Seeing Michael Carlson’s Guardian obituary of Carl Rakosi, who died June 25, linked at wood s lot reminded me that I somehow let his passing go unremarked here, and I thought I’d remedy that now. The first paragraph of the obit situates him well:
Only one degree of separation links Carl Rakosi, who has died aged 100, with the poets of Victorian England, and that link is Ezra Pound. Rakosi made his mark in the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, in 1931, as a Pound protégé. But Rakosi and his fellow poets, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky, were already moving past Pound’s modernism, which seemed to them almost as moribund as the tradition it was trying to overthrow.
(I note with sadness the omission of Lorine Niedecker among those names, where she certainly belongs; I am also surprised to learn that Rakosi legally changed his name to the less “ethnic-sounding” Callman Rawley after the publication of his first book in 1941, and the obit published in his home-town paper, the Star-Tribune, is titled “Callman Rawley, poet, dies”—if I’d opened up the paper and seen that, I’d have had no idea who they were talking about.)
One of my valued possessions is a copy of that 1941 Selected Poems (New Directions), from which I will quote a short poem, “To My First Born”:
I felt your foot below your mother’s breast
and said, “I am your provider,
let us get to know each other.
You have made me write a poem
and wake the neighbors with my shouting
until they cry, ‘What does he
think he is, the god of love’?”
(Incidentally, the last page of the book mentions, among other forthcoming publications, A New Group of Poems by John Berryman, Selected Passages from The Cantos of Ezra Pound, The Dry Season by Malcolm Cowley, A New Group of Poems by Dylan Thomas, An Anthology of Modern Mexican Poetry, Translations from the Russian of Boris Pasternak, Some Poems of Robert Herrick, A New Group of Poems by Robert Penn Warren, and Translations from Pushkin and Lermontov by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s easy to forget how important James Laughlin was to American culture.)
You were traveling through Delos
when the end came.
On the esplanade at Cannes
the awnings suddenly
went black before me.
I was carried to the belvedere
of Villa Policastro.
In the evening
in the sight of blood and bandages
I lay there like a dressed fowl…
Now, this being Languagehat, I’ll have to talk about his name, which is Hungarian in origin; the Hungarians spell it Rákosi and pronounce it RAH-koh-shee. (And that’s how I pronounce it to myself, since I don’t know how the poet said it; if any of my readers do, I beg them to let me know in the comments.) It’s an adjective derived from the name of the Rákospatak (Rákos Brook), which flows through Pest into the Danube and was formerly surrounded by open land. (My 1905 Baedeker’s Austria-Hungary says “The Hungarian diets from the 10th to the 14th cent. were held in the open air in the Rákosfeld, an extensive plain to the N. of the town, where 100,000 men are said frequently to have assembled on these occasions”; note the ambiguity introduced by the absurd attempt to avoid splitting the infinitive.) It is named for the crayfish (rák) that inhabited it; rák is a 14th-century borrowing from Slavic rak (of uncertain etymology), and both words also mean ‘cancer’ (from Latin cancer, whose primary meaning is ‘crab’).
I’ll end, for no particular reason, with this quote from János Arany’s mid-19th-century epic poem Toldi: “Toward nightfall he saw the Castle of Buda, and before the sun sank he reached the famous and glorious fields of Rákos.”