The Scholarship

No matter what Zukofsky’s hopes for it may have been, the publication of the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry magazine in February 1931 was met initially with a chilly reception. In a talk given at the Gotham book mart in 1931 published as the critical introduction to The ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, Zukofsky complained memorably: “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.”1page # needed 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. In fact, William Carlos Williams was moved to observe in his 1950 autobiography: “We had some small success, but few followers. … Nothing much happened in the end” 2The Autobiography of Williams Carlos Williams, 265..

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 had (along with his wife Mary) 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 the publication of his Selected Poems in 1941, Carl Rakosi abandoned poetry for more than two decades, pursuing a career under the name Callman Rawley as a social worker and administrator in Minneapolis. 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 in 1950 by Gleaners Press, an obscure press run from Galveston, Texas by Dallam Simpson (aka Dallam Flynn), 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 (TO, Publishers and The Objectivist Press), but apart from the publication of two books with the Press of James A. Decker in the 1940s,355 Poems, published in 1941 and Anew, which appeared in 1946 he had been unable to find publishers for any of his manuscripts. 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.

This changed more or less when George Oppen decided to return to poetry after a self-imposed exile of more than 25 years. [rust dream and first poems in Poetry magazine, the return from Mexico] His first published poems following his resumption of writing appeared, fittingly, in Poetry magazine, then being edited by Henry Rago. Oppen published a total of a dozen poems in Poetry between 1960 and 1962, all of which would be included in The Materials (published in 1962), with five poems appearing in the January 1960 issue,4They were “Birthplace: New Rochelle”,”Myself I Sing”, “The Biblical Tree”, “Part of the Forest”, and”The Source”. an additional four in the November 1960 issue,5”Population”, “The Hills”, “Product”, and “Stranger’s Child”. and three in the March 1962 issue.6”From a Photograph”, “Squall”, and “Travelogue”. Oppen’s sister June Degnan, the wealthy, well-connected publisher of the San Francisco Review, entered into an arrangement with James Laughlin’s New Directions Press to jointly finance the publication of George Oppen’s The Materials, his first collection of poetry in nearly 30 years. While it bore the New Directions imprimatur, an acknowledgment inside the volume and the accompanying press materials noted that half of the publication costs had been borne by the San Francisco Review. Laughlin and Degnan continued this arrangement to publish a handful of additional volumes of poetry over the next few years before the two acrimoniously dissolved their business relationship, including Oppen’s next two collections, This in Which (1965) and Of Being Numerous (1968), as well as two books by Charles Reznikoff, By the Waters of Manhattan (also published in 1962), and Testimony: The United States 1885-1890 Recitative (published in 1965 with a cover image drawn by Mary Oppen).

Oppen and Reznikoff’s success, and increased interest among the young disciples of Pound, Williams, and Olson ultimately generated an interested readership for many of the Objectivist poets. Bunting and Rakosi were both prompted back into poetic production in the mid-60s by encounters with young English admirers, and Niedecker began to find some publishing success with an assortment of British publishers, many of whom were connected in some way to Basil Bunting. Even Zukofsky saw a distinct upsurge in publisher interest in his work, with small presses beginning to publish some of his work in the late 50s and early 60s, and W.W. Norton publishing ALL: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1958 in 1965, with a British edition appearing in 1966 from Jonathan Cape.

Critical attention began to follow this surge in publications in rather short order, beginning with reviews, biographies, interviews, and introductions.

References   [ + ]

1. page # needed
2. The Autobiography of Williams Carlos Williams, 265.
3. 55 Poems, published in 1941 and Anew, which appeared in 1946
4. They were “Birthplace: New Rochelle”,”Myself I Sing”, “The Biblical Tree”, “Part of the Forest”, and”The Source”.
5. ”Population”, “The Hills”, “Product”, and “Stranger’s Child”.
6. ”From a Photograph”, “Squall”, and “Travelogue”.