Monday, August 2, 2010

George Oppen and Carl Rakosi: choosing political struggle over poetry

image of Carl Rakosi courtsey of Gloria Graham and Poetry Dispatch

"The terrain is fascinating
but the citizen is chained
to a real promontory
as a brash new breed
takes over in Congress,
young, self-righteous,
with an instant answer
in ten or less words
for every problem,

and out of TV imaging
steps a President, strong,
up-beat, dependable, while
in the corporate board room
canny, fine-tuned men
prepare the agenda for them,
and clerks enter ‘Payments
for Political Favors’
in the company books.

Investors and billionaires
swarm in the city.

As on a distant planet
devoid of public events
a beggar stands most
patiently with a tin cup.

And everywhere
the same old working man,
his nose to the grindstone,
expecting nothing,
not knowing where to turn.
Like Prometheus, the citizen,
who rages, “God
damn this debasement!
Must we become cynics?"

Oh, citizen!"

extract from
The Citizen by Carl Rakosi
For the American poets George Oppen (1908-1984) and Carl Rakosi (1903-2004) poetry was always subservient to involvement in social and political struggles. They believed that writing about social and political issues was inadequate, citizens had to be active participants. Both Oppen and Rakosi gave up poetry for nearly three decades to be involved in the political struggles that shaped America between the 1930-1960's. Neither man believed that poetry was an instrument of social change.

Carl Rakosi was a Marxist, who like George Oppen, was a lifelong participant in struggles for social, political and economic justice. Originally trained in social work, Rakosi spent his working life as a social worker, therapist for disturbed children and social work manager. He started publishing poetry in his 20's but stopped writing and reading poetry in the 1940's and dedicated himself to social work and social activism. He published no poetry for 27 years, however, after returning to poetry in his 60's Rakosi continued to write and publicly read his poetry well into his 90's.

Rakosi's poetry engages social and political issues but he avoided a direct approach. He once said that the challenge in writing poetry that engages social and political issues is to find those elements that can be universalized. Rakosi often used satire in his poems to engage social and political issues.

After publishing a collection of poems in the 1920's Oppen joined the US Communist Party and abandoned poetry for over 30 years for social and political activism. In 1950, after being investigated by the un-American Activities Committee Oppen left America rather than betray friends and colleagues and lived in Mexico for over 8 years. Upon his return in 1958 Oppen took up writing poetry again. Oppen's poetry is characterized by simplicity and clarity and contains none of the rhetorical flourishes and artistic illusions common to most poetry.
Of Being numerous: Sections 1-22
by George Oppen

obsessed, bewildered
By the shipwreck
of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
of being numerous

unable to begin
At the beginning, the fortunate
Find everything already here. They are shoppers,
Choosers, judgers... And here the brutal
is without issue, a dead end.
They develop
Argument in order to speak, they become
unreal, unreal, life loses
solidity, loss extent, baseball's their game

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