Honoring a lifetime of poetry

Carl Rakosi, who will be 99 years old tomorrow, spoke via audio broadcast at the Writers House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
November 5, 2002

With the help of modern technology via audio broadcast, students were able to transcend time and place to talk with Carl Rakosi, a celebrated poet and alumnus of the School of Social Work who will be celebrating his 99th birthday tomorrow. Tom Devaney, program coordinator for the Kelly Writers House where the event was held and one of the moderators of the audiocast, introduced the poet last Wednesday night, saying, "The most singular characteristic of Rakosi's poetry is its authenticity."

Devaney then discussed Rakosi's background. The poet, who was born to Hungarian parents in Berlin, came to the United States in 1910. Rakosi said that being an immigrant greatly affected his work because "an immigrant sees [American life] in a different way."

Rakosi, who spoke from San Francisco, then read his poem, "Love America Uncle Sam Needs You," which he dedicated to President Bush.

"I can love a dog / but a whole country / with interests bigger than death? / You gotta be kidding!"

Once a very political writer, Rakosi wrote poems in the 1930s advocating Communism.

"Political writing has to do with a poet's outrage and social injustice," he said. "How to express this in poetry is not so easy."

Then, from 1941-1967, Rakosi stopped writing altogether. Without clearly explaining why, he mentioned that he stopped reading poetry as well. "To read poetry would have been torture if I couldn't write it," he said.

Rakosi also discussed old age and read from "The Old Poet's Tale," a poem about Alzheimer's Disease. "My wife busied herself / and hung my favorite / landscape over the bed and set an old snapshot / on the mantle to / remind me who I was."

Rakosi did not stay on serious subjects for long. When asked how he had been influenced by fellow poet and friend Louis Zukofsky, the writer said, "We didn't talk about poetry at all. We talked about women mostly. I was his mentor."

Rakosi and Zukofsky belong to a group of poets known as the "Objectivists." Rakosi was asked to define the term. He called Objectivist poetry "external" but also said, "You can't really define it."

The poet was also asked why he arranged his poetry thematically instead of chronologically. He argued, "It's not really important whether a poem is written during a poet's youth or middle age. A poem stands on its own."

The audiocast ended with the audience singing "Happy Birthday" to the poet.

School of Arts and Sciences graduate student Deming Love said, "It's amazing to talk to someone who has a full century of perspective."

The audiocast was joined by 35 to 40 people from around the world and will be available via the internet on the Kelly Writers House Web site.