Objectivism in the 1930s

In the spring of 1928, Williams met a twenty-three-year-old poet by the name of Louis Zukofsky, who was living in New York City. Williams was immediately impressed with the younger poet's work, and saw in him the possibility of "another wave of the [modernist] movement." Nearly twenty years younger than Williams, Zukofsky was soon to become the central figure in the short-lived but important "Objectivist" movement of the early 1930s. Objectivism was in some ways an extension of Imagism, though it sought a greater complexity of thought and emotion than Imagism had provided. In 1931, Zukofsky edited an Objectivist issue of Poetry, and the poems were reprinted, along with Zukofsky's explanatory essay "An Objective," in An "Objectivists" Anthology (1932). Although the work of twenty poets was included in the anthology, only four of them were of central importance to the original Objectivist group: Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi.

While the immediate influence of Objectivism on the poetry of the early 1930s was nothing like as important as that ofImagism had been two decades before, the significance of Objectivism as a source of twentieth-century American poetics goes far beyond its contemporary impact. Since about 1970, the Objectivists have been embraced as important predecessors by a range ofAmerican poets, most notably those affiliated with the experimental "Language Poetry" (see chapter 10). The appeal of Objectivism comes from three principal aspects of its poetics: a rejection of symbolist and subjective (i.e. confessional) modes of poetry, a rigorously close attention to matters of poetic technique, and a high level of theoretical sophistication.

In a sense, Objectivism was an attempt to redefine the original goals of Imagism and put it back on the course from which it had strayed. According to Williams, Imagism had failed because it had lost a sense of "formal necessity";5 the Objectivists sought to put a more rigorous structure back into the poem through the technique of what they called "sincerity." The idea of sincerity had both an aesthetic and an ethical or political dimension. In aesthetic terms, the poem's sincerity was manifested in the extent to which objects or details in the world were expressed through a particular "sound or structure, melody or form," as Zukofsky claimed in his essay "Sincerity and Objectification (1931). As the reference to "melody" suggests, the Objectivists were as concerned with the use of sound and aural structure as they were with the visual image. Where Pound's Imagist doctrine had suggested that poets avoid the "metronome" of iambic pentameter in order to achieve new rhythms, Zukofsky went even further, proposing that the poet must "look, so to speak, into his ear as he does at the same time his heart and intellect" in order to convey "the range of [sonic] differences and the subtleties of duration."

The Objectivists also used the idea of sincerity as an ethical or political directive. Most of the Objectivist poets were either members of the Communist Party or fellow travelers during the 1930s, and unlike the generation of modernists who had preceded them, they came from mostly urban, Jewish, working-class backgrounds. For them, sincerity connoted a commitment to their social and political situation. George Oppen argued that the Objectivist poetic of sincerity could be opposed to traditional post-Romantic poetics. The "sincere" poem should not be based on metaphors or images intended primarily for the "delectation of the reader," and the poem should convey nothing extraneous to "the poet's attempt to find his place in the world." It was the truthfulness of the poet's language that would be the ultimate test of his sincerity: "there is a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction."6

The Objectivists' emphasis on the "moment," the "actual time," and the historical "situation" of their poetry, marks an important change from earlier phases of American poetic modernism (such as Imagism) that stressed the atemporality of the creative act. In general, as we have seen in the work of Pound, Lowell, and H. D., Imagist poems did not refer directly to their immediate social, historical, and political situation, nor did they depend on an awareness of such a context for their impact. The poetry of the Objectivists, on the other hand, was highly aware of its historical situatedness, and much of the Objectivist writing of the 1930s reflected a left-wing politics that was in direct response to the conditions of Depression-era America. In this respect, the goals of the Objectivists overlapped with those of politically radical poets of the 1930s such as Genevieve Taggard, Muriel Rukeyser, Lola Ridge, and John Wheelwright, though the Objectivists' heightened concern with matters of form and technique differentiated them from these other writers.

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