Navigation – Plan du site
Recensions

Xavier Kalck, “We said Objectivist : Lire les poètes Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky

Paris : Sorbonne Université Presses, 2019. 296 p. ISBN : 979-1-02310-600-8. 21 €
Erik MARTINY
Référence(s) :

Xavier Kalck, “We said Objectivist : Lire les poètes Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky. Paris : Sorbonne Université Presses, 2019. 296 p. ISBN : 979-1-02310-600-8. 21 €

Texte intégral

1Xavier Kalck’s latest book focuses on the five main Objectivist poets. While some accounts of the movement centre for the sake of convenience on the four New York-based writers, Kalck includes Lorine Niedecker in his account, extending the movement’s geographical borders to include rural Wisconsin. “we said”

2In his introduction to the book, Kalck mentions the fact that Zukofsky considered Basil Bunting an Objectivist: it’s a pity this claim isn’t substantiated or dwelled upon at greater length. This cavil set aside, the book offers a highly satisfying introduction to Objectivist poetry. Although it does not attempt to offer a radically new perspective on the movement, the book provides a view of the movement that goes beyond the introductory considerations of a primer: it’s a critical work that can be savoured by poetry student and specialist alike.

3Dwelling briefly on the movement’s modernist forefathers, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, the book evokes Objectivism’s slippery name. Like most early twentieth-century movements, Objectivism as a term was mostly applied by critics after the fact. The term is Zukofsky’s, but each of the five main objectivists adapted it to their own practice, rendering the term rather baggy, not to say almost meaningless.

4Kalck points out that from the movement’s inception in the early 1930s to the 1960s, the Objectivist poets elaborated their poems in virtual anonymity. When I first came into contact with modern poetry the late 1980s, they still hadn’t been integrated into the literary canon: the capacious Norton Anthology I acquired in 1989 didn’t contain a single Objectivist poem by any of the five poets. Only the loosely affiliated Charles Olson was featured.

5Olson’s definition of what he renamed Objectism in his essay “Projective Verse” is of some merit. His narrowing down of the movement’s objectives to “the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego” is useful, though partially misleading. Michael Heller suggests that the Objectivists sought to do away with mythology (even though Reznikoff’s dependence on Judeo-Christian mythology tends to belie that). Heller claimed more convincingly that the Objectivists rejected unchanging symbolism in favour of images that translate a sense of history and geography. In his view, Objectivists were wary of literature’s tendency to aestheticize language.

6A dialogue between the text as object and the other objects of the modern world is ultimately given as the movement’s main focus of attention. As Kalck shows, its use of prosaic language is intermittently allied to a longing for linguistic pluralism. Like most other modernist movements, the Objectivists also sought to treat “non-poetic” subject matter.

7In his first chapter devoted to Reznikoff, Kalck points out that the poet is usually interpreted according to the two antithetical poles of the secular and the sacred. Divided between his Objectivist allegiance and his Hebrew culture, Reznikoff’s poetry strains in two contradictory directions. In this light, Kalck and others read Reznikoff as an agent of reconciliation between tradition and modernity. His poetry is also viewed as a form of compensation for the loss of religiosity and tradition.

8Reznikoff’s Jewish heritage and his “diasporic consciousness” are dwelt upon at some length in the book. His rhyme-free translation of Hallévi’s “Between East and West” is examined in some detail: Kalck suggests that Reznikoff’s recourse to paronomasia and assonance implies that Reznikoff experienced Hebrew as a nurturing fantasy language. Kalck explores Reznikoff’s “linguistic hybridity” and his double cultural allegiance. In Kalck’s reading, Reznikoff’s eroticised mingling of Hebrew (pictured as patriarchal) and Yiddish (imaged as a maternal tongue) also proclaims his dedication to hybridized diction and the notion of a multipolar self.

9Kalck also dwells on what he calls Reznikoff’s “documentary poetry”. Constructed out of Holocaust testimonies, his collagist found poems are probably what brings him closest to the visual arts and the notion of poetry as object. His erasure of the poet’s subjectivity acts as a kind of theoretical blueprint for Objectivism’s programmatic aims. Kalck is at pains to point out the risks run by Reznikoff’s rearranged found poems: the fact that Reznikoff changed the narration of the original documents to the third person is viewed as problematic in that it tends to aestheticize history and decontextualize it by erasing all trace of the original subjectivity that guaranteed the authenticity of the documents recorded during the Nuremberg trials.

10In his chapter on Zukofsky, Kalck argues that the poet’s magnum opus “A” has been misconstrued as a purely Marxist poem. He observes that the radicalness of its form has led critics to feel that it also harbours political radicalism. Kalck’s account of Zukofsky’s poetic origins underline the serial poem’s collagist indebtedness to Ezra Pound, even though Zukofsky steered clear of the judgemental qualities of Pound’s last cantos. Zukofsky was also impressed by Wallace Stevens’s ability to blend philosophy and lyricism. In Kalck’s view, Zukofsky remained wary of including too much discursive material in his poems. Zukofsky’s first major poem “Poem beginning ‘The’” is read as a parodic entry into the literary world as well as a narrative of origins.

11Kalck interestingly underlines the importance of water imagery in Zukofsky and other Objectivist and Modernist writers as a signifier of energy, poetic movement and transmission. Rakosi, for instance, emphasized the notion of experience as “that never-ending flux” which is difficult to reconcile with the writing of a poem.

12The chapter on Rakosi offers in-depth analysis of his poem “The Romantic Eye”, a poem which has defined Rakosi’s vision as “strabismal” in its efforts to depersonalize Rakosi’s intentionality with regard to objects. Kalck quotes one of Rakosi’s edicts: “Not to aggrandize perception, not to inflate the lyric impulse, that seems to go counter to one’s whole romantic thrust, the thrust of poetry itself, yet that is integrity”. Although Rakosi’s “integrity” is close to Zukofsky’s definition of Objectivism, Kalck argues that Rakosi’s aesthetic is actually closer to George Oppen’s in its problematizing of ontology. Both Oppen and Rakosi drew parallels between the search for the nature of being and formal experimentation.

13Kalck underscores Rakosi’s characteristic tendency to undo his own work and his sometimes self-cancelling reliance on dyadic oppositional structures. There is also some consideration of the epigrammatic nature of Rakosi’s poetic that will interest students of Modernism’s engagement with philosophy. Kalck argues that unlike William Carlos Williams, Rakosi offers less a microscopically condensed version of the world than a turning of the microscope on himself as well as on the world. Without neglecting Rakosi’s use of humour and irony, Kalck interprets “The Vow” as Rakosi’s ars poetica: “Matter, / with this look / I wed thee / and become / thy very / attribute.”

14The fourth chapter in the book is devoted to the lesser-known Lorine Niedecker, presented here as a kind of latter-day anonymous Emily Dickinson. Although Niedecker tends to be depicted as a poet who focuses on materiality and objects, Kalck underlines the importance of the void and obliteration in her work. In this dynamic of condensation and effacement she shares something with Rakosi’s self-defeating tactics. The poems that Kalck chooses to examine tend to suggest that Niedecker is first and foremost a nature poet intent on exploring the interconnectedness of man and nature. As her poem, “The Rock” puts it, “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals of the rock.”

15The book closes on a consideration of the key poems of George Oppen. Kalck points out that Oppen has been viewed in an array of different guises as an avant-garde late Modernist, as a poet of phenomenology, as a Marxist, a poet obsessed by ontological questions, a poet of the mundane, a war poet, a Jewish poet, a hermetic poet and a neo-formalist.

16Focusing on a single poem that Oppen dedicated to Zukofsky in 1975, Kalck sets out to defeat the view of Oppen as a hermetic poet with a mostly numinous agenda. Adopting a stylistic approach, Kalck explores Oppen’s syntactic twists and turns as well as his intertextual celebration of writers like Zukofsky and Thomas Hardy.

17Taken as a whole, this critical panorama offers the reader an engaging account of a multivalent, highly complex movement. The separate treatment of each writer provides clarity in what might otherwise be an overly confusing account of a heterogeneous literary grouping of widely-diverging poets.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Erik MARTINY, « Xavier Kalck, “We said Objectivist : Lire les poètes Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky », E-rea [En ligne], 17.2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 14 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/9264

Haut de page

Auteur

Erik MARTINY

Lycée Henri IV, Paris

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals