Mind, Mouth and Page – (Objectivism)

AG: There’s an interesting development out of American Imagism which takes into account this problem of how do you deal with your emotions, or your thoughts, or your own speech, or your generalizations, as part of the haiku, or part of the construction of a poem. The Imagists insisted that everything be kept down to the bare minimum of a kind of objective description of the external facts. And by means of combinations of external facts noticed, you can conjure up, as in a haiku, the soul, if you want to, or the spirit, or the feeling, or the thought, of the self of you, the poet. If you want to express yourself, look around, and see your “No Smoking” sign, and the yellow wall, and the voice-box in the wall, and what you notice will be you.

But out of Imagism (came) some of the very practitioners that (Ezra) Pound collected in his anthology, the Active Anthology, of 1931, I think, [1933, in fact] was put together by Pound. There was another group of friends, called “the Objectivists”,who took that same conception, but modified it, and carried it one step further. And they were (they included) (William Carlos) Williams (and) Charles Reznikoff (a great poet, still alive [then, in 1975 – sic], quite old, who lives in New York (City), (and) who’s published by New Directions (particularly, one book, By The Waters of Manhattan you can probably get (that) around here). (He) writes these little short, Imagist, Objectivist, haiku-like poems, Charles Reznikoff R-E-Z-N-I-K-O-F-F.

This central idea of sticking to the facts really penetrated and there was a whole gang of poets in the ’20s and ’30’s and ’40’s that worked with it and practiced it and really got their minds down, but they modified it a little from the early (1912-15) Imagism to (1930’s) Objectivism. They said, “well, it’s alright to include your thoughts about the scene, it’s alright to include your philosophical generalizations, your personal thoughts, if you condense them, and put them in there pretty crisp and direct, because they also are objects floating”. Like “there are thoughts in the mind of Issa”. What thoughts? So if there are thoughts in the mind of Issa , then those thoughts have an objective factual existence. They’re there, just like the autumn moon. They’re there as much as the reflection of the moon and the water, which turns to summersaults and floats away, as the thoughts do, as one’s thoughts do, in the rain – or, even Issa had to, finally, say, “there are thoughts in the mind of Issa”. So the Objectivists said, as part of the objective data that you’re correlating and constructing for poetry, you can include your own thoughts. But you got to really be detached from your thoughts, in a sense, in order to include them, because otherwise you get lost in your thoughts and the whole poem becomes your thoughts and there’s no more objective reality there – it’s just back to your dopey mind-wanderings again!

I almost hate to include this Objectivist school in your information, lest you take advantage of it. But it was just a very interesting adjustment, and the poets that were involved in that were – Carl Rakosi – C-A-R-L-R-A-K-O-S-I (and) George Oppen O-P-P-E-N (Oppen lived in Minneapolis, was a Communist for a long time, and now [1975] he’s around San Francisco the last ten years, and mixing up a lot with the younger poets of San Francisco – an elder, and really nice, generous figure, from the ’30’s, published several slim volumes, but was really involved in all this poetic ferment). So, Oppen living in San Francisco, Reznikoff, now living in New York, still (whom we hope to get out here (Naropa) next summer, Carl Rakosi, Minneapolis – they’re all published by James Laughlin, New Directions (because Laughlin was a disciple of Ezra Pound and Ezra Pound was the basic theoretician and innovator of this kind of mental cleanness in writing, and so Laughlin, who was a poet himself, picked up on all these tendencies and all these persons who were practicing the same form, or the same mind-form, and followed up and published them when nobody else would). So you can get Oppen’s books, Reznikoff’s books, Rakosi’s books, and Williams’ from New Directions, as well as Pound himself and many people associated (with them), like Kenneth Rexroth was at one time considered a member of the Objectivist circle. Yes?

Student: Is H.D. (an) Imagist ?

AG: Yeah, she was one of the original Imagists, and an immense amount of study and work on her has been done by Robert Duncan, who’s actually in charge of her manuscripts (and) of editing her collected works at Yale, I believe. And her stuff is in the Yale library, I guess.

Student: Has his H.D. Book been published yet?

AG: I think in serial form.. Pieces of it for many years have been coming out – a huge study [Duncan’s H.D. Book was finally published in 2011 by the University of California].  Like I’m taking off from Williams to make generalizations, he takes off from H.D. to make his say-so, his discourses, or his generalizations – very beautiful essays considering all of these questions of the differences between Imagism and Objectivism, or the difference between the practice in which you exclude your own thoughts, or whether you include them, or what thoughts are include-able as facts and what thoughts are mere sentimentality.

But what would be interesting, maybe, would be to go back to the first statements about these kind of practices in the West by Ezra Pound, which you can find in his Literary Essays (and they’re very brief and useful, and I would say the best critical writing for a poet to read are about ten or twenty pages of Pound from Literary Essays (collected by New Directions, available in the Naropa library – or, if you can buy it, it’s worth having, I mean, if you’re permanently involved with poetry, that’s really worth having). Pound says.. this is, when? – 19..? – when did he write this? It’s a thing called “A Retrospect”. There had been a lot of furor and literary arguments about Imagism so he made a little retrospect about what was established in 1912 and a little literary history on it . Does anybody know this? This is called “A Retrospect”. Has anybody read Pound’s criticism at all here? (Is anyone) familiar with this stuff? Raise your hand high. Well, it’s really useful for everybody to know…for formulating in, just, really simple terms.. boiling down everything that I tried to say so far – also, (to) throw in a little bit of literary history. [Allen begins reading from Pound’s “A Retrospect”]

“There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect. In the spring or early summer of 1912, “H.D.” – (Hilda Doolittle – H.D) – Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following – 1) Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective..” – (“Direct treatment of the thing..” [Allen to the class] – Does the phrase “direct treatment” mean anything to you by this point? – Direct treatment means presenting it, presenting details of it, looking at it directly, not writing around it, not generalizing on top of it, but selecting details, and putting them down very specifically – “the crab lice running along the stones in the full moonlight”) – [continues] “2) To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” – [again, addressing class] – Now, that’s for you, in that little haiku that you did – “to use absolutely no” – “absolutely no” – “word that does not contribute to the presentation”. And there’s a word there – “presentation” – he’s presenting, he’s suggesting the presentation of detail. The poem presents detail. It doesn’t refer to detail, it doesn’t refer to activity, it actually presents it, presents it, in the sense of selecting a minute particular visual object, or a sound, and using the equivalent word, without a lot of bullshit around it. In other words, not “I heard the sounds of traffic”, but “I heard car wheels in the rain and a siren” – dig? – In other words, don’t generalize the sound of traffic, but get into it, and watch what you’re hearing, or look at what you’re seeing, or taste what you’re drinking (if it’s a question of the freshening water), and include that, include that detail…

to be continued

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