Objectivism at Michigan Poetry Conference , 1973

Our feature today – the extraordinary gathering on Objectivist poetics that took place in 1973 in Allendale Michigan and Allen’s participation in it. We are indebted to the labors (both with video and transcription) of Steel Wagstaff. His introduction to the occasion (on the poetry-site, Dispatches)  may be read here. Below is some transcription of Allen’s contribution (his engagement with Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen). For a complete transcript (provided by Wagstaff) – see here

Seidman House, Grand Valley State College, Allendale, Michigan, 1973

Charles Reznikoff: Oh I say., May I suggest, isn’t Mr Ginsberg,..  We haven’t called on him yet

AG: He hasn’t opened his mouth yet . He opened his mouth but he never got a sentence in it ………

Allen Ginsberg at the National Poetry Festival, Allendale, 1973

Carl Rakosi.. I’m looking at Allen

AG: I have a question

Carl Rakosi: All right. I haven’t promised not to say anything else

AG: A question. First of all because you were talking about an approach to rendering objects in words, or, let’s say, describing or sketching objects so as to present your feelings – either your feelings or perception. Now, by presenting your feelings or perception…

Carl Rakosi: Perception of relationship. not feelings. Could be feelings.

AG: Well, yes, perception of relationships, by describing the objects related rather than attempting to abstract a relationship without the trees in relation to the sky in relation to the grass. You describe trees-grass-sky and you have space. You don’t start…

Carl Rakosi: I’m not sure you’re representing me accurately.

AG: Ok, well, that’s what I’m asking. I wondered to what extent is the language that we’re using – “objects”, “Objectivism” – is that actually understood by all the people here, including the younger people, as a sort of common practice of mind and common practice of vocalization of our perception, or writing our perception? Because there are probably still a few young people who think of poetry as self-expression without the object, just a subjective cry. I’m wondering to what extent is what we’re assuming to be commonly understood now – about our consciousness in relation to writing and in relation to observation – to what extent is that understood by everybody here in the room

Carl Rakosi: I don’t know

AG: For that reason, I’m trying to present how I understand what you’re saying….

George Oppen (1908-1984)

George Oppen: Well, we shouldn’t over-philosophize this. We had a good deal of confidence in the instant as a test of one’s own sincerity, as a test of whether one really did feel this or believe this. It would be wrong to get into a whole philosophy here. of nominalism and so on.

AG: Why? Too much work?

George Oppen: Yeah, too much work

AG: Unless we do, I don’t think everybody in the room will understand everything down to the bottom foundation of the universe that we’re in to…

Carl Rakosi (1903-2004)

Carl Rakosi: – Well… to come to grips with that. Take that poem of George (Oppen)’s [“Psalm’] – It’s so simple, isn’t it?     But you know he had to go through a tremendous process of selection. First of all, he had to look at a thing hard, very hard and long. He had to have the patience there to think the thing through until he got to the fundamentals, until he could get to a thing that could really stand by itself, could s peak for itself, and didn’t need embellishment. Now, you’re talking about a process of self-discipline, a great deal of self-discipline. There was somebody – was it you? – Oh, you mentioned the example of the subjective cry.

AG: Yes

Carl Rakosi: By God That is not Objectivist . If Objectivism means anything, psychologically, it means tremendous self-discipline and hard work, because to get to a language that’s as simple and fundamental as that, and that will speak for itself, and doesn’t need rhetorical development and ornamentation. means that you have to sift through it very, very carefully.

AG: Is it a process that – now getting literal and subjective in phenomenology – is the process a sifting through a great number of different words heard in the mind or the sifting through a great number of visual and auditory perception?

Carl Rakosi : Well, I can’t speak for George, I…

AG: Is there any common practice, say, for the focus of attention. Almost, let’s say, is there any common yoga of attention?

Carl Rakosi: Well, we haven’t….

Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976)

AG: I didn’t remember using the word “emotion”, I don’t think I used the word “emotion”…I would like to rephrase my question again, then. I’m not sure that either I understood the answer or that my question was understood in the place where it was asked. The question was: what is the process of mind that you experience when you’re perceiving objects? How do you choose which objects to attempt to describe, and is that a good word? . Are you attempting to describe objects and their relations outside the effect that you see, in order to present process or, if you wish to say it, present yourself or just present process? You’re not there actually. You’re simply observing

Charles Reznikoff; No, I wouldn’t say I’m observing observation. I’m observing every minute. My eyes are open. So’s everybody else here.

AG; But at what point do you feel relation. At what point…

Charles Reznikoff; Let me give you…

AG: At what point do you find a set of relations?
Charles Reznikoff: I’ll give you an illustration of how I work, or think I work and you can judge from that. Listen, I don’t say.. I might throw this away tomorrow, but… coming here…I’ll show you. To me, it’s as clear as daylight. Of course, I never go into the profundities. over there and even your profundities. I just do it. But what I’m trying to get at, and then on the plane it may answer the thing..

AG: You can’t barter your way out!

Charles Reznikoff: Don’t judge me by this. But I came here on the American Airlines. I’m not advertising. But what I want to say: after I got there, you understand what happened. I didn’t go into all the details either, and I may now tear this up in a minute – “Fly” – you’re talking of emotion and what the object that I see represents. I don’t start with an emot.. I start with an emotion but then I have a symbol for it, and begin to use it instantly. This is not a very important symbol . – “Fly at the airline terminal” – “You didn’t have to spend hours packing your luggage,/nor tip the doorman for carrying it to a taxi,/ nor pay the driver,/nor even buy a ticket/and get a boarding pass./But of course you are not going far- or as far.” – Now, to me I had just commenced, you see this, how clearly, and I went through the usual trouble that people go as they travel, and I sit there, waiting for the time to leave, happen. And I see a fly and I address it. The fly is a symbol. I use him as a listener, an excuse. The unfortunate fly cannot answer. He’s just there on the window sill, but I can talk to him, and I do talk to him, and I tell him my troubles. In other words, I start with an emotion, and I have an unfortunate listener. So I talk to him, but I have the emotion to begin with, and I emote it, to use your expression. I have this emotion time and time again, and a lot of things.
AG: Let me be obnoxiously nosey. What was curious was: you were preoccupied with all the troubles you’d gone to, to get to that moment.

Charles Reznikoff; Yes, that’s true.

AG: Did the fly remind you of all that trouble? In other words was the fly part of the original…

Charles Reznikoff: No, he wasn’t. What reminded me of the trouble, he was so quiet and restful on that window pane, and I ever so unquiet and unrestful. And here was an object, and then I suddenly – to reduce this to what was his level – said, “You are not going as far.” But I might be inspired – excuse me for using that word – I may be inspired, but that is not at all expressive of how I feel. I imagine the only relation between a fly and this thing is that a fly flies. So maybe that is that.

Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978)

Carl Rakosi: You know, I didn’t meet (Charles) Reznikoff until about three years ago. And I met George (Oppen) a couple of years ago

AG: You had known (Louis) Zukofsky?

Carl Rakosi: I had. Yes, yes, Zukofsky and I were friends.

AG: And George and Zukofsky were old friends also?

Carl Rakosi: Well, we’re fairly old.

George Oppen: Old, yes.


AG: Does the occasion of writing, composition, create or loosen or present the field of attention, the element of the poem, ever? Or do you find that you are, sitting in the middle of a poem – that is, an arrangement of objects around you, relating to you, that you write down? Does the fact that you are writer and poet remind you that everything around you has relationships? Or are you sitting there on a waiting bench and see a fly and see the relationships, and so write it down?

George Oppen: I’m not. At any rate, I’m not

AG: Do you have a habit of mind of looking for relationships, I should say?

Carl Rakosi: I don’t think of myself as a poet. no. Not if it’s a.. You know, it has to…

AG: Most of the time when you’re not thinking about observing objects for rearrangement in language to put down.

George Oppen: I don’t.

Carl Rakosi: I don’t go around looking for subjects for poetry. As a matter of fact, I try to avoid it…

Carl Rakosi: But surely you don’t carry in your mind the possibility. do you. Allen, that the psychology of the Objectivist poet might be different from the psychology of other poets? The psychology is no different at all.

AG: No I have in mind quite definitely…

Carl Rakosi: No, no.

AG: …the possibility that the psychology…

Carl Rakosi:  No no.

AG: …of the Objectivist poet might be more like the Zen Master, or somebody who’s practiced meditation, and who has the habit of mind – of paying attention to the immediate situation in which he is…

Carl Rakosi: All right.

AG: …rather than drifting into speculation and fantasy.

Carl Rakosi: I see.

AG: So really what I’m asking is: with the practice of Objectivism in poetry, is there any practice of attention to – not looking at yourself but looking out, and not fantasizing moment by moment, hour by hour, as you walk through the day? Not fantasizing and not looking at yourself, but looking outward and observing relationships?

AG: If I could interpose.. What I mean by “first thoughts’ then [ “First thought, best thought”] is that thought in which the object shines out on the person without our choice. And what I mean by second and third thought is when we make coverings for the object, and we attempt to redefine it or even shift the tension from it.

George Oppen: I strongly disagree with that.

AG: Yes. I was just trying to clarify my use of that.

George Oppen: Right.

AG: The psychology of the haiku poet might be slightly different from the psychology of someone who was concerned with writing court history.

Carl Rakosi: Writing what?

AG:   Court history.

Carl Rakosi; Well, I say it could be. A way of looking at it.

AG: just as the psychology of the Objectivist poet might be slightly different from…

Carl Rakosi: For the modern.. let’s say, for the modern European poet, the American poet, the motivation for a particular poem comes from the subconscious. You don’t go around planning the poem consciously. The drive, the impulse, comes from the subconscious. But you don’t control it, because if you do go around looking for a poem, it’s going to be contrived, it’ll be dead. Now, the inspiration does not come from the subconscious, but the motivation for a poem. coming to you as you’re looking at something, comes.. the inspiration, however, comes in the writing of it. It’s important to know it. It doesn’t come…

George Oppen: That’s right

Carl Rakosi: …you know..walk around with inspiration. It comes in the process of writing.

* * * * * *

Student: You can’t really say what’s objective and what’s subjective really, because you don’t really know one of us here,. you know..

George Oppen: Sure.

AG: I would say you can’t say it’s objective if you’re not paying attention to the actual details of the room as it is here, and your mind is wandering off to where you’re going to get laid, somewhere else, so that’s not being objective..

* * * * * *

AG: I know a haiku about the moon by Issa

Charles Reznikoff; What’s that?

AG: I know a haiku by Issa about the moon

Charles Reznikoff: Well, maybe you’re..

AG: While you’re looking for the (moon poem you wrote)…

Charles Reznikoff: Yes

AG: “The autumn moon shines kindly/On the flower thief” [ ‘the moon over the mountains/kindly shines/on the flower thief”]

Also in attendance at this historic event – Kenneth RexrothRobert Duncan, Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Edward Dorn, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Theodor Enslin, George Economou, and Rochelle Owens.

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