Modern American Poetry: the Objectivists
The Objectivist movement was launched in 1931, when Louis Zukofsky, a 26 year-old poet from New York, guest edited an issue of Poetry magazine. Building on Ezra Pound's tenets of Imagism—direct treatment of a subject, clarity, economy of diction— the Objectivists went on to refine and redefine these principles into one of the most enduring and influential poetics of the modern age.
Encompassing Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, and Carl Rakosi, among others, the Objectivists rejected metaphysical abstraction for a rigorous precision and historical and linguistic materialism. They called into question the relationships between speech and music, stillness and motion, and popular and intellectual culture. Throughout the semester, we'll discuss these issues and also try our hand at a variety of Objectivist-inspired writing exercises including serial poems, portraits, ekphrastic, and found poems.
There are many good reasons to study the Objectivists today. Not only are their poems marvelously rich and rewarding in themselves, but the ideas behind them are still vital and resonate with contemporary movements such as Black Mountain, Language Poetry, and Conceptualism. By plugging into this great tradition, you'll be more knowledgeable about the past, and in a practical way, you'll be able to benefit from thinking that will make your own writing more focused, precise, and also more expansive. You will be expected to do one 15-20 minute oral presentation, to keep a journal, and to turn in a two-to-three page response to the poems that are covered each week.
Assigned Texts: Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry, Louis Zukofsky, New Directions Press
Lorine Niedecker Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, Univ. of California Press
Pictures from Brueghel, William Carlos Williams, New Directions Press
George Oppen: New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson, New Directions Press
The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975, edited by Seamus Cooney, David R. Godine Publisher
Week #1 Overview: what is Objectivism? Discuss quotes and poetic statements. Compare Louis Zukofsky's (LZ) "An Objective" from Poetry magazine with the Imagist manifesto. Begin reading sections from LZ's poem "Beginning The" from Anew. Writing assignments: a cento and journal poem.
Week#2: Discussion will focus on line breaks and composing word by word as opposed to line by line and the serial poem. Readings: Is (pronounced eyes), After Eyes, and 80 Flowers. We'll also look at another essay by LZ, "A Statement for Poetry." Writing assignments: a one word per line poem and a series.
Week #3: Finish Zukofsky discussion. Write a short paragraph or note summarizing the take-away of his work for you. Introduction to Lorine Niedecker (LN). Read some of her letters to LZ, also New Goose. Writing assignment: 2-3 pages of short haiku-like poems. Consider them small units of sincerity. Follow a thought and allow it to take shape.
Week #4: Reading assignment: North Central, Harpsichord, Salt Fish. Discuss building layers into a poem by adding quotation, historical, and scientific information to personal observation. Write a poem about a specific place (as LN does in Lake Superior) or a person (see "Darwin", "Thomas Jefferson", etc.) that explores this technique.
Week #5: Read Linnaeus in Lapland, Homemade/ Handmade Poems, Autumn. Writing assignment: Revise and continue to work on your poem from last week
Week #6: Final LN discussion. Movie "Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker" by Cathy Cook. Reading assignment: The Practice by William Carlos Williams (WCW) and Pictures from Brueghel (up to p. 70). Writing assignment: a poem about or inspired by a painting.
Week #7: Discuss ekphrastic poetry with special attention to how WCW often composes or frames a scene in much the same way as a painter or photographer would as in the spoken landscapes of classical Chinese poets. Reading assignment: The Desert Music and Journey to Love. Writing assignment: an object poem. Try to make it as specific and true to its moment as possible.
Week #8: Finish discussing WCW. Introduction to Oppen. Reading assignment: Discrete Series and The Materials (be sure to use the notes in the back of the book). Writing assignment: a poem about the city. Also begin keeping a list of the questions posed by GO in poems.
Week #9: Compare Oppen's style with the other Objectivists we've read. How would you characterize the differences? Pay special attention to his use of fragments and sense of closure. Reading assignment: This In Which and Of Being Numerous. Writing assignment: Write a poem about a news story or public event (see Armies of the Plain, p.95) Collect scraps of speech and writing and assemble as in Quotations on p. 140.
Week #10: Compare A Language of New York with Of Being Numerous. Writing assignment: Choose an older poem of yours and expand upon it. Don't try to recapture the original moment; allow it to evolve into something more complex. Reading assignment: Seascape: Needle's Eye, Myth of the Blaze, Primitive. Alternate writing assignment: Look over your list of GO questions and answer one or more of them in a poem.
Week #11: Final discussion of Oppen. Introduction to Charles Reznikoff (CR). Reading assignment: pages 1-57. Writing assignment: a poem that tells the story of a family member, friend or co-worker. Pay special attention to the way CR narrates the facts of someone's life.
Week #12: Compare Reznikoff's style with the other Objectivists. Notice how he uses similar techniques and achieves different results. Reading assignment: p. 77-119 and p. 184-205. Writing assignment: write the autobiography of a place -- or write a poem that retells a story from or is inspired by the Bible.
Week #13: Reading assignment: By the Well of Living and Seeing, also sections of Holocaust (these are Xeroxes that I'll provide). Writing assignment: a found poem.
Week #14: Final wrap up discussion and party!
Requirements:You MUST complete all writing assignments. Please make copies of them for everyone in class. We won't be work-shopping them in the usual way, but using them as springboards for discussion about process and forms. You will also be responsible for one 15 minute oral presentation. It should combine biographical and critical information. You are also encouraged to use visual aids and recordings. Please look for things that are fun and of interest to you. We are collectively investigating this topic and our conversation will depend to some extent on what you bring to the table. Finally, it's essential that you come prepared to talk and get involved. Class participation counts for one third of your grade.