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The Lives

Biographies of the Objectivist Poets

The Objectivists were invented publicly in February 1931, when Louis Zukofsky guest edited an issue of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine. The cover of the issue announced it as “Objectivists 1931,” and in it, Zukofsky set out an “Objectivist” program, described some of his critical principles in a short essay on the poetry of Charles Reznikoff, and presented the work of more than a dozen other poets, most of whom had never before graced the pages of Poetry and would have likely been entirely unknown to most of the magazine’s readers.

The following year, TO Publishers, a press founded by William Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and George and Mary Oppen (who provided most of the funding), published An “Objectivists” Anthology, edited by Zukofsky. The anthology included significant contributions from many of the same poets he had selected for his issue of Poetry. Our contemporary sense of the core Objectivists corresponds almost exactly with the list of those writers who appeared in both the February 1931 issue of Poetry and in Zukofsky’s subsequent anthology: Zukofsky himself, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Basil Bunting, and William Carlos Williams. Both Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Rexroth appear in both publications, but have not been considered part of the core group.

While Lorine Niedecker did not appear in either of Zukofsky’s initial projects, she wrote to Zukofsky to express her interest in the movement after reading the Objectivists issue of Poetry in her local library. The two would carry on a lifelong correspondence, and Niedecker is today widely regarded as the only woman among the Objectivist poets.

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The Work

An Introduction to the Objectivists’ Writing

While the first “Objectivist” poems as such would have appeared in the February 1931 issue of Poetry and the subsequent An “Objectivists” Anthology, many 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 of poems in 1909, just a year after George Oppen, the youngest of the core group, was born.

In addition to the two overtly named “Objectivist” publications already mentioned, the members of this loose alliance were also united for a short time in a pair of publishing ventures which released books under the imprimatur of TO, Publishers and The Objectivist Press. TO, Publishers was operated by George and Mary Oppen from Le Beausset, a small village in the south of France near Toulon, and employed Zukofsky as its salaried editor before folding late in 1932. In addition to The ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, TO, Publishers printed two prose works: William Carlos Williams’ A Novelette and Other Prose and Ezra Pound’s Prolegomena 1: How to Read, Followed by The Spirit of Romance, Part 1.

In September 1933, following the Oppens’ return to Brooklyn from France, Zukofsky, Williams, Reznikoff, and the Oppens reached an agreement to jointly establish The Objectivist Press, whose editorship was collective. Though Zukofsky had initially proposed a far more detailed prospectus, in the end the group settled on Reznikoff’s simple statement, printed on the dust wrapper of their first books: “The Objectivist Press is an organization of writers who are publishing their own work and that of other writers whose work they think ought to be read.” With the exception of their first publication, Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931 which was sold by subscription, each author agreed to finance the publication of their own work. In addition to Williams’ Collected Poems, The Objectivist Press published four other books: George Oppen’s Discrete Series, Charles Reznikoff’s Jerusalem the Golden, Testimony, and In Memoriam: 1933. Though Zukofsky wanted to publish his 55 Poems, he lacked the funding to do so, and so the collection had to wait for publication until 1941, when the James E. Decker Press of Prairie City, Illinois brought out the book in a handsome hardcover edition. The Oppens joined the Communist party in 1935, Reznikoff published his Separate Way in 1936, and the press remained dormant until 1948, when Celia Zukofsky asked Reznikoff’s for the press’s copyright to publish Louis’ A Test of Poetry.

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The Scholarship

Critical Responses to the Objectivist Poets

With only a few exceptions, 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 project made little impact on the 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, it’s hard to see how Williams’ judgment could be considered mistaken. Oppen had published nothing since his Discrete Series in 1934 and had recently moved his family to Mexico to escape HUAC; after New Directions published his Selected Poems in 1941, Rakosi abandoned poetry for more than two decades, pursuing a career as a social worker before a letter from Andrew Crozier reawakened him as a poet just before his retirement; Niedecker, having published New Goose in 1946, would struggle to find a publisher for her next collection for roughly 15 years; Bunting found a publisher in Texas for his Poems: 1950, but would not publish anything else of note until his rediscovery by a teenaged Tom Pickard in the mid-60s; Zukofsky had printed two books in the 1940s with James E. Decker Press, but was then struggling with little success to find a new publisher for work he had written; and Reznikoff was continuing to grind away diligently in obscurity, having to that time essentially only published small editions of his poetry from a letterpress in his basement.

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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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