Carl Rakosi at the Kelly Writers House

We celebrated the 99th birthday of Carl Rakosi on October 30, 2002

"Carl Rakosi's determined honesty and reductive rhetoric with its ungainsayable plainsong have made a measure for all conduct of words in the attempt to find an active poetry in the fact of lives without power."--Robert Creeley

About the event

A conversation with Carl Rakosi on the occasion of his 99th birthday via live audiocast at 7 PM (eastern time), Wednesday, October 30, 2002.

A recording was made of this program and it is available as a sound file (in Real format) here. Tom Devaney's introduction to the program can be found at the bottom of this page. Excerpts from the program allow you to listen to Rakosi introduce and read his poems (below) and comment on his status as a communist poet in the 1930s. For downloadable MP3 recordings, click on the title of the poem below. For instant streaming audio, click on the sideways triangle.

  1. Love America, Uncle Sam Needs You
  2. Go Preach Christ
  3. The Country Singer
  4. Captain Paterson
  5. from Three Cheers for the Star Spangled Banner: A Silent Movie
  6. How to be with a Rock
  7. Oh Sestina
  8. from The Old Poet's Tale
  9. To a Collie Pup
  10. In What Sense I am I (text)

*These recordings of Carl Rakosi's poems have been made available as part of the PennSound project.

With great pleasure we invited friends and colleagues to join us with poet Carl Rakosi, who joined us from his home in San Francisco. The program was audiocast live worldwide, introduced by poet Tom Devaney and co-moderated by Al Filreis.

Many participated by coming to the Kelly Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk in Philadelphia, where we conversed directly with Rakosi by an amplified telephone connection. That conversation was audiocast, and thus some 40 others joined us, wherever they were, by making a simple connection to the web.

As distinct from Stevens, where prosody is focused in accentual pulse, Rakosi projects the line as full unit of measure, the compressions or extensions of which aim to trace the interplays of phenomena and reflective thought. Composition in this mode, in that it grounds itself, in Zukofsky's famous phrase, in a "thinking with things as they exist," operates--and must--outside any paradigmatic metrical structure.--Kent Johnson

Biography

Carl Rakosi began publishing his poetry in the 1920s. His work was published by Ezra Pound and others in magazines associated with a group of writers now known as the "Objectivists." His Collected Poems was published in 1986 by the National Poetry Foundation. His Poems 1923-1941 (published by Sun and Moon Press) won the PEN Center USA West award in 1996. Carl Rakosi lives in San Francisco.

Carl Rakosi: "My big struggle always was trying to find an occupation at which I could make a living and still have time and energy to write. I tried many different things. It seemed to me I changed almost every year. Nothing seemed to work. Finally about 1939, 1940, in desperation I decided to try to get a Guggenheim. Hell, I thought, maybe that would break this thing. If not, I'll at least have a year in which to write. Well, the history of that is a bit comical. I wrote the three people who I thought would think enough of my work to recommend me, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore, and sent them my little chapbook, Selected Poems. Williams wrote back saying that he'd be very glad to write something but it would be a mistake if he did it, I'd never get a Guggenheim then. Stevens made some acute observations on my work, gave me very high marks on parts of it, but he wouldn't write. There's no sense to it, he said. The Guggenheim people are just as capable as I am of judging your work, they don't need me. Marianne Moore gave a very sensible answer too, but wouldn't write for a different reason. I had the mistaken idea that a candidate had to submit a project of some kind, so I cooked one up. My proposal was to write on the psychology of the poet, using insight from my experience in psychotherapy. She thought that was a very unpromising subject. So I never applied. It didn't seem possible to make a living, have a family too, which I was starting to have, and to write. When I tried it, it kept me up all night. You can do that two or three nights, but you can't do it as a regular thing. So I stopped. For twenty-seven years."

Rakosi on the 1930s: "A new American rose had sprung up, blooming where you'd least expect it, in the agony of the Great Depression when it seemed like half the country was out of work and ready to explode, the unemployed organizing and storming the relief offices, when true-blue Americans who had never thought much beyond the morning news and football became radicalized. The stakes had become too high to do nothing. Capitalism had obviously failed. Change the damned system! An enormous energy shot through the country. The writers and artists, most of whom were living in New York then, were steeped in it and very quickly began to express it. The thing that was new in our situation was the confrontation with reality, what was happening all around us to the American people. There was no way to duck it. Faced with that, we werenít going to play intellectual games or hold forth from an ivory tower and we couldnít go to Europe or the past for models. We had to deal with the present and the present was American and idiomatic. The action took place in the WPA, which at one time seemed to be providing work for every writer and artist in America, me excepted -- I already had a job in social work -- but I was in that current anyhow. Everything looked possible then. The task of the Federal Writers Project and the other projects was to discover and portray America. And that was fun. And a great public mission. It was done most eloquently, I think, by the photographers ... Dorothea Lang, Imogene Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White in those bleak, stark photographs done for the Farm Security Administration, my first encounter with great photography, photography that had an American face, that had power and depth. In the theater Clifford Odets and Marc Blitzstein and Elmer Rice were electrifying young audiences with the power and passion of their new plays. And the writers were working away with a great eye for detail on those masterpieces of cooperative writing, the guide books for the then forty-eight states. And the painters were there with wit and satire and poignancy -- Reginald Marsh, Adolf Dehn, the Soyers. There was an unmatchable buoyancy and exhilaration in the air and in us, welling up, I think, from the fact that society had recognized our work and had given us a place and a function and was paying us for it and was acting as if we belonged, and for the first time we felt that we did. I don't know whether this had ever occurred before; certainly not since. And the fact is that the writers and artists responded with complete seriousness and clarity and in particular a love for and interest in reality."

Thomas Devaney's introduction

It is a pleasure and an honor to welcome you here tonight, (both those joining us via the web and those gathered here in person), in celebration of Carl Rakosi:

To explain my interest in Carl Rakosi's life and work, it would be enough to say that Mr. Rakosi's life has encompassed the history of 20th century America. It would be enough that throughout the Great Depression he was involved with the Communist party, writing for The Nation and The New Masses and other progressive journals. It would be enough that he was published by and corresponded with Ezra Pound and was good friends with, among others, the young Louis Zukofsky. It would be enough that for over 35 years he had a career in social work, eventually directing the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis.

Any one of these reasons would be enough, yet all these are true. Poet, father, grandfather, social worker, psychotherapist, socialist, democrat, humorist, and music enthusiast, at ninety-nine Mr. Rakosi is the last of a quartet of second generation American Modernist poets known as the Objectivists. This group also included Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky. All contributed to the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine edited by Zukofsky and sponsored by Ezra Pound, now referred to as the "objectivists" issue, and all are included in George and Mary Oppen's An "Objectivists" Anthology (1932), published in France by To, Publishers.

In addition to his accomplishments, Rakosi has written numerous books: New Directions published his first book and also Amulet. New and collected earlier works have also been published by the National Poetry Foundation, Black Sparrow, and Sun & Moon. Poet and scholar Michael Heller's work on Rakosi as well as the book Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet, which Heller edited, are essential resources. Mr. Rakosi has had two recent books published in England by Etruscan books: The Earth Suite (1997) and The Old Poet's Tale (1999). About a month ago when I was talking to Carl on the phone I asked if he had been working - he told me yes - "I'm on a writing binge right now." So Carl, we eagerly await your forthcoming work.

Carl Rakosi was born on November 6, 1903 to Hungarian parents in Berlin. He came to America in 1910 when he was six-years old. At the University of Chicago, he began writing poetry, influenced first by Wallace Stevens, later by William Carlos Williams. Rakosi had a long career in social work ("his whole life," he says,); he eventually directed the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis. Rakosi stopped writing for nearly thirty years, between the years 1941 and 1967. Critic Robert Buckeye has aptly described this period saying that, "To be the poet we know, [Rakosi] had to give up poetry."

The most singular characteristic of Rakosi's poetry, whose lifetime achievement we are here to celebrate, is its authenticity. Rakosi has said that he has aimed to "present objects in their most essential reality and to make of each poem an object." With a clinician's eye Rakosi writes, "I mean to penetrate the particular / the way an owl waits / for a kangaroo rat."

Rakosi has said that his favorites of his own work are his "simplest, personal poems" and his "meditative poems," which open his Collected Poems (borrowing from Psalms) with the title "Lord, What Is Man?"

I remember Allen Ginsberg suggesting I read some of Rakosi's poems. I confess, I did not begin to truly appreciate Carl's work until a few years later when I discovered his rowdy, political, and wonderful Americana series. The Americana poems have a variety of voices and characters, which are what give the poems their great colloquial bite.

Rakosi's eminence is material in the authenticity and enduring nature of his body of work. Isn't it a true gift that we should come together tonight in this room and across the country in Carl's living room, a week before his 99th birthday, to welcome and honor the man himself...