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The Objectivist Nexus
Essays in Cultural Poetics
By Rachel Blau Duplessis, Peter Quartermain
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Objectivist Tradition
An objective; (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use)—That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars. —Louis Zukofsky, "Sincerity and Objectification," 1931
In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness, and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech.
O western wynd, when wilt thou blow
And the small rain down shall rain
O Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
—Charles Olson, "Projective Verse," 1950
Then for nine reigns there was no literary production! None at all; because there was neither consciousness of the "objectively perfect" nor an interest in clear or vital "particulars." Nothing—neither a new object nor the stripping of an old to the light—was "aimed at." —Zukofsky, "Sincerity and Objectification," 1931
Poetic traditions make their mark less by virtue of themes or doctrinal values than through the modes of relatedness whose power and scope they demonstrate. By "modes of relatedness" I mean the ways in which the basic elements of poetic form, the signs of how intelligence and craft shape materials and focus energies, offer models for the mind's means of adjusting its dynamic properties to features of experience. In commenting on "Western Wynd," Olson at once celebrates the power of its dynamic interplay between mind and world and testifies to the enduring effects of its energies liberated out of history by their capacity to create an enduring objective field. He teaches us to read a poem as new by opening himself to the relational lines of force that embody the qualities and scope of feelings constituting a distinctive attitude toward craft, and, through craft, toward a world worth attending to. Olson's testimony, in turn, celebrates and continues the efforts of his immediate objectivist masters, whose capacity to create a tradition is measured by the distinctiveness of the energies Olson has available to bring to his critical act.
On the most general level, there are probably two basic modes of lyric relatedness—symbolist and objectivist styles. The former stress in various ways the mind's powers to interpret concrete events or to use the event to inquire into the nature or grounds of interpretive energies, while objectivist strategies aim to "compose" a distinct perceptual field which brings "the rays from an object to a focus." Where objectivist poets seek an artifact presenting the modality of things seen or felt as immediate structure of relations, symbolist poets typically strive to see beyond the seeing by rendering in their work a process of meditating upon what the immediate relations in perception reflect. Louis Zukofsky provides one index of this distinction by defining two properties as basic to objectivist poetry:
In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of ... completed sound or structure, melody or form. 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. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness....
This rested totality might be called objectification—the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.... [Its] character may be simply described as the arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity—in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure. ("Sincerity and Objectification" 273–74)
Where a symbolist poet would concentrate on relations that dramatize meanings beyond the event, the poet in "Western Wynd" wants to make relational forces intensify "the detail, not mirage, of seeing." To do so articulates a field where one can think with things as they exist. The primary relations here are denotative (in an imaginary world) rather than connotative or metaphoric. In order to keep the denotations intensely resonant, the poet marks his or her field—perceptually and musically—by a dense interplay of direct perceptions standing toward one another as planes in an abstract painting. The poetry is in the parallels between forms of desire and energy held together in a perceptual space. Wind and desire are less metaphors for feeling than its direct equivalent in physical fact, so that nature and person's nature are adequate vehicles for one another, echoed again in the overt energies of the writing where the desire for concepts is constrained and directed into the plosive play of alliterating syllables and of strong vowels modulating the kinetic energies of speech from back to front of the mouth. Desire here takes form, not by being mastered, but by achieving full expression in each of the overlapping energy fields—perception, memory, projected future, and act of writing. Desire becomes a condition of energy at rest in itself, and the theological analogues in Zukofsky's poetic statement find here a perfectly adequate secular ground. The literal will suffice, provided one has learned the craft of the letter.
This model of poetic art needs to be continually reinvented because as soon as perceptual and compositional energies grow slack or seem inadequate to the mind's needs, writers seek to supplement concrete detail by symbolic generalization. Consider now the state of wind and syllable during the nine reigns when for Zukofsky there was no literary production. Here are Shelley—the beginning and ending of "Ode to the West Wind"—and Coleridge—from "Dejection: An Ode," the seventh stanza:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes ...
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality's dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! ...
What tell'st thou now about?
'Tis of the rushing of a host in rout.
These are very different poetic acts of mind. They are not the only form of romanticism, nor do they warrant careless modernist charges of egotism and vagueness. Shelley and Coleridge introduce new sources of perceptual and philosophical energy into English poetry. But in making the act of the interpretive mind, rather than the measuring mind, the poem's central focus, they also make central and inescapable some very serious problems. In their pursuit of dialectical symbolic structures capable of reconciling discordant elements into satisfying conceptual wholes, these poems simultaneously produce too little and too much meaning. On the one hand, the mind enacts only a mirage of seeing because it thinks about, rather than with, things. The wind has little objective status: what details the poet attends to are significant only as tenors for stories or spiritual metaphors like "pestilence-stricken multitudes." And, on the other hand, as the mind moves over, rather than among, the particulars of its world, it leaves itself no place to rest that is not dependent upon the "trumpet" of a prophetic ego whose metaphors are its only authority. The pursuit of abstract synthesis through metaphoric processes is at best tenuous; the mind is always threatened by the possible return of self-consciousness insisting on the merely conceptual and fictive grounds for its orders and driving the self back into a despondent and passive relation to the natural energies its interpretations displace. Unseen presences, nature become metaphoric words, and story-telling winds all too easily become again only the deadness of seen presences that resist only mirages in reality's dark dream. Moreover, by so insistently dramatizing the efforts of mind locked into a single lyric space, the poem's craft is subject to the same alternations as its desire for meaning. At one extreme, lyric exaltation becomes the melodramatic tone poem of Shelley's opening trumpets, while at the other the verse slackens into prosaic analogues whining the poet's passive surrender to external forces. Composition verges on losing its ground in composure, and poetic modes of relatedness come dangerously close to echoing the frenetic dualities of the culture they try to resist.
Shelley and Coleridge are great poets, but the modes of relatedness on which their greatness is based may be no longer accessible, or desirable, for our culture. Threatened by Enlightenment intellectual and social forces calling into question all they treasured, these poets' only line of defense was to make the sublime serve metaphysical purposes. The sublime enabled them to accept rationalist critiques of the limits of empirical propositions while creating a space in which the empirically unreal could remain imaginatively real, albeit indefinable except through the vehicle of symbolic imaginative dialectics. And by increasing the distance between the empirical and a realm of imaginative values, these poets purchased a Miltonic exaltation and tragic intensity no Objectivist poet but Pound can rival. But the price of this nobility—in the psychic torments it creates no less than in the poetic postures it encourages—may be too high. And even this question may be irrelevant because the sublime too is a faith that may have died. The symbolist vision may not be one we can make new without the various ironies of Wallace Stevens and of John Ashbery.
I do believe that consciousness exists and that it is consciousness of something, and that is a fairly complete but not very detailed theology. —Oppen in Dembo, "The 'Objectivist' Poet" 1969
The poet wonders why so many today have raised up the word "myth," finding the lack of so-called "myths" in our time a crisis the poet must overcome or die from, as it were, having become too radioactive, when instead a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. —Zukofsky, "Poetry/For My Son When He Can Read," 1946, Prepositions
For a man's problem, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature.... [He must work] in that area where nature has given him size, projective size. —Olson, "Projective Verse," 1950, Collected Prose
The Objectivists repeatedly insist that theirs is not a doctrinal movement: there are objectivists but no Objectivism because the poets share only a sense of the necessity and value of sincerity and a concern for the attention to craft, for the poem as machine made of words or the poem as thing in which ideas inhere. It is possible, nonetheless, to sketch a general definition of their poetic, that is, of the discursive ways that they articulate forms of relatedness explored in poetry and speculate about the psychological and cultural significance of these forms.
As is the case with most abstract statements about poetics, objectivist theory is clearest and most widely shared in its accounts of the evils it opposes. Here Eliot and Pound are the significant figures. They developed the basic catalogue of the evils attendant upon the pursuit of the sublime as means of smuggling religion past Enlightenment customs. With the sublime, Dante's precise vision and disciplined dream give way to poetry that purchases transcendence by muddying perception with generalizations and thus cannot rest with objects until they have been transformed by metaphor into explicit analogues for psychic life. In pursuit of this "semi-allegorical gleam" ("Sincerity and Objectification" 273), Zukofsky tells us, "Poets put on singing robes to lose themselves in the universal" (Prepositions 147). Because of this quest for transcending specific objective conditions, poets lose any sense of firm ground on which the mind can rest and poetry achieve resolution. There is left only the triumph of will singing its own incoherence, the louder for every self-conscious reminder of the fictive status of its half-believed mythic substitutes for religion. And this uneasy will creates the range of evils Eliot would find both in his culture and in the poetry unable to escape cultural pressures—dissociated sensibility with its vacillations between abstract rumination and uncontrolled flights of feeling, and sentimental faith in progress and technology which might compensate for poets' discomfort with their craft and with their confused transcendental beliefs. Only the dream of progress could justify the bad faith of poets desperately convincing themselves that their devices were compatible with truths and that there were authorities to which they might submit the uneasy self-consciousness that dogged their efforts to dramatize sensibilities on a scale large enough to give content to the sublime.
Objectivism, then, is first of all a discipline of the poetic will and a critique of prophetic roles assumed by nineteenth-century poets. Again Zukofsky is a precise spokesman: "no predatory manifestation," no imposition of a will not completely responsible in the poem for its acts—"Yet a manifestation making the mind more temperate because the poem exists and has perhaps recorded both state and individual" (Prepositions 16). Objectivism, then, is not merely attention to objects: it entails the construction of aesthetic objects in such a way that the conditions of desire are themselves dramatized and forced to take responsibility for their productions. This demand for lucidity, however, creates serious constraints on the poet. As the imagist phase of Objectivism makes clear, the impulse to avoid romantic tendencies to let reason pander the will can tempt poets to discipline the will virtually out of existence. Insisting on objectivity threatens reducing poetic craft to the merely descriptive function of making perceptual images—thus trapping poetic energies within scientistic reductions of the psyche which, in turn, encourage other poets (like Yeats, Eliot, and Crane) to court the comfortable evasions of the sublime. And fear of prophetic role-playing can create the tension between poetic discourse and political commitment that silenced Reznikoff and Oppen in the thirties and forties. Similar distrust of ideas in poetry leads to the enervated satiric evasiveness of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," where self-consciousness once again collapses into self-pity. The central task, the imperative for Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, and Olson, must be to use imagist techniques in such a way as to escape the limits of description and satire. As George Oppen put it, Objectivist poets "attempt to construct meaning, to construct a method of thought from the imagist technique of poetry—from the imagist intensity of vision" (Oppen in Dembo, "The 'Objectivist' Poet" 161). Construction, not description, would be the basic source of models of relatedness, and these would find their roots in the collagist techniques whose implications for poetry have been described by David Antin.
The basic principle of collage construction in poetry was once described by Ron Loewinsohn as "the layering of frames of reference." This layering can consist of elaborate cultural units, as in the Cantos, in the organization of discursive thought units characteristic of Olson, or in the delicate alignment of perceptual and syntactic units we have observed in objectivist nature poetry. In all these cases, collage allows a direct series of discrete objective notations fused into complex dimensions of interrelatedness not dependent on the interpretive will for dialectical synthesis. Consequently, poets need not submit to principles of dramatic order that encourage the pursuit of intensity by theatricalizing the poet's self-conscious stances in quest of sublimity. We have terms for meeting the challenges Eliot and Pound defined as basic to modernism because we have a framework for exploring fresh ways of articulating emotions and acts of mind. Thus it becomes possible to justify Oppen's equation of a phenomenological poetics with theology and Zukofsky's attacks on the epic sensibility. Poets can emphasize the significance of emotions intrinsic to complex acts of perception, rather than to the dramatic process of attributing meanings to perception by means of metaphors and symbols. "The accomplished fact," as Zukofsky put it, might carry "the maximum of the real." And, most important, by defining "the maximum of the real" in terms of perception in discrete yet intensive relations dependent upon compositional acts, the poets reinterpret the nobility of acts of mind. Nobility inheres not in transcending facts but in constructing their relations into immediately satisfying wholes. Because the real is "accomplished," not simply given in perception, acts of disclosure and formal composition demand all those energies which romantic poets often felt could only be expressed either in apocalyptic vision or in dramatizing one's awareness of the dilemmas inherent in pursuing that vision. The real can be sufficient.
Excerpted from The Objectivist Nexus by Rachel Blau Duplessis, Peter Quartermain. Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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