Study Guide

Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky Essay - Critical Essays


Under pressure from Monroe to declare himself part of a new “movement” in poetry, Louis Zukofsky coined the term “Objectivist.” Later, he admitted that the term was unfortunate; at the very least, it has been confusing to readers and critics who interpret objectivity as an indication that reality will be rendered undistorted by the poet’s personality. Zukofsky did aim at such objective honesty or “care for the detail,” as he put it, but he emphasized that being an Objectivist meant that the poet created a poem as an object, in much the same way that a builder constructs a house or a carpenter, a cabinet. These two aims—an objective rendering of reality and the creation of the poem as object—give Zukofsky’s poetry its distinction.

The prevailing metaphor throughout Zukofsky’s work is the correspondence between the ego and the sense of sight: “I” equals “eye” in his poetry and the terms are often playfully interchanged, as in the poems “I’s (pronounced eyes)” or “After I’s.” Similarly, “see” becomes “sea” or even the letter c and “sight” is transformed into “cite.” Like Benedictus de Spinoza (who figures in his works along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aristotle), Zukofsky was a lens-grinder; but Zukofsky’s lenses were organic and his method of sharpening them was an ever closer examination of objects. Just as the objective lens of a microscope is the one in closest proximity to the object being studied, so Zukofsky as Objectivist attempted to apprehend objects directly and report on his findings.

Zukofsky believed that an object must be examined for its “qualities,” and once these qualities are recognized, the observer can go no further in his understanding of the object. The object exists in itself and is not dependent on the observer for its existence. It is not the observer’s function to postulate theories about the object, to explain, embellish, or comment on it. He merely bears witness to its reality. Only by placing the object in the context of the poem can the poet use the object to communicate something of his own reality. In a poem, juxtapositions imply connections, transitions, and relationships between objects. The poet does not editorialize. “Writing presents the finished matter, it does not comment,” Zukofsky wrote in A Test of Poetry.

In his concern for precise language to express visual perception and to render faithfully the qualities of an object, Zukofsky follows Pound’s statements about Imagism: “Direct treatment of the ’thing’” using “no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Poetry, 1912). Zukofsky, however, shared Williams’s concern that Imagism, in the years since Pound first promoted the movement, had deteriorated into impressionistic free verse, lacking form. “The Objectivist theory was this,” Williams explained in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951), “We had had ’Imagism’ . . . which ran quickly out. That, though it had been useful in ridding the field of verbiage, had no formal necessity implicit in it.” The poem, he went on, “is an object, an object that in itself formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes.”

Zukofsky also believed that the poem’s form was one with its meaning. The objects, or elements, of the composition should take their meaning from their placement in the structure. The poet should not intrude his personality into the poem with what Zukofsky called predatory intent: the use of decorative adjectives or adverbs, and especially the use of transitional passages or devices which might explain a poem’s interior logic. In Poem Beginning “The,” for example, each line is numbered, but the numbers do not imply sequence. “Poetry convinces not by argument,” Zukofsky wrote, “but by the form it creates to carry its content.”

“Hi, Kuh”

Reporting about an object, Zukofsky’s initial perception undergoes transformation into poetry. “Hi, Kuh” was Zukofsky’s response to the billboard advertisement for Elsie, the Borden dairy company’s cow. The advertisement showed “gold’n bees” which appeared to the eyes of the poet as eyes, and then when the astigmatic and myopic Zukofsky removed his glasses, they appeared as the shimmering windows of a skyscraper. “Hi, Kuh” also reminds the reader that the poet’s “I” was moved to think of a haiku, with the last unexpected word elevating the meaning of the poem beyond that of a bystander commenting on a billboard. Zukofsky does not explain the thought process that led from Elsie the cow to the towering emblem of the city; he presents, flatly, objects that are assembled to reveal his meaning.


“Mantis” gives a more elaborate example of Zukofsky’s method. The poem begins with a vivid description of a praying mantis encountered in a subway car. Gradually, the incongruity of the object in its surroundings, and its obvious helplessness, leads the poet to thoughts of a similar incongruity: the poor, who are helpless, alone, segregated from society, and as terrified as the mantis of an environment over which they have no control. “Mantis” was written as a sestina, a form Zukofsky rarely used, and one he knew was considered obsolete and archaic by many of his...

(The entire section is 2215 words.)