A Biographical


A Biographical Essay On Zukofsky By Mark Scroggins Essay, Research Paper

Mark Scroggins

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 Ren? 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 fran?aise sur la po?sie am?ricaine de 1910 ? 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-?-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 M?nch’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 Libert?, which

was to be a "quarterly of French refugee writers and the struggle for free

France," edited by Zukofsky and Ren? 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 Mallarm?, 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

Mallarm?–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 Proven?al 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 koin? 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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