The Objectivist Tradition in American Poetry

Term Paper 2006 10 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1. Introduction – What is Objectivism?

2. Poems
2.1. William Charles Williams: “An Early Martyr”
2.2. Ezra Pound: “The Garret”
2.3. Charles Reznikoff: “16”
2.4. Louis Zukofsky: “The Immediate Aim” – 3

3. Conclusion: differences and similarities

4. Sources

1. Introduction – What is Objectivism?

Objectivist poetry is a twentieth-century form of poetry characterized by innovative experiments with verse, structure, and meter in an attempt to incorporate into poetry the ideas that Einstein brought to physics. Early objectivist poets include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Even though all Objectivist poets shared a specific poetic heritage (the modernism of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams)[1] and some kind of epistemology as well as an ethical or political praxis, their style of writing differs.

Objectivists aim was to produce poetry that was free of cultural pressures and social understandings. Objectivism was first and foremost a discipline of the poetic will and critique of prophetic roles that was assumed by poets of the nineteenth century[2]. Poetry should, according to poets such as Pound, be in a pure form, free of banal and stereotyped structures and choice of words. Zukofsky sought “a completed sound or structure, melody or form”[3] and a description of “things as they exist”. The most important term in Zukofsky’s description of Objectivist Poetry is “sincerity”[4]. Poetry shall be intense and significant; poems in objectivist style draw attention to objects, and they also construct aesthetic objects in a way that the conditions they wish for are dramatized and forced to take responsibility for their productions[5]. Williams argued that a poem should be limited to its essence, its core. Emotion should not enter into the poem but be discovered and developed by the reader, he believed[6].

Objectivist poetry has been labeled in an issue on poetry in February 1931 discussed by the poets Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky published an “Objectivists” Anthology in 1932. To figure out how the results in Objectivist poetry differ, I want to take a closer look at Objectivist poems and their authors in the following.

2. Poems

2.1. William Charles Williams: “An Early Martyr”

William Charles Williams (1880 – 1915) focuses in his poetry on the use of motives and on a thoughtful construction of poems. He argued, like Pound, that a concentration on image sensation, as well as a desire to avoid abstraction should be essential for poetry.

The poem “An Early Martyr” (1930) states an inherent evil of government by illustrating how the system fails on a young man. The statement of the poem reminds of Anthony Burgess’ (1917 – 1993) book “A Clockwork Orange”. The novel deplores the institution of a government that systematically seeks to suppress the individual in favour of the collective, or the state. The novel’s main character Alex is fighting against large, repressive government “machines”. The State, however, is prepared to employ any means necessary to ensure its survival. Using strategies such as technological innovation, mass-market culture and violence, the State seeks to control everyone. The State also does not tolerate dissent, however Alex aims to rouse public opinion against it and thus threaten its stability. Alex cannot change the system, he fails but the state also fails on him – he has suffered but he is still alive. By the end of the movie version of “A Clockwork Orange” (1971, Stanley Kubrick) the narrator of the story quotes from Williams’ poem: “They ‘cured’ him all right”.[7]

The poem “An Early Martyr” is dedicated to a young man named John Coffey. Coffey was a radical who wanted to help the poor. He regarded himself as someone like Robin Hood, stole goods from department stores and gave them to poor people. However, his plan was to be caught some day to be able to make his plea for the poor in court where he would get more publicity. He himself reported his theft to the police who refused to let him speak at court – instead he was put into an insane asylum. Coffey was supposed to stay there for a lifetime but was released when the asylum got too crowded. “I identified myself in his defense”, Williams said to explain why he dedicated the poem to Coffey.

The title of the poem already suggests a conflict (“martyr”) which is intensified by bringing martyrdom in connection with youth. From the very beginning of the poem it is clear that a person had been treated completely unjust (“without trial”[8]). The open question why someone would report his own criminal offence to the police makes the reader wonder and arouses interest in the story the poem will (possibly) tell. Williams uses a cliché by choosing the expression “Exclusive stores” – it is only reported that Coffey stole from stores – but the word “exclusive” indicates that he robbed from people which were actually excluding others.

Realising that he could not change anything “he went close to The Edge out of frustration and Doggedness”[9] the poem tells, illustrating that government did its best to break the young man. However, he is released when the asylum is “overcrowded”[10] – a reason which indicates that it was clear he would not harm anyone and was not really thought to be insane. He only was dangerous for the government. Thus he was only let go under the condition some relative would have a look on him and that it was guaranteed that he would “remain Out of the State”.[11] The “young martyr” could not change circumstances, however his cause is still worth fighting for, Williams writes in the fourth stanza: “his youthful deed (…) Is still good”[12]. To start a revolt against the “set-up”[13] is regarded to be a romantic but desirable aim. The last stanza exposes “An Early Martyr” as a highly political poem. It becomes clear that it is not only about a young man, but about a class conflict. “Let him be a factory whistle”[14], Williams writes and puts thus the power to revolt in the hands of the working class. The martyrs “fight” actually symbolises a fight of the working class against the ruling upper-class. “Never give up keep at it!”, Williams encourages workers. The systems created by the upper-class is corrupt (“bought Courts”[15]), conflicts cannot be avoided as the system cannot be trusted, thus people should fight against it.


[1] McLaughlin, Robert L. (ed.). The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Dalkey Archive Press, 2002. p. 10.

[2] Altieri, Charles. The Objectivist Tradition. In: DuPlessis, Rachel Blau & Peter Quartermain (eds) The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999. p. 30.

[3] Altieri, Charles. The Objectivist Tradition. p. 26.

[4] The Review of Contemporary Fiction. p. 10.

[5] Altieri, Charles. The Objectivist Tradition. p. 30.

[6] Lathbury, Roger. American Modernism (1910-1945). DWJ Books LLKC, 2006. p. 58.

[7] Williams, William Carlos. An Early Martyr and other Poems. The Alcestis Press. New York, 1935. p. 377.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Williams, William Carlos. An Early Martyr and other Poems. P. 377.

[12] Ibid. p. 378.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


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University of Frankfurt (Main)
Ezra Pound Objectivism Imagism William Carlos Williams Louis Zukofski Charles Reznikoff Poetry Modernism



Title: The Objectivist Tradition in American Poetry