Remembering Rakosi 1903-2004
Miraculously healthy until his final days, Carl Rakosi died at home in the Sunset District in San Francisco on Thursday June 24, 2004. He was 100 years old and the last of the Objectivisits poets. He was with Marilyn Kane his beloved companion of 15 years, his daughter Barbara and son-in-law Dan. Shortly before Carl's death the family played classical music and Dan read him one of his favorite books, Mark Twain's short satiric novel: Pudd'nhead Wilson.
It is well known how much Carl loved classical music and should surprise no one that Carl loved Twain and this novel so much. The book exemplifies so many of Carl's interests as a poet: his use of a pitch-perfect vernacular; his independent (often charmingly stubborn) streak; his writing of "social significance"; and his of use humor and epigrams.
Twain's hardy sensibility is embedded in Carl's notable "Americana" poemsno false steps regarding word choice, no clever endings, and no adverb seemed ever to escape his attention. In 1933 Carl published "The Lobster," he writes:
Highlighting Carl's early ‘objectivists' roots and his vivid grasp of physical things via science and technology "The Lobster" also has echoes Twain's interest in the developing science of fingerprinting in Pudd'nhead Wilson, he writes:
If you will look at the balls of your fingersyou that have very sharp eyesightyou will observe that these dainty curving lines lie close together, like those that indicate the borders of oceans in maps, and that they form various clearly defined patterns, such as arches, circles, long curves, whorls, etc., and that these patterns differ on the different fingers.
What made Carl such a wonderfully incisive and human poet? I keep thinking it was his drive to know the pattern and whorl of each finger exactlyfinger by fingerpoem by poem. As Carl writes in the poem "Poetry":
Carl's story has been told many times, which is fitting since it's one so worth telling. How he was born in Berlin and spent his early childhood in Baja, Hungary moving to Kenosha, Wisconsin at the age of six with his father (his mother and grandmother died in Auschwitz)how in his twenties in the ‘20s he was published in the famed The Little Reviewhow in the Great Depression he was briefly involved with the Communist party, writing (under a pen name) for The Nation and The New Masseshow he corresponded with and was published by Ezra Pound (in The Exile) and was friends with the young Louis Zukofskyhow for over 35 years he had a career in social work, changing his name to Callman Rawley (less ethnic than Rakosi), eventually directing the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolishow a letter, from out of the blue, by English poet Andrew Crozier lead Rakosi to break his poetic silence of twenty-five years and return to poetry in the late ‘60s.
And the story continued. In the middle ‘80s by The National Poetry Foundation published Rakosi's Collected Poems and Prose. And jumping ahead, in 2002 the Kelly Writers House hosted an audio web cast honoring Carl on his 99th birthday. Last summer The American Poetry Review featured Carl on their cover, publishing eight new poems and an interview. One poem from that feature "In the First Circle of Limbo," was chosen by Lyn Hejinian for The Best American Poems 2004. Last November Steve Dickison and the Poetry Center hosted a gala celebration for "RAKOSI'S ONE-HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY" at San Francisco's Main Public Library, which attracted nearly 400 people. And though she was unable to attend, Carl mentioned how much he enjoyed a movie Anne Waldman made with Ed Bowes after Carl's poem "Le Menage" with a Jean Redpath song used as the soundtrack.
And again in December, Jen Hofer and Fred Dewey organized a reading to celebrate Carl, with capacity crowd of over 100 people, at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. Carl gave a solid reading, and sporting a fresh haircut and fine navy sports jacket, he looked as handsome and feisty as ever. Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Vangelisti, Wanda Coleman and I also participated that evening along with several others. I read a Rakosi poem entitled "OK." In the poem the speaker holds forth, offering up and shooting down, possible origins of the phrase "Ok." He writes:
To my mind it is one of Carl's most successful "Americana" poemsa masterful coupling of the folk and intellectual energies, what Bob Holman once dubbed as "the breathing space of Rakosi." The poem exemplifies the journalist's concern for facts and information transformed by Carl's lyric poetical gifts. The poem also displays another winning characteristic of the "Americana" poems and Carl (with intimations of Twain again): Rakosi's rustic authority. Here, Carl reveals that there is nothing plain (adjectives, metaphors, analogies not excluded) about his seemingly plain sense of things.
Perhaps the last gift Carl gave me was my friendship with Jen Hofer who had known Carl since she was two through a fortunate accident of family friendship. Two days before Carl died, when it was clear to everyone that he did not have long to live, Jen wrote: "I know what I am to learn from him…that is, to take the world into myself and give myself out into it open-armed & open-eyed, to be honest & good & whenever possible happy…, but knowing what I am to learn is not the same thing as being able to put that learning into practice." Knowing Carl has affected my life in many ways and I will miss him very much.