A Conversation with Carl Rakosi
by Steve Dickison
The nearly eighty-year publishing history of American poet Carl Rakosi begins in the early 1920s, with a number of poems in a college magazine, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then in several national periodicals and "little magazines." An invitation from Louis Zukofsky to contribute to the "Objectivists" issue of Poetry magazine (February 1931) was followed by inclusion in An "Objectivists" Anthology (1932), published in France by George and Mary Oppen's small expatriate press, To, Publishers. He, Zukofsky, Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff would be known henceforth as the core group of "Objectivist" poets. Mr Rakosi dropped out of poetry publishing between 1941 and the mid-sixties, devoting himself to social work. Since his return to poetry, books of new and collected earlier work have been brought out by New Directions, Black Sparrow, the National Poetry Foundation, and Sun & Moon, among others. Still prolific as he approaches his 96th birthday, Mr Rakosi has had two recent books published in England by etruscan books: The Earth Suite (1997) and The Old Poet's Tale (1999)-the latter the first of three volumes planned for publication as his Collected Works.
On a brightly lit, warm Tuesday afternoon-late San Franciscan summer weather in September-we met at the poet's home, a modest flat in the city's Sunset District, where he lives with his friend Marilyn Kane. The note beside the doorbell on street level reads "C. Rawley / C. Rakosi"-Callman Rawley being the name under which Carl Rakosi practiced professionally, reserving his given name as his nom de plume. Elsewhere he's explained that during his early years no one in the Midwest could pronounce "Rakosi," and there were fears, too, that a foreign name would make it tough to get good work and make a living.
His apartment's main windows face west, looking out across the densely aligned rows of the neighborhood-nearly all smaller domestic buildings, single-family houses or stacked duplexes, like the one we're in-toward the Pacific, some blocks off. On the mantel are several pieces of elegantly sculpted wood and clay figures, which were made by his late wife, Leah. An impressive stereo system stands in the living-room-the core component of which, a McGregor pre-amp, Mr Rakosi tells me was added to the assembly last year. Sitting out are CDs of Webern and Schoenberg, and of John Field. Later, after our taping session, we'll sit down and listen to a few things, some favorites. Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet," a virtuoso showpiece written by Shaw and recorded in 1940, then several of Fats Waller's early songs on RCA with his small band, The Rhythm Stompers-"A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid," "I Wish I Were Twins," et al.
Our conversation took place on 21 September 1999, a week and a half after Mr Rakosi's reading to a capacity audience of 150 at the Unitarian Center on Franklin Street in San Francisco-the first event of The Poetry Center's 1999 fall season-and was taped, then transcribed that evening and over the following days, with minor edits. Things start off with a twist of Borgesian confusion, in my relating the coincidence of a recent meeting with another man the details of whose biography parallel Mr Rakosi's somewhat remarkably in outline.
* * *
So, I thought that, basically, I have a bit of a game plan, and I'd just throw it out here, and we'd watch it fall apart.
Watch me tear it apart?
A week ago I had lunch with a gentleman who was Jewish Hungarian, he had lived in Chicago, in New Orleans, and he now lives in the Bay Area and practices as a therapist-
Oh, I thought you were talking about a different person.
-Well, I am, actually. I mentioned your name, and he corrected me: Rákosi, it's Rákosi. The Hungarian gets the accent on the first syllable.
I was wondering about your early recollections of Europe, what kind of effect that might have had on your poetic life.
It's not so much "early recollections"-but the fact that my parents were European, I got from them essentially a European … a sense of European culture, that is not American. And, that has remained with me-and I really don't want to leave it either. So, I suppose that makes me a little different from the other Objectivist poets.
My parents were highly acclimatized Hungarians. My father served in the Hungarian army, he was a Hussar, and I remember seeing Hussars-there were cobblestones in the streets in Baja, where I was brought up-I remember Hussars dashing by on their horses, and it was really very splendid. They had brilliant red coats, that the Hungarians slung over one shoulder, it was strapped. I've never forgotten that. Also, there was strife-there was no ghetto for the Jews in Hungary, but of course they tended to live in certain neighborhoods. And, neighboring neighborhoods consisted of Serbs, Serbians. So, one of my memories as a little boy-a very little boy-was that the Serbian kids attacked the Jewish kids, and they began throwing stones, heavy stones, at each other. I was only about three, four years old-it terrified me, I ran into the house to get out of it. Anyhow, that's part of me. And then my father, both parents, really loved Hungary-and that has stayed with me. Otherwise, why would I be much interested in Hungary?
Has your interest manifest itself in musical directions-Bartók? Kodály?
Oh, yes. Oh, sure. Kodály, in particular. Bartók is a hard nut to crack, particularly in the quartets. But yes, when I hear Hungarian music, my temperature goes up. Liszt, as much as anybody. Although Liszt gives credit for Hungarian music and his own music to the gypsies-so I don't fully know what original, authentic Hungarian music is. Bartók tried to express it, but he was a great innovator. And if Hungarian music was a little like his quartets, it's pretty tough. When it comes to his pieces called "Hungarian Folksongs" and so on, of course that retains the original Hungarian music.
You mentioned the poet [Sandor] Weöres in an earlier interview.
Oh yes, Weöres. I visited him, with my wife, in Budapest. He was the reigning Hungarian poet at the time, and even in translation-I don't know Hungarian well enough to really read much-it held up very well. He's a very impressive poet, great stature and dignity. Unfortunately, we had trouble communicating, because he didn't know English and I didn't know enough Hungarian to be able to do it. I hoped maybe we could do it in German, but we couldn't. His wife helped out, she knew some English. I gave a reading, you know, in Budapest to the PEN Club, a number of years ago-and they were charming. This is part of what still charms me about Hungarian manners. Prior to my reading, one of the sponsors, a lady, came to the hotel with a bouquet of flowers. I mean, that's very European, and I love it.
Maybe we could talk about music a little more. I remember a remark you made about Satie-maybe in the Day Book-that you, like Satie, had an affinity for "a harmony of unresolved chords." I'm wondering about that "un-resolution."
Well, that's what poetry in essence really is, a revelation-a discovery of the unknown, in a good piece of creative work, that's what it is. Now, I think Stevens understood this quite well. At the same time, what Stevens does-he moves it into an area of abstraction. Which has it's own interest, but it's not the direction in which I was ever interested in going. In fact I've fought against the perils, the attractiveness of abstraction, all my life.
I've thought that a fairly distinctive and peculiar aspect of your work has been its kind of insistence on focus-
Oh yes, oh always, focus. But, always, reality. There's not much sense of the real world in Stevens, for example. He has his own beauties, but. . . . Stevens had a very strong influence on me, at a certain time in my life-
Yeah, and I had to stop reading him. Because, I felt-my own individuality felt threatened. He's a powerful, powerful influence.
He's made a really strong impact on somebody like John Ashbery.
Oh, yeah. Except that I don't think-oh, that's intriguing-I don't think Stevens would have approved of Ashbery. Because Ashbery's whole point is appearing to be perfectly rational, and deliberately never coming to a focus, or to any kind of resolution.
So is that the "harmony of unresolved chords"?
I don't hear Stevens' music in Ashbery. He has his own. I'll tell you an interesting experience I had with Ashbery. [Robert] Duncan and I were very good friends, very close, and Duncan was invited to a little party on Fifth Avenue, an apartment on Fifth Avenue, by some wealthy Greek woman. Ashbery was, I think, a guest there at the time. That was my first meeting with Ashbery. There were two big tables, and we sat around-Duncan and I and Ashbery and a few others-at this one table, and Ashbery's a big talker. And Duncan was an even bigger talker. I noticed that the wine was passed around and Ashbery filled his glass all the way to the top so- he had to bend, he couldn't lift it otherwise he would have spilled some of it, so he had to bend down to drink it. And it was a wild and fast conversation between Ashbery and Robert. I didn't say a word, and Ashbery didn't pay the slightest attention to me. Well, after dinner we went into the living-room, and it was time to leave, so I walked over to Ashbery to say goodbye. And he says, "You're not leaving are you?" I said, "Yeah, it's time to leave." So he grabs me by the arm and pulls me to him, right close to his face-hey, wait a minute-and he recites a poem of mine, that had been written twenty years before, which he says he'd never forgotten.
[The wayfarer met the passerby
in death's champaign of flowers.
As the lint blew through their skulls
they spoke discreetly of the next world,
of the slobland to the left
and the awful coprolite above.
The words were impressive and muted.
Suddenly the one preoccupied
with his obsolete luetic eyeball
made a meaningless aside
in keeping with the serious scene.]
But I must say, I can't read Ashbery. He annoys me. Because, either you make a point-some point-or you don't try to make a point but at least you have some magic in your lines, you have some mystery and so on. He doesn't have it. It's gossip. I never could understand why-he won every prize, he continues to win prizes, I mean, academia loves him.
I noticed in the paper yesterday that Elliott Carter had his first opera premiered in Berlin, on Sunday night, at age 90-it's called What Next? Maybe it's something in the air, but I've just been running into various people of late that are in advanced years who are incredibly productive.
Oh, yeah. One of the absolute myths about old age is that one loses one's creative potentialities. It's an absolute myth. It's based partly on the medical-I suppose it's a fact, that you lose a lot of your brain cells, and you start losing them very early on, I think in your thirties even, and that you don't reproduce them in your old age. That may or may not be true, I don't know. -But I know from experience that it just isn't so, it's a myth. And it's such a deeply entrenched myth. I've run into problems with it in my own life. I used to be on the board of directors of the Jewish Community Center here in San Francisco. So, I'm a former social worker and psychotherapist, so I thought I would have something to contribute to the board, from my knowledge and experience-and I would have, too. Well, the board did not consist of senior citizens, they were young people in their thirties, forties-and they barely listened to me, and they paid not the slightest attention to what I had to say. The clear implication was, ok, we'll let this old guy talk, but let's get on with business.
You know, you worked as a social worker and a therapist, and-I think in Andrew Crozier's writing somewhere, I noticed that you were drawn to Otto Rank's work.
Yes, well that's interesting. Rank started out-he was an Austrian-he started out as a poet, and I read some of his poetry in German and found it very good, very good. But he gave it up and became interested in psychology and joined Freud's circle in Vienna, because Freud didn't stipulate that in order to be a psychoanalyst you had to be an M.D. In fact all but I think one or two of his circle were not M.D.s. Well, Rank was highly respected by Freud, became secretary of the Viennese Society for Psychoanalysis and went along with Freud, and then, from his own practice realized that Freud was all wrong. That you couldn't really change people by simply analyzing what you thought was in the way of their normal behavior, and just telling them what was wrong. He went at it in a different way. First of all he had to evolve his own concepts about how to do it-what was the nature of human nature. So he wrote a number of books that are still brilliant, terribly-in terrible language, very involved, very involved-but they in their brilliance reminded me a little of Nietzsche. And then he began to practice in Philadelphia-first in Paris, and then in Philadelphia. His approach was not to-he refused to start with any preconceptions with a new patient. He started from scratch, listened, and then might suggest something to the patient that could be helpful, or might not, but let the patient work it out himself. Not have the power and the drive coming from the therapist. He knew that was the only way-the only way a person would change is if he changes himself. An outsider can't change him. That's essentially the difference, the total difference with Freud. Freud did not have that concept, and when Freud found out what Rank was doing he just disowned him. Rank was always a realist when it came to the outside world.
Did you meet him?
No, I missed him, by one year-because, I was a student there.
You mentioned that, like Williams, you were both in "the helping professions," and I'm wondering about the discipline and practice of attention that takes place-whether one is a doctor or a therapist or a social worker dealing with an individual. That seems to me that it has to enter into, somehow, the kind of attentiveness and discipline that one has toward poetry.
Oh, I think you're right. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true-in all good therapy you have to be disciplined enough to keep your own needs out of it, certainly to keep your biases out of it, and to really stick with the patient . Really stick with him, and be loyal to him-
So that's like sticking with the poem despite not knowing where it's going-
* * *
I find that you've written, very movingly I thought, about the circle of close friends that were writers in Wisconsin: Margery Latimer, Kenneth Fearing, and-the other fellow, the Armenian . . . Leo-
Leon. Leon Serabian Herald.
With so many writers, this initial time of coming into a circle of 'like minds' seems to be really essential to writing, this coming into a community of writers-
I'm not so sure of that. No, I'm not sure whether that's necessary. It just happened. And it was lovely, unforgettable-but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's necessary.
Kenneth Fearing strikes me as someone who-he's a very compelling individual, and, for us looking back on the 1930s in particular, a lot of the contradictions seem to be bound up in a character like him. Where, here he was very close to New Masses magazine, and yet you've said that he was "essentially a-political"-
Absolutely. Nobody else seems to think this, but I knew him, he was my roommate. I was so sure that he was a-political because he used to make fun of me for being political. 'Cause I was always political. Yeah, he was an interesting fellow. He was a compelling person without being in the least assertive. He was a very early rebel. Not because he was trying to be a rebel-that's the way he naturally was. He would let his hair grow long, which at that time you just didn't do. He would wear anything. Yet he had a kind of personal magnetism about him which made people surround him and listen to him. They wanted to hear what he had to say. He was- At that time, you know, very few people were cynics-that was most extraordinary. Now, we're talking about the 1920s-you just didn't have cynics. People were very optimistic about life. He was a cynic- Well, gee, that was interesting. He was cynical about the communists. He was cynical about everything-except his friends. He was a good friend.
There's that wonderful remark before the McCarthy hearings-
Oh, yeah. He repeated that to me and I can still hear him say it. Here they were pestering him, one question after another. And this is interesting-he always elicited respect for some reason. I couldn't figure it out, but he did. They all respected him. And after being badgered for 20-30 minutes about was he or was he not ever a member of the Communist Party?-did he ever have any friends in the Communist Party?-and was he ever, ever, ever in the Communist Party?-and Kenneth shot back, "Not yet, Senator! Not yet!"
Do you think there's anything to be said for a sort of 'Midwesternism' among the writers of that time?
Oh, yes. Oh, you bet. In the early period-up 'til fairly recently-the Midwest was the heart of American industry. It hadn't moved south yet. There was a very homogeneous population in the Midwest. And you had, developed over the years, a kind of American psychology-behavior, manners, aspirations, and so on-which was distinctively Middlewestern. Now the best expression of that was Sherwood Anderson. You move over to New England, it's very different. The West didn't have anything at that time, that I can think of. The South did-the South was as different as it could be. That is, the Southeast. The Southwest hadn't developed much.
-Anderson was in Ohio. . . . Then there's that whole generation of poets afterward-people like Tom McGrath, Meridel LeSueur.
That's right. Yeah, they were both good friends of mine. Tom had an interesting- I was on a panel with the two of them at one time, out in, I think in South Dakota somewhere. And Meridel LeSueur-who had written some beautiful prose-began to talk about the people. She was always an avowed Communist. Anyway-"the people this," "the people that"-painting them as in glowing colors of course, the implication was. I said, "Meridel, what people? What people? I don't know any just people."
Did you know Meridel when you came back to poetry in the '60s? Was that when you connected with her, or-
Oh, no. Meridel was a great fan of Margery Latimer's. They were early friends. Oh, she adored Margery. And that's how the two of us got together, because, when I was in Minnesota-that's where she lives, or lived. She died a few years ago.
Some of those figures like her- Her reputation was very, very tied to that regional zone-she wrote, like, North Star Country, the book that was one of the WPA books, the history of that part of the world.
She was a lyrical prose writer. I liked her- I liked her personally too. She became almost a sacred figure to the young women in Minnesota. And I was glad to see that.
Was Mike Gold anyone that you ever ran into?
Oh, that son of a bitch. I sure did. Yeah, he was editor of-was it The New Masses or the old Masses? Anyhow, I had a few things in The Masses-I don't remember which-but, he was merciless in the way that as editor he wiped out poets who were simply lyrical and were not interested in just writing poems that adhered to the communist line. Just merciless. And he had a group of henchmen around him that did the same thing. I never met him personally.
I brought his name up because I think his novel, Jews Without Money, was a wonderful book.
Yeah, that book was good. Yeah, very good.
* * *
Did you know Williams? Did you run into him at all?
No. I didn't meet him personally. But, at one time I applied for a Guggenheim, or I thought I would apply for a Guggenheim. So I wrote-I wrote Stevens, I wrote Williams, and I wrote Marianne Moore. Williams sent me a rhapsodic response, saying my work was exactly what he admired. It was just a wonderful letter. Stevens was a much better critic than Williams-much better. Stevens, he was sharp. He wrote back to say that, if he understood what I was really getting at, he thought that was what poetry needed at that time. It had to do with a sense of realism. But, he said, the Guggenheim people are just as capable of evaluating you as I am, and I see no reason for me to write about you. Marianne Moore totally rejected my application I would have sent in, on the grounds that- You know, at that time for a Guggenheim you had to give them a project. So, my project was to be the psychology of the poets. And she didn't think that was a worthwhile project to pursue. Well, in reading through Marianne Moore's correspondence many years afterwards, I discovered that she just hated my work-partly because Pound had extolled it so highly and compared me to [Kenneth Burke], who was really a first-class critic and scholar at the time. And Marianne Moore thought that was awful, that I would be compared to this guy. So I never got a Guggenheim.
So it was a number of years later then that you were able, on your retirement, to break away-
Yeah, it wouldn't have been possible until then. And it might not have happened, either, if Crozier hadn't written me. Because I thought I was dead to the world, to the outside world-and that nobody was or would be interested.
Andrew Crozier was a student at Buffalo-it was before it was SUNY, Buffalo. Charles Olson was there and attracted a lot of students from all around, and Andrew had come over from England, and did this detective work, and unearthed-
Well, Olson steered him to me. And that's when he began to collect-
I wasn't aware of that. And he stayed with it, too [see Poems 1923-1941, edited by Andrew Crozier, Sun & Moon, 1995]. The fellow that's publishing your new work, Nicholas Johnson, was he a student of Andrew?
No. Crozier was a student of Jeremy Prynne's, at Cambridge.
There's a way in which, I think of it almost as this kind of coincidence of a happy rescue, or something-that your work was discovered even before you had begun to reassert it, in a sense.
Well, I didn't know-I never met Olson, because Olson thrived during that whole period when I didn't even-I never read poetry, I didn't think poetry, and so on.
In a number of ways, these kinds of discoveries-you've been very, how does one say- I mean, certainly elements of luck and elements of help from various friends and allies, and unknowns out in the world. I recall the story of Margery Latimer leading you to Jane Heap and The Little Review, and Pound leading Zukofsky in your direction, to bring you into the "Objectivists" then-
No, that isn't the way it happened. No, Zukofsky and I appeared in [Pound's] magazine, The Exile. So Pound came to know the two of us at the same time. He didn't steer Zukofsky to me.
I see, it was the coincidence of being published together. You say somewhere that you were friends with George Oppen for sixty years before you ever met or had any correspondence. Was Reznikoff someone that you spent any time with?
No. Actually I had only one personal meeting with him, in which we really talked. That was at his home in New York. But, as I said elsewhere, he was a very quick, birdlike talker, and he talked and I listened. There wasn't much exchange there. So I came away from that-I don't know what to call it-visit with him, knowing quite a bit about him, but he not knowing nothing about me. But he was a very nice sweet person. Very sweet. I had a feeling that his wife really ran that household. That she merely tolerated him intellectually. Because she had a Ph.D. in English and taught at the University-in Massachusetts, Brandeis. Not only did she feel herself much superior to him on those grounds, but also she was, really, a foremost Zionist leader-a leader of the Zionist movement in this country. She was an important personage. And he was just a sweet, gentle poet. About Charles, by the way, it's interesting- I read with him at this national "Objectivists" conference in Michigan, in the 1970s. And, he too, at lunch-time students would just gather around him. There was something quite loveable about him, and they liked him. I myself thought he was a bad reader of his own work, at that time, because-his poems are very difficult to read well anyhow. Because they're not only short, they depend for their effect on tone inflection and a number of things in which voice was very important, in order to get it through, otherwise it's just dead. And I didn't think he could do it, at that time.
I wonder if his reading-my guess would be that there may not have been much if any opportunity for him to have done that, prior-
That's the conference to which Zukofsky refused to come. He sent a very curt reply: "Not interested." Indicating that he disliked the rest of us, he wanted nothing to do with us.
* * *
You had mentioned earlier that you enjoyed jazz, and I was wondering where your tastes went in that direction, your affinities-
Yeah. Well, there's jazz that I admire because of the artistry, the way in which very ordinary, plain, and boring popular songs are made into creative things. The best example for me is Artie Shaw-and Bennie Goodman. Wonderful. But for sheer fun, for me, Fats Waller's the guy. Oh, I love Fats.
Did you have the opportunity-I know you lived in New Orleans, did you hear live music at that time?
Oh, all the time-it was on the street. Little bands would come out, march down the street. I lived in the French Quarter-I had a wonderful apartment in the French Quarter, I was single then. It was great. You'd hear-I didn't go to clubs, I don't know whether they actually had clubs at that time, for jazz. Jazz used to be played in whorehouses, actually-which I suppose is sensible.
When did you live in New Orleans?
I was there in the 1930s. When it was a much smaller city, and it was the most-by far-the most interesting city in the country. Far more interesting than San Francisco in those days-
I think it still is in some ways. . . . You feel, it's like there's a palpable sense that there were French here, there were Spanish here, the Indians were here, the Black people are still here-they all are-and the Cajun culture, all of it. There's that mix and blend which is so alive, and so part of it, that it's really like you're not within the U.S., in a certain way. You're in this little nation state of its own.
Exactly. It felt like a different country. Yeah, and at first I didn't care for the way the girls looked, and then it all of a sudden hit me-hey, these girls are beautiful. They, the women were-well, it was much more, for one thing in the 1930s it was sexually much more open than any other part of the country. Oh, by far- And the only problem for me was I couldn't keep up with the women and drink, they would drink me under the table. Yeah, I love New Orleans. One of the most interesting trips I took was down the bayou, all the way to the tip of the Mississippi. It was a narrow-the bayous are narrow and, having weeds around, real tropical looking. And on either side, the people lived on fishing. Anyhow, that was exciting. I mean, you felt as if you were in tropical Africa, just going down in a little boat, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. And there I found little black boys fishing, so I joined them. I caught a little shark, and they fried him right there on the sand. It's just a different part of the world, really. But the Cajuns, I don't have any great admiration for the Cajuns. They're mean-at that time, I don't know what they're like now. But I remember, I went with another fellow to a small Cajun town, somewhere along the bayous there. And there was a dance going on, so-well, we walk in, these guys eye us real hard. So we want to dance, so we walk out to one of the girls to ask them to dance. Oh, man-that was a mistake. I mean they marched us out of there. Not friendly country.
That isolation has, you know, in many ways kept their culture intact-
Yeah, that's true. . . . Well, I appreciate your not going over old ground. I don't know of what interest this will be to students, however.
We'll see. You know, there's your remark at the very close of that earlier interview [see "Carl Rakosi, An Interview," Conjunctions 11] where you say to the question, "Do you have any advice for young writers?" -"Young writers don't need any advice." I think it's appropriate.
Note: Mr Rakosi's poem "The Wayfarer Met the Passerby" is quoted from his Collected Poems (The National Poetry Foundation, 1986), © 1986 by Callman Rawley.