February 20, 2012
Rakosi was born in Berlin on November 6, 1903. A year after his birth, his parents separated and for the next six years he and his mother lived with her family in Hungary. In the meantime his father had moved to Chicago, where he worked as a watchmaker and was involved in socialist politics with friends such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnicht. In 1910 Rakosi’s step¬mother traveled to Hungary, bringing Carl and his brother back with her to the United States.
Rakosi recounted in a 2001 interview (in the Jewish Bulletin) that there was a sense of panic among the ship’s passengers concerning whether or not they would pass the health examinations, a fear ameliorated in the six-year-old child, perhaps, by his seeing the Statue of Liberty: “It was an unforgettable sight. There was a sense of great exhilaration and joy.” He never saw his mother again, and did not know what happened to her until he returned with his children to Hungary for a visit in the 1970s. On a Budapest memorial wall he found the names of his mother and grandmother, by the word “Auschwitz.”
Eventually the family settled in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and after a brief time at the University of Chicago, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he received a bachelor’s degree. After graduating, Rakosi signed on as a mess boy on a trip to Australia, and later worked with disturbed children in New York, which led him to return to Wisconsin to take a master’s degree in psychology.
He was first attracted to writing in high school, when one of his teachers—“a very sexy looking woman”—responded to a book report he had written on George Meredith. She “wrote back…on what I had written in such a straightforward serious tone,” he recounts in a conver-sation with Tom Devaney and Olivier Brossard, “it gave me for the first time, the idea that maybe I had it in me to be a writer too.” Later at the University of Chicago he befriended two other students, a black student “turning out poems that sounded like Kipling, very robust and vigorous” and a Japanese student writing short, haiku-like poems. Both made an impression on him.
During the three years of his undergraduate work at Wisconsin (1921-1924) Rakosi was able to attend to poetry, affiliating himself through a small literary circle that included Kenneth Fearing, Leon Serabian Herald and Margery Latimer (who would later marry Jean Toomer) with the political left literary avant-garde. As opposed to his small literary circle, Rakosi found his other fellow students to be unbelievably “smug”:
The University had some ten thousand students, mostly from Wisconsin farms and small towns, blond young Babbitts of North European stock, their hair cropped close. It was a place for youth fed on fresh country milk and Iowa corn where time was suspended and they looked each other over and saw that they were comely, and flirted and horsed around, and the big events were foot¬ball 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. (“Scenes from My Life,” in Collected Prose).
Throughout this period and for some years following his graduation, he published in numerous important literary and politically-allied magazines such as The Little Review, Two Worlds, Exile, transition, The Liberator, The Nation and The Masses. The story of his first encounter in New York with The Little Review editor Jane Heap is worth recounting. Through Margery Latimer it had been arranged that he meet with Heap:
Apprehensive, I climbed the circular staircase one afternoon to The Little Review office, which was then in the Village. It was dark in the hallway. At one end on the first landing was a small white name-card, The Little Review, and a push button under it. I rang the bell, there was silence for a moment, then the door opened and a pudgy figure appeared in a red velvet smoking jacket, smoking a small cigar, the face very round, the hair bobbed to look mannish. For a moment there was an aston¬ishing resemblance to Oscar Wilde.
It was Jane Heap. This startling appearance, for some reason, at once put me at ease. I simply gave her my name and she invited me in. It was not an office at all but an apartment she shared with Margaret Anderson. She was pleasant, served tea, and we talked, she as to a fellow writer. I found myself stimulated and was not lacking for words. I remember our conversation as lively and straightforward. At the end, she said, “I suppose you brought something with you,” and I said, “Yes,” and pulled out a batch of poems from my coat pocket. She read them closely, thought for a few moments and then said, “We’ll take these.”
That was it. I was in. (“Scenes from My Life,” The Collected Prose).
The poems published by The Little Review—“Sittingroom by Patinka,” “The January of a Gnat,” and “Flora and the Ogre”—represent some of Rakosi’s very best writing. While I usually cannot tolerate American poetry with end-rhymes, Rakosi’s brilliant evocation of a gnat in mid-winter is a testament how a good poet can transform formal elements into something completely original.
In 1929, in a commitment to a literary career, Rakosi legally changed his name to Callman Rawley, which, disguising his immigrant origins, he thought might lead to quicker acceptance in literary circles, particularly in relation to poets Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams (all poets, one observes, who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments). But his move in 1928 to Texas had already resulted in what Andrew Crozier has described as “a willed act of poetic abnegation.”
Rakosi’s poetry, however, was not (yet) forgotten. After years of criticism of Harriet Moore’s “stale and phoney” presentation of American writing in Poetry, Pound was able to convince her in 1930 to allow Louis Zukofsky to edit a special issue. Pound’s only fear, he proclaimed in a letter of October 1930 to Monroe, was that “Mr. Zukofsky will be just and Goddam praewdent.” In January of the next year, he wrote: “Re Zuk: gord knows wot he has done to yr. respected pubctn. At least it will be a different point of view. Let us hope a younger pt. v. than mine” (in Pound, Selected Letters 1907-1941).
According to Rakosi, Zukofsky, prodded by Pound not to include “old masters,” solicited poems “from young poets for whose poetry he had a high regard. What he collected was the best he could find” (Rakosi in interview with Tom Devaney).
Monroe, however, insisted upon a name for the issue. Rakosi recounts:
It seems to me now, that she must have felt that a name would show that the magazine was open to new forms of poetry and that this would benefit the magazine. She never openly approved of our poems, however. As a matter of fact, in the next issue she apologized to her readers.
Zukofsky hated the idea of pinning a name to a collection of diverse talents and protested, but being young and unknown himself at the time, sputtering angrily at how stupid she was.
Anyhow, he came up with the term Objectivist, thinking that was as close as he could come to describing the work of Reznikoff, whom he admired most. In that connection, it is interesting that Pound never could understand what Zukofsky saw in Reznikoff, but he had the good sense not to interfere with Zukofsky’s judgment. Zukofsky wrote me at the time to ask, did I have any objection to the term. I wrote back, “Hell no, just as long as I get into the magazine,” Poetry at that time being only one of two poetry magazines in the country, the other being one that I would not have wanted to appear in” (Rakosi in interview with Tom Devaney).
The February 1931 issue of Poetry contained four of Rakosi’s best poems: “Orphean Lost,” “Fluteplayers from Finmarken,” “Unswerving Marie,” and “Before You,” two of which I chose (unaware at the time of their literary pedigree) for inclusion in my large American anthology.
Rakosi’s work continued to appear in magazines, with lessening frequency, throughout the 1930s. By 1935, however, he had completely given up writing as he worked at the University of Pennsylvania on a Master of Social Work degree. He married Leah Jaffe in 1939, and they began a family. Rakosi was now determined to follow a career in helping others, working for nearly 30 years as a psychotherapist with disturbed children in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.
In 1941 James Laughlin of New Directions—a publishing entity also very influenced by Pound—printed, as the first of its “Poet of the Month” series, Rakosi’s Selected Poems, his first book. For the next twenty-five years Rakosi was silent.
In 1965, a student of Charles Olson’s at the State University of New York-Buffalo, Andrew Crozier contacted Rakosi to discuss his poetry. His interest in the work inspired Rakosi to begin writing again, and in 1967, New Directions brought out a second book—containing mostly poems from his early years,—Amulet. Ere-Voice was published in 1971 and Ex Cranium, Night appeared in 1975. But the poet who emerges at the other end of those two and one-half decades is not the same man. The influences of his social engagement with what he would call the “common man” are everywhere apparent. No longer engaged in sensuous wonderment of a trans-formed universe, he is now more interested in proclaiming aesthetic approaches and satirically observing the excesses of what he describes as prophets and poets. “What we need in this world are workable proposals,” as he argues in his 1998 poem “Odds and Ends.” Excess in anything—particularly when it comes to artistic expression—is now the object of disdain.
His direct narrational approach to language, his new dismissal of anything that is not related to a homespun American use of speech, suddenly puts him at odds with his own past, including his continuing love of music and literature.
One cannot but recognize that he, like so many others, has confused (and infused) his art with politics in a manner that serves neither. In his Romanization of the “common man” Rakosi misunderstands the fact that a radicalized and intensified use of language can itself serve to effect a change in the polis, that the very fact that art is not life can offer new vision for those who might engage it.
Perhaps no poet since Marianne Moore has done greater harm to her or his own early writing than Carl Rakosi. His Collected Poems, published in 1986—clearly unedited and printed from a manuscript he collected—is a mish-mash of older and new work, organized by gratuitous topics such “Meditations,” “Adventures of the Head,” “L’Chayim,” “The Poet, I and II,” and “Americana.” Some of his best works have been radically revised, others grafted to newer poems. Several of my favorite poems, works such as “Paraguay,” “Good Prose,” and “Sappho,” have been apparently disavowed.
No matter how one might lament Rakosi’s later poetic attitudes, he graciously allowed Crozier and Sun & Moon Press to restore his earlier versions to print, helping the editor in the process. Despite his revisionist presentation of his earlier poetry, it is clear that Rakosi wanted that work also to appear in its original contexts. At the very least the poet recognized, as he writes in his “Cautionary Note” to the Sun & Moon Press volume, that his “atti¬tude toward the poems is not a part” of him. “They stand there as givens.” In his insightful introduction Crozier, moreover, warns us against representing the achievements of the earlier period as having been thwarted by Rakosi’s financial exigencies. It is always unwise to ignore the real social relations, writing blocks, or other inhibitions of any poet, Crozier argues, for they are part of the phenom¬enology of writing. Indeed, the work Rakosi produced when he returned to writing, while less formal and more directly transparent in its satirical focus, had its roots, often, in the earlier poems.
In 1996 won the PEN Center USA Award for Collected Poems: 1923-1941.
On June 25, 2004, Carl Rakosi, the man the San Francisco Chronicle described “the oldest major poet in the United States,” died. The only surprise was, perhaps, that at the age of 100 he was still living!—basically in good health and a good state of mind. He had suffered a series of strokes, but he was, according to the family, listening to Mark Twain and music at the time of his death. A family friend, Jen Hofer, recounts that a few days earlier a hospice worker asked him if he knew what day it was; he didn’t. What month was it? “September?” Did he know the year? “No.” “Who is the president?” the hospice worker queried. He hesitated, and his wife and the worker presumed he’d be unable to answer that question as well. A short while later, he answered: “Bush—that bastard!”
BOOKS OF POETRY
Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1941); Amulet (New York: New Dierctions, 1967); Ere-Voice (1968); Ex Cranium Night (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975); Droles de Journal (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, 1981); The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi (Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986); Poems 1923-1941, ed. by Andrew Crozier (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995); The Earth Suite (Buckfastleigh, South Devonshire, England: Etruscan Books, 1997)
Fluteplayers from Finmarken
How keen the nights were,
Not a star out,
not a beat of emotion
in the humming snowhull.
(Now and then an awful swandive.)
It seemed ordained then that
my feet slip on the seal bones
and my head come down suddenly over a simple rock-cisvaen,
grief-stricken and archwise.
Thereon were stamped
the figures of the noble women
I had followed with closed dyes
out to the central blubber
of the waters.
(There is not a pigeon
or a bee in sight.
My eyes are shut now,
and my pulse dead as a rock.)
The Swedish mate says he recalls
this fungoid program of the mind and matter,
where the abstract signals to the abstract,
and the mind directs a final white lens
on the spewing of the waterworm
and the wings of the midsea.
It was not clear what I was after
in this stunted flora
and husky worldcold
until the other flutes arrived:
four master musing
from one polar qualm to another.
The January of a Gnat
Snow panels, ice pipes, house the afternoon
whose poised arms lift prayer with the elm’s antennae.
She has her wind of swift burrs, whose spiel is gruff,
scanning the white mind of the winter moon
with her blank miles. Her voice is lower than
the clovers or the bassviol of seastuff.
So void moons make a chaste anabasis
across the stalks of star and edelweiss,
while Volga nixies and a Munich six
o’clock hear in the diaphane the rise
of one bassoon. So the immense frosts fix
their vacant death, bugs spray the roots like lice.
High blizzards broom the cold for answer to
their ssh of vapors and their vowel ooo
In the early hours the lovebirds
colonized the palm.
We were looking for a totem.
but the Indian smells,
we booked the next boat to Janeiro.
On the east coast,
when the sun deflects the falcons
we found a blessed frère
with no cathedral
but the daisies in May,
living on milk and wafers,
with the cross in one hand
and the anatomy of sorrow in the other.
To W. Carlos Williams
Eastern Sea, 100 fathoms,
green sand, pebbles,
Off Suno Saki, 60 fathoms,
gray sand, pebbles,
The fishery vessel Ion drops
anchor here collecting
plankton smears and fauna.
Plasma-bearer, visible sea
purge, sponge and kelpleaf,
halicystus the Sea Bottle
and is the larges
cell in the world.
nobody has ever
seen this marine
It radiates on
a comb of twenty
its rocky tail.
bull encrusted swims
backward from the rock.
Copyright ©1995, 1967 by Callman Rawley. Reprinted from Carl Rakosi, Poems 1923-1941 (Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1995).