Two Poems, 1933
Selected Poems, 1941
Ex Cranium, Night, 1975
My Experiences in Parnassus, 1977
Droles de Journal, 1981
Spiritus I, 1983
The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi, 1986
Poems, 1923-1941, 1995
The Earth Suite, 1997
The Collected Prose of Carl Rakosi, 1983
The Old Poet’s Tale, 1999
Carl Rakosi (RAH-koh-shee), usually identified with the Objectivist poetry movement in the United States, came to the United States at the age of seven. He was educated at the University of Wisconsin, where he received two degrees, and at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he received his M.S.W. Later he also studied at the University of Texas in Austin and at the University of Chicago. In 1924, he legally changed his name to Callman Rawley, hoping to avoid both mispronunciation and discrimination, but he decided to keep Carl Rakosi as his pen name. In 1939, he married Leah Jaffe; they had two children, Barbara and George.
Much like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, Rakosi chose to work in a field unrelated to writing and teaching. He worked as a caseworker in public welfare and other social services, changing positions often during the Depression, and he was the executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis from 1945 to 1968. He also had a private practice in psychotherapy from 1958 to 1968. As of 1968, he began to give more time to his writing, applying for and being granted writer-in-residence status at the prestigious Yaddo Colony each summer from 1968 to 1975.
It is not coincidental that he earned his first award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1969, which was followed by NEA fellowships in 1972 and 1979. In 1988, Rakosi received both a Fund for Poetry Prize and an award from the National Poetry Association. In 1986, he became the senior editor of the literary magazine Sagetrieb, located in Maine. Rakosi’s manuscripts and letters are split between the holdings of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the Widener Library at Harvard.
The Objectivist movement began in the 1930’s and really only applies to four American poets: Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff. Even a cursory reading of their poems shows how disparate their work is. Rakosi’s early poetry, for example, is filled with social and political commentary, issues that completely escape such poets as Reznikoff, whose poetry is much more playful and witty.
It was Zukofsky who defined the Objectivist movement and decided who should be included in it. Zukofsky was a distant student of Ezra Pound, which led to eventual disagreement with the other three Objectivists. Rakosi in particular disagreed with Zukofsky’s worship of Pound, and he declared that a poem should be clear and that readers should be able to understand it as it stands. Pound believed in obfuscation, and many of his poems are only decipherable with reference works at hand. With the exception of his long poem A, written in later decades, Zukofsky’s poetry echoes Pound’s values and style.
Much of Rakosi’s early poetry is proselike and simple; with the exception of line structure, easy similes and metaphors are the only nods toward the poetic medium. The early poems deal with such subjects as the place of the people in a mechanistic society and the unfairness of contemporary cliques and attitudes, among them anti-Semitism.
By 1975, the subjects of his poetry had changed, at least in part because he was able to spend more time reading and writing and less time earning a living. In Ex Cranium, Night, many of the poems are about the place of poetry in the world and the uses of figurative language. Rakosi had not eliminated his awareness of social issues, as is clear from such titles as “The China Policy” and “Nuclear Ode.” However, he had become more interested in the place of the poet in the world and to what uses the poet can be assigned.
Many critics regard Objectivist poetry as being focused on a meditative response to the world. That may have been the case in the 1930’s, but by the mid-1970’s Rakosi was writing decidedly nonnarrative poetry. Some of the poems are almost prose pieces, though these narratives work because of their poetic technique, and in the place of meditations are conclusions. Many of his poems are philosophical but light, much like those of Reznikoff. In his poem “Day Book,” Rakosi writes, “The special characteristic of the very short poem is that the reader has to be hit before he realizes he’s been shot. But for this to happen the author, in the writing of it, also has to be hit before he realizes he’s been shot.” Carl Rakosi injected much-needed irony and wit into twentieth century poetry without reducing the seriousness of most of his subjects.