Rakosi Scholarship

Of the seven core Objectivist poets considered on this site, Rakosi remains the poet to whom the least amount of scholarly and critical attention has been directed. Despite having been (apart from William Carlos Williams) the most widely published poet included in Zukofsky’s issue of Poetry, and his having actively published poetry for almost forty years following his return to writing in the 1960s, there is, to date, neither a scholarly edition of his collected late-career work, nor, apart from the Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet collection, a single volume of biographical or scholarly criticism dedicated to Rakosi or his work. If critics consider him the most minor of the Objectivist poets, his output, paradoxically, has been among the most major, with Rakosi having published hundreds of uncollected published poems.

The relative paucity of critical attention paid to Rakosi’s work is not to say that Rakosi has not had his supporters. The English poet Andrew Crozier, for one, was a longtime champion of Rakosi’s poetry, and was particularly instrumental in both gathering Rakosi’s early work and instigating Rakosi’s resumption of poetry after decades of silence, and the Milwaukee musician, poet, and rock and roll historian Martin Rosenblum, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rakosi’s Americana poems in the late 1970s and worked for several years on a never published book manuscript about Rakosi’s poetry. In 1993, the poet and critic Michael Heller edited Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet, a collection of appreciative essays presented at a Rakosi-themed conference in Orono, Maine, which remains to date the single-best (only) collection of Rakosi-specific criticism. Rakosi’s writing has been reviewed in several places, and occasional articles and book chapters on Rakosi have been published in the past few decades, but Rakosi scholarship can be accurately described as thin and sparse.

The first critical or scholarly attention to be directed toward Rakosi came from University of Wisconsin-Madison English professor L.S. Dembo, who facilitated a series of interviews with Objectivist poets in 1968. Dembo invited Rakosi in the Spring of 1968 to give a reading at the university in Madison, and conducted an interview with him at that time which was published in the Spring 1969 issue of Contemporary Literature, a scholarly magazine that Dembo edited. In 1971, Dembo published a “The Poetry of Carl Rakosi,” a brief introductory article designed to draw attention to Rakosi’s poetry in The Iowa Review.

After Dembo’s article, aside from reviews of his individual publications, Rakosi received very little critical attention until the publication of the Man and Poet collection edited by Michael Heller in 1993. This 500+ page collection, published by the National Poetry Foundation, offers a wide variety of indispensable material for the serious study of Rakosi’s life and work, including ten Rakosi poems, a few small prose pieces written by Rakosi, two interviews with Rakosi (one conducted by Jim Cohn and the other by George Evans and August Kleinzahler), twenty one essays by an assortment of readers, critics, and scholars from England and the United States, a detailed, accurate chronology and bibliography of Rakosi-related publications prepared by the Middlebury librarian Robert Buckeye, and a list of early Rakosi publications compiled by Andrew Crozier (which would later form the foundation of Crozier’s Poems 1923-1941).

Apart from the material contained in this book, the most significant article to have been written about Rakosi’s work is probably “Looking for the Real Carl Rakosi,” a medium-length review essay by Marjorie Perloff published in the August 1996 issue of the Journal of American Studies, which examined Heller’s collection, The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi, and the Andrew Crozier-edited Poems 1923-1931. Perloff’s review was largely critical, as she focused almost exclusively on Rakosi’s earliest poems, arguing both that Rakosi’s return to poetry in the mid-60s was essentially a return to the kind of verse that Rakosi has been writing in the early 30s, and contending that the Collected Poems was a poorly edited, too-inclusive chronological mess which “puts a good face on what is the black hole of non-writing at its center, masking the repetition that too often replaces the difficult evolution”. While Perloff concedes that many of Rakosi’s poems are “lovely,” she claims that Rakosi’s poems “rarely have the edge, the compression and tightness, that makes Williams’s Objectivists lyric so satisfying” (275).

When The Objectivist Nexus, the important collection of essays dedicated to Objectivist writers edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain was published in 1999, there was one chapter dedicated exclusively to Rakosi, Ming-Qian Ma’s essay “Be Aware of ‘the Medusa’s Glance’: The Objectivist Lens and Carl Rakosi’s Poetics of Strabismal Seeing.” A slightly revised article of this essay later comprised the third chapter of Ma’s 2008 book Poetry as Re-Reading: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Poetics of Counter-Method.