Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


"We Said Objectivist"

Lire les poètes

Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky


Xavier Kalck


 Paris : Sorbonne Université Presses, 2019

Broché. 296 p. ISBN 979-1023106008. 21€


Reviewed by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec

Université Caen Normandie




Xavier Kalck chose to divide the material of his critical study of objectivist poetry into five chapters, one for each poet presented, preceded by an introduction containing five biographical portraits, and a conclusion called “Ruins of the particular / Ruines du particulier.’’ Reading his French prose is a pleasure, he writes very fluidly with fully exercized wit. His choice to keep biographical information separate from the critical chapters devoted to each poet is interesting: the reader is given a teaser about the poets before the real investigative poetic work begins. It makes for inviting and engaging reading, although those less familiar with one poet or the other may find themselves flipping back and forth, turning back to the introduction when a biographical question arises.

The exploration of the poetry of Charles Reznikoff in the first chapter begins by showing that Gershom Scholem found the secular use of the Hebrew language to be a problem, that would lead to its profanation [42]. Much is made of Bloom’s criticism of Reznikoff in Figures of Capable Imagination (1976) as discussed by Norman Finkelstein in Not One of Them in Place : Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity (2001). Bloom apparently faulted Reznikoff for neglecting the prophetic style of Romantic poetry [42-44]. But Reznikoff hardly rejected prophecy itself: his poetry is totally imbricated in the use of liturgical terms, as Kalck amply demonstrates. That is quite delicate, because, as the American historian, Yosef Yerushalmi explained, Judaism had let the judgement of history replace the sacred text for the first time, such that the secularisation of Jewish history happened concurrently to the historicisation of Judaism [49]. Kalck demonstrates that Reznikoff’s translation of a poem by Jehuda Halevi, where the translator omits the injunction to leave Spain for Israel, replacing the ruins of the Temple by “the dust of Zion,’’ suggests that he put aside Halevi’s Zionism and nationalist demands [51]. Kalck proposed that he also added the repetition of the word “light’’ in such a way that the words of Genesis I.3-4 find echo [52]. Even if Reznikoff employs Hebrew in his poetry more than Yiddish, Kalck maintains it would be wrong to say that he continues “the traditional division between Yiddish as vernacular language and Hebrew as sacred language“ [my translation : 53]. Reznikoff may have understood Scholem’s worry about the forgotten religious content of the Hebrew language, but he could not stop questioning those lost memories [55].

In his poem “Jerusalem the Golden’’ Reznikoff uses a chronological impression, beginning with “The Lion of Judah’’ and concluding with “Karl Marx’’. The poem evokes David’s shield and Spinoza along the way, and in the final section, “proclaims the end of injustice on Earth’’ [Kalck : 62, my translation]. The prophetic tone associated with Marxism here is not to be separated from the persistence of religious messianism [63]. In fact the notion of immanence became popular during this period, but the question remains, was Reznikoff a mystic of the ordinary or an inventor of a specific Jewish relationship to language among the Objectivists? [67]. Reznikoff can still be compared to Jerome Rothenberg, who appropriated the tradition of Jewish poetry for himself, by editing A Big Jewish Book : Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present (1978), or to John Ashbery, who in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) did not take the French Revolution seriously [70-71]. Kalck suggests that Reznikoff’s collection Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941) gives a key to interpreting the whole of his poetry: it is a collection that blends poems that rewrite the Bible, bear judicial witness, and portray modern city life, but although the parts intertwine fluidly one with another there are questions about the distribution within them [75]. Much of section four depends on historical documents. Yet a problem remains, Reznikoff’s tendency to consider that the term “objectivist’’ meant that his words operated as if he were “a witness in court’’ [80]. No doubt one should also attribute this position to Reznikoff’s law studies, as the poem Testimony stated: “I, too, could scrutinize every word and phrase / as if in a document or the opinion of a judge…’’ [qtd. Kalck : 83]. Nonetheless, Reznikoff postponed the actual judgment [84]. Readers uninitiated to Reznikoff’s poetry may find this chapter to be particularly hermetic, but the discussion is an essential one, and should prevent new readers from taking a wrong path when first discovering the poems.

The second chapter, about Louis Zukofsky, begins with a reminder of William Carlos Williams’s assumptions about his communism and the description of “A’’-8 as “an epic of the class struggle’’ (probably James Laughlin’s phrase, suggests Kalck [90]). Zukofsky’s poetry has been too rapidly characterized as being as radical in form as it was in radical content. Yet, this political vision of his work led him to become the perfect counter to fascist Pound, and a new leading figure for modernist expression in American poetry [90]. However, Marjorie Perloff’s article “Playing the Numbers : The French Reception of Louis Zukofsky’’ (Verse 2006) shed light on the way that proposition actually backfired [91]. Nonetheless, Zukofsky along with Gertrude Stein became primary influences for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the 1970s and 1980s [92]. Kalck goes to some trouble to unlock certain referentialities of “A’’ (and sends the reader to Z-site as well) noting in passing Zukofsky’s interest in Apollinaire (about whom he wrote an essay), and some of the various dozens of horses evoked in the poem, from Pegasus to Picasso [100]. Zukofsky acknowledged a totalizing dimension to his poetry, even stating: “My poetics has old ochre in it / On walls of a civilized cave’’ (qtd Kalck : 101]. This goes hand-in-hand with Zukofsky’s notion that all texts are as Kalck says, “dictionaries in the process of becoming’’ [103] (my translation). To fully decipher Zukofsky, one must take sound and syntax into account [104]. Zukofsky’s poems flow into each other with a continuity from “The’’ to “A’’, and the format of the long poem enabled a rich exploration of the concept of genesis, where the realities of what words have seen come to life [105-106]. Zukofsky wrote to his son:

Poetry if anything has a sense for everything. Meaning: without poetry life would have little present. To write poems is not enough if they do not keep the life that has gone. To write poems may never seem enough when they speak of a life that has gone. […] [qtd. Kalck : 111]

“A’’ succeeded in that project of conservation through a contradiction, as Kalck explained it, “giving an increasing place to the past in a poem whose present lasts forever, in both senses of the term: it stretches to excess and it pretends it is immortal’’ [my translation, 112].

It would seem that like Reznikoff, Zukofsky questioned the status of Hebrew, and he also rewrote scriptures. Zukofsky, whose mother-tongue was Yiddish, wrote in “A’’: "We had a Speech, our children have / evolved a jargon’’ [qtd Kalck : 119]. And so, as Kalck notes, forgetting and learning by heart are linked for him [120] such that: “In Hebrew ‘In the beginning’ / Means literally from the head?’’ [qtd Kalck : 123]. Given these premises, Zukofsky’s aim was to revitalize the English language [132]. Zukofsky’s Unicorn Press “Poetry Post Card’’ (1970, “AN ERA / ANY TIME / OF YEAR’’ [qtd. Kalck : 133]) became the subtitle of “A’’-22, and Kalck discusses interpretations of this. Here the reviewer would like to insert a humble suggestion, that perhaps the Equal Rights Amendment was also somehow behind ERA in Zukofsky’s text, especially since the “ERA’’ was a key discussion going on at the time, making newspaper headlines across the US: NOW formed a committee to launch a campaign for the ERA in 1968, and the Equal Rights Amendment was adapted by the House of Representatives and the Senate in March 1972, and was sent to the States for ratification as the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Chapter three turns to Charles Rakosi, whose concern for the ills of society, in his time the impact of the Great Depression, led him to be a social worker. One of the interests of Rakosi lies in his taking on simultaneously the role of reader and author [142-143]. Kalck’s brilliant analysis [145-6] of the poem “The Romantic Eye’’ makes much of the “C.R.’’ of the author’s initials being embedded in the poem, as well as the Greek letters that also suggest the crosses in the poem (further: the greek letter ch when used in the word Christian can be abbreviated by x).

On the eight thousandth magnification

The chromosome of the chironomus fly

Stirred its microscopic nebulae into

The figure of a Greek Orthodox cross. [Rakosi, qtd. Kalck : 145]

The visual perception of Rakosi has been classified as “religious’’ by Michael Heller, though Kalck explains that he would be a poet of post-biblical perception [149]. Rakosi wrote: “Not to aggrandize perception, not to inflate the lyric impulse … that is integrity’’ [qtd. 149]. Yet Rakosi was interested in Maritain’s idea of an “‘intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human self which is a form of divination’’’ [from Ex Cranium, Night, 1975, qtd. Kalck : 156]. Just as Flaubert once remarked that for something to become interesting you simply needed to look at it for an extended period, Rakosi once said: “If you could get down to its essence, even a turnip would be poetic’’ [qtd. 169]. Rakosi’s playfulness and humor are aptly demonstrated by Kalck’s careful analyses of a larger number of poems than in previous chapters. “Clarinet’’ is particularly well developed [181-184]. It seems like new critical ground has been broken. Perhaps it is the first time that Rakosi has been explained to French readers since no other French critics are mentioned in this section.

The reclusive poet, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), did not begin publishing poetry until New Goose (1946), in part because she was involved in a secret affair with Louis Zukofsky [22-23]. Neidecker’s invocation of nothingness owes to her positioning with Zukofsky, and was expressed in many of her poems, as Kalck’s analyses of poems from For Paul and Other Poems demonstrates [188-191]. Although she would have been exposed to Cid Corman’s translation of French poetry in Origin (1966], concerning her own mineral allusions, the influence comes less from Guillevic than from Stevens [191-192]. Among her great admirers are Cid Corman and Robert Creeley [203]. She saw poetry, as Pound expressed in ABC of Reading (1934), as the need to “concentrate / compress / condense’’ and Kalck integrates competent analysis of her poem “Poet’s work’’ [204-205] to demonstrate that compression, with the poem ending on her neologism “condensery’’ which cleverly included by its rhyming possibilities, the factories of heavy industry: foundry, as well as the agricultural granary or dairy. There could even be the relationship of women to the boundaries (before they were called glass ceilings) of male-dominated work-places. Yet her rewriting of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium’’ in her poem “Paean to Place’’ (see Kalck’s commentary : 216-218) suggests she was not afraid to transcend such boundaries.

George Oppen was understood first as an avant-garde late modernist poet, then a phenomenological poet, a Marxist and then communist poet, and Kalck’s entertaining list [223-224] continues… no doubt his book, George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace (2017) carries those classifications into even finer detail. The Oppen chapter opens with an analysis of “The Lighthouses’’ [224-236], reminding us of the proximity with Hardy’s poem “In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’’’ from 1915, though Oppen’s poem more likely evokes the Yom Kippur war of October 6, 1973 [229]. The poem addresses Zukofsky, and Kalck makes the case that we should read it in light of Oppen’s complete works [230]. Reznikoff also found his way into the poem [232-233]. Kalck traces the biblical quotations used, providing the French from the Louis Segond translation—and that is something that might be questioned: why the Louis Segond translation? Why not rather the TOB (Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible, the current standard translation used by most Protestants and even many Catholics)? Of course one does not question the English language translation of the Bible, the 1611 King James Version which has been a literary standard for four centuries. But does the Louis Segond translation have that same cachet (and universality)? If Oppen himself could choose, which translation would he prefer?

The Objectivist poets are not often read, or are read, but misinterpreted, suggests Kalck in the concluding chapter [263]. It is all about the object, of course: what is its place and role in the text? Is the text itself the object? To illustrate the problem, Kalck referred to the recent Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson (2016), which evokes the poem by William Carlos Williams [264]. What is certain when the reader arrives at the end of this book is that Xavier Kalck has a very detailed knowledge of contemporary poetry, and masters its theoretical, philosophical and religious contours. He has made a synthesis of a wide variety of poetry critics in English, possibly making some of them available to the French reader for the first time. This book also has the merit of introducing French readers who may not be familiar with the key critics of contemporary American poetry in France to some of their critical figureheads—Xavier Kalck generously mentions them: Andrew Eastman [106], Emmanuel Hocquard [81], Laurent Jenny [214], Abigail Lang [25, 103, 108], Marie-Christine Lemardeley [25], Fiona McMahon [43], Henri Meschonnic [124], Clément Oudart [93], Jean Paulhan [44], René Taupin [37], and Juliette Utard [114], among others.

As a reader of Geoffrey Hill, I can only regret that he was never mentioned in Kalck’s volume even though one might occasionally find some of his work interacting with the poets studied: “Poetry aspires / to the condition of Hebrew’’ wrote Hill in Speech! Speech! (2000), in a quotation that Reznikoff, Rothenberg and Zukofsky might have enjoyed or guffawed at—and who knows if Hill’s Daybooks (2007-2012) were not on some level a response to Rakosi’s Day Book (1983)? Michael Heller, who is abundantly mentioned by Kalck, did bring one of Hill’s essay’s from The Lords of Limit (1984) into his chapter: “Objectivists in the Thirties: Utopocalyptic Moments’’ in The Objectivist Nexus : Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999, page 158).


Cercles © 2020

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.