Mapping a Definition of Objectivism

Andrea Rexilius

What is Objectivism? In 1931, Zukofsky was asked to define the term and did so with a limited measure of conviction. Over time, many of the poets who were published in the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine fell away from the label, and a few others developed more fully within that context. In considering how this concept has developed over time, I would like to look particularly at the poetics of Oppen, Zukofsky, Niedecker, and Reznikoff, considering both how they cohere and fail to cohere within a larger frame of “objectivism.” In order to begin, I think it is necessary to turn to the various definitions or descriptions of Objectivism used by theorists and critics over time. These definitions and descriptions will not necessarily be chronological, but rather, will trace similarities and differences in thought.

Zukofsky’s initial statement allows the term objectivism, like the definition of any word, to branch in a variety of directions. In this way Objectivism is etymologically founded. He writes: “An Objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing rays from an object into focus. That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars” (qtd. in Vescia, 18). From the first half of this definition, objectivism has been compared to photography: “The quality of objectivity has been attributed to the photographic medium from the beginning (the root of the word signifies ‘lens’ in at least four languages…” (Vescia, 4), to the microscope: “The lens focuses the rays coming from an object, making the image ready for projection or microscopic examination” (Bernstein, Foreword, Prepositions, viii) and has been described as an object: “The term objectification describes a process (the making of an object) rather than a quality (objective, objectivity)…” (Vescia, 4). Thus, the first half of this definition denotes a way of looking, a poetics of perception or investigation, and a poetics of materials, the poem itself as photograph, or slide, or more generally, as object.

In contrast, the second half of the definition lends itself toward interpretations of purpose, or destination. For instance, Hatlen states that “what distinguishes these poets is their determination to find or invent a poetic language that will, by remaining faithful to what Zukofsky called the ‘historic and contemporary particulars’ of their experience, shatter the grand ideological abstractions of the dominant culture, and thus open up a new way of being-in-the-world” (Nexus, 38). After compiling a number of critical articles by and about the Objectivist, Rachel Blau DuPlessis notices the following threads: “Objectivist writing as aware of its own historical contingency and situatedness, and Objectivist poetics as a site of complexity, contestation, interrogation, and disagreement” (Introduction, Nexus, 6). But what is the “historical contingency and situatedness” of Objectivist poetics? Cope determines that “’Objectivism’ differed from…earlier Modernism in its often leftist political leanings, as well as its primary urban, Jewish and working class roots” (Introduction, SP, 3). This relates to Michael Palmer’s “characterization of the poets as manifesting ‘the poetic values of resistance, social awareness and exploratory integrity,’” in that both are political interpretations of the “movement,” (qtd. in DuPlessis, Introduction, Nexus, 6) interpretations that suggest having an “objective.”

Oppen, Zukofsky, Niedecker, and Reznikoff have themselves used terms to define their writing processes and one can see in these descriptions the ways in which they go about transforming their insights and observations into poetry. This may be the most fluid and honest way of getting at the heart of what objectivism is or is not. In these definitions or descriptions, we find an emphasis on form, or on the poem as object (Oppen, SL, 47), modes of thought: “thinking with things as they exist” (Zukofsky, Prepositions, 194), poetry as a “test of truth” (Oppen, qtd. in Cope, Introduction, SP, 2), or as “essential and truthful description” (Niedecker, Correspondence, 150), poetry as “testimony” (Reznikoff qtd. in Heller, 69), poetry as having a connection to music (Zukofsky, Prepositions, 19) and poetry as “the act of perception” (Oppen, qtd. in Chilton, GOMP, 91). If one were to pretend that these statements create a collaborative manifesto for Objectivism, the movement’s poetics are as follows: the poem is an object; musical cadence directs the poem; the poem is an act of investigation; (it is empirical, or perceptual, or an act of encountering); the poem is ethical, sincere, and related to truth rather than to recognition for the poet, and there are times when the world is more important than the poem. The major distinction between any of these poets is not their total acceptance or rejection of any of the above components, but of the order in which they find these elements necessary and meaningful, and of course, the way in which they see these components.

To begin, George Oppen’s poetics is primarily one of “modes of perception” or of “encounter.” He, in the barest way possible, with no other lens than the lens of looking, examines relationships between things. At the beginning of “The Materials,” we find the following quotation by the philosopher Jacques Maritain, “We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things” (qtd. in Oppen, NCP, 38). This is not unlike Oppen’s statement in the first lines of “Of Being Numerous”: “There are things / We live among and to see them / Is to know ourselves” (NCP, 163). Again, the double hinge of Zukofsky’s definition is present here. One may interpret Maritain and Oppen’s quotations as modes of perception or encounter, but one may also read into these statements a necessity for action, for witness or ethical awareness. Herein lies the distinction between Imagism’s “no ideas but in things,” and Objectivism’s “thinking with things as they exist,” or as Hirsh defines it, “no ideas but in one’s own experiential definition of things” (GOMP, 173). The difference is perhaps slight, but important. In Objectivism the focus is not solely on the thing as concrete detail, but on the encounter with the thing, or with the world. It is a poetics of interaction, an acknowledgement of both the “looking” of the poet and the “seenness” of the object. It is not a focus necessarily on the end result, on the seen, but on the rays of light of seeing, the movement or process of looking. “Objectivist art, [therefore] both as theory and practice, is an art always in relation,” (Heller, 103) a “[dialectical] occasion in which poetic truth resides neither in the object nor in the poet but in the interaction between the two” (Heller, 78). This idea of relationship extends to the field of the poem as well. For, as Vescia writes, “Oppen’s precision emerges not in his descriptions of individual things (since he hardly describes at all) but in the care with which he delineates the relationships between these objects, visually (the way words look on the page, syntactically, and aurally, using patterns of sound” (Vescia, 67).

Examples of this interaction, or dialogue between things within a poem, is found often in “Of Being Numerous.” In the title alone we can recognize a kind of dialogue, the complication of individual, as both singular (a being) and multiple (numerous). Indeed, the use of “I” in this poem is minimal, and when it is used, as in the lines, “I cannot even now / Altogether disengage myself / From those men” (171), the singular “I” merges with a multiple one. Oppen is writing about his experience of the world, but he is not writing autobiography. He clarifies this in “The Materials,” when he says, “I think myself / Is what I’ve seen and not myself” (56) and a few pages later complicates it by restating “What I’ve seen / Is all I’ve found: myself” (61). And when, in “A Narrative,” he refers to his poetics as an instance “In which things explain each other, / Not themselves” (151). Conversations about Oppen’s poetics often generate terms like “sincerity,” “ethics,” and “conviction.” His looking delineates an intense regard and concern for the “clarity” of perception. His poetry attempts to remain open to process or mode and refrains from imposing simile or metaphor or artifice onto what is being perceived. This is a dual proclamation. First that “[h]e insisted on writing only about what he himself had seen and the act of seeing them” (Weinberger, Preface, NCP, x) and second, that “[i]t is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found” (qtd. in Chilton, GOMP, 91).

Louis Zukofsky is the one who coined the phrase, “thinking with things as they exist,” but his way of doing so is in many ways distinct from Oppen’s (Prepositions, 12). To draw a line that is insistently parallel, yet divergent, I’d like to note a quotation by Karl Marx that Zukofsky draws on in his long poem “A”: “The labor process ends in the creation of a thing, / Which when the process began / Already lived as the worker’s image” (61). As in the Maritian quote that intrigued Oppen, the Marx quote calls attention to a relationship between a thing and one’s self. The difference is one of construction. Oppen’s “thing” already existed and it is the relationship that has developed. Zukofsky’s “thing” via Marx, had to be constructed, but its relationship to self already existed. For Zukofsky, a poem’s form, as object, or its structure, as fugue, system of mathematics, history, or autobiography, is the impetus. At the beginning of “A” he asks, “Can / The design / Of the fugue / Be transferred / To poetry?” (38). His sense of the “music” of a poem is both about the sounds it makes and the structure of its composition. Charles Bernstein notes, “For Zukofsky sound, pitch, rhythm, and tone do not accompany meaning, neither are they arbitrary nor conventionally associated with meaning: they make meaning. When words are heard as sound, the poetic mode of perception has taken hold. The result is not free verse but an acoustically charged poetry whose patterns are not derived from manuals but newly invented” (Bernstein, Foreword, Prepositions x). In these lines from “A-11”: “Tree, and then as from the same root was talk, leaf / After leaf of your mind’s music, page, walk leaf,” it is apparent that in order to read the “relation-ships” between things in Zukofsky’s poetry, one must both hear the music of the poem, its sound sense (via consonant and vowel and rhyme) and note its arrangement, (via refrain and placement of the word leaf) as if the poem is in fact, a kind of symphony. It is also apparent that one can read perceptual clarity in this line. The tree and talk are being related by the term leaf, and are set in motion as this leaf (or as an act of leaving) as it falls away from the tree, or from the mind (as music) becoming a page (also a “leaf” of a tree), enacted. As Niedecker writes, “Zukofsky’s greatest gift lies in transmuting events into poetry. The thing as it happens. The how of it happening becomes the poem’s form” (Condensery, 298).

Additionally, Zukofsky’s homophonic translations of Catullus reveal his concern for how “music,” and via music how meaning, comes to poetry. His own description of the translation is that it “follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his [Catullus’s] Latin—tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him” (ZCSP, 244). If Oppen’s poetry is a poetry of the eye, then Zukofsky’s is a poetry of the voice mediated by the eye. In fact, in an interview with L.S. Dembo, he explains, “And because of the eye’s movement, something is imparted through the physical movement of your body and you express yourself as a voice” (Prepositions, 231). Note that the idea of labor (physical movement of the body) is also in place here.

Finally, I’d like to consider the way in which Zukofsky ends “A-23”: “music, thought, drama, story, poem / parks’ sunburst—animals, grace notes—/ z-sited path are but us” (563). Again his statement reflects a belief that is similar to Oppen’s “There are things / We live among and to see them / Is to know ourselves,” but, as before, form, or product is at issue. In these lines, Zukofsky first lists the forms our perceptions take as “voiced,” and then lists the details. The “z-sited path,” the Zukofskian eye or way of moving through the world, is also a way of knowing not just him, (an individual) but us (a human collective).

Lorine Niedecker’s poetics has been described as one of “condensation” and alternately, as one of “rumination” (DuPlessis, LNWP, 131). In other words, her poetics is one that compacts, that transforms (or makes fluid) and one that contemplates or repeats. Her way of interacting with the world perhaps most closely resembles that of the natural historian. Later collections of poems, like “North Central,” and “Harpsichord & Salt Fish” are visually and topically poems of strata. For instance, “Lake Superior” begins: “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / / In blood the minerals / of the rock” (232). She explicates the relationship between the thing and the self by removing the outer layers of sight; thus, revealing a secret equation between the two. Another example of this type of investigation can be found in “Traces of Living Things” within the lines, “Far reach / of sand / A man // bends to inspect / a shell / Himself // part coral / and mud / clam” (239). Niedecker’s writing enacts a descriptive awareness of Oppen’s phrase, “There are things we live among…,” but her interaction is also perhaps more literal because of her way of examining relationships via strata. She is peeling things back to reveal their parallels and thus the literal equality between all things at the base level of the atom. Niedecker deepens Oppen’s “things we live among” to uncover a level of basic building blocks both living and not. Jenny Penberthy says of her work, “What she wanted was an uninterfering [sic] record of ‘the most immediate projections of the real’…or ‘[t]he fact as it forms, that is not as it is cooked by the imperfect or predatory or sentimental poet” (Introduction, CW, 32). The “fact as it forms” sounds very much like Zukofsky’s “thinking with things as they exist,” but in her case, the fact forming is also an act of uncovering the “fact” of things by peeling back or zooming in (like the man in the poem, bending down to inspect) the object. Her argument in “North Central” according to Lee Upton, is that “when humans look at nature they look at themselves—along with the suggestion that we are not separable from our environment and may bring the same inspection to ourselves” (37). She goes on to cite that “[t]he man has to ‘bend;’ he must lower himself toward the earth and natural processes, but he is at essence the very creature whom he deigns to study” (37).

When Zukofsky wrote his dictum, “Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody” (Prepositions, 194), the poet he had in mind was Charles Reznikoff. Ironically, at first glance Reznikoff’s poetry seems least like the work of the other three poets I have thus mentioned. His long poem, Testimony, reads as straightforward, factual prose. His primary investigation is one of “document” or “testimony.” In fact, when he describes his work and Objectivism in conjunction, he says, “let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law. Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusion of fact: it must state the facts themselves…The conclusions of fact are for the jury and let me add, in our case, for the reader” (qtd. in Heller, 69). In his case then, a “mirage” of seeing would be an instance of imposing a meaning. Testimony is structured as a series of numbered sections. Each section presents the facts of a particular case. At times the sections are thematically arranged and labeled. For instance the sections in “social life” reveal information about relationships between friends, lovers, strangers, while “machine age” details incidents or accidents involving humans and machines. A gap falls between each presentation of fact. It is always a gap of relationship, whether or not a direct “theme” is present. As Oppen would say, “things explain each other, / Not themselves” (qtd. in Chilton, GOMP, 101). By observing and presenting (as close to the original observation as is possible) instances of particular details, or a set discrete series, or a layer of factual strata, one is forced to read Reznikoff’s document as an occasion of “thinking with the things as they exist;” one “witnesses” them. Vescia notes that, “When one regards Testimony as a whole, it becomes clear that the work assumed a hybrid form—a form that integrates prose and poetry, document and art…Reznikoff responds to these needs [of American culture]…by creating a text that mediates between the various discourses in which they were materialized: historical records, literature, testimonial narratives, letters, and documentary images” (33).

In addition to being defined as a “poetics of witness” (Heller, 60), Reznikoff has described his poetic technique as “recitative” (named after the sub-heading of Testimony) (qtd. in Heller, 66). In Heller’s interpretation this mode “stresses the evidential or communicative aspect of language over the figurative” and allows the word to “almost submerge in the subject, partaking of the thing observed” (66). I would like to add to this Zukofsky’s description of “directing them [things] along a line of melody.” “Recitative” also refers to a musical term, “A type of vocal writing, normally for a single voice, which follows the natural rhythms and accentuation of speech and its pitch contours” (“Recitative”). The dance of and between sections and themes in Testimony direct a structural line of melody, and the speech of individual sections is odd for prose because it contains line breaks. Reznikoff is also directing the breath of these statements, allowing them to come from a human speaker, the original witness.

Michael Heller has defined Objectivist poetry as “not a thought about something but thought itself” (99-100). If this is the case, then Objectivism by necessity would have to “think with things as they exist;” it wouldn’t not be able to retain a strict denotation of itself. Likewise, in what is one of the most current definitions or ways of thinking about Objectivism, Blau DuPlessis describes it as an “objectivist nexus,” rather than as an explicit movement. She explains, “‘nexus’ could be a term for a literary history written under the rubric of Foucault’s observation that the problem in the study of literature ‘is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits; it is no longer one of lasting foundations but of trans-formations that serve as new foundation’—a literary history that remains a shifting place of dialogue, debate, and reconfiguration” (DuPlessis, Introduction, Nexus, 22). Objectivism is a poetry of eyes: of perception, of looking, of witnessing the self by witnessing the world, and because the world shifts, and the self shifts, and the thing shifts, and the eyes shift, by necessity the definition shifts and the poem shifts. “The objectivist…Zukofsky concluded, is one person, not a group” (qtd. in Scroggins, 408).


Works Cited

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Cope, Stephen. Introduction. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. p. 1-18.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Introduction. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990. p. vii-xx.

— Ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

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— Chilton, Randolph. “The Place of Being in the Poetry of George Oppen.” Hatlen. p. 89-112.

— Hirsch, Edward. “’Out There is the World’: The Visual Imperative in the Poetry of George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson.” Hatlen. p. 169-180.

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— Ed. Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet. Orono: University of Maine, 1996.

— DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances.” pgs. 113-137.

— Ed. Niedecker and The Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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