The Dialectical Objectivist: Louis Zukofsky’s “Mantis” Poems

In Revolution of the Word, Jerome Rothenberg introduces Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivist poetics by stating that it entails “[n]ot a polarization into object/subject but a dialectic” (239). Unfortunately, Rothenberg offers no further commentary regarding this conception of “dialectic,” and his nebulous use of the term fails to say much about how readers should approach works like “Poem Beginning ‘The’” or “Song 22: ‘To My Wash-Stand.’” In order to effectively unpack his statement — and in order to better understand what Objectivists like Zukofsky were attempting to achieve with their particular brand of avant-garde poetry — it is necessary to locate a more precise definition for “dialectic.” Toward that end, we find an especially apt conception of the term in an unlikely source: the philosopher/literary critic/rhetorician Kenneth Burke.

In his 1945 text A Grammar of Motives, Burke argues that dialectic involves “the employment of the possibilities of linguistic transformation” (402). This “linguistic transformation” can occur in many ways, but Burke typically views it as “any development (in organisms, works of art, stages of history) got by the interplay of various factors that mutually modify one another” (403). When terms like “object” and “subject” are suspended together in the process of dialectic, the terms transcend their apparent differences through “a third term that [serves] as the ground or medium of communication between [these] opposing terms” (405). Essentially, the only way for an Objectivist poet to avoid “the Medusa’s glance” that Ming-Qian Ma discusses in Poetry as Re-Reading is to find a third term/way: the rear-view mirror of George Oppen, the bronze shield of Carl Rakosi. Rather than forcing the poet to conceptualize a poem as a subject writing about an object, the Objectivist recourse to dialectic introduces a process by which “object” and “subject” cease to be mutually exclusive categories and begin to transform into one another. This engenders a harmony previously inaccessible to the poet; through the process of “detailing and demonstrating strabismal seeing in the form of language,” Ma states, the Objectivist poet creates “a language demilitarized from saying of or about [an object] to saying something with it” (101).

But what, then, is the value of Burke’s conception of dialectic when applied to these poems? Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “‘Mantis,’ An Interpretation” exemplify the dialectic approach best, as both poems reject the high modernist conceit of the poet meditating on an object. Though Zukofsky certainly meditates, he eschews the subject-object binary in favor of a third option: rather than write about the mantis, he writes about the experience of riding the subway with the mantis—along with “the separate poor…[t]he armies of the poor” (247). If, as Ma points out, the Imagist concern with the “direct treatment of the thing” actually establishes hierarchical relationships by positioning “the subject as the predator of predication” (65), then the only way to obviate such hegemony is to engage in linguistic triangulation by writing about an experience rather than about an object (i.e., to engage in a Burkean form of dialectic). Burke’s theory of dialectic provides us yet another way of thinking about the techniques Zukofsky and his Objectivist cohorts were experimenting with in the early twentieth century, and it seems worthy of further consideration as a general heuristic for avant-garde poetries.

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