Study Guide

Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky Essay - Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 2)

Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 2)

Zukofsky, Louis 1904–

American poet, critic, and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

All literatures have a Zukofsky—a Lu Chi, a Lichtenberg, a Bashô, a Mallarmé. He is the patient craftsman who applies discipline to what everyone else has done in a hurry. He works with the diamond-cutter's precision, placing technical demands upon the act of composition so incredibly difficult that one wonders how he has written anything at all.

Imagine, for example, the great speech of God in The Book of Job when He speaks from the whirlwind translated so that the Hebrew vowels and consonants remain pretty much where they are in the original, and the rhythms are kept so closely that the English when read aloud sounds like the Hebrew. This Zukofsky does in his long poem "A." Now imagine the same process applied to the poems of Catullus, all 116 of them. This Zukofsky has also done. Reading them aloud, one's tongue helplessly reproduces the Latin original while one's eye reads English…. Music is used to such intricate patterning, and poetry was, too, once upon a time. Dante, for instance, would not have batted an eye at Zukofsky's invisible under-structures, and a medieval Japanese poet would have been delighted with them….

"Ferdinand," a short novel, was published eight years ago in Tokyo, in an edition of 250 copies, presumably the author's experienced estimate of the number of literate people who might be interested to read it. Who would? Well, anyone who has responded to Kafka or Walser or Borges or Donald Barthelme will recognize a similar breath-taking deftness of narration, and feel something of their remoteness from the interchangeable themes and styles of the large part of current fiction.

"Ferdinand"—like all of Zukofsky's writing—has an air about it of having been written in another century and only now discovered and found to be eerily pertinent to our times. Zukofsky's sense of place and time is inward and subjective. As in Kafka, the emotional intensity of his vision excludes that comforting realism which fiction feeds us as so much pabulum. "Ferdinand" is set in Italy, France, and the United States, none of which is identified for us.

The protagonist enacts a tragedy of a dark and disturbing nature indeed, but this is left for us to discover after we have closed the book. The action unfolds as in a dream, or a movie in a foreign language which we know a few words of; we see intuitively that the story has weight and significance, and realize that senses which we rarely use are being called into use. This is not a major work; it is rather a finely turned story from a sensibility of extraordinary range and skill.

Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, pp. 5, 31.

Louis Zukofsky, a poet and the father of a violin virtuoso, draws on both connections in this spoof ["Little"]. He tucks into it a green roomful of concert gargoyles, and he indulges in an orgy of language: funny names, puns, malapropisms, verbal curlicues. The author is elegantly knowledgeable. One can almost forgive the gratuitous wordplay that accompanies Little Barron's journey to fame. This, to apply the hero's own words, is "sick transit" a good part of the way.

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 11, 1970, pp. 44-5.

[Zukofsky] began writing seriously in the 1920's, influenced by two older poets who soon became his friends, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. In 1927 he began his major work, a poetic sequence called simply "A," which is still in progress. During the thirties he became the effective leader of a group of New York poets called the Objectivists; they were known for a time, but were then eclipsed by the massive popularity of Eliot, Yeats, and the American poets dominated by European and symbolist influences. Zukofsky continued at work in virtual darkness. He produced a couple of anthologies, a long and deeply inquiring study of Shakespeare, an extraordinary and controversial translation of the poetry of Catullus, and a steady progression of new poems….

Zukofsky's young admirers are perfectly right when they insist that he is a distinctly modern poet, their fit comrade-in-arms, not only with respect to verbal practice, since most of his work is more vigorously contemporary …, but especially with respect to his attitudes toward experience, some of which prefigured by two decades the wave of European existentialism that came to us after World War II.

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 6, 1970, pp. 32, 36.

Admired by Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and a generation of avant-garde writers who esteem Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky remains an enigmatic and generally misunderstood figure. Even the members of the so-called Objectivist group that gathered around him in the thirties often found his work impenetrable and today the situation has been compounded by the appearance of his five-hundred page "metaphysics of cognition," Bottom: On Shakespeare, and his still unfinished masterpiece, "A," a quasi-autobiographical poem written over a lifetime. Just as the theories he presented as guest editor of the Objectivist issue of Poetry in 1931 were met with silence or confusion, so he has rarely been discussed outside the little magazines. But Zukofsky is more than a coterie poet or a man who owes his place in literary history chiefly to his association with Ezra Pound. To the contrary, he is, for all his eccentricity, both a germinal part of the whole nominalist trend of twentieth-century poetry and a craftsman of extreme subtlety….

The trouble was that the transmutation of things and feelings into verbal music did not always provide a shape that could speak to all men. Indeed one wonders whether Zukofsky really intended to do so, despite his strong belief in the measurable qualities of poetry and the necessity for objective standards. As much the solipsist as the realist, he has always been something of a recluse and it is typical that, while he is quite willing to talk about his work, his interpretations often turn out to be as esoteric as the poems themselves. His long poem "A" deals with personal subjects elliptically, but Zukofsky firmly refuses to talk about his life in any way that will provide an insight into himself or his poetry. "By the time I'm eighty I hope to be very simple," he said, "if I haven't shut up."

L. S. Dembo, "Louis Zukofsky: Objectivist Poetics and the Quest for Form," in American Literature (© 1972 by the Duke University Press), March, 1972, pp. 74-96.