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The Lives

Biographies of the Objectivist Poets

The seven “Objectivist” writers featured on this website: Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker, were a group of English-language poets loosely united by shared political and poetic affinities and connected by a shifting web of friendships and publications beginning in the mid-1920s and stretching into the early twenty-first century.

As a group, the “Objectivists” were publicly invented in February 1931, when Louis Zukofsky guest-edited the “OBJECTIVISTS” 1931 issue of Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Zukofsky, who had full control of the magazine’s contents, used the space to set out an “Objectivist” program, describe the critical principles of ‘sincerity’ and ‘objectification’ in a short essay on the poetry of Charles Reznikoff, and present work by more than twenty contributors. This special number of Poetry was followed in 1932 by the publication of An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology by TO, Publishers, a publishing venture founded by Zukofsky (who was employed as the managing editor) and George and Mary Oppen (who funded the press and supervised the production of its books). Edited by Zukofsky, the anthology contained work by 14 writers, the majority of whom had also been included in the “Objectivist” issue of Poetry the year before.

The group considered here as the “Objectivists” corresponds almost exactly with the list of writers who appeared in both initial “Objectivist” publications: Zukofsky himself, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Basil Bunting, and William Carlos Williams. While work by Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Rexroth was included in both foundational “Objectivist” publications, neither referred to themselves as “Objectivists” after the 1930s and neither is given detailed consideration on this site. The only poet featured here whose work did not appear in the two foundational “Objectivist” publications is Lorine Niedecker, who wrote to Zukofsky to express her interest in the “movement” late in 1931 after having encountered the February 1931 issue of Poetry in her local library. The two would carry on a lifelong correspondence, and Niedecker is today widely regarded as the only female “Objectivist” poet.

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The Work

An Introduction to the Objectivists’ Writing

In addition to the cluster of friendships among the various “Objectivist” writers initiated in the mid to late 1920s and cemented by regular correspondence, this group of writers was also connected by their mutual interests in one another’s poetry. Through a series of little magazines, cooperative publishing ventures, and other schemes, these writers spent considerable time and effort reading, publishing, and reviewing one another’s work, with several continuing to carry on sending each other their publications until their deaths more than forty years after their initial associations.

While the first explicitly “Objectivist” poems as such appeared in the February 1931 issue of Poetry, the Zukofsky-edited An “Objectivists” Anthology (published in 1932), and the subsequent publications of The Objectivist Press, most of the poets included in that group had already been publishing their writing for some time. In fact, William Carlos Williams, the oldest of the group by more than a decade, published his first collection, Poems, in 1909, just a year after George Oppen, the youngest of the core group, was born. Apart from Williams, who published poetry and prose more or less continuously from 1909 until his death in 1963, the remainder of the “Objectivists” had two distinct periods of intense publication activity (from 1928-1935, and from 1962-1978) interrupted by an almost 30 year period of near total silence.

While each of the authors featured on this site enjoyed their own rich individual publication history, explored in greater depth on child pages for each individual writer, this page will detail several of the various collaborative publication efforts that various of these “Objectivist” writers participated in during their first period of activity (1928-1935), with a special emphasis placed on the several little magazines, anthologies and publishing cooperatives the “Objectivists” appeared in, edited, published, and financed.

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The Scholarship

Critical Responses to the Objectivist Poets

The publication of the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry magazine in February 1931 was met with a fairly chilly reception. In a talk given at the Gotham book mart in 1931 published as the critical introduction to The ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, Zukofsky complained: “The Objectivist number of Poetry appeared in February. Since then there have been March, April, June and July and we are now in the middle of August. Don’t write, telegraph.”Apart from a deeply fruitful correspondence with Lorine Niedecker, who wrote to Zukofsky after reading the Objectivists issue of Poetry in her local public library, the “Objectivist” salvo attracted few recruits and made little impact on the American literary world of the 1930s and 1940s. As William Carlos Williams observed in his 1950 autobiography: “We had some small success, but few followers. … Nothing much happened in the end.”

From the vantage point of 1950 (or even 1960), it’s hard to see how Williams’ judgment could be considered mistaken. Though Williams had been fortunate enough to find publishers for his work more or less continuously following the abandonment of the Objectivist Press (aided greatly by the establishment of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing company in 1936), none of his fellow ‘Objectivists’ were so lucky.

Following the publication of his Discrete Series in 1934, George Oppen and his wife Mary had joined the Communist Party, and published nothing. In 1950, the Oppens were no longer even living in the United States, having moved that year to Mexico to escape HUAC persecution. After publishing his Selected Poems in 1941, Carl Rakosi abandoned poetry for more than two decades, pursuing a career as a social worker and administrator in Minneapolis under the name Callman Rawley. After privately printing his small collection Redimiculum Matellarum from Milan in 1930, Bunting’s only book publication for the next three decades was his Poems: 1950, published by an obscure press in Galveston, Texas operated by an eccentric disciple of Ezra Pound’s. Following this ‘success,’ Bunting would not publish anything else of note until his rediscovery by a teenaged Tom Pickard in the mid-60s.

Zukofsky was perhaps most unfortunate of all: not only had he been unable to see a single volume of his work published by either of the cooperative ventures for which he had served as editor or secretary, but apart from the publication of two books with the Press of James A. Decker in the 1940s, he had been unable to find publishers for any of his manuscripts, though he had written poetry more or less continually throughout the years. Following the publication of her collection New Goose with the Press of James A. Decker in 1946, Zukofsky’s star protégé and lone recruit Lorine Niedecker would struggle to find a publisher for her next collection for roughly 15 years (her next book, My Friend Tree would not appear until 1961, and as a tiny publication issued out of Scotland would have been plenty obscure for most followers of trends in American poetry). And Reznikoff? Well, the stoic, modest, diligent Reznikoff seemed most unperturbed by it all. After the Objectivist Press folded, Reznikoff proceeded to continue faithfully grinding away in obscurity, self-publishing very small editions of his work from a letterpress he owned and operated from his basement, just as he had done prior to the ‘Objectivist’ collaborative venture. The net result of all this was that with only a very few exceptions, nearly all of the poetry published prior to 1960 by any of the ‘Objectivists’ other than William Carlos Williams was essentially self-published.

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The Materials

Audio, Video, and Archival Records

The title for this section of the website was chosen to deliberately echo both a phrase from Zukofsky’s ‘Objectivist’ program (“The materials of poetry”) and the title of the 1962 collection which marked George Oppen’s return to poetry after a silence spanning more than two decades. In this section, you’ll find a variety of rich media (audio, video, photographs, correspondence) as well as items of personal and biographical significance, as well as more information about scholarly collections of materials for the various Objectivist poets.

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