June 25, 2018
“A dark that you never see in nature”: America’s oldest poet died fourteen years ago today
by Ian Dreiblatt
A sad and remarkable note: today makes the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Carl Rakosi, who was, when he died in 2004, the oldest working poet in the world. He had less than a year earlier celebrated his hundredth birthday in style at the San Francisco Public Library. (His successor as oldest working poet was Nicanor Parra, who died earlier this year at 103. Oldest working novelist may be the wonderful Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now ninety-nine with well-received new book, though Herman Wouk, 103, could drop another memoir any time. Slacker Boris Pahor, 104, hasn’t put out a book since 2009.)
Rakosi is probably the least known of the so-called “Objectivist” poets — a loose grouping whose other primary members were Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker. The name—which is unrelated to Ayn Rand’s unfortunate legacy—traces back to Zukofsky’s 1931 essay Sincerity and Objectification, which appeared in an “Objectivist”-themed issue of Poetry Zukofsky guest-edited, including work from himself, Rakosi, Reznikoff, and Oppen, along with the movement’s British fellow-traveler, Basil Bunting.
The “Objectivists” (Zukofsky insisted on the quotation marks) weren’t a movement in the classic sense — their sensibilities and compositional practices varied widely. But they did have some things in common: most were Jewish and native speakers of Yiddish (though not Oppen), most directly espoused far left politics (though not Reznikoff), and most began their careers under the problematically brilliant spell of Ezra Pound.
Rakosi was born in Berlin in 1903, and lived in different central European cities until 1910, when his family emigrated to the American Midwest. Despite a life of struggle and poverty, they managed to send him to the University of Chicago, where he began writing poetry. As a young man, he sometimes went by the name Callman Rawley, hoping it would sound more “American” and spare him the brunt of anti-immigrant sentiment. (Sidenote: Naming conventions have changed.) The name lingered long enough that it appears on the copyright pages of his New Directions books from the sixties.
Rakosi’s work shows a deep feeling for human lives caught up in the rough winds of history and political economy, and for the extraordinariness at the heart of everyday life. It’s often visually-driven, alive in the play where focus on one thing inevitably blurs another. His poem “Before You,” from the “Objectivist” issue of Poetry, ends:
Tumblers in the nebula,
is not every man
his own host?
After the publication of his Selected Poems in 1941, Rakosi stopped writing to focus on organizing and social work (Oppen and Bunting took similar hiatuses), and did not publish a poem for more than twenty-five years. He returned in 1967 with a collection called Amulet, followed the next year by another called Ere-Voice. He would continue writing and publishing, at various paces, for the rest of his very long life.
If Rakosi could swing from earthy to exalted very fast (“Everybody wants to get into the act, / said Jimmy Durante, / even Athenagoras, / the Patriarch of Constantinople.”), he did it with a sweetness of voice derived from his intuition that the humblest, most daily elements of experience are often the most transcendent — warmed by an ironic sensibility that couldn’t help seeing the same perception in reverse, the insanity of an infinite consciousness crammed into the dented reality of physical experience. A frolicsome goat tied to a pecan tree unfolds in his writing orchestrally, while mythic beings are reduced to heirlooms. In part through reading that last poem, “How to Be with a Rock,” Ming-Qian Ma observes that Rakosi practiced “a seeing that also places itself under close surveillance against its own predatory instincts.”
To remember him today, you can listen to these recordings of him reading. You can read a great many of his welcoming, powerful poems online thanks to the heroes of the Poetry Foundation. You can read this excellent set of tributes and remembrances at Jacket. You can listen to Al Filreis, Laura Goldstein, Don Share, and Anthony Madrid talk about his poem “In What Sense I Am I” in a very great Poetry Foundation podcast.
There’s also a rough, longish video of Rakosi reading his work in the late eighties, ending in a nine-minute interview. It’s wonderful. (From “Instructions to the Player”: “Remember that the soul / is easily agitated / and has a terror of shapelessness.”) Pluuuus the trailer to what appears to be a movie currently being made by Colin Still, called The Last Objectivist. In it, Rakosi remembers his “Objectivist” colleagues before reading from their work — including the “only poem in which Zukofsky let his hair down,” and his recollections of Niedecker’s tiny house alongside Niedecker’s own description of it.
And then, maybe sweetest of all, you can also watch this moving interview he gave to oral historian Kimberly Bird in 2002 for the UC Berkeley Library’s Regional Oral History Project. Rakosi, already 100 here, and by then a longtime resident of the Bay Area, talks with clarity and excellent humor about his first time jumping off a boxcar to escape the “railway men.” (A fuller set of videos is available here, and is highly recommended.) If you do nothing else for yourself today, give yourself ten minutes with one-hundred-year-old Carl Rakosi:
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.