Carl Rakosi, 1903–2004
in conversation with Tom Devaney, with Olivier Brossard
Tom Devaney writes with this sad news:
(The interview follows.)
On both days I visited we concluded our time by listening to music. The first day Carl asked me to pick a CD from the hundreds in his collection. It was not easy. I choose three: one by Aaron Copland, another by Vladimir Horowitz, and the last by the Mendelssohn String Quartet of “Alan Rawsthorne: Chamber Music 1905-1971.” We listened to the CD of the Mendesson Quartet, which ran seventy minutes long. On the second visit Olivier choose a CD by César Franck, his “Symphony in D Minor” and “Symphonic Variations,” which ran fifty minutes long. In both cases we listened to the CDs in their entirety without talking. On the first day, after we finished listening to the CD Carl remarked that it takes a “power of will to force yourself into the piece.” Given our concentration on the music I was also surprised at the time by his comment that “I notice that when I’m listening, I’m not listening enough.”
But how do you do this sort of thing? I didn’t know anyone who knew her. Do you call in advance? No, I didn’t have enough confidence for that. Margery kept reassuring me with an impish smile that all you had to do was walk in on her, that other young poets had done it, and that I was exactly the kind of person Jane Heap had in mind...
In many ways, Carl Rakosi had arrived. He began to write poetry number of years earlier first influenced by Wallace Stevens and later by William Carlos Williams and now he was doing his own work. But for various reasons, which included his career as a social worker, his young family, and mixed feelings about the relevance of poetry, Rakosi stopped writing for nearly thirty years, between the years 1941 and 1967. Critic Robert Buckeye has aptly described this period saying that, “To be the poet we know, [Rakosi] had to give up poetry.”
in conversation with Tom Devaney, with Olivier Brossard
This piece is 6,500 words or about fifteen printed pages long. It first appeared in American Poetry Review, volume 32, number 4, July-August 2003, in Carl Rakosi’s one hundredth year.
TD: When did you first start to write?
CR: The idea for it originated in high school when I was a senior. I had submitted a book report on George Meredith, who, for a high school student, was a very complex poet. I was only sixteen at the time. My teacher, who was a very sexy looking young woman, (she didn’t try to conceal that) wrote back a long analytical comment on what I had written in such a straightforward serious tone, it gave me for the first time, the idea that maybe I had it in me to be a writer too. My next experience was in a freshman English class at the University of Chicago. I somehow gravitated towards two of the students. One was a black student who was turning out poems that sounded like Kipling, very robust and vigorous. I admired that and I think he had a bit of an influence on me, although not immediately. I don’t remember his name, but he later became a well-known journalist on an Afro-American paper in Pittsburgh. The other student that I gravitated towards was Japanese, much older than I. What he was turning out were very short haiku-like poems, very beautiful. They made an unforgettable impression on me. The next thing I knew, I knew I was going to become a writer.
TD: Can you talk about your lifelong interest in music?
CR: There’s not much to say. My interest started when I was a small boy. I remember saving my pennies month after month until I had enough to buy my first mandolin, the only instrument I could afford, and learning how to play it from instruction books. My older brother, Lester, also had one. We used to play duets — easy, short, semi-classical pieces like the Blue Danube Waltz. Had their been money in the family for music lessons, I think I would have become a composer, not a poet, because I loved music more than poetry. I may still.
OB: Once you started writing, what effect did music have upon the composition of the poems and what composers might have influenced your work?
CR: I’m not aware that any composer actually influenced my work. Offhand, I could say that there are some similarities between my poetry and some composers, for example, Satie. Satie, I feel is a little like me — a bit of a humorist, satirist, playful, at the same time very cool.
TD: Speaking of other early influences I wanted to ask about the effect Stevens had upon your writing. In your poem “Homage to Wallace Stevens” (later renamed in the Collected as the “Domination of Wallace Stevens”), there is both a music of the language and direct use of musical terms and language. You write:
These are privacies behind the mask
CR: (Laughing) You know, there I almost translated Stevens, it’s so close. Well, it was a catastrophe when I started to read Stevens because he just enveloped me, he was a seducer. I didn’t at first object to that, but then I thought it was going to put an end to me. So it took me a long time to finally shake him off. He greatly influenced my early work, but then my own poem is also a bit of a parody of Stevens. You notice the character in the poem is Levy, not an Anglo-Saxon.
TD: Your work is characterized as Objectivist. What’s the origin of the term?
CR: The origin goes like this. Pound had been after Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry to get off her butt and get some new, fresh material into the magazine because it had become stale and phoney. He recommended that she ask Zuzkofsy to edit an issue. Zukofsky’s original idea was simply to collect the best poetry he could find, including the old masters, Pound, Eliot, and the others, but Pound vetoed that. The old timers didn’t need exposure, he wrote to Zukofsky, it was the young talents in America who needed to become known. Living in London, Pound didn’t know who they might be, but he thought Zukofsky would know. So Zukofsky went about soliciting poems from young poets for whose poetry he had a high regard. What he collected was the best he could find. Harriet Monroe, the editor, stung by Pound’s characterization of the magazine, insisted on a name for the collection. It seems to me now, that she must have felt that a name would show that the magazine was open to new forms of poetry and that this would benefit the magazine. She never openly approved of our poems, however. As a matter of fact, in the next issue she apologized to her readers.
TD: I often read or hear people refer to the Objectivists as the “so called” Objectivists. Do you have any objections to the term, as a term, now?
CR: The term is a bit of a nuisance, because it has to be defined and it can’t be done when you try to use our work as evidence. There’s too much difference among us, for one thing, and one gets lost trying to define Objectivist or Objectivism as a theoretical concept. Zukofsky couldn’t define it either in his introduction to the first Objectivist poems and wound up on a tangent, simply describing what he believed went into the making of a really good poem that was Objectivist. To be precise, he always put single quotation marks around the term to indicate that what he meant by it was not strictly what you would think the word meant.
TD: So Zukofsky came up with the name Objectivist?
CR: Yes, he invented the term, but he himself was not one.
TD: Why wouldn’t Zukofsky be considered an Objectivist as well?
CR: Because his preceptor was Pound and Pound didn’t fit such a term and neither would Zukofsky’s work. One could get away with calling Reznikoff’s work Objectivist without objection and so that’s what we settled for. There was a period when Zukofsky was being showered with adulation for the impenetrability of parts of his work. Hugh Kenner, the distinguished critic, wrote that it would take a generation to plumb its depths. I had this to say about that.
A Ditty for Louis Zukofsky
TD: Had you met Zukofsky at that point?
CR: No, we were in touch only through letters then. I don’t remember the exact date we actually met but it was sometime in the 1930s and we became very close friends. We were two young guys then, full of ideas. We talked sometimes about poetry, but mostly about our personal lives.
TD: Was that in New York?
CR: Yes, I was working there then.
TD: What were you doing?
CR: Social work. Let me explain. When I was an undergraduate in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, I was so immersed in my studies and in learning how to write that I had given no thought to how I was going to make a living, so as graduation approached, I was in a panic. I had to return to Kenosha and wait for something to turn up and to my great surprise, something did. In my desperation it seemed like a miracle. I came across an announcement that the American Association of Social Workers was interviewing applicants in Chicago for work-study positions. At that time there were almost no men in the field and they were especially interested in recruiting men. I didn’t have the slightest idea what social work was then, but it didn’t matter. I could now make a living and I leaped at the chance and they accepted me very cordially and with great warmth in Chicago. Once I was established in my first job in Cleveland, however, I became restless and craved to have experiences in other parts of the country, especially New York. Since social workers were always in great demand, I could move from job to job and I did, eventually winding up in New York twice and in Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Antonio, Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis.
TD: You took a Master’s in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania and then worked most of your life in that field. How did social work affect your ability or desire to write?
CR: It didn’t reduce my desire to write but in the end, after I was married and especially after I had my first child, it made it impossible. I couldn’t do both. Social work requires intensive concentration and I would have had to do my thinking and writing at night. It was too much and I had to stop writing. It was agonizing to stop and became tolerable after a few years only when I stopped all reading of poetry as well as writing it.
OB: You said that you insisted on keeping separate your social work and poetry. Why was that so important?
CR: Because when you’re doing social work you don’t want to be thinking as a poet. You have to be thinking as a social worker, which means that you have to be totally practical, literal, observant, identified with the client’s needs always and his psychology and not your own, and be thinking all the time of how to help him with his problem.
OB: How did your social beliefs percolate in your work?
CR: Well, it was a part of me so I guess they just came out naturally.
TD: One of the things that has attracted me to your work is the way you handle social subject matter, especially in the poems in ‘Americana’. They have a lot of grace and humor, but also some overt political content. Can you talk about some of the difficulties and possibilities of writing this kind of poetry?
CR: Well it’s very hard to do because social issues are always moral issues and the moral point with which you’re trying to move the reader is one he’s already full of, so if you’re going to rise above literary journalism and move him emotionally, you can’t attack the subject directly. You have to come up with some new way to look at it, some new way to express it so that it will come as a fresh, transmuted experience. Some poets have had a powerful enough imagination to do that, but not many. The one time I tried the direct approach, it didn’t work to my satisfaction. I was left with a poem that was not bad, but was not good enough either. In addition to the imagination, one has to be able to find the elements in the social issue which can be universalized. That’s tough going. A different approach, which came to me naturally, was satire. This worked for me for social subjects and, even better, for political subjects. I remember when I wrote my first social poem, Zukofsky strongly disapproved. That was not me, he said; I was a lyric poet. At the time, I thought he might be right. But satire came easily to me and it was fun to do, but not as emotionally fulfilling as my other work. My heart, I guess, is with gravitas.
TD: It seems that some of your most overtly political poems are also some of your most direct and clear. In TO A NON-POLITICAL CITIZEN you write,
“You choose your words too carefully.
CR: (laughs)Yes, I had to get that out of my system. That’s the American in me goosing around.
TD: The poem shows a little of what we’ve been talking about.
CR: One nice thing about satire is that it has such a wide range, from gentle to savage to humorous. I must say, until it came to me, I didn’t know I could be humorous. If you want to totally demolish a social injustice in words and do it in the most effective way, use humor of course. But humor has to be in your genes, you can’t learn it.
OB: Your involvement in progressive politics goes back rather far. Before we started the interview you said you started with a Socialist father.
CR: Yes, he came upon socialism quite by accident. When we were living in Berlin — I was only a baby then — he was a partner in a firm manufacturing canes. At noon he used to stroll in the Tiergarten, a park something like London’s Hyde Park, with soapbox speakers scattered around. One of the speakers who always had an intent crowd of listeners was Karl Liebknecht, a far-left political figure of the time, the founder of the Spartacus movement. His reasoning and moral passion entered deeply into my father. He was never the same after that, and in quiet moments he would talk about this experience, and much of the beauty of that reasoning and morality entered into me too.
OB: In America were you keeping in touch with the Communist writers in Europe?
CR: Yes, it seemed to me that their writing in the early years had a special clarity and moral point. At the time I was sure that Capitalism was bankrupt, that it couldn’t survive and that you had to have something in its place. Communism offered a rational and achievable moral alternative.
TD: Did having strong political values and strong values about poetry ever come into conflict?
CR: Yes, from the very start. I did a couple of things for The New Masses, but it went against the grain and I knew that the editor, Mike Gold, who had written one rather good novel but was not himself a poet, hued rigidly to the Party line and had contempt for lyric poetry as a form of bourgeois self-indulgence. He savaged an early book of Reznikoff’s and I knew from that that I had no future with that guy.
OB: Did being a communist in America ever get you into trouble or cause you problems?
CR: Not really. That’s because I used a pseudonym in the Party so they couldn’t trace me, but to give you a feeling of the times, Kenneth Fearing, who was in New York then, had a number of friends who were Communist sympathizers, so Fearing became a suspect and was called up before a hearing. They asked him, “Are you a Communist?” “No”, he said. “Have you ever associated with a communist?” “No”, again. They kept asking the same questions over and over until he said impatiently, “Not yet, Senator, not yet”.
TD: What are your thoughts about how many of those ideas hold up today?
CR: The idea of socialism, and communism which is simply a less democratic, less open and more controlling form of socialism, is a moral idea: fairness and justice for all. Who would quarrel with that? During the Great Depression, when capitalism seemed to have failed and nobody but teachers and social workers could find work and people were desperate, anybody with half a brain and half a conscience had to be either a socialist or a communist or a communist sympathizer if he was living in New York or the West Coast. There was turmoil in the Middle West too. I remember when I was working in The Cook County Department of Public Welfare in Chicago, returning to my office one day and finding the police there. An irate, desperate client had shot and killed a social worker over his welfare check. In other places, angry welfare clients stormed welfare offices and had to be dispersed by the police.
OB: Do you still read a lot of political magazines, and if so, which ones?
CR: I’m afraid so. I can’t seem to let go of my insatiable need to know what’s going on in the world. At different times I read The Nation, The American Prospect, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Economist. Too many.
TD: Alan Ginsberg was a big supporter of your work.
CR: Yes, very big. There was an interview with him and the interviewer, among other questions, asked which poets are you reading now and what’s your opinion of them? So my name came up and he said, “He’s the best living poet in America now” (pause). That’s going a little too far, I’m afraid.
TD: How would you answer the question that the interviewer asked Ginsberg?
CR: (mishearing the question) Oh, I don’t go into the business of comparing myself to others. You get into trouble that way. If you mean how do I appraise myself, (long pause) I think as a poet who is able to express exactly what he intends and to whom subject matter is very important. That I am able to do it.
OB: I think Tom meant to ask what poets are you reading now? Anyone in particular?
CR: I must confess that I read very little poetry, not because I think there’s nothing out there worth reading but because I don’t want to clutter up my mind with other poets’ imaginings. It tends to choke off my own imagination and to dry up my impulse to write. Having said that however, there are many poets that I read from time to time to refresh myself and many more that I could read and don’t. Of the older generation the ones that come to mind are Mandelshtam, Ritsos, Machado, Lesmian, Cendrars, Szymborska, Milosz. Of the young ones, Anne Carson and the Howe sisters have captured my interest with their inventiveness. And those who have been touched by Buddhism, like Philip Whalen, touch me too, though I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a sucker for meditative poetry.
TD: How did you come back to poetry after several decades of not writing?
CR: It’s a strange story ( laughs). Early in 1968 I was getting ready to retire from my job as Executive Director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis when I got a letter from an Andrew Crozier, who described himself as a young British poet studying with Charles Olson at the University of Buffalo. Olson had suggested that he read my work. Apparently it had made such an impression on him, that he had made copies of everything that he could find in the University Library and in his discreet British way wondered whether I was still writing. I looked at the letter. I wasn’t sure I had read it right. It was just an ordinary communication, but it was like a missive from another planet. I reread it to make sure I was reading it correctly and to collect my thoughts. I had not been with poets or given any thought to poetry for almost 25 years, so it took me a few minutes to register it in my mind. I had long assumed that nobody, I mean nobody, remembered my work anymore or even remembered my name. That Crozier found my work so interesting meant that others of his generation might also. That knowledge rushed through me and propelled me into writing again.
TD: I loved what you told me about Pound, which I’m guessing was much earlier when he was asking around if anybody had heard from you.
CR: Yes, Pound lost track of me during those early years and wrote Zukofsky that he was afraid I had died.
TD: He was wrong.
CR: Yes (laughing).
TD: What are your thoughts on Pound.
CR: I still think of him as a grand figure. He is grand even when it’s difficult to stomach some of his ideas in The Cantos. His critical ideas were priceless to the generation of poets that followed him. They are no less indispensable now. He had a great musical ear and a great prose ear as well. He reevaluated and clarified early English poetry and reintroduced the epic form into modern poetry. His critical judgments seemed infallible. What he did to transform The Waste Land is an example. The historical range of The Cantos is grand. In fact, during most of his life you could say he was a one-man institution dedicated to saving poetry from mediocrity, and I think he did do just that.
TD: How do you deal with his anti-Semitism?
CR: When I think of his radio diatribes against Jews when he was living in Italy, I am appalled. I can only explain it to myself as some form of senile deterioration, although it is consistent with his idealization of all-powerful monarchs, in this case, Mussolini, with whom he was hoping to develop a literary relationship. His earlier anti-Semistism appears only rarely in his poetry and is much less offensive to me than the anti-Semitism in the work of Eliot and Cummings. It is more open and confrontational. In a perverse sense, it is more honest, where Eliot sneaks a couple of loathsome Jewish portraitures into his poetry, distorted so grossly that they are obviously despicable. I can’t forgive him for that. By contrast, Pound’s one Jewish-mocking poem, Alexander’s Rag Time Band, was never included in his Collected Poems. Pound probably picked up some of his anti-Semitism from his family and the small town in Idaho where he grew up and may never have seen a live Jew, and more basically from the general anti-Semitism prevalent all over the country at that time. I knew only one writer of his generation who had none of it, Sherwood Anderson. It was still so prevalent in my generation that when I found out that my friend, Margery Latimer had none. It was like a revelation.
TD: It’s paradoxical, considering Pound’s many friendships and relationships with people who were Jewish.
CR: I doubt whether he had many friends who were Jewish. His contact with Zukofsky, for instance, was mostly by correspondence and they were not friends, and his visit with Ginsberg in Italy was purely literary and they did not become friends.
TD: The other day we were also talking about Groucho Marx’s letters. What are your thoughts about the letters between Groucho and T. S. Eliot?
CR: Those letters are interesting and surprising. I wouldn’t have thought Elliot, the anti-Semite, would have wanted to have anything to do with a Jew. But people are not that uncomplicated. The other side of Eliot was that he loved burlesque and comedy. We know from his letters to Conrad Aiken that when they were students at Harvard, they used to hang out at burlesque houses. In a couple of letters to Aiken, Eliot knocked off a couple of rollicking, ribald burlesque-style poems. So the chances are that when Eliot thought of Groucho, he didn’t see him as a Jew but as a burlesque comedian who had perfected his routines to such a fine art that Eliot considered himself a lesser artist and was eager to meet him personally. “It would be a great honor”, he wrote. Groucho, on his part, wrote as if there was nothing unusual about a great poet and a comedian writing to each other as equals.
TD: There’s the story about when they met and Groucho wanted to talk about The Waste Land and Eliot wanted to talk about Duck Soup.
CR: Yes, that’s interesting. We don’t think of comedians as intellectuals, but Shakespeare’s view of the comedian-clown was accurate, They’re ultra-quick in their perceptiveness.
TD: One writer also included in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, which you had out the other day, is S.J. Perelman. He wrote a lot of the famous screen plays for the Marx Brother’s movies and was a keen satirist, which also might be connected to some of the things you said about Satie as well. What are your thoughts on Perelman?
CR: Well, pretty much the same thing. Perelman wrote on a very elegant level. He was very precise. Too precise and elegant for my taste, too much of a stylist. You can’t breathe in such an atmosphere.
TD: Your work is also included in the Norton Anthology.
CR: Yes, John Felstiner and the other editors did a great job of showing the wide range of writing in so many different genres and styles.
OB: Have you thought a lot about what it means to be a Jewish-American writer?
CR: I don’t think of it at all consciously, oh no, never. That would be very bad if I did.
TD: Still, you must have some feelings about what it means to be included in this anthology.
CR: Oh yes, it did pull me back into what, for lack of a better definition might be called my Jewish self, which I don’t walk around with ordinarily, and it does give me a feeling of warmth and a kind of homecoming and pride in how much Jewish-American writers have contributed to the culture. I was surprised at how much there is.
TD: You have a lot of short poems I admire, and I know you have some thoughts about the form of the short poem. One from Americana I think is great is “Very Short Poem on a Racing Form”:
TD: Can you talk briefly about the short poem?
CR: Sure. This has been the age of the novel. By the time the Objectivists came along, the short form had already lost favor. Part of the reason I think is that poetry has been constantly expanding its subject matter and the short form is not suitable to an expanding subject matter. It works in the opposite direction. So the short form doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but to people who have a taste for the epigrammatic, the short form has an incomparable allure.
TD: Do you have one that you could read us?
TD: I wanted to ask you about William Carlos Williams and how you see your work in relation to his.
CR: From Williams ( and Cummings) I got the form that I usually use. I saw no need to invent anything of my own. It was already there and suited my subject matter.
TD: What was your relationship with Williams?
CR: My relationship with him started with my application for a Guggenheim. I had sent him my first book, Amulet, and he praised it to the skies. He said he would be glad to write me a recommendation, but he advised against it. If he recommended me, he said, I would never get a Guggenheim. I approached Wallace Stevens too, but he had a different response. He liked my work for its realism. It was just what poetry needed then but he didn’t see any reason to write a recommendation. Those people were just as able to evaluate my work as he was. It was obvious that he had no use for requiring references for a grant. Marianne Moore was curt in her rejection. She couldn’t approve the project I had proposed for the grant, to write on the psychology of the poet. So, as I said, I never got a Guggenheim.
OB: I was wondering if you have read a lot of French poets and poetry?
CR: Oh, a lot of them. Dozens.
CR: Oh, everybody, everybody. I’m trying to think of one, but his name slips my mind. The one who claims he’s just writing prose.
OB: Is it Michele Butor?
CR: No, someone around my age. Oh, it doesn’t matter.
OB: Was he associated with the surrealists?
CR: Oh, heavens no, the opposite. I got it, Ponge, Francis Ponge. A composer here has actually written music to a couple of Ponge’s poems.
OB: Who’s the composer?
CR: (tries to remember) I don’t remember.
OB: You like Ponge’s poetry?
CR: Yes, I do, very much. I admire it. It’s a small miracle how his patient, careful buildup of precise, minute particulars turns into a monument with all the metaphorical associations in place.
OB: Is that The Nature of Things, where he has those very minute descriptions.
CR: I can’t say, but his work is like Fabre describing the life of tiny animals.
OB: Did he influence you?
CR: Oh no, he came to my attention late in life.
TD: I was struck the other day when we were talking about the surrealists and you emphatically said, “ I dislike the surrealists. I’m a realist first and always.”
CR: Well, it’s not quite true that I dislike them, or some of them. I hate them!
CR: (laughing too) Yes, it’s because their imaginings are outside the scope of human nature.
TD: But don’t you think that through their work they were able to show a certain sense of reality in contemporary life?
CR: No I don’t. All they showed is that they were writing it.
OB: I do a lot of work in translation and I was wondering if you have done translations yourself?
CR: Yes, I’ve made some adaptations of Jewish poets who lived in Spain during the 10th and 11th century: Solomon Ibin Gabirol, Moses Ibin Ezra, Jehudah Halevi. They were poets in the lyric mode of the Old Testament. They were also rabbis. They have a rich, deep, meditative tone. I found them in a very dead translation by the Anglo-Jewish novelist, Israel Zangwill and simply had to transform them, with some slight changes. They were a discovery for me.
TD: Pound’s adaptations of Fenollosa’s translations have always been something I’ve learned a lot from.
CR: I’m not surprised. Pound really made something out of them. Beautiful things.
TD: Your poem “Services” seems to combine many of the things we have been discussing — a poetry that’s meditative (despite its title and content), secular and deeply felt, yet not overplayed. I was wondering if you could read it?
TD: What are your thoughts about how feelings do or do not factor into poetry?
CR: Hard to get a grip on such a question. My intuitive response is that there is a paucity of expressed feeling in English poetry, having partly to do, I expect, with English temperament and manners. But then, I’m not English and maybe this is not well taken. My stricture does not include Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama of course. Blake, and sometimes Robert Burns, are the great exceptions to this. I don’t see how you can get away from the fact that what pulls a reader into a poem and moves him are the feelings in it, not the intellectual content. But expressing feelings openly is risky because they are so close to sentimentality, so one has to be careful and at the same time bold. Blake’s Songs of Innocence are a model for this kind of partnership
TD: Are you still writing poems?
CR: Absolutely. Oh yes, I’m going high speed right now. I’m lucky.
OB: Are you working on a new book?
CR: I’m hoping it will be.
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