Poet Carl Rakosi Turns 100

On December 12th, 2003 the Beyond Baroque Literary Center in Venice, California hosted a one-hundredth birthday celebration for poet Carl Rakosi, one of the founding members of the Objectivist School of American poetry. Rakosi was born on November 6, 1903 in Berlin to Hungarian parents. “There were no books in our house,” he said, “That didn’t bother me because I didn’t know I was missing anything, until one day I discovered the public library on the other side of town. The library now became my secret home and my secret vice….”

The Objectivist movement is often considered to have begun in 1931 and included, among others, George Oppen, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukovsky. The Objectivists who were almost all immigrants felt cut off from the traditions of their new, adopted culture. They naturally inclined towards writing from experience, from the real, from expediency, and out of sense of necessity. As Rakosi once wrote, “Lay down your book, and match wits/against this bird/before they sink you like the quips of Jesus.”

Immune from the fashionable nostalgia for a lost America in so much poetry from that time, immune from its myths of alleged equality, Rakosi gradually drew more and more from his European immigrant background. He did this, however, not as a way of retreating into a literary, spiritual realm, nor to pepper his work with Gnostic allusions and imposing mythical knowledge. He used them to illuminate the core of the experiences he wanted to capture-the Great Depression, dockworkers, “sobbing hooligans” and the social inequality that he knew first hand as Jew and a communist. He wanted to get to roots of things. As he once put it, “I penetrate the particular/the way an owl waits/for a kangaroo rat.”

Rakosi himself remains to this day more interested in the real relationships between people. He early on abandoned an academic career repulsed by its institutional nature. Many Objectivists rejected professionalism and institutionalism in favor of jobs that involved real relationships, real effects-none probably more than Rakosi left the English Department for social work. Describing his feelings for the position he held at the University of Texas, he wrote “I felt the need to protect my time and resources for writing by work that was less compelling, less absorbing … and got myself a job . . . teaching freshman composition to engineering students. . . . The work was easier all right…. but now it was the young prigs in the department I couldn’t stand. They acted as if they had brought Oxford to Austin, . . . and were so affected and British high-toned that I felt nauseated and was faced with having to spend the rest of my life with clones. I could see too that what I would be doing as a professor would be so specialized and of so little value except in English departments. . .”

Earlier at the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate, he had found his fellow students, the home-grown Americans, something of a problem:

“The University had some ten thousand students, mostly from Wisconsin farms and small towns, blond young Babbitts, their hair cropped close. Time was suspended for these boys and girls from the country while they looked each other over and saw that they were comely, and flirted and horsed around. And the big events were football and the Big Ten pennant ahead, and standing guard was a smugness hard to imagine these days, though Nancy Reagan comes pretty close to it.”

He preferred social work, took a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania and shortly thereafter married Leah Jaffe in 1939. He thrived in being able to help people. In the sixties, he decided that he could not be both poet and social worker. For 25 years he wrote nothing.

Rakosi explained:

“I fell in love with social work and that was my undoing as a poet, in a sense. . . I had become convinced by 1935 that capitalism was incapable of providing jobs and justice to people and that the system had to be changed, that there was no other way . . . it seemed like half the country was out of work and ready to explode, the unemployed organizing and storming the relief offices, when true-blue Americans who had never thought much beyond the morning news and football became radicalized. The stakes had become too high to do nothingI took very literally the basic Marxian ideas about literature having to be an instrument for social change, for expressing the needs and desires of large masses of people. And believing that, I couldn’t write poetry, because the poetry that I could write could not achieve those endsmy Marxist thinking had made me lose respect for poetry itself. So there was nothing to hold me back from ending the problem by stopping to write. I did that. I also stopped reading poetry.”

Rakosi told me that he did not really return to writing until he retired from social work and practicing psychotherapy. He sent a poem to Paul Vangelisti and I when we edited an issue of Ribot magazine that featured poets over 60 and under 30. In it, he addressed contemporary politics. It ends with the lines, “Moderns prophets should be sent back to the Old Testament, where they belong. What we need in this world are workable proposals.”

The birthday celebration at Beyond Baroque was one of the most well-attended events there I’ve ever seen. Poets ranging from their 70s to their 20s were there to pay tribute. Readers included the host and organizer Jen Hofer, Jerome Rothenberg, Tom Delvaney, and Paul Vangelisti. But the show belonged to the man himself. Rakosi read several poems from various periods of his work but ended with his most recent. The last piece was one he introduced as a series of epigrams of the sort that would be on tombstones. It was not morose in the least. The inscriptions were funny and I suspect he had borrowed many of them. I remember him reading one as “I told you I was sick”. None of them seemed to be about him or his old age. There was nothing self-involved or melancholy. His tombstone poem was not meant as a farewell to the earth, but perhaps to people he had known, and not specific people, either. It was as if in reflecting on his age, he had written a series of jokes that served to remind us quite profoundly about the way we relate to one another, our mutual dependencies, our occasional lapses, our inadvertent cruelties.

As soon as he finished, people surrounded him trying to shake his hand and get him to sign a new publication of his collected poems. I did not get to speak to him. I left out the back thinking about the one time I had gotten to speak to him at 1995 event at Sun and Moon Books. At that time, I was struck by what was clearly a joy of being around people. I was a twenty-seven year old brat much the corn-fed type he described at the University of Wisconsin, except I wanted him to tell me about the Communist Party and revolution. He endured me easily, candidly saying that he had gone to some rallies and so forth, but hardly had much to report. I wanted to know about his years as a psychotherapist and I told them that I had recently read that working-class people do not respond as well to psychodynamic therapy as wealthier people. Since he had chosen to devote his life to providing affordable therapy to working-class people, I wanted to know whether or not he would agree. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe rich people’s therapist’s talk differently to them. All I can tell is the people really just need someone to pay attention.”

I remember thinking at the time of his curious use of the phrase “the people”. It sounded so anachronistic, but in light of all this reading and his response to the crowd, I realized that this man believed in one thing, the real relations between “people”. As I left the celebration, I got in the car thinking of this early poem of his which he had named “The People”:

O you in whom distrust lies under
like a gallstone
and desire grows up aching
like a sharp tooth,
courage rises over all
because it is your heart
and knows no high airs or aloofness.

When I was young
and my moods stood between us,
you made me feel lonely.

now I plant myself
in the middle of the street
and swear I shall never leave you,
for you stand between me and my moods.

STANDARD SCHAEFER is an editor of the New Review of Literature and a poet. He can be reached at ssschaefer@earthlink.net