Study Guide

Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky Essay - Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 7)

Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 7)

Zukofsky, Louis 1904–

An American poet, critic, and novelist, Zukofsky led the Objectivist movement of the 1930s. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were his mentors and friends; but, as L. S. Dembo commented, he is "more than a coterie poet or a man who owes his place in literary history to his [associations]. 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." He works "with the diamond-cutter's precision," as Guy Davenport noted. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Zukofsky is one of those poets who has made his whole life the subject of his poetry and, unfortunately, made poetry the whole of his life. He writes a seamless poem and for 30 or 40 years now has been writing the same one, starting with "A." Perhaps he knows few ever get past "A" in the lexicon poetry, or life, and wants us to see his essential modesty. Didactic, moral, humorless, insistent and emotionless, Zukofsky's words seem the driest whisperings of an aged cicada hidden near somewhere under a stone; hidden from us as much as the world seems hidden from him. "A" stands for admirable, for art: "A" also stands for abstract, and anaesthetic. (p. 44)

Jascha Kessler, in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1969, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), August 17, 1969.

For forty-six years Louis Zukofsky has been writing a long poem called A. Its first twelve parts were set in type by Japanese compositors and printed in Kyoto fifteen years ago. (The first thirty of Pound's Cantos were set by French, the eighty-fifth through ninety-fifth by Italian compositors; the first half of Olson's Maximus was printed in Germany, the second half in England; Walt Whitman himself set Leaves of Grass; Melville paid for the printing of Clarel out of his own pocket; The Columbiad sold because of its handsome binding and typography and engravings by Robert Fulton [Davenport's footnote adds: "Steamboat Fulton. Someone must someday write about the affinity between steamboats and poets. Robert Burns was on the maiden voyage of the first steamboat, and Shelley when he was drowned was just about to found a steam-ship company plying between London and Genoa."]). Only Williams' Paterson came in an untroubled and ordinary way from a publisher. It cannot be demonstrated that the American public has ever clamored to read a long poem by an American poet. (p. 15)

Does A begin in a thoroughly Marxist way, positing man's economic anguish as an agony in what might have been, had greed and misdirection not ruined it, the garden of the world? The poem begins on Passover 1928 at a performance of Bach's Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall; Easter is four days away. The banks are soon to close; the country is deep into the Depression. Women in diamonds have come to hear underpaid musicians. Zukofsky always counterpoints his themes with the precision of a baroque master. Passover: Easter. Leipzig 1728: New York 1929. Jew: Christian. Christ on the cross: industrial workers crucified on their machines. Lenin had been dead only four years. The poet's parents spoke no English and he grew up speaking Yiddish with a Russian accent. It was the opinion of the Communist Party cell which he attended with a view to joining (his sponsor was his classmate at Columbia, Whittaker Chambers) that he was not CP material but a young man ambitious to move to the West Side.

Gibbon would eventually temper, correct, and supplement Marx; Thomas Jefferson, Lenin. But Shakespeare and Bach would become the lares penatesque of this most passionately intellectual of American poets. Only Emily Dickinson has kept to her hearth more than Zukofsky. When he leaves home, a home intensely a focus of his whole existence, he travels, like Basho, with his own weather, coals from his fire, a splendid sense that by drawing this chair here and that chair there he can summon the exact skirts of the tent that kept out the sand and desert cold on the marches across Sinai, the straw curtains that screened the family from the chatter and blasphemy of Babylon, the lamp-lit walls of Polish rooms, the shades one draws against Brooklyn.

This inwardness is the ground for all the glittering themes and their variations which dance in A. Dance, for the essence of the poem is in play, intellectual play, a play of words and music. Zukofsky is the most Apollonian of our poets, but his Apollo cavorts with Pan and Priapos. So did the Apollo of Bach, Shakespeare, and Catullus. Zukofsky's honor for olden and abandoned spirits is one of his most strenuous pieties. There are many ways of talking about Zukofsky's particular marshaling of spiritual dominions and powers (A, for instance, is about a marriage in which the wife has the Elizabethan name Celia, hence lyrics for the lute throughout); it is crucial, however, to an understanding of his art to single out the wonder of his playfulness, for it sets his work aside (and above) as distinctly as his superb mastery of sound and measure. (pp. 17-18)

Zukofsky … found a way (like Charles Ives …) to harmonize counterpointed themes that is something like the deferential richness of a Latin line of poetry (the genitives, datives and ablatives generously and promiscuously attaching themselves to the words around them, though we are supposed to reserve our sense of relationships until the whole line is in place), something like Pound's and Williams' imagistic gisting of English phrases into a Chinese aesthetic of terseness, and something of Zukofsky's heroic endeavor to marry words to a music—the more impossible the program, the better. In the eccentric Catullus, the Latin is the music, and the English is the words set to it. "A"-21 is so many English words set to Plautus' Latin; "A"-15 begins with English words set to the Hebrew of Job. Sharp ears can hear Mallarmé in "A"-19.

This interpenetration of meaning and meaning ("once She now Eunuch reigned"—"A"-21, for example, refers to the reign of Justice in Ovid's Golden Age, though an obvious theme of our time gets alluded to, and the grammar can read, "We are ruled by eunuchs rather than by just men") has a parallel in [Ives' "Concord Sonata," in which classical and folk themes recur in allusive and elusive juxtaposition]. (pp. 18-19)

Now that almost the whole structure is available to us, we can see that it is a series of metamorphoses in which thought turns into music. That's what happens in Shakespeare's sonnets; thought becomes one of the figures in a richly patterned music. The thought itself is accidental, like the plot of a short story. It comes from the outside: the war in Vietnam, sawhorses in the street. There is enough narrative and anecdotal matter in A to make a shelf of novels.

The ending of the poem is 239 pages of music, Handel's Pièces pour le Clavecin copied out in Celia's neat hand. Against this music actors perform a masque by reciting from Zukofsky's essays (the volume Prepositions), his play of 1936, Arise, Arise (the title is the International talking at the same time as John Donne), the book of stories It Was, and previous portions of A. (p. 21)

This [when read aloud] goes on for an hour and ten minutes—four voices speaking simultaneously to a constant glory of Handel. Nothing, let us note, is being obscured by all these voices talking at once. We have no more right to complain that we can understand nothing (as indeed we can't) than to complain of Ives' Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut that we can't make out what two military bands are playing (separate tunes simultaneously on top of some lovely ragtime and a bit of Tristan). The elements exist elsewhere, and can be consulted. (p. 22)

Polyphonic voices are not a musical form we are used to, though any American room will usually have two conversations going at once while the television set maintains its diarrhea of words and crappy music. I suspect that ultimately Zukofsky wanted A to culminate and fulfill itself at a family reunion of his work, inside and outside the poem, a grand Jewish family affair, with everybody cheerfully talking at once. The surface of the poem then achieves its maximum turbulence within such form as the harpsichord can impose; the reciters must watch the score, and follow the measure.

Total familiarity with the piece will begin to disclose remarkable dissonances and harmonies. The scholars will want to ask why the voices have been put together in just this way. Why, for instance, the essay on Henry Adams is made to move alongside a reprise of "A"-7, while other voices are talking about graves.

Familiarity is the condition whereby all of Zukofsky's work renders its goodness up. Zukofsky's surface is apt to appear spare and a bit cold, as Finnegans Wake is apt to seem a briarpatch of words. Many of Zukofsky's phrases seem to be knots tied too elaborately: they seem to be asked to be picked apart. Once we know that every phrase is an ultimate condensation of what the same concepts would be in a windier poet, we can then gear our wits to Zukofsky's finer machinery than we could possibly be used to.

It has been complained of Zukofsky that he confuses obscurity and profundity. He is obscure (but never arcane); he is profound as music is profound, for his words are powerful enough to stir response, sympathy, and revery. They reward attention, and keep rewarding attention. His obscurity is in the reader's mind, not in the poem. And it is an obscurity which disappears as we learn our poet, his precision and skill. His passion. (pp. 22-3)

Perhaps, at the moment, when the life of the mind is in more peril than ever in the Republic, Zukofsky must seem to be not so much a poet's poet as a poet's poet, and may be the last man of the great generation of the Men of 1914, the inventors of the art of the century. Our greatest living poet is usually a man as unknown to the professariat as to the corps of reviewers and the deaf custodians of the laurels. It was true of Whitman in 1873, and is true of Zukofsky in 1973. (p. 23)

Guy Davenport, "Zukofsky's 'A-24'," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974, pp. 15-23.

"A" [is] a long game of alertness to possibilities, single words floating loose to attach themselves to simultaneous contexts. The game commences at the top of the first page,

                Round of fiddles playing Bach

—where "A" is the title of the poem, and its first word (as of the alphabet), and the indefinite article, and the note musicians tune by. On page 70 Vitamin A enters the dance; on page 45, A-legged sawhorses that tumble as though weightless through an intricate juggling act, seven sonnets arranged like a canzone…. Weightless, as in music, where there isn't a burden of "meaning" and playing can seem like play. It's play that gets from sawhorses to manes to "out of manes, out of airs" by way of the Latin manes (ancestral spirits), and that ties "airs" to "words" ("I made it out of a mouthful of air," said Yeats) but also to tunes by way of "singing gut"—both the fiddle string and the insides wooden horses lack—and that gives "out of manes" the form of some such phrase as "out of gas." And these clumsy Pegasi serve not only for impoverishments (what's a Brooklyn poet got to work with?) but also for Renaissance emblems, since "two legs stand A," the name of the poem, and when four together make M they calligraph AM.

So rabbinical is the intentness of this difficult playing that it refuses to entertain questions about seriousness…. It's a curious possibility that the whole poem—over 600 pages so far, and still to finish—may be an exegesis of the indefinite article, and so of cases standing for kinds, and so of a tension between the kind of reality kinds have and the stubborn intuition that our need for a filing system has merely devised them. (pp. 171-72)

Hugh Kenner, in his A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (copyright © 1975 by Hugh Kenner; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975.

The completion of "A" will call for much more than an account of the last two parts to have been written. From some it will evoke gratitude and veneration, a renewal of their own work and life, an attempt to understand Zukofsky's. Others will reconsider the possibilities of poetry, review their estimate of other work and revise the history of twentieth-century literature; others again will be impelled to exegesis or publicity. But a preliminary account is called for first.

"A" was "foreseen" in 1926, when Zukofsky was 22, as a "curve" to be plotted in 24 movements written at unforeseeable points of time. "A"-24, the crown of the whole, is already published; "A"-22 and "A"-23 now add to what has gone before and sum it up. Temporal and occasional preoccupations are less importunate than in some earlier movements. "A"-22 moves round timelessness and history (geological, biological and cultural, emptied of names'/impertinence), "A"-23 rounds off the work; in the course of this movement Zukofsky reads the epic of Gilgamesh and celebrates his country home and his long love of plants and birds…. (p. 127)

Texture … both supplements and summates techniques previously exploited. Pruned of particles, steady in pace but never indolent, the language conveys and induces a concentrated energy, a vivid repose. Semantically it moves at varying levels between 'saying things' and 'giving the initiative to the words'; alert to the slightest hint and the latest invention, it is full of discoveries, observations, recollections, jokes. (p. 128)

No man alive knows English so well. Bunting has a more intimate grasp of a narrower range, MacDiarmid a much slacker hold over a range almost as wide, Zukofsky a constant attention to minute details of meaning, timbre, feel, homophone, etymon and allusion. Though the basis of his volgare illustre is ordinary speech, his lexis is extraordinarily large and his use of it continually surprising: truncations and quick turns afford fewer possibilities for the complicated rhythms of long speech but more for melodic flow and continuous variation. "A"-23 moves from an almost wordless windsong to, towards the end, proto-English and beyond….

Zukofsky reserves, plays and holds his content light, never letting it stay long or set hard. He simplifies and elaborates round the almost unsayable without loss of humanity or intelligence, a rare thing in epics. (p. 129)

Kenneth Cox, in Agenda, Winter-Spring, 1976.

No use asking me to explain it, I've no idea how an explanation would start: unless by taking note of the awesome, hermetic self-discipline that has now finished, in 1975, a long poem in 24 parts planned and begun in 1927. (The poet, at 71, now has plans for a new project; the plans entail its completion date.)

Part of the poem is its own publication history, including the fact that "A—24," the finale, was published three years ago, and concludes with a quotation from "A 20," where it was a quotation from verses the poet's son wrote at not-quite-nine. So when "A" goes into a collected volume its last words will be "What is it, I wonder that makes thee so loved"; but its last published words will be the final line of "A 23": "z-sited paths are but us."

"Z-sited" not only incorporates the poet's initial, it remembers the first line of "A 1," which is simply "A":

                  Round of fiddles playing Bach.

That "A" is not only the indefinite article but the "A" musicians tune by, hence the sound that was in the concert hall before the playing began. Analogously "A 23" ends with an alphabet, which is also "A living calendar, names inwreath'd," so living that its final syllables, "are but us," name the arbutus.

All of which would be a frigid pedantic game but for Zukofsky's ineluctable passion to order a half-century's public and domestic experience…. He can catch, it seems, the essence of any transient phenomenon…. (p. 6)

Like Picasso, he has left behind a manifest facility in doing what laggard taste admires. Yet though the semantic thread grows nearly untraceable, the auditory skill is still audible in "A 22" under such sequences as

             Too full for talk, 4
             tones of black glisten, healall
             of black night, dark, light,
             no more than a sound
             can be painted, or wind
             in the hollow of hand—

Our problem, we grow to understand, is that we are muscle-bound, that we cannot readily emulate those leaps. We are also grossly ignorant of the English language, which Zukofsky understands with the passion of a rabbinical boy who learned it word by word, having first encountered "Hiawatha" in Yiddish translation. ("Healall" is in the dictionary: a plant.)

Mallarmé, his orienting predecessor, learned English in order to read the great Poe. Zukofsky learned it to survive in New York, and also to read its riches. One result was "A," the most hermetic poem in English, which they will still be elucidating in the 22nd century. At present its best explicator is an Englishman, Kenneth Cox, and the three volumes prior to the present one are in print only in England. One day Americans will be awestruck by what's been given them: the dialect of the Hudson Basin tribe, purified, counted, measured, subdued to unimaginable rules and made to give back to sufficiently curious minds the lore of our age (we lived it all without knowing) that a pharaoh's tomb gives Egyptologists. Whatever went into them, tombs, when they are opened, contain no trivia. (pp. 6-7)

Hugh Kenner, in New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1976.

[Zukofsky's] criticism is of the highest order; indeed, it may well be the subtlest and most profound criticism of poetry to have been written in this century.

I have been reading Zukofsky for 20 years and flatter myself that I have begun to understand how to read him; his work, as Williams has said, cannot be thought of as "a simple song," rather, his song is more like Mozart's. There is no way of making him simple. As does all great art, his work resists cheapening, and it must be experienced in the full range of its intellect, craft, and music in order to be understood, even a little bit. The dedication is to art as a kind of supreme search for the clarity of the understanding. As with so much art that is not for sale, the drive toward clarity often makes for a difficult end result. We are left, as it were, with no help except from the poet's other poems, the tradition of the art of poetry, and our own intelligence. The handles are missing….

This is not to say that there is never external information as a ground for many of Zukofsky's poems. My point is that the possession of such information leaves us, still, with the poem….

It is and always has been Zukofsky's delight to set for himself aesthetic problems and to go about solving them within the poem. We are not required to know what these problems are in order to allow the poem our attention; they are the poet's concern and are almost always invisible. Our knowledge of them, certainly, enhances our pleasure in the work, just as our pleasure in "Ulysses" is enhanced when we are enlightened as to the formal structure that underlies the edifice of each chapter. But this knowledge of the nature of the materials used in the composition of the poem does not explain the poem—or to put it more bluntly, scholarship can neither write nor read poetry….

Zukofsky, as he has written of Thomas Wyatt, is "thinking a prosody" in his poems, feeling out sound as he composes, not picking up, bag and baggage, whatever is lying around in the disguise of "our heritage." He does not hammer out dead and dying measures, in order to prove, along with Frost, that he does not like to "play tennis with the net down." He does not write "free verse," which seems to exist only in the minds of insolent academics who loathe poetry. (p. 77)

It is clear to anyone who is seriously engaged with poetry that his work stands alongside that of Pound, Williams, and Stevens, as among the most authentic body of poetry to have been written by an American poet in this century. Those of his generation who may be considered his peers are Olson and Oppen. He has proffered us an enormous gift; somehow, we have refused to accept it, blundering after false gods and prophets. It is his own gift, pure and intense, his entire life, the rhythm and meaning of it, that is available to us in his books. To "place" him succinctly, then: He always was the real thing and always will be. Apropos Zukofsky, we can agree with Pound when he writes: "A man's rhythm must be interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable." (p. 78)

Gilbert Sorrentino, "The Poetry of Louis Zukofsky: The Handles Are Missing," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), June 7, 1976, pp. 77-8.

I think that what makes good poetry is always the same, the use of words in such a way that "the thing is in the word." Empty words are empty, whether they are arranged according to modernist or traditional tenets. The defence of modernist technique is the vitality of the work it produces. In the work of Louis Zukofsky there is considerable vitality…. The poem that began with "A Round of fiddles playing Bach …" reaches [in "A" 22] a kind of musical speaking in which sound verges on a total displacement of meaning. But it is not that simple. A language reduced to sound would be no language at all. Zukofsky does something else; he uses words in ways that make their meaning appear tenuous, a momentary crystallizing of the flow of sound. The effect is one of discovery and surprise, of initial speaking…. [The] main thing is in the words moving in rhythm that represent historical growth-as-presence. Part of that process is the growth of language, and the rising of thought out of language, through methods of recording, like knots in the rope that the Incas used for communication: "new knots renewed ink anew."… Charm must be the frailest of poetic qualities. Much of the poetry here, and all through "A", depends on it…. The charm of his writing imparts a human warmth, a lived-in quality to the whole of "A", which, for all its length, remains a small poem, enclosed, a household. To place it alongside the Cantos, as some readers have done (speaking rather indiscriminately of "the long poem"), is to realize that the two are opposites, the "A" is the anti-epic par excellence, that the epic is the poem of unhoused mankind but that this poem has always been what it becomes here: a spiritual canticle of human habitation, "beginning ardent; to end blest." (pp. 315-16)

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976.