restricted access What Were the “Objectivist” Poets?
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What Were the “Objectivist” Poets?

“Mr. Zukofsky has used the word objectivist but never Objectivism in connection with the works of certain poets. He disclaims leadership of any movement putatively literary or objectionist. The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire is intended to dispel such dispensations.”1

Although it is well known and often repeated that the “Objectivist” poets repudiated any claim that they represented a distinct group or poetics, the modest heap of commentary explaining what Objectivism is and why it represents a significant poetic trend within American modernism continues to mount. A recent account of the now-famous February 1931 “Objectivists” issue of Poetry magazine, which initiated the designation, concedes that most of the poetry is second-rate and that Zukofsky’s critical statements are “impenetrable”; the account therefore poses the inevitable question of why this issue was of such import. The answer given is that the issue established an influential model—a core group of poets with a manifesto—for subsequent young poets aspiring to start an avant-garde poetry movement.2 Yet as a movement, the “Objectivists” were an outstanding flop. Despite the fact that Poetry was one of the most prominent poetry magazines in the U.S., and despite the direct participatory sponsorship of two established older poets, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, the issue caused only a slight stir. The efforts to continue the momentum in the form of a book publishing operation, including the publication of the hefty An “Objectivists” Anthology, hardly fared better, and soon the whole business slipped into oblivion. Even the claim that young poets of later decades dug up the “Objectivists” as a model of [End Page 315] organizational presentation seems to lack credence, since by the 1960s and 1970s there was a well-established tradition of alternative little magazines and manifestos whose exemplary organizational models were Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, not Zukofsky and the “Objectivists.” It is doubtful that any poets were significantly influenced by the sincere but ineffectual efforts of these “Objectivist” projects.

Ron Silliam, who certainly was influenced by the “Objectivists,” if not necessarily by their 1930s activities, published a well-known article that narrates a three-phase history of Objectivism: its brief appearance in the early 1930s, its disappearance from public view for several decades (during which time a couple of “Objectivist” poets abandoned poetry altogether), and then its remarkable resurfacing in the 1960s, not simply as rediscovered old avant-gardists but as major poets in full bloom, producing contemporary work of exemplary accomplishment and ambition.3 Silliman is undoubtedly correct in using the misnomer “Objectivism” to designate his object, since the “Objectivists” and certainly “Objectivism” are largely a critical invention of the 1960s and after. For younger poets at that time, poets who were not only discovering but actively publishing these elder modernists, the “Objectivists” were certainly a distinct group, although one is hard-pressed to find clear statements as to what constituted their affiliation. Yet such specificity was not as important as ensuring the simple survival of active modernists who stood outside the prevailing mainstream and whose politics were more palatable than those of Pound or Eliot. In 1969, under the title “The ‘Objectivist’ Poet,” L. S. Dembo published interviews he had conducted the preceding year with George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky, thus establishing the core quartet that has been reiterated ever since in any account of the “Objectivists,” to which may (or may not) be added Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker.

Of course, Dembo’s selection of these poets under this particular rubric was not arbitrary; there was already some consensus to group these poets together. But the question is why this was so, especially considering that the poets themselves all repudiated both the designation and the affiliations as useful to understanding their work. Why, when there was by then ample published work to substantiate this repudiation? Largely, this was a matter of marketing. The reappearance of these older poets required some kind of handle with which to tag them, to orient them succinctly for a contemporary readership, and the “Objectivist” label, with its associations with Pound and Williams, was handy branding. When, for...