Study Guide


A Summary

A (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Two years after he taught English at Columbia, Louis Zukofsky produced his long poem, The, in 1926—a long poem in partly conventional blank verse which uses the technique of multiple voice and verbal collage. Inspired by his technical experiment for more daring and dramatic results, Zukofsky “started to think of “A” as soon as I had finished The,” as he writes in a letter to his friend, Lorine Niedecker. About 1927, he began with a sketch—a plan of the form with section titles for a poem in twenty-four parts. This plan suggests that he originally envisioned “A” as more than The, but not of the length and scope of the final version of “A”, while he also made a table of difficulties to be overcome in the writing of the poem. In an interview on May 16, 1968, he answers, ““A” is written at various times in my life when the life compels it. That also means that my eye is compelling something or my ears compelling something; the intellect is always working with words.” This statement underlines three significant and crucial features found in “A”—the visual imagination, the aural power, and the quality of intelligence at work. It also indicates that the motivation behind the writing of the poem has been the very life of the poet.

Predetermined by the number of parts or movements (“the ’curve’ of it in twenty-four movements”) and undetermined as to the specific form or content, “A” is a staggering record of creative dedication, concentration, and richness spanning a period of more than forty-five years of life. 1 was written in 1928 and 23 during 1973-1974, although the final movement, 24, was done in 1968 with Celia Zukofsky’s arrangement. These twenty-four parts—“A kind of childlike/Play this division/Into 24” (12)—display a variety of poetic strategies and formal virtuosity, which demonstrates that within Zukofsky’s “childlike play” there is an astute and inventive mind in operation. For example, Part 24 is a Masque in five-part score with music (Handel’s “Harpsichord Pieces”), drama, story, thought, and poem—the last four items are in an arrangement of four voices from Zukofsky’s writings; 21, a translation of Plautus’ Rudens, but for the chorus-speeches, is in five-word lines, and 18 is totally in eight-word lines; 9, like 7 of seven sonnets arranged in a canzone form, combines an exquisite sonnet-sequence and double canzone; 13 is a “partita” verbally imitating the rhythms in Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor; 19 has twenty-five pages of Spenserian stanzas following eight quatrains of two-word lines; 17, “A Coronal,” is a collage of quotations from William Carlos Williams and Zukofsky’s writings. 12 is the longest movement, with 135 pages, and here is 16 in its entirety:

An   inequality   windflower.

Even though in his May, 1968, interview Zukofsky remarks, “I don’t know about the structure of “A”. I don’t care how you consider it . . . ,” a dominant preoccupation or element in the poem is his concern for and engagement with the form and language. William Carlos Williams, in his Note to the Kyoto edition of “A” 1-12, rightly points out that Zukofsky “is a poet devoted to working out by intelligence the intricacies of his craft,” and that “the major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men.” Therefore, Zukofsky has always, Williams maintains, devoted his care to “the spiritual unity of the world of ideas.” His entire corpus reflects this keen engagement with the craft and ideas. From the very beginning of “A”, Zukofsky strikes the note: “A round of fiddles playing/Without effort” and “longing for perfection.” One could find a definition of “A” in movement 5: “One song/Of many voices” and “Words ranging forms.” He further elaborates on his craft in 6:

The melody! the rest is accessory:My one voice. My other: isAn objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,An object—nature as creator—desirefor what is objectively perfectInextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

Again in the same movement: “Environs-the sea,/The ears, doors;/The words—/Lost—visible.” He...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)