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Objectivism

Objectivism

The first poet to use the term ‘objectivist’ in relation to poetry was William Carlos Williams. Objectivist poetry is closely related to the Imagist movement in poetry but goes further than Imagism. Imagism arose in the period between 1909 and 1913 and was an avante-garde movement.

A movement described as avante-garde means that it is experimental, forward thinking, or ahead of its time.

There is another movement called Objectivism associated with the political philosopher Ayn Rand. This movement is unrelated to Objectivist poetry.

Objectivist poetry: meaning

The Imagist movement and the poetry it aimed at is perhaps best summarised in the famous one-line poem by Ezra Pound titled ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

There is evidence in this poem of the economy of words, the simplicity and sincerity, and the ‘objectification’ found in the poems of the objectivists. Re-read the poem. You can almost feel the reality, the object that is being depicted. It is this kind of poetry which laid the groundwork for what would become Objectivism.

The poet Louis Zukofsky was influenced by the movement and struck up a correspondence with Ezra Pound, the prime mover in the Imagist movement. As he had done with T.S. Eliot, Pound encouraged Zukofsky to publish some of his poems. In response, Zukofsky wrote an essay about Pound’s book-length poem, Cantos.

Objectivist poetry originated in the poems of four Americans: George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi and Louis Zukofsky. There are two key words when it comes to defining Objectivist poetry. These words are: objectification and sincerity. Objectification means, in terms used by Zukofsy and illustrated by Ezra Pound, ‘musical shapes’.1 It has to do with being able to feel, or experience in some way, the reality to which the poem refers in the poem itself. The poem should have an ‘object-like, tangible form as if language were material’.2

The aims of Objectivism were summarised in 1930 in a letter from Louis Zukofsky to Harriet Monroe, who had offered him 30 pages of the journal Poetry (1931) and told him he could add whatever he wanted. Zukofsky’s reply included the line, ‘The energies of words are hard to find – I should want my issue to be entirely a matter of the energies of words’.1

The objectivists, it can be argued, are a crucial bridge between the high Modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the postmodernism of these more recent movements.2

That is to say that the early modernists like T.S. Eliot influenced the Objectivists, who wrote poetry which in many ways anticipated the postmodernists.

The Objectivists were hardly a coherent group and differed in their interpretation of the term (objectivist) which defined them. That said, they did have some things in common: a free verse format, a certain ‘particularity’ in relation to history, and they resisted the formal rules of poetry.2 The objectivists as a group used ‘the utmost precision in the use of language and the most careful adherence to the facts of perception’.2

Objectivism: examples

As the founding member of the Objectivists, it will be useful, to begin with examples of Zukofsky's own poetry before looking at the poetry of a couple of others.

Zukofsky

Zukofsky was a Russian Jew and is most famous for his poem, 'A’. This is a long poem, and we will only look at a few lines from it, 'A'-12 (1959):

I’ll tell you.

About my poetics—

music

speech

An integral

Lower limit speech

Upper limit music

There is a musicality to the flow of words, to their rhythm, and to the way the words are organised on the page.

Reznikoff

Charles Reznikoff was also Jewish. Here are a few lines from his poem ‘Depression’ (1976):

the fire had burnt through the floor:

machines and merchandise had fallen into

the great hole, this zero that had sucked away so many years

and now, seen, at last, the shop itself;

the ceiling sloped until it almost touched the floor—

a strange curve

in the lines and oblongs of his life;

drops were falling

from the naked beams of the floor above,

from the soaked plaster, still the ceiling;

drops of dirty water were falling

on his clothes and hat and on his hands;

the thoughts of business

gathered in his bosom like black water

in footsteps through a swamp;

The simplicity of George Oppen’s poetry makes a valuable contribution to objectivist poetry as a whole. He emphasised ‘clarity over formal structure and rhyme’.7 A few lines from ‘And Their Winter and Night Disguise’ (1968) will illustrate this clearly enough:

The sea and a crescent strip of beach

Show between the service station and a deserted shack

A creek drains thru the beach

Forming a ditch

There is a discarded super-market cart in the ditch

That beach is the edge of a nation

There is something like shouting along the highway

A California shouting

On the long fast highway over the California mountains

Oppen published numerous collections of poems. Throughout his works, he has maintained what has been called a ‘lean and precise’ approach.3

Oppen’s poem ‘Exodus’ provides our final example of Objectivist poetry:

Miracle of the children the brilliant

Children the word

Liquid as woodlands Children?

When she was a child I read Exodus

To my daughter 'The children of Israel. . .'

Pillar of fire

Pillar of cloud

We stared at the end

Into each other's eyes Where

She said hushed

Were the adults We dreamed to each other

Miracle of the children

The brilliant children Miracle

Of their brilliance Miracle

of

Notice the split lines; the parting of the ‘red’ sea?

Objectivism criticism

Several of the objectivist poets left poetry for politics, especially communist politics.

Communism is a political ideology and system of social organisation where everything is owned by the state.

As a group, they were not well received. In fact, they didn’t come back to any kind of prominence until much later, during the 1960s. But their influence was felt. Using day-to-day words and language forms remains a staple of modern poetry.

Objectivism - Key takeaways

  • The first poet to use the term ‘objectivist’ in relation to poetry was William Carlos Williams.
  • Objectivist poetry is closely related to the Imagist movement in poetry but goes further than Imagism. Imagism arose in the period between 1909 and 1913 and was an avante-garde movement.
  • There is another movement called Objectivism associated with the political philosopher Ayn Rand. This movement is unrelated to Objectivist poetry.
  • The objectivists as a group used ‘the utmost precision in the use of language and the most careful adherence to the facts of perception’.2
  • Several of the objectivist poets left poetry for politics, especially communist politics.

References

  1. 'The Energies of Words, Poetry Foundation
  2. 'The Objectivist Poets', Literariness site
  3. 'George Oppen', Poetry Foundation

Frequently Asked Questions about Objectivism

Objectivism is a movement in poetry which started in the early twentieth century.

Imagism.

Objectivism advocates for simplicity, clarity, and economy of language. 

Objectivist poetry originated in the poems of four Americans: George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi and Louis Zukofsky.

Objectivism is part of Modernism.

Final Objectivism Quiz

Question

Who coined the term Objectivism?

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Answer

Louis Zukofsky 

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Question

What does objectivism mean?

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Answer

It has to do with being able to feel, or experience in some way, the reality to which the poem refers in the poem itself. The poem should have an ‘object-like, tangible form as if language were material’ 

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Question

Who were the original objectivist poets?

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Answer

George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi and Louis Zukofsky. 

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Question

When did Objectivism start?

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Answer

In the 1930s

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Question

Which movement influenced Objectivism?

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Answer

Imagism

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Question

Did all of the objectivists stay in poetry?

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Answer

No, some of them moved to politics.

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Question

Which movement in poetry inspired Objectivism?

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Answer

Imagism

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Question

Which line of poetry by Ezra Pound best captures the idea of imagism?

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Answer

The 

one-line poem by Ezra Pound titled ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.

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Question

Were the Objectivist poets an organised and coherent group with a clear philosophy?

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Answer

No.

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Question

Which political ideology did some of the Objectivists join?

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Answer

Communism.

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