A Biographical Essay on Louis Zukofsky
Louis Zukofsky was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1904. Zukofsky's parents, Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and Chana Pruss Zukofsky (ca. 1862-1927), were Orthodox Jews from the part of Russia which is now Lithuania; Pinchos immigrated to the United States in 1898, working as a pants-presser and night watchman in New York’s garment district until he could send for his wife and children in 1903. These immigrant parents are important presences in Zukofsky's work: the figure of his mother is central to his early "Poem beginning 'The'" (1926), and he mourns her 1927 death in the play Arise, arise (1936), various early sections of "A", and as late as 1945's "A Song for the Year's End." Pinchos Zukofsky's Orthodox faith was a tradition against which his son reacted early, but the figure of Zukofsky’s father would come to play an important role in the conception of the poet's task he developed in the process of composing his long poem "A".
Zukofsky, the only one of his parent's children to be born in the New World, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, in the midst of a Yiddish-speaking community. In his Autobiography, he is careful to distinguish between his "first exposure to letters"--the "Yiddish theaters, most memorably the Thalia on the Bowery," to which his brother Morris took him, where "[b]y the age of nine [he] had seen a good deal of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed--all in Yiddish"--and his "first exposure to English," "to be exact, P.S. 7 on Christie and Hester Streets." As Zukofsky points out, he first read both Longfellow's Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in Yiddish. By eleven, Zukofsky had read all of Shakespeare (in English), a feat forecasting the wholesale consumption of texts that would mark his intellectual history, and forecasting as well his lifelong fascination with the poet who, on the Bowery as well as in the Raj, represented the apex of English letters.
The Jewish immigrant culture of turn-of-the-century New York was by no means either anti-intellectual or parochial, and for a boy as intelligent and curious as Zukofsky it afforded a wealth of cultural opportunities. Although he could have gone to City College for free, his parents sacrificed to send him to Columbia, where he studied philosophy and English, was a member of the student literary society, and saw his poems published in the student literary magazines. Zukofsky’s classmates at Columbia included many names that would become well known in later years, among them educators Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer J. Adler, literary critic Lionel Trilling, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and theater critic John Gassner. One of Zukofsky's closest friends in his first years at Columbia was Whittaker Chambers. During this period of his life the future accuser of Alger Hiss and author of Witness (perhaps the most famous anti-communist document of the century) had become a member of the Communist Party, and could introduce the young Zukofsky both to radical modernist literature and to Party circles. In 1922, Chambers was expelled from Columbia for publishing an "atheistic" play in a student magazine, though he would remain an associate of Zukofsky’s: in 1931 he appears among the poets of Zukofsky’s new movement, the "Objectivists." Zukofsky's own writings of his Columbia period are not particularly political: they show a very sensitive and very young man struggling to find his voice in poetry, with some success. One poem at least achieved publication in Harriet Monroe's Poetry (Chicago) in 1924 (though Zukofsky would never reprint it).
By the time he left Columbia with his master's degree in English in 1924, Zukofsky had studied with some of Columbia's most prominent scholars, including the poet Mark Van Doren, the philosopher John Dewey, and the novelist John Erskine, whose "Great Books" approach to literature Zukofsky would lampoon in "Poem beginning 'The.'" He had also written, as his M. A. thesis, the earliest version of his long essay "Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography." Zukofsky's fascination with Adams, scion of perhaps the first family of Anglo-Saxon Boston, a self-proclaimed decadent representative of a heroic tradition, and like his contemporary Henry James a culture-hero for American modernism, was to persist through much of his career. Adams's late and rather recondite ideas about the progression of "phases" in history would greatly influence Zukofsky, and the form of his Adams essay, the vast majority of which is quotation from Adams's works, looks forward to Zukofsky's mature compositional methods in both criticism and poetry, where the magpie-like collaging of quotation lies at the heart of his writing.
Just as Pound, even before he introduced himself to London literary circles, had firmly decided that Yeats was the only living poet who mattered, the young Zukofsky had by the latter part of the Twenties clearly singled out Ezra Pound as his most important contemporary. Zukofsky first brought himself to Pound's attention in 1927 by sending the older poet his astonishingly precocious "Poem beginning 'The,'" which Pound published in 1928 in his short-lived periodical The Exile. "'The,'" in large part a response to T.S. Eliot's 1922 The Waste Land, rather caustically castigates the widespread modernist pessimism regarding what seemed the post-Great War disintegration of Western Culture. The poem looks forward to a new hopeful future both in literature, as stimulated by the "first generation... infusion" of new blood into the American body politic, and in politics itself, as demonstrated by the brave new experiment being carried forth in Soviet Russia, the homeland of the mother to which much of Zukofsky's poem is addressed. Pound was appropriately impressed, both by "Poem beginning 'The'" and by Zukofsky's critical sense, which he demonstrated in his 1929 essay on The Cantos (one of the very first analyses of Pound's work-in-progress)--so impressed, in fact, that he persuaded the Chicago heiress and poetic impresario Harriet Monroe to allow Zukofsky to edit the February 1931 issue of her magazine Poetry, a journal for which Pound had long served as formal or informal overseas editor.
That issue, entitled "'Objectivists' 1931," was the first appearance of what would later come to be seen as the "Objectivist" movement, a group of poets that included Zukofsky himself, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and one of Zukofsky's greatest influences, the New York poet Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976); the Poetry issue also included a number of writers whose associations with the movement ranged from commitment (William Carlos Williams) to bemused bewilderment (Kenneth Rexroth), among them John Wheelwright, Harry Roskolenkier, and Whittaker Chambers. In order to provide the Poetry issue with a manifesto of poetics, Zukofsky adapted an already-drafted essay on his friend Reznikoff, stressing the elaborate theoretical apparatus he had erected to discuss Reznikoff’s poetry. The resulting document, "Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff," is more important as a description of how Zukofsky conceived of his own work than as a manifesto of an emergent movement, but it remains, in the truncated form in which it is published in Prepositions, a crucial text for understanding his poetics. Zukofsky was at some pains to insist that there never existed anything that could be called "Objectivism," and he would later repeatedly insist that the whole trappings of a poetic "school" had been arrived at on Monroe's insistence that his issue be structured around a "movement." Objectivist doctrine, however, was clearly not just an ad hoc construction for Zukofsy, and there is some tenuous evidence that he regarded the movement--at least for a short time--as something more than an ex post facto umbrella under which to gather a number of more-or-less like-minded writers.
Among those writers was the great American modernist William Carlos Williams, an old school friend of Pound’s. Early in their correspondence Pound had urged Zukofsky to look up Williams, who lived in New Jersey and was a frequent visitor to New York. Zukofsky and Williams struck up an immediate friendship, documented in the hundreds of letters they exchanged over the decades before Williams’s death in 1963. Each poet was deeply influenced by the other. From Williams, Zukofsky learned the virtues of keen observation of the everyday; from Zukofsky, Williams learned to shape his often amorphous verse into more sharply chiselled measures. Williams in fact submitted much of his work to Zukofsky for revision and blue-pencilling, and Zukofsky’s editing largely shaped the works published as The Descent of Winter (1928) and The Wedge (1943).
The "'Objectivists' 1931" issue of Poetry was followed in 1932 by An "Objectivists" Anthology, edited by Zukofsky and published by To, Publishers, a loose consortium of Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Oppen, the whole underwritten by Oppen, the only member of the group with any financial resources to speak of. While the number of poets in the Anthology was considerably diminished from the Poetry issue, there was little indication of any single aesthetic position shared among them. Zukofsky himself was at the time writing (along with a number of short poems) both the prose work Thanks to the Dictionary, a long short story of sorts that through its largely aleatorical compositional method hearkens forward to the works of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, and a critical study, The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire: The bulk of this work, like the Henry Adams essay, consists of arranged and juxtaposed quotations from its subject's writings. This latter work was published in Paris in 1934 as Le Style Apollinaire in a translation by the French critic René Taupin, but with both Taupin and Zukofsky listed as authors; most of the copes of the edition (save for the six copies Taupin brought back with him to the United States) were almost immediately destroyed in a warehouse fire, and it remains one of the rarest documents of American modernism.
This "collaboration" with Taupin, author of the groundbreaking study L'Influence du symbolisme française sur la poésie américaine de 1910 à 1920, and a friend of Zukofsky's, was something of a ruse designed to help Taupin, a reluctant writer, along the tenure track of his academic position; he, in turn, funneled part of his salary to Zukofsky during the time of the book's writing. It was one of a number of exigencies to which Zukofsky was forced in order to support himself in the lean Depression years. He translated a popular biography of Albert Einstein; taught for an academic year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1930-31); drew a stipend as the editor of To, Publishers for about a year; and from 1935 until the spring of 1942, worked, as did so many other writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day, for the Works Progress Administration. This work was not merely clock-punching for Zukofsky, though it did occupy time that he no doubt would have preferred to devote to poetry. From 1936 to 1940, Zukofsky wrote essays and radio scripts on various aspects of American craft and design for the Index of American Design, a large-scale project that aimed to record and catalogue the entire range of American handicrafts and design from colonial times through the end of the nineteenth century. He assiduously researched these pieces, in the process gaining an intimate knowledge of the history of American kitchenware, tinsmithing, friendship quilts, and other forms of material culture. This work strengthened his appreciation for the individual craftsman, and cemented his own ideology of the poet as craftsman, rather than expressive vessel. The essays and scripts themselves, far more wide-ranging in content than their ostensible subjects might indicate, are documents of cultural criticism very much in the tradition of Henry Adams's Mont Saint Michel and Chartres or Williams Carlos Williams's In the American Grain.
The 1930s were a busy and important decade for Zukofsky, both personally and artistically. The "'Objectivists' 1931" Poetry and An "Objectivists" Anthology had made important connections for him, alerting both prominent and emerging poets to his existence and bringing down upon him the scorn of such readers and reviewers as Morris Schappes and Yvor Winters. Pound's continuing interest in his proper education brought him as a visitor to the "Ezuversity" at Rapallo in 1933, where he met Basil Bunting (1900-1985), a Northumbrian poet included both in the Poetry issue and in An "Objectivists" Anthology. While Bunting's and Zukofsky's aesthetics and mental processes ultimately diverged--Bunting would fault Zukofsky especially on what he saw as the abstraction of his critical prose--there grew up between the two poets a lasting friendship and mutual respect. They remained in close correspondence at least through 1964, and in the preface to his own collected poems Bunting would acknowledge Zukofsky as one of the two living poets (the other being Pound) who, "in his sterner, stonier way," had taught him something. One inspired reader of the Poetry issue was Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a young poet from Wisconsin. She initiated a correspondence with Zukofsky that continued through the forty years until her own death, and proved herself one of his earliest and most intelligent readers. Her own poetry is at times heavily reminiscent of Zukofsky's, but readers have in recent years come to recognize her as a major talent, one developed and shaped in large part by her personal association and intense correspondence with Zukofsky.
Zukofsky began the Thirties by publishing the first installments of his long poem "A"; much of "A"-1 through "A"-7, written between 1927 and 1930, had appeared in various small magazines, but the collective publication of these "movements" (as Zukofsky would call them) in An "Objectivists" Anthology signalled that a major project was clearly underway. "A" is something of an anomaly among modern American long poems in that it is actually finished, and part of that accomplishment is due to the fact that Zukofsky, at the very outset of his project, had decided that this would be a long poem of 24 sections. Zukofsky's first overall schema for "A", which specifies a 24-movement length to the poem, dates to 1927-28. The forms, themes, and subject matter of those movements were not clearly defined at the outset of the project--though there were rough titles, later abandoned, in the first schema: "A"-2 would be "The Dead," "A"-18 "Coeur-de-Leon," "A"-21 "Johann Sebastian." It seems clear that Zukofsky's conception of the poem, as is so often the case, shifted as the work progressed. While it would not be unfair to characterize the early movements of "A" as quite Poundian in their approach, in later movements Zukofsky effectively abandons (if he ever fully adopted it) Pound's poetics of the ideogram--roughly speaking, a group of discrete images or ideas juxtaposed in order to yield up a higher singular meaning--and opens his work to a whole range of formal experiments. But unlike Pound in The Cantos, Williams in Paterson, and Olson in The Maximus Poems, Zukofsky projected a clear--if flexible--armature for his long poem, and stuck to it.
The early sections of "A", written in a juxtapositional style closely akin to that of The Cantos, and informed throughout by the formal analogy of the musical fugue and by the themes and lyrics of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, are in large part concerned with the political and economic situation of America in the late Twenties and early Thirties. The struggle between the captains of industry and the working masses dominates these early movements, but it is far from the only subject the poem treats. "A"-3, for instance, is in large part an elegy to the suicide "Ricky," Whittaker Chambers's brother, and finds Zukofsky positioning himself as Joseph of Arimathea to Ricky's Christ. The theme of death and resurrection, already implicit in the Passion itself, is firmly laid out in these first sections; Zukofsky deploys the image of "liveforever" (an evergreen plant of the sedum genus) as an emblem of immortality, whether a personal immortality for which one might hope, or the vicarious immortality of artistic creation. In various guises, liveforever will recur up to the very end of Zukofsky's writing life. Like "Poem beginning 'The,'" "A"-4 addresses the subject of origins, "[t]he courses we tide from," and plays out Zukofsky's status as the partially assimilated child of Orthodox parents, a Jewish poet able neither to accept his fathers' stringent religion and culture nor to claim as wholly his own a broader Western culture that regards him for the most part with hostility.
As I have mentioned, Zukofsky's contribution to An "Objectivists" Anthology included the first seven movements of "A", a block comparable in cohesiveness to, if not nearly so long as, Pound's A Draft of XXX Cantos (1926). The seven movements culminated in "A"-7, a sequence of seven formally regular sonnets in which the poet contemplates a set of "street closed" wooden sawhorses--each of which, in shape, resembles a pair of capital "A"'s--and then, through a series of dazzling puns and shifts of linguistic register, transforms them into imaginary "horses" and puts them through a breathtaking set of paces, culminating in their self-revelation: "words, words, we are words, horses, manes, / words." These seven sonnets fold in everything that has come before in the poem--the St. Matthew Passion with its themes of resurrection and judgment, the struggles of the working masses, Ricky's death, Zukofsky's own artistic and cultural identity--and they do so by taking as their primary objects of attention language itself, the literal forms and shapes of words, the relationships between the sounds and motions of words and the concepts and objects to which they correspond. "A"-7, like a number of other moments in "A", complicates any simple definition one might arrive at of precisely what Objectivist poetics might mean. While I believe the primary meaning of "objectivist" in Zukofsky's usage refers to his notion of the poem as a tangible object, "A"-7 demonstrates that Zukofsy's Objectivist poetics is as concerned with the objective, communal existence of language itself, the aural objects that constitute the social, human environment.
In the Thirties, Zukofsky also pursued the concerns of "A" in various shorter poems, most notably perhaps in "To my wash-stand" (1932) and "'Mantis,'" along with its accompanying piece, ""Mantis,' An Interpretation" (1934). "'Mantis,'" a deeply political poem written in the seemingly retrograde form of a sestina, is a crucial poem for understanding Zukofsky's conception of poetic form and its relation both to free verse innovation and to the history of formal poetry. "To my wash-stand" begins with a close physical examination of the poet's bathroom sink, in which the poet acknowledges that the "song / of water" he hears " is a song / entirely in my head," and moves from there into an imaginative re-creation of the morning ablutions of the poor, "carefully attentive / to what they have / and to what they do not / have." The "flow of water" from the stand's two faucets "occasions invertible counterpoints," brings forth in vivid detail the sordid realities and privations of a class for whom the morning washing-up is an occasion of attentiveness to the luxuries that they lack.
Zukofsky's short poetry of the early Thirties, much of which has a distinctly political bent, was not collected until 1941's 55 Poems, published by a small press in Prairie City, Illinois. He wrote steadily, and published somewhat more sporatically in the little magazines, but saw the widespread recognition promised by the Objectivist "movement" rapidly evaporating. Oppen and Rakosi, finding a literary life at odds with their social concerns, abandoned writing poetry altogether; Reznikoff continued as he always had, publishing his own work on his own hand-operated press; and the other members of the Objectivists, finding that the group had no organization or staying power comparable to that of, say, the Surrealists in France, simply drifted off. Zukofsky's primary literary contacts during the latter part of the Thirties were with his close friend Williams, with his long-distance correspondent Niedecker, and in his transatlantic correspondence with Bunting and Pound; that latter correspondence, however, more and more swerved to the political, as Pound sought to impress his own views on fascism and social credit upon a skeptical--in fact quite outrightly Marxist--Zukofsky. From passionately "instigating" Zukofsky to form movements and schools at the beginning of the decade, Pound turned to berating his recalcitrant younger colleague for his misguided political views, chastizing him on a number of occasions for falling back into invidious "racial characteristics." Zukofsky, it seems, preferred to let pass all but the most outrageous manifestations of Pound's skewed world-view.
In 1933, working as supervisor on a WPA writing project, Zukofsky met the musician and composer Celia Thaew. After a protracted friendship and courtship, they were married in August 1939. Celia Zukofsky would become Zukofsky's devoted collaborator, typing his manuscripts and assisting with the elaborate research he carried out for every project he essayed. She would take a direct collaborative role in his translation of Catullus (1969), and the second volume of Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) consisted of her spare operatic setting of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Her musical talents became an integral part of several of Zukofsky's later works: his Autobiography, which consists of musical settings of various of his short poems interspersed with a few brief autobiographical paragraphs, but as well "A"-24, the concluding movement of "A", which is "Celia's L.Z. Masque," an arrangement of a myriad of Zukofsky texts, both poetry and prose, in four-voiced counterpoint to some of Handel's harpsichord pieces.
Their only son Paul (born 1943) was a child prodigy on the violin; he has gone on to become one of the world's foremost performers and conductors of twentieth-century music. In 1970 Zukofsky would publish a novel, Little/ for careenagers, a roman-à-clef dealing with the upbringing of a young violin prodigy whose parents, not coincidentally, are a poet and a pianist. The novel, graceful, whimsical, and full of verbal wit, paints an exceedingly charming picture of the Zukofskys' domestic life; it includes pseudonymous portraits of a number of Zukofsky's acquaintances, including Ezra Pound, who during the period the novel describes was incarcerated in St. Elizabeths mental hospital in Washington, D.C. Despite their increasing differences through the course of the Thirties, the postwar Zukofsky still felt a deep loyalty to his older colleague. He felt Pound's confinement was an unfortunate outcome of a deep-seated desire to reform a demented society. In 1954 Zukofsky, Celia, and Paul visited Pound at St. Elizabeths, where on the lawn of the ward Paul played Gerhard Münch's violin adaptation of Janequin's Chant des Oiseaux, Pound's Canto 75.
The turn of the Thirties was to mark the end of the period in which politics played a major role in Zukofsky's writings. From 1935 to 1940 he worked on compiling A Test of Poetry (published 1948), a teaching anthology that (coincidentally, it seems) bears a certain resemblance to Pound's ABC of Reading, though it includes far less of its author's commentary than does the ABC; Zukofsky was, as always, inclined to let his material speak for itself. Significantly, A Test of Poetry followed directly on the heels of an aborted project, a Workers Anthology that Zukofsky abandoned in the second half of the Thirties: the turn from the political to the more broadly aesthetic is indicative of an overall shift in Zukofsky's concerns. In the war years, with the birth of his son and the increasingly settled character of his domestic life, Zukofsky grew more inclined to pursue themes of domestic happiness, rather than wider social reformation, as an ideal state to be depicted in his poetry; and while he had both sincere Marxist convictions and very concrete ties to the Communist Party literary establishment through the Thirties, he was increasingly disillusioned at the Party literati's inability or unwillingness to publish, or to promote its causes through, such radically experimental works as his own "A"-8. This movement, an astonishingly complex exploration of scientific, political, and economic language, and as long as the first seven movements of "A" combined, could find no periodical publisher. Most of the avant-garde "little" magazines of the Twenties and early Thirties had fallen prey to the Depression, and New Masses, the Communist Party organ for which Zukofsky did occasional unpaid editing, would print only two brief and uncharacteristically rabble-rousing excerpts of "A"-8. The first half of "A"-9, which Zukofsky published himself in 1940, was the last overtly leftist work he would write.
After "A"-8, the directions and forms of "A" grew more varied. The first half of "A"-9 was a translation of Cavalcanti's canzone "Donna mi pregha" (a text to which Pound often returned), a translation which not only preserves the elaborate rhyme scheme of the Italian original (a feat even Pound had claimed impossible), but does so by adapting phrases from Marx's Capital. Where Cavalcanti's poem had been a painstaking scholastic disquistion on the phenomenon of amorous love, Zukofsky's translation is a discussion of the economic roots of use-value and exchange-value. When Zukofsky returned to "A"-9 in 1948, he completed it by translating the same canzone again, this time using phrases from Spinoza's Ethics, making the poem (once again) into an analysis of love. Zukofsky had been fascinated with the ideas of this Jewish philosopher since "Poem beginning 'The,'" and Spinoza's categories of natura naturans and natura naturata ("nature naturing" and "nature natured"--creator and created, roughly, considered as moments of a single entity) are fundamental to his conception of poetics, and recur throughout the early sections of "A". But his turn from Marx to Spinoza at this crucial juncture of his poem is indicative of how the focus of "A" has shifted from the public sphere of economics and revolution to a more private one of familial love. "A"-10, a very public poem elegizing the 1940 fall of Paris to the Nazis, was written between the two halves of "A"-9. It is in part an outgrowth of Zukofsky’s brief involvement with La France en Liberté, which was to be a "quarterly of French refugee writers and the struggle for free France," edited by Zukofsky and René Taupin.
While "A"’s formal inventiveness had been evident even as the poem pursued what had at times threatened to become a didactic political dimension, after it turns aside from politics its formal variety and experimentation become even more prominent. "A"-11 is a formal lyric, based on Cavalcanti "Perch' io no spero," and addressed to Zukofsky's wife and child after his death. "A"-12 is as long as the first eleven movements of the poem combined; it is a vast collage, incorporating themes from the earlier sections of the poem, materials from the then-in-progress Bottom: On Shakespeare, and, perhaps most importantly, quotations and anecdotes that draw attention to the Zukofsky family: this movement takes familial happiness as a more fitting "epic" subject than class struggle. In contrast to "A"-12's expansive openness, "A"-13 announces itself as a "partita," and its five sections imitate, through their varied forms, the variations between the movements of one of Bach's violin partitas. The "matter" of the movement is the daily life of the Zukofsky family, including a walk by Paul and Louis across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Duane Street Fire Museum and back to their Brooklyn Heights apartment.
It is easier to talk about formal structures, continuities, and discontinuities than about content when discussing Zukofsky's work, in large part because one has the distinct sense that he saw himself as planning structures, the materials of which were less crucial than the formal shapes and their engineering. As far as the later sections of "A" go, it is sufficient to note that Zukofsky winds all manner of personal and familial history, philosophy, literature, esoterica, and current events into these knotty but graceful poems: "A"-15, for instance, deals among much else with the death of John F. Kennedy, "A"-18 concerns itself off and on with the Vietnam War, and "A"-19 follows Paul Zukofsky to Genoa for his participation in the Paganini Competition, simultaneously cementing Zukofsky's conceptual bonds with Mallarmé, who is here quoted, paraphrased, and transliterated. "A"-14 announces itself as "First of / eleven songs / beginning An" and indeed each movement from "A"-14 through "A"-24 begins with the letters "an"--a tiny word itself a variation of "a." Similarly, the first phrase of each movement plays with and permutes a similar set of phonemes: "A"-14--"beginning"; "A"-15--"An / hinny"; "A"-16--"An / inequality"; "A"-17--"Anemones"; "A"-18--"An unearthing"; "A"-19--"An other," etc. It is such continuities and variations that we learn to attending to in reading "A", for the poem as a whole presents not a narrative or a continuously developed argument, but a series of formal structures, interlinked one with another and proceeding out of a common "fugal" impulse, structures that Zukofsky has instantiated with materials from all realms of his life.
"A"-17 and "A"-20 are perhaps exemplary of Zukofsky's conception of what it means to compose a poem. "A"-17 is "a coronal for Floss" Williams, an homage to Zukofsky's recently deceased friend William Carlos Williams; it consists wholly of quotations: quotations from Williams's letters to Zukofsky, from all of Zukofsky's writings (prose and poetry) that bear on Williams's work, and finally, a visual "quotation" of Williams's scrawled signature in Zukofsky's copy of Pictures from Brueghel. "A"-20 is a "Respond for P.Z.'s tone row / At twenty," and consists simply of a list of the titles of twelve compositions that Paul had written up to the age of twenty, repeated four times in different orders, and a short poem that Paul had written at age nine in response to a poem of Henry VIII's included in A Test of Poetry. "Composition," for Zukofsky, is as much the arrangement of previously written texts as it is the wholesale invention of new ones. The recombination of found materials, central to the Cubist and Surrealist arts of collage, is as well central to Zukofsky’s working methods.
Clearly, the obvious parallels that can be drawn between Pound's Cantos and the early movements of "A" tend to break down as the latter poem progresses, moving through a wider and wider range of forms and subject matters. A comparison of Pound's and Zukofsky's larger careers is also instructive. Once The Cantos were well underway, they became the center of Pound's poetic production; while he wrote large amounts of prose, except for translation (and there were many of those) Pound wrote no substantial poetry outside of The Cantos. Zukofsky, on the other hand, was continually adding to his corpus of short poems. The collections Anew (1946) and Some Time (1956) include a number of delicate occasional pieces--birthday poems, wedding poems, valentines--and such important sequences as "Light" and "Chloride of Lime and Charcoal." These poems reflect the Zukofsky family's physical circumstances, their friendships, and the milieu of artists, musicians, and writers within which they (gingerly) moved. "Four Other Countries" and "Stratford-on-Avon," from the volume Barely and Widely, record the family's 1957 vacation in Europe, and show Zukofsky to be an assiduous literary tourist, seeking out the sites of Shakespeare's plays, classical poets' haunts, and the various "luminous details" of Italy and Provence that Pound presented so memorably in his poetry.
"Stratford-on-Avon," which records the family's visit to Shakespeare's birthplace, reflects Zukofsky's ongoing obsession with this English poet whose plays he had first seen performed in Yiddish. A much weightier, and earlier, evidence of that obsession, however, is Zukofsky's long prose work, Bottom: on Shakespeare, which he wrote between 1947 and 1960. Bottom is central to understanding Zukofsky's work. This text is more than an almost unprecedentedly compendious act of homage by one poet to another: in effect it lays out Zukofsky's poetics and theory of knowledge on a grander scale than any other work except "A" itself. It is, however, decidedly heterodox as Shakespeare criticism. Bottom is large: not only did Zukofsky's own text run to 450 large pages, but it was only the first volume of two--the second volume of Bottom: on Shakespeare consists of Celia Zukofsky's spare operatic setting of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a play in which Zukofsky saw Shakespeare rewriting the classic plots and tropes of the Odyssey. Both its oddness and its sheer bulk made Bottom a difficult book to sell. After Zukofsky had spent several years seeking a publisher, he made a deal with the University of Texas, whose Humanities Research Center coveted his extensive correspondence with Pound and Williams. In lieu of payment for those letters, and for his own manuscript collection, they agreed to publish a limited edition of the complete work. It was finally issued in 1963.
Bottom: on Shakespeare presents a corpus-wide reading of Shakespeare’s works, tracing the theme of knowledge, love, and physical vision through both the plays and the poetry. It furthermore pursues this theme through the whole of Western culture, from the Classical Greeks down through William Carlos Williams. Bottom attempts to ground individual human knowledge upon a recognition of the other, upon the bases of human knowledge established by the community as a whole. A similar position is played out far more briefly and playfully in Zukofsky’s important mid-period sequence "I's (pronounced eyes)" (composed 1959-1960). I's (pronounced eyes) (1963) and its "sequel," After I's (1964), are two slim volumes of typically angular, oblique poems, many of which are distinctly occasional. There are valentines here, a response to younger poets' recognition, and even a sequence celebrating the family's removal from their longtime abode, "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times" (1962). Zukofsky, it should be emphasized, was a lifelong New Yorker; "At one time or another," as he notes in the Autobiography, "I have lived in all of the boroughs of New York City." After his WPA work ended in 1942, he worked at a succession of jobs, including a couple of stints as a substitute teacher in the New York City high schools and technical editing jobs for several engineering firms. In 1947 he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he would teach until 1966, when he retired at the rank of associate professor. It was not a particularly congenial atmosphere for a poet--he would make pointed remarks about the college and his department in Little--but Zukofsky made the best of it, teaching a wide range of literature courses and acting as faculty advisor to the poetry club. He was generous with his time and attention to those few students who showed an interest in literature, introducing them not merely to the classics but as well to the then-obscure works of his friends Niedecker and Reznikoff. At least one fledgling engineer, Hugh Seidman, went on to pursue poetry as a vocation; but in the main Zukofsky thought of his students as "my plumbers."
While Zukofsky was clearly a better teacher than that other poet-pedagogue Mallarmé--who seems to have inspired no poets among his own students, and who by all accounts was a thorough failure in the classroom, his tenure marked by the paper dolls his students would pin to his coattails--he was plagued by inattentive students--"chalk fights and 'kids of seventeen who cannot sit on their asses'"--and, like his French precursor, clearly would have preferred attending to his own writing over teaching English composition. In 1966, after Celia had carefully calculated his projected retirement income, Zukofsky retired from teaching to devote himself fulltime to his poetry. The couple would eventually move to Port Jefferson, Long Island, where Zukofsky could plan and write his works and Celia could (among other pursuits) cultivate the plants on which Zukofsky would focus so intensely in 80 Flowers.
It was not until 1965, when the first volume of ALL was published by W.W. Norton, that Zukofsky saw his poems printed by a major publisher. His career had begun auspiciously back in 1931, with his own issue of Poetry and his own anthology; but in the years since, he had watched his elders and contemporaries, such poets as Cummings, Olson, and Oppen, go on to gain greater or lesser degrees of the fame that he felt was his by rights, while he himself remained in obscurity. Oppen, for instance, who had ceased writing poetry altogether for some 25 years, returned to print immediately with The Materials from New Directions (1962) and went on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Of Being Numerous. But neither Zukofsky nor his friend Williams could interest New Directions' publisher, James Laughlin, in a volume of Zukofsky's work. In the years before ALL, then--a volume which signalled a gradual opening-up of medium and large presses to books by Zukofsky--the poet seemed to many to have become irremediably bitter, convinced that he had somehow been unreasonably passed over by the powers that conveyed poetic recognition. This bitterness, combined with increasingly debilitating illnesses and hypochondriac "aches," made Zukofsky more and more the recluse.
Zukofsky, however, was by no means without friends, nor, as the Sixties progressed, without admirers among younger poets. Edward Dahlberg, his contemporary, was his colleague at Brooklyn Polytechnic, and he and Zukofsky became close friends. A succession of young poets made their way to the Zukofskys' apartment in the 1950s and 1960s: Paul Blackburn, Jerome Rothenberg, Jonathan Williams, Denise Levertov, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Allen Ginsberg. The eclectic Robert Duncan, at the time writing a medievalist-cum-modernist verse, had added Zukofsky's influence to an aesthetic that counted Stein, Edith Sitwell, Williams, H.D., and St.-John Perse among its household gods. Ronald Johnson, whose early work was in the much "looser" paratactic vein of Charles Olson, would go on to write ARK, a long poem that made use of many of Zukofsky's compositional procedures. Indeed, during the heyday of Olson's reign at Black Mountain College, the poets there were well aware of Zukofsky's work--though Olson himself, it is said, was unable to read it. Cid Corman, who lived in Japan and edited the groundbreaking journal Origin, had published "A" 1-12 in a limited edition in 1959, and was an indefatigable supporter of Zukofsky's work, as well as a close correspondent with both Zukofsky and Niedecker. Perhaps most influenced by Zukofsky was the young Robert Creeley, who marvelled not merely at the older poet's craft, but at the personal kindness he showed his impecunious young colleague. As welcome as such recognition among poets was, in the end it failed, in Zukofsky's view, to compensate him for thirty years of public obscurity.
The two-volume Bottom, including Celia Zukofsky's setting of Pericles, published in 1963 by Ark Press of the University of Texas Press, attracted very little critical notice (especially among the Shakespeare criticism community). Zukofsky's next major project, begun in 1958 and completed in 1966, was also a collaboration with his wife. The Zukofskys' complete translation of Catullus, published in 1969, was a conceptual tour-de-force that baffled and angered classicists much as Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius had a half-century earlier. Its purpose, Zukofsky writes, is "to breathe the 'literal' meaning" of the Latin original, adhering as closely as possible to the sounds and rhythms of Catullus, and letting the meaning take a distant back seat. Catullus, aside from its very real merits of wit and invention, is important in Zukofsky's work as a whole, exemplifying at least two central elements of his poetics. On the one hand, there is the notion of the word, as Zukofsky puts it in a 1968 interview, as a "physiological" thing, a tangible shaping of air and sound by an embodied person; in that sense, the way to get closest to the historical Gaius Valerius Catullus would be to produce poems that shape sound and air as closely as possible to the ways in which he shaped them in his poetry some nineteen hundred years ago. When one reads the Zukofskys' Catullus, then, one experiences the Roman poet in a way that one cannot when reading a translation more faithful in literal "meaning."
On the other hand, there is the notion of phonetic transliteration as an active technique in poetry, of creating an English poetic text by following the sounds of a foreign language. By using as template the sounds and rhythms of a non-English text, one can generate a new English text that may or may not bear a "meaningful" relationship to that template; in so doing, the poet is freed from the burden of formal originality in a way perhaps analogous to how the Provençal poet explored formal permutations, knowing that his absolutely conventional themes freed him from any need to dream up original subject-matter. Zukofsky uses such transliteration often in his later work, drawing on texts in (among others) Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Ojibway, and Welsh: "A"-15 begins with passages from the Book of Job, "A"-22 and -23 include stretches of phonetically transliterated material, and large portions of 80 Flowers are written over foreign templates.
In 1968 L.S. Dembo, editor of the University of Wisconsin journal Contemporary Literature, invited the four principal Objectivist poets to Madison for a series of readings. Between April 14 and May 16 he conducted interviews with each of them, a series which was published in Contemporary Literature as "The 'Objectivist' Poetry: Four Interviews." While those interviews revealed, unsurprisingly, that there was little consensus among the poets as to what they had been up to back in the early 1930s, one can date the critical construction of the Objectivist "school" from their publication. This was a prolific period for Zukofsky in terms of publications: in addition to Catullus, he had published the novella Ferdinand (1968) and "A" 13-21 (1969), which was issued by Doubleday's Paris Review Editions in an edition uniform with its 1967 reissue of "A" 1-12. Rapp & Carroll in England and (somewhat later) the Horizon Press in the U.S., also issued Zukofsky's collected criticism, entitled Prepositions and organized around the headings "For," "With," and "About." Zukofsky had considerably revised most of the material that appeared in Prepositions, and as usual his revisionary practice consisted mostly of omission and cutting. The effect was to make what had at first appeared as ad hoc critical incursions, such as "Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff," take on the status of timeless and contextless critical dicta. The major statements of Objectivist poetics--"Sincerity and Objectification," "Program: 'Objectivists,' 1931," and "'Recencies' in Poetry," the preface to An "Objectivists" Anthology--were pared of their specific readings (indeed, the whole of Zukofsky's lengthy discussions of Reznikoff went by the wayside) and combined into the single essay, "An Objective."
"A"-21 (1967) was a transliteration similar in procedure to Zukofsky's Catullus, in this case a full-length translation of Plautus's Rudens (The Rope), a play in which Zukofsky saw suggestive parallels to Shakespeare's Pericles. What makes the verse of "A"-21 even more knotted than mere transliteration would have it is the fact that Zukofsky here insists on translating line-for-line, one five-word English line for each line of Latin verse. Not merely is the sound of the verse alien, but the syntax, compressed to an absolute minimum, begins to fragment. At times the language seems to explore the further reaches of late-Sixties countercultural hipness; at others, it seems almost unbearably oblique and hard to follow--an odd effect, particularly in a movement of his poem which seems particularly concerned with the values of the drama, an inherently public art ("A"-21 is dedicated to the theater critic John Gassner and to Zukofsky’s brother Morris Ephraim, who had first taken the poet to the Thalia as a child). Earlier sections of "A" had used three-word and even one-word lines, and "A"-21,-22, and -23 are all composed of five-word lines. Traditional English accentual-syllabic prosody, of course, takes no notice of the number of words to a line, but counts the combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. It had seemed odd when in the heyday of high modernism Marianne Moore deployed strict syllable-count prosodies--lines measured by number of syllables, with no regard for accent--but Zukofsky's relentless pursuit of word-count forms seems an even more full-scale assault on the time-honored norms of what constitutes a "meter."
A problem that Zukofsky no doubt found more pressing perhaps even than such questions of form was that of closure; in 1967, with "A"-21 finished and "A"-22 and -23 fairly clearly planned out, how was he to bring an end to his poem? How does one finish a long poem that is in large part a series of formal experiments, rather than a narrative or argument that might be brought to some sort of a logical close? What was to constitute "A"-24? Celia Zukofsky solved that problem when she presented him in 1968 with the gift of the "L.Z. Masque," a 240-page arrangement to music (Handel's "Harpsichord Pieces") of various of Zukofsky's texts. Zukofsky promptly named this work "A"-24 and designated it the closing movement of his "poem of a life." It is of course a characteristic gesture with which to end the poem; by naming Celia's composition the final movement of his own poem, Zukofsky carries out the ultimate destabilization of textual authority, rendering the attribution of authorship problematic in a way that even his wholesale quotation had not.
"A"-22 and -23, the last-composed movements of "A", are also perhaps the densest. Each is comprised of one thousand five-word lines, and each winds within it six thousand years of history: in "A"-22, that history is geological and botanical; in "A"-23, literary. There are passages of these two thousand lines which are readily apprehensible--perhaps most memorably, a 150-line stretch of "A"-23 that translates the Gilgamesh myth, renaming Gilgamesh "Strongest" and Enkidu "One Kid"--but for the most part, the reader is hard-pressed to find the principle of continuity in these baffling but sonically exquisite lines. "History's best emptied of names' / impertinence" ("A"-22, 511), Zukofsky writes (or quotes, or transliterates) in "A"-22, and these movements indeed lack any proper names that might provide readerly signposts. Many of these lines are clearly transliterated or translated; most of them, one suspects, are quotations; but in the end, for all the evident care and labor that went into their composition--or perhaps because of it--they remain obdurately other, refusing to "mean" in conventionally circumscribed manners. They thereby might be seen, as I will suggest, to propose a new democracy of interpretation. We should not, that is, hunt after source texts or Poundian arcana, a meaning behind the text, Zukofsky cautions, but should concentrate on the words themselves: to cite his alter ego in Little, "I too have been charged with obscurity, tho it's a case of listeners wanting to know too much about me, more than the words say."
The poetics that produced "A"-22 and -23 is pretty much identical to that which generated 80 Flowers, Zukofsky's last completed collection. This volume of eighty-one poems, each of eight five-word lines, takes to new extremes of density Zukofsky's methods of composition by quotation, transliteration, and compression. Each poem focuses on a particular flower (or class of flowers) and each aims to draw in and allude to as much knowledge as possible pertaining to that flower: botanical, commercial, historical, alchemical, literary, etymological, and personal knowledges are all compacted into these enormously resonant little poems. What they in the end suggest--and one wonders whether Zukofsky himself was wholly conscious of working towards such a goal--is the possibility of the word set free from meaning-determining context, liberated to interact with its neighbors in any or all of the combinations possible. The compression and foreshortening of syntax in the Flowers, far from making the poems meaningless, opens them up to a far broader range of potential meanings and connotations. Even an exhaustive ferreting out of the source-texts and original contexts from which the words of the Flowers are drawn does not pin the poems down to a determinate meaning or set of meanings, but serves to enrich and expand our multidirectional, polysemic experience of the text.
80 Flowers (published in an extremely limited edition) and the University of California Press "A" (the first complete edition of what will no doubt be considered the poet's major work) were at the printer when Zukofsky died in 1978. He had planned the release of 80 Flowers to coincide with his eightieth birthday in 1984; luckily, he had finished the work early, and had begun taking notes for his next project, Gamut: 90 Trees. Of that volume, only the epigraph was drafted. This poem, brief as it is--five lines of five words apiece--seems to forecast a new turn in Zukofsky's poetics, towards a barer, more stripped-down vocabulary, a language that hews to the koiné even as it frustrates conventional syntactic expectations.
His very last written work was the index to the California "A". He had originally indexed only the words "a," "an," and "the," reiterating a conviction he had first voiced in 1946: "a case can be made for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words" (P 10). Celia Zukofsky persuaded him to let her index the book more fully, and he in turn revised her index to produce the final version. It is fitting that his last work was to be such a formal one--for what is more conventional in form than an index?--and it is also fitting that it was to be a collaboration with his partner of 38 years.
This is a revised version of of a chapter which appeared in Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, by Mark Scroggins, copyright © 1998 by the University of Alabama Press.
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