Carl Rakosi, an Objectivist poet who lived in San Francisco for more than 20 years, died at his Sunset District home on Thursday, June 24. He was 100.
Joining Rakosi in the loosely organized group named by Ezra Pound were Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. All were Jews, and although none wrote specifically on Jewish themes, Rakosi did eventually.
The Objectivists followed in the footsteps of other modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. Their stylistic innovations — described by Stanford professor John Felstiner as “keeping sloppy sentimentality out of their poetry” — have influenced several generations of younger poets around the world.
“The poem became the object before them, and to make the poem an object that could stand on its own, that was the sense of objectivism,” according to Felstiner.
Rakosi was born in Berlin to Hungarian parents. His father was a watchmaker. When he was 1, Rakosi’s father moved back to Hungary, where they stayed until he was 6.
His parents divorced, and Rakosi was left with his grandparents while his father came to the United States. He remarried, and in 1910, Rakosi’s stepmother arrived to take him and his brother to Chicago.
Though he was only 6 at the time, Rakosi described arriving at Ellis Island in a 2001 interview with the Jewish Bulletin.
“As we got closer to New York, there was a real sense of panic whether people could pass the health examinations,” he said. But he also remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty. “It was an unforgettable sight,” he said. “There was a sense of great exhilaration and joy.”
Rakosi never saw his mother again, and in fact, said there was always a sense of mystery about her. It was only in the 1970s, when he made a trip back to Hungary with his children, did he learn her fate; he found his mother’s and grandmother’s names on a memorial wall of the Budapest synagogue, with the word Auschwitz after their names.
Rakosi got a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Madison and then a master’s of social work from the University of Pennsylvania. He briefly enrolled in medical school, a graduate program in literature and law school, but dropped them all for various reasons.
It was as an undergraduate that he began writing poetry, inspired by several of his classmates.
At 22, he was living in New York, and a friend urged him to visit the offices of the Little Review, considered one of the most avant-garde, high-quality literary magazines at the time.
“You could do that then,” he said. “So with a fluttering heart and some manuscripts, I went to their office,” he told the Bulletin in 2001.
Professionally Rakosi did many things: teaching high school English, practicing social work and serving as the executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis for more than 20 years. He went by the name Callman Rawley, because he thought an ethnic-sounding name could hinder his job opportunities.
He and his late wife, Leah, were married for more than 50 years, and they had two children. He stopped writing poetry for almost 30 years, spending those years as psychotherapist. When he was near retirement, he picked up the pen again.
It was only because a student of his work tracked him down that he was inspired to begin again. “I assumed that people had forgotten all about me and my work,” he said in 2001.
But once he began, “it came easily. I was bursting at the seams.”
Rakosi published more than 15 volumes of poetry, including two by the National Poetry Foundation, and won numerous awards, including the PEN award and several from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Rakosi moved to San Francisco only after he retired, living in the Sunset District.
Rakosi is survived by his daughter Barbara Rawley of Minneapolis; son George Rawley of Chico; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and his partner, Marilyn Kane of San Francisco.
Donations can be sent to the Strybing Arboretum Society, Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94122.