Monday June 28, 2004
Only one degree of separation links Carl Rakosi, who has died aged 100, with the poets of Victorian England, and that link is Ezra Pound. Rakosi made his mark in the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, in 1931, as a Pound protégé. But Rakosi and his fellow poets, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky, were already moving past Pound's modernism, which seemed to them almost as moribund as the tradition it was trying to overthrow.
Yet the Objectivists were primarily the children of Jewish immigrants, and that experience linked their work far more than any "objective" style. Neither were they allied politically with Pound. It is no coincidence that Rakosi and Oppen, both Marxists, each took a long break from poetry. Rakosi spent three decades as a social worker before being "rediscovered" by the British poet Andrew Crozier.
Rakosi was born in Berlin. A year later, his parents separated, and he spent six years with his mother's family in Hungary. His father moved to the US, working as a watchmaker in Chicago, where he befriended socialist thinkers such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnicht. In 1910 Rakosi's stepmother came to Hungary to take Rakosi and his brother to America.
The family eventually settled in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and after starting university at Chicago aged 17, Rakosi transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where, surrounded by what he later described as "10,000 Babbitts", he edited the literary magazine.
After college he went to Australia as a mess boy, and worked with disturbed children in New York, which led him to return to Wisconsin to take a master's degree in psychology. For the next 15 years, he drifted: he began further degrees in law and medicine, taught English, and worked in a variety of jobs.
All the while he was writing poetry, which was published in magazines as prestigious as the Nation. In 1929 he changed his name, legally, to Callman Rawley, which he thought - in disguising his immigrant origins - would lead to quicker acceptance in literary circles. His writing was influenced strongly by the giants of American modernism: Pound's focus on the image, the musical language of Wallace Stevens, the inventive forms of ee cummings, and William Carlos Williams, whose spare lines and concern with everyday things helped redefine Rakosi's poetry.
Through correspondence with Pound, Rakosi was introduced to Zukofsky and the other Objectivists. Although the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine linked them as a group, to Rakosi, Zukofsky's strict formal experiments and Reznikoff's "found poetry" were as different to each other as Oppen's pared down lines were to his own relaxed, almost casual rhythms.
The Objectivists did for American poetry what Henry Miller did for American fiction at the same period, opening it up and saying that the experience of being the child of immigrants is as worthy of being the subject of literature as that of the literary establishment. None of them, however, were accepted by that establishment. But in 1941, James Laughlin, another Pound disciple, with his own small press, published Rakosi's Selected Poems as an early New Directions book.
By then, Rakosi had earned an MA in social work at the University of Pennsylvania. As a Marxist, he became convinced poetry was not an instrument for social change. "I fell in love with social work, and that was my undoing as a poet," he said later, and for nearly 30 years he worked as a psychotherapist with disturbed children in St Louis, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.
Then, in 1965, Crozier, then a student of Charles Olson's at State University of New York-Buffalo got in contact with Rakosi, and his interest inspired Rakosi to begin writing again. In 1967, New Directions, by now a successful publisher, brought out Amulet, which included his older work alongside new poetry. This was followed by Ere-Voice (1971) and, from Black Sparrow, Ex Cranium, Night (1975). His Collected Poems was published by the National Poetry Foundation in 1986, and Poems 1923-1941, published by Sun and Moon Press in 1989, won a PEN award. Etruscan Books in this country has published new work, in Earth Suite (1997) and Old Poets Tale (1999).
Although Rakosi, in poems such as "New Orleans Transient Bureau, 1934", captures the rhythms of real speech, as it affects the reality of daily life, he could be wry on a larger scale. His Americana series contains a brief poem called "The Blank Page":
What's the matter? Have you nothing to say about America? Do you not dare be grandiose?
Unassuming and engaged, Rakosi had much to say about America. His poetry may be richer for his three decades of silence, but even in its reduced form, his body of work marked him out as a major modern poet.
His wife, Leah, predeceased him. He is survived by two sons.
Carl Rakosi, poet and psychotherapist,
born November 6 1903; died June 25 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
America's oldest living major poet has died at his modest home in San Francisco's Sunset District. He was 100 years old and not ready to go gently into the night.
Carl Rakosi, a child of Jewish immigrants who became a protege of Ezra Pound, still had poems to write, walks to take, wry observations to make, music to absorb.
He still had his beloved partner of 15 years, his two grown children, six grandchildren and four great-grandsons. Files on his desk were filled with paper dotted with words such as "Xanadu of oranges" to be turned into poems.
He was called a "major American poet" by the National Poetry Foundation and had been an inspiration to generations of poets, including the Beats.
Rakosi was a happy, vital man with a quick smile and wit to match, who at age 99 was still hosting dinner parties where talk was animated, ranging from poetry to politics.
He raged against the dying of the light, resisting for as long as he could, until the evening of June 24, halfway to his 101st birthday. He wanted more of the present, another afternoon to listen to Beethoven or Bernstein, thumb through Chekhov or Joyce or sit in the park and marvel at nature.
"Some people fade out of life, but Carl had a huge fight with death," said his partner, Marilyn Kane, a former nun who fell for an "intelligent man, a giant in life." She said Rakosi was healthy until his final days.
Kane stood in the living room of the home they shared. With tears in her wide blue eyes, Kane looked at photos of Rakosi and spoke of how he lived not in the past or future, but in the moment. Even in the triple digits, he never talked of death.
More than a dozen volumes of Rakosi's poetry have been published. The centenarian had enough new works for another book. "I think that was part of his longevity, his ability to be so present," Kane said.
He was consumed by ideas, questions and plans. Three weeks before he died, he sent a batch of new poems to publications including the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.
Scattered on the coffee table were snapshots spanning decades and countries, from Rakosi's place of birth in Berlin to his early childhood in Baja, Hungary, and his arrival in the United States, where he lived with his stepmother and father, a watchmaker. The family lived in Kenosha, Wis.
Rakosi's poems were first published in Poetry magazine in 1931. Unfiltered, laconic and infused with self-effacing humor, the poet became part of a loose-knit group dubbed "Objectivists." The Objectivists were a sequel to Modernism and included William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen.
The Objectivists' aim, Rakosi once explained, was to "present objects in their most essential reality and to make of each poem an object." He wrote: "I mean to penetrate the particular / the way an owl waits / for a kangaroo rat."
"Rakosi was much more attached to the everyday appearances and movement of life," said John Felstiner, a professor of English at Stanford who met the poet a decade ago and was struck by his charm and humility. Felstiner was giving a reading from a biography he'd written on Romanian-born poet Paul Celan and was delighted when a man later approached and introduced himself as Carl Rakosi.
Felstiner said his favorite Rakosi poem is called "Israel" and includes the line: "I have stumbled on the ancient voice of honesty and tremble at the voice of my people."
"Rakosi was this voice of honesty," Felstiner said. "With Carl's death, this leaves Stanley Kunitz, who was born in 1905 and lives in New York, as the oldest living, well-known published American poet."
Poetry served as bookends to a full and varied life for Rakosi. After earning a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in psychology, Rakosi earned a second master's degree in social work. He spent three decades as a psychotherapist and social worker, eventually serving as director of the Jewish Family and Children's Service in Minneapolis.
As a psychotherapist and social worker, he went by the name Callman Rawley. He explained in an interview that the name change was reflective of the times. "At the time, there were very few foreign names in the press and they were all factory workers. I thought I'd never get a job at a university with a foreign name."
He had moved to the states in 1910, and never saw his mother or grandparents again. He later learned that his mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. Although he was close to his father, he never told him he wrote poetry. He felt that an immigrant who struggled to provide for a family would not understand such an intangible metier. Rakosi became a social worker in 1924 and later a psychologist; after his retirement, he returned to poetry.
His wife of 53 years, Leah, died of breast cancer in 1989. The two had a rare love, Marilyn Kane said. Kane was the Rakosis' neighbor. Not long after Leah Rakosi's death, Carl Rakosi invited her over for a drink. She stayed for dinner. He was 85, she was 53. She considered their age difference but in the end followed her heart. She never felt a need to marry Rakosi; their love sufficed, she said.
"We lived an ordinary life," said Kane. "We were careful about what we ate. Carl exercised every single day. We watched Charlie Rose and old musicals. But there were times when it was not ordinary. I would see his incredible intelligence."
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and co-founder of City Lights book store, considers Rakosi "one of the poets that the Beat Generation poets read and admired for his unadorned presentation of objective reality."
Matt Gonzalez, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, met Rakosi in 1998 when the board honored the poet.
"I was familiar with the work of the poets in that (Objectivists) circle, '' Gonzalez said. "I think Carl's work has a wry sense of humor and was avant- garde to the extent he moved away from more flowery prose in poetry and tried to reduce poetry to its essential elements."
When Gonzalez was running for mayor, Rakosi stopped by his campaign office on Haight Street. It wasn't far from Amoeba Music, where he shopped for CDs. In November, not long after his 100th birthday celebration at San Francisco's Main Library, Rakosi performed a reading at a Gonzalez campaign event late at night at a South of Market studio. A year or so before, when Rakosi was only 99, Gonzalez attended a dinner party at his home.
"He was all smiles, comfortable, conversational and very, very intelligent," Gonzalez said. "There was no sense this guy was in his 90s."
Poet George Evans remembers the day when he encountered Rakosi's poetry. He read a series of poems called "Americana," about "common people written in the language of the people." When the two met in the early 1970s, Rakosi immediately welcomed Evans into his life.
"Famous poets would come to town, and Carl and Leah would invite younger writers to their home to join them," Evans said. "That was an incredible thing for a young writer."
Evans was at Rakosi's 100th birthday celebration. Rakosi had asked poets to read their own works, but Evans couldn't resist reading the master's work.
"Irony was an important part of his work," Evans said. "I read from a series called 'Country Epitaphs,' which had been published in 1999." The lines were short, irreverent and witty.
One went like this: "The widow Fairchild spoke into a headstone: 'At last I know where he is at night.' " Another was from "The widow Benson" and included the words, "Gone but not forgiven." Yet another, which Evans sees as a fitting eulogy for the poet himself, reads: "The great American head stone: He / Was A Good Guy."
The good guy was memorialized at a private family ceremony on Sunday. No public service is planned. Gonzalez said he hopes to have a city street or landmark named after Rakosi.
The immediate family, which consists of Rakosi's daughter Barbara Rawley of London and son Dr. George Rawley of Chico (Butte County), asks that donations be made in Rakosi's name to the Strybing Arboretum Society, Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, San Francisco, CA 94122.
"Instructions to the Player "
By Carl Rakosi
easy on that bow.
Not too much weeping. Remember that the soul
is easily agitated
and has a terror of shapelessness.
It will venture out
but only to a doe's eye. Let the sound out
but from a distance
like the forest at night.
And do not forget
the pause between.
That is the sweetest
and has the nature of infinity.
(Published in 1971)
"Incident in Hell"
By Carl Rakosi
Our ancestors were happy
when the white man came.
We made him welcome
and took care of him.
When he was hungry
we fed him. We never
did him any harm.
He seemed honest
and we trusted him,
but once he was settled
his words became as flimsy
as fluff from a cotton-wood
and he acted like a coyote
around a hen-house.
There was no limit to
his greed and cunning.
His soul glared the way
an owl glares at
a covey of quail-chicks.
He had no mercy,
yet he said
there is a God.
What is he?
Who sent him here?
With that the old chief
his face lines with dignity
said no more
but the agony in his eyes
was like a caged beast
in the Inferno
as it struck bed-rock:
kill or be killed
signed, Playboy of
the Western Hemisphere
Alas, old chief!
(Published in 1997)