement. He considered himself to have moved beyond that moment in his career, and he repeatedly refused invitations to appear with the other three poets on “objectivists” programs.) Since Dembo’s interviews there has been increasing critical attention paid both the poets individually and to their collective achievements.

Quite apart from their critical reception, the objectivists have proved an enduring influence on important contemporary American poets, including Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Michael Heller, David Ignatow, Robert Kelly, Sharon Olds, Michael Palmer, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner, Hugh Seidman, Harvey Shapiro, and John Taggart. They have also been significant to a number of French poets, including Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, and Emmanuel Hocquard.

Dembo, L. S. “The ‘Objectivist’ Poet: Four Interviews.” Contemporary Literature 10 (1969): 64–91.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Peter Quartermain, eds. The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Heller, Michael. Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
McAllister, Andrew, ed. The Objectivists. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Bloodaxe, 1996. Oppen, George. “The Mind’s Own Place.” Kulchur 10 (summer 1963): 2–8.
Williams, William Carlos. “Objectivism.” In Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965, p. 582.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. Hanover N. H.: Wesleyan University Press Press, 2000.
———., ed. An “Objectivists” Anthology. New York: To, Publishers, 1932.
———., ed. “‘Objectivists’ 1931.” Poetry 37.5 (February 1931).

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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