Date: 18 June 2004
At this point, the unhealthy blog begins to whither. It actually mirrors my current rut on a macro-scale, since as you see the demands of work draw me away from blogging. I can say with confidence that I am not the only blogger to experience this.
Sorry about last week, and for that matter sorry about this week. If you're interested, the file is a draft of the conference paper I'm giving next week on Objectivist poets and their literary silences.
Next week, also silence.
[following is the unformatted, unedited draft]
Paper Title: Rhetorics of Silence: Objectivists and the 1940s
To call the Objectivists poets 40’s is a bit paradoxical. Although the poets most directly associated with the quasi-movement—such as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky—were all alive and well, they wrote little and published less during the decade. Objectivists might be better considered poets of the 30s, based on early association and publication in the October 1931 issue of Poetry which include Zukofsky’s famous manifesto on sincerity and objectification, and when a discourse on Objectivist practice briefly circulated, even tho the poets associated with it never actually formed a cohesive movement. Alternately, they might be called poets of the 60s, because of the renewal in interest in and return to print of these poets during those years. Indeed, the major publications of these poets in the sixties and seventies—such as Reznikoff’s Testimony, Zukofsky’s All, the American edition of A 1-12 in 1967 and complete A in 1978, and Oppen’s string of remarkable volumes beginning with The Materials in 1962—represent their greatest contribution and continuing influence. But the decade of the 40s falls into the period of what Ron Silliman calls “Second Phase Objectivism,” the fallow period between early publication and the return to print in the 1960s, a period marked by silence and neglect. Oppen had fallen into his famous 25 year silence, and Rakosi followed suit after his 1941 Selected Poems. The ever-busy Zukofsky continued to work, but took a long break from his “poem of a life,” “A’ for most of the 40s. Though this silence has fascinated readers, particularly Oppen’s, it is difficult to integrate into critical discourse, for the very reason that it provides us no text. In this paper, I will briefly look at three Objectivist silences—Oppen and Rakosi’s absolute silences and Zukofsky’s relative one—and consider how we, as literary critics, might read them.
Hugh Kenner, in A Homemade World, explained this fallow period as resulting from the neglect of publishers and academics.
The academy has consistently shunned [the Objectivists]. Though the Objectivists were college men, though Zuk spent many years at college teaching, and tho the New Criticism of the 1940’s tended to be first and last something practiced by teachers, though Ph. D. candidates with New Critical supervisors scratched on their hands and knees for dissertation subjects, the Objectivists remained unnoticed, unreprinted, till the late 1960’s . That is because, when the university network was linking up after the war, and taste for the first time was being made in classrooms, the prime criterion of poetic excellence was tending to become teachability…
Kenner then catalogues “teachable” aspects of poetry (according to New Critics): paradox, concrete imagery, and a certain obviousness of argument, and concludes that “Poets who offered no handle for such apparatus to hang onto were simply ignored…” (173). While this academic neglect is demonstrable, we must also recognize that the silence of some these poets was intentional. They weren’t simply waiting around for the award committee to call, but chose other forms of work. The paradigmatic case is George Oppen who Jerome McGann calls a “symptomatic and instructive figure” in considering poetry and silence.
George’s wife Mary Oppen writes in her memoir Meaning A Life that she and her husband left off artistic work for political work because it seemed the appropriate response to first the suffering of the Great Depression, in the 30’s, and then war and fascism in the 40’s. Direct political action was more valuable to them than political art, which they found largely insincere (a noteworthy violation of the Objectivist credo of sincerity and objectification in poetry). Mary explains that
an appeal was made to intellectuals by the seventh World Congress of the Communist Parties in 1935 to join in a united front to defeat fascism and war. We responded to that call, and in the winter of 1935 we decided to work with the Communist Party, not as artist or writer because we did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left… We said to each other, ‘Let’s work with the unemployed and leave our other interest in the arts for a later time.’ (151)
As they worked as organizers for the Communist Party, they still, as Mary recalled, “held close a belief in ourselves as artists, and we intended to find our way back to a life in poetry and the arts.” George later enlisted in the Army to fight in the European theater. After the war, the Oppens were harassed by the FBI because of their communist background and in turn fled to Mexico, where they lived and worked for several years. By 1958, the Oppens were able to return to the United States and in Mary’s words, began to assimilate the violent years… into thought and poetry” (200). George began work on The Materials, which was published by New Directions in 1962.
An understandable impulse in Oppen criticism is to use his long silence as a frame to interpret his subsequent poetry. Consideration of silence in poetry often figures it textually—a mute or unresponsive interlocutor, semantic gaps, or a spare style. Even the use of white space on the page is often taken as a material metaphor for silence. John Taggart, one of Oppen’s best readers, calls Oppen’s poetry “a structure which is so composed as to contain—almost preserve—all that which is most threatening, the openness of time, the abraiding grain of silence” (227) through various stylistic means. That the qualities of Oppen’s poetry can be talked about in terms of silence may propogate an overriding explanatory myth of silence, creating a metaphoric frame for the poetry. This frame is strengthened by the ethical motivation of the silence (other work was more important for the good of all) and the corresponding ethical issues of the poetry. Nevertheless, the frame valorizes the poetry and de-emphasizes Oppen’s other work. It also romanticizes and in fact fabricates silence: the work of organizing, or of simply carrying on quotidian life, obvious is not done without using language.
Maybe a better tactic is to read the silence itself. In his introduction to the recent Collected Poems Michael Davidson reads Oppen’s silence as a form of refusal:
In a culture heavily committed to production, the idea of a writer who becomes silent seems heretical. Hugh Kenner provided the most convenient explanation of Oppen’s silence by observing that “…it took twenty-five years to write the next poem,” a remark to which Oppen has given assent in various interviews. However elegant, Kenner’s formulation dehistoricizes Oppen’s silence by sidestepping the challenges it was trying to meet in the politically charged 1930s…. However much one may want to textualize his silence by seeing it as a lacuna in a long—a very long—poem, the facts of economic depression at home and the growth of Fascism abroad placed demands on his aesthetics that could not be resolved through aesthetics.”xxxi
But even Davidson translates the silence into Oppen’s poems, noting that he “found value in the not said, in the incomplete phrase, in the bare noun.” This is not to fault either Davidson or Taggart, who are sensitive and articulate readers; they use silence as fruitful interpretive frames.
It might be more accurate to seek instead of a poetics of silence, a rhetoric of silence, which reads not speaking (or better, not writing or publishing) as a meaningful gesture in the context of a life’s work. To do so it would be necessary not only to read texts, but also careers, as Libbie Rifkin suggests doing in her book Career Moves. Citing Bakhthin, she calls for “a ‘social evaluation’ of the interlocking set of textual and historical factors … and thus ‘actualizes the utterance both from the standpoint of its factual presence and the standpoint of its semantic meaning’ (121). Poetic careers are both produced by and productive of this larger social texture…” While I have no problem with using silence as a context for Objectivist texts, the silence of Second phase objectivism has an existence and a meaning apart from the renaissance of the Third Phase.
While Oppen’s silence is one of the crucial tropes found in his criticism, Rakosi’s 25 year gap is less deterministic in the few considerations of his work we have. However, it was apparently used as a sort of promotional device, an enticement for readers. The jacket copy of his first Third Phase volume Amulet reads as follows:
New Directions published his POEMS in 1941. Then to the great disappointment of his admirers, R stopped writing; he had become disillusioned with the state of our society and felt there was no place in it for a poet. The world seems little better off today, but at least we can be grateful that R began to write poetry three years ago and has now given us this selection from his poems, old and new.
This blurb interprets silence as a strong ethical stance: like Oppen, the times did not call for poetry, but direct action (in Rakosi’s case, social work and psychotherapy—again, talking professions). But in his 1969 interview with L.S. Dembo, Rakosi said this was only part of the story: “social work just drew me very strongly…it wasn’t until the late thirties that it seemed impossible for me to be a social worker and to write at the same time” (179) In this formulation, it isn’t that “the times” invalidated poetry, but that they called for a response other than poetry. The jacket copy is another instance of substituting historically-situated silence for differently historically-situated text. But as it turns out, the frame of silence doesn’t provide much help to Rakosi’s aphoristic, genial work. The textual metaphors for silence—semantic gaps, white space, etc—are simply not pronounced features in Rakosi’s early or late work. Not that it was easy to separate his early and late work: 28 of the 37 poems in the 1941 Selected, turn up some with minor revisions, in Amulet. suggesting a continuity across time. That his silence hasn’t been the object of fascination that Oppen’s has may be because it is not textually resonate. (Incidently, Rakosi celebrated his 100th birthday last fall and, as far as I know is alive and well and living in San Francisco)
In 1941 Zukofsky self-published The First Half of “A”-9 as his first volume of poetry. According to Celia’s “Year by Year Bibliography to the Works of LZ,” he didn’t finish this movement until 1950, the longest gap in the writing of “A” . But as I indicated, he did keep himself busy in the 40s, as the panels here testify to. This silence is, like the others, only silence in a sense.
The First Half of “A”-9 represents a welter of conversation; in addition to his poem and explanatory materials, it includes work by Guido Cavalcanti’ Karl Marx, various modern physicists, Ezra Pound, and Zuk’s friend Jerry Reisman. The formula of “A”-9 suggests that literary production results from textual interchange, from vibrant discussion. Zuk’s essay “Objectification and Sincerity” says that the goal of poetry is to record “historic and contemporary particulars” (189), a task which silence obviously could not accomplish. So it would seem that silence doesn’t bear much on Z’s work either.
But publishing the first half independently accentuates the rupture in the composition and publication of “A”. The second half of“A”-9 was not published until 1959, in the Origin Press edition of ‘A” 1-12. I’ll turn now to pieces of A which recuperate this gap while thematically engaging silence: the completed A-9 and A-10.
The completion of A-9 is obliquely narrated in the essay “Poetry. To My Son When He Can Read” printed at the back of the American edition of A 1-12. In the essay, Zukofsky tells his infant son that he had recently taken some “almost illegible notes on poetry” out of his wallet (269). He explains that while the war had discouraged him, his son’s emerging language skills inspired him to follow up on these notes. While he is not specific, it is possible that these notes refer to the card on which he had sketched out the plan of “A” in the late 20s. The second half of “A”-9 takes on additional significance as the resumption of his life’s work. As many readers of A have noted, the 2nd half of A-9 represents a turn form the public realm of materialist critique to the private realm of love of family. This shift is not to silence, but perhaps to quiescence. The reprinting of A-9 in its complete form, without the additional voices in the first half, contribute to this impression.
“A”-10, appearing obviously immediately after 9, was actually finished first, in 1940. In straddling the gap in this fashion, it engages the question of the poet and silence in time of crisis. Describing the wreckage of war, he say “Let a better time say/The poet stopped singing to talk.” This strangely traces personal decision made by the organizer Oppen and the psychotherapist Rakosi, tho the reference is more likely to himself, descending toward his lower limit to engage political tumult. Though he kept at literary work, he acknowledges that wide scale suffering challenged him, and challenged his very medium. As the movement draws to a close, we find one of the flattest, most banal lines in the poem: “The capital of France is Vichy.” There’s a subterranean logic in that line: if war and fascism forces language to such a position, perhaps silence is the necessary choice.
Conclusion: a rhetoric of silence
And so we arrive at last at George Steiner’s position in his well-known essay “Silence and the Poet,” that “the political inhumanity of the 20th century” has made language “debased” and “dehumanized” so “to a writer who feels that the condition of language is in question…two essential courses are available: he may seek to render his own idiom representative fo the general crisis… or he may choose the suicidal rhetoric of silence” (69). But the Objectivist suggest that silence need not be as dire as this, nor be considered a single monolith. Silences might speak as well, and speak variously. We should then, as rhetoric scholar Cynthia Ryan urges us, “perceive silences within broader cultural and social terms” (675). We need rules that govern the “interpretations we make.. about the discursive significance of individual instances of silence” (675) that go beyond framing subsequent texts, but address the gaps and blanks in the terms of poet’s, the man or woman’s, life’s work. Although Rhetoric and poetics have historically been at odds, the silence of 2nd phase Objectivism can, after all, be read as an “unquiet gesture” a rhetorical act composed of a rhetor, implied auditor, and an ecodeable and decodeable statement.
Wolfgang Iser “What is said only appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said.” (168)
Christopher Gaynor’s piece “Speculations through the mirro: silence” in Code of Signals invokes a GENERATIVE SILENCE and he juxtaposes VOWS OF SILENCE-AN OCCULT ORDER- A LOGOS
Davidson: “His silence was political in that it represented the inability of art to provide an adequate image of human suffering His return to writing was political by representing the inability of communal forms to account for individual agency.”
Mary: “We have always felt that our writing required distance from the politics of experience. ““Gestures of silence are filled with unquiet implications (Ryan 676).