Study Guide

Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky Essay - Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 4)

Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 4)

Zukofsky, Louis 1904–

Zukofsky, an American, is a brilliant and idiosyncratic poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Louis Zukofsky's poetry is compounded of great love, equal care, and a singular perception of the nature of words in all their manifold senses. There is no one who writes with greater intelligence of what our common world is, nor of the tradition of the family in it, nor of the mind itself asked to see reason in the flux of war and economic confinement. His long poem, "A" …, is itself a singular history of a man's will to relate, in all senses, the circumstances in which he lives.

Robert Creeley, "Louis Zukofsky: 'A' 1-12 & 'Barely and Widely'," in Sparrow #18, November, 1962.

Louis Zukofksy has defined his poetics as a function, having as lower limit, speech, and upper limit, song. It is characteristic of him to say that a poet's "… major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men…." It is his belief that a poet writes one poem all his life, a continuing song, so that no division of its own existence can be thought of as being more or less than its sum. This is to say, it all is….

I can think of no man more useful to learn from than Zukofsky, in that he will not 'say' anything but that which the particulars of such a possibility require, and follows the fact of that occasion with unequalled sensitivity.

Robert Creeley, "'paradise/ our/ speech …'," in Poetry (© 1965 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1965.

"Love is to reason as eyes are to the mind." Louis Zukofsky has written a book of 470 large pages on that eloquent bit of philosophical algebra, his occasion being the whole corpus of Shakespeare. To which his wife, Celia Thaew Zukofsky, has appended her opera Pericles, as a second volume. This radiant set of books is one of the great tractati on poetry. Its title, Bottom: On Shakespeare, is as eccentric as all the poet's titles (A, It Was, Prepositions, Barely and Widely, All). In time it will probably transmute into "Zukofsky on Shakespeare," and eventually into "Zukofsky's Poetics." All of Zukofsky's writing seems to have happened outside time; the demon Zeitgeist has had no more luck with him than with John Clare or Christopher Smart. Bottom belongs spiritually to the seventeenth century; it is contemporary, in Spengler's sense, with the mind of Spinoza, as Wittgenstein is a contemporary of Heracleitus and R. Buckminster Fuller of Pythagoras.

Zukofsky's poetry is out of time in another sense. For all its kinship to the harmonies of Dowland and the perpetual motion of Bach, its native enterprise is to play, if we can grasp all the punning senses of that dangerous word. The immediate sense must be that of ludens—the play of thought over a subject. This sense must not be detached from that of playing music. Neither discursive, incantatory, nor molendinary, Zukofsky's poetry is a playing of the intellect over a choice inventory of observations and predilections.

The long poem A is a procession of poems of various lengths. Like the Cantos of Pound and the Paterson of William Carlos Williams, it grows out of the inventions of the Imagists and Vorticists, and reflects many of their strategies. Spiritually, however, it is that most American of poetic forms, a large structure built up over a lifetime, copious enough to contain all that the poet wants to put into it, but strict enough of form to grow organically. It may be one of the eloquent reactions of the century that America, which makes everything quickly and moreover makes everything shoddily, should have in its best poets men who are in no hurry to dash off their work, and who build slowly and painstakingly.

The patient and laborious construction of A is something of a paradox, for the poem is as spare and weightless as a bicycle wheel in its wit, terseness, and agility. Zukofsky's deft playfulness is so singular among modern poets that we must adjust our expectations or be flipped backwards like Don Quijote from the windmill. The very title discloses simply the letter A, the author being Z: the extremes of the poet's wherewithal, the alphabet. In A-7 the letter A becomes a sawhorse in a cycle of Shakespearean sonnets, a cone in A-9, and so on throughout the poem—playfulness is always liberal and always obeys rules of its own making. A-9, for instance, is not only a verbal pattern in which certain letters of the alphabet define conic sections; it is a translation of Cavalcanti's great canzone on love, and its phrases are taken, all of them, from the Everyman edition of Marx's Kapital.

So serious is the matter of Zukofsky's playing with words that we must recognize it as a major source of his poetics….

One lesson is a matter which has to be learned over and over; that poetry is artifice. Dance rhythms and end-rhymes were once giddily revolutionary; so were polyphony and flying buttresses and perspective and zero as a number. Whether the poet's new game is going to lead other poets into its labyrinth remains to be seen. But a more immediate lesson must be pondered first. And that is the poet's English. He has allowed no neologisms in the rules of his game, and has therefore had to resort not to the well zoned diction which poets have always considered it meet and proper to cleave to, but to all the Englishes, as it were, all the jargons, dialects, and ages of the language. We note that an early work of the poet is Le Style Apollinaire, a study of the French poet who, taking the next revolutionary steps after Rimbaud, Laforgue, and Corbière, threw the diction of French poetry wide open, cancelling the rules by which poetry was restricted to these words only, and never those….

Zukofsky has needed, and has used, all the Englishes, showing that it can be done, and even that there is a glittering abstractness in the result. The words in the Zukofsky Catullus clash against each other like so many wild monads; for an analogy we must turn to the dancing facets of a cubist painting, which, like Zukofsky's whole-dictionary range of words, draw a picture of the world, though the drawing is not like anything we've seen before. You can best read the Catullus, I think, by forgetting the Latin. Zukofsky's "Catullus" is not the native of Sirmione; he is a New Yorker whose second language is English, and who but for historical accident might have figured among the Petrograd Futurists, a figure comparable to Khlebnikov, and would have probably been on the same friendly terms with Mayakovsky as, in the way things turned out, with William Carlos Williams. The poetry of Catullus was simply a bright object over which the poetic inventiveness of Zukofsky might play.

What Zukofsky is about in his poetry is always reasonably obvious, often so obvious that we reject what we can see and look for matters which we suppose to be wonderfully hidden….

We might note that Zukofsky is anti-Joycean. The poet speaks for himself and his family; he is the counter-vision of the inarticulate Bloom and the nightmare of industrial city man in Finnegans Wake. Ultimately, at great distance, the portable piece of knowledge about Zukofsky, the tag to be inserted in handbooks and encyclopedias, will be that he was the poet who saw how to be wise about love in a time of madness and hate. And yet his significance at the moment would seem to be his uniqueness as an artist. Neither school nor movement contains him; he is without precedent or heirs. He is a deeply intelligent, witty, passionate Roman poet placed by some playful Fate in our time and world. Or he is a Chinese poet of subtlest sensibility plucked from his mountains and pines and put into a time of subways and rockets to the moon.

Guy Davenport, "Louis Zukofsky," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 130-37.