Zukofsky, Louis 1904–1978
Zukofsky was an American poet, critic, translator, and novelist who, with William Carlos Williams and others, helped establish the Objectivist movement. His major work is the multivolumed poem sequence A, which utilizes a wide range of forms and themes in an attempt at an exhaustive examination of American culture and poetic thought. An uncompromising practitioner of his theories of poetry, Zukofsky was relatively unnoticed by the general public until late in life, though throughout his career he was praised by fellow poets. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)
As Zukofsky notes in his preface [to Catullus], it is the sound of the Latin which has come to interest him—not however as Latin sound, but as a challenge, a kind of dare. He has done what he said he would do, namely construct Latin sounds in English. It works, in Catullus 8; though the effect is somehow strange, it is more than acceptable. (p. 439)
Who we favor—whom—put to us? Caeli, tibby: now to your
perspective egregious "best" unique ah me kitty ah,
come wasting on my eyes t'her reared at flame my medulla's
Seize fay licks, Caeli, see as in and more potence.
This is Catullus 100—but is it English? (I do not mean: is it poetry? If it is not English, then it is not a translation into English. Period.)… I'm told, reliably, that English schoolboys do this sort of thing all the time. Zukofsky does it, here, almost all the time: Catullus keeps sounding like this, for page after page:
Furius, "Little Villa" has no nod for Auster,
flaw to oppose a taste naked to Favonius,
nor sighs with Boreas, out Apheliotes,
worms eat and mill it fifteen thousand two hundred.
O vent them horrible, I'm out quite, pestilent mm.
To whom is this translation of Catullus 26 of any use? The Latinist can read Catullus in Latin; he does not need, nor presumably is he interested to read, that "o ventum horribilem atque pestilentem" can be aped (but not translated, no) as "o vent them horrible, I'm out quite, pestilent mm." The non-Latinist...
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[The beginning of Zukofsky's A is] richly assertive of the poem's "subject": aurality and its relation to measure. Aurality, where words seen literally as the dynamics of the poem are in kinetic relation between their occasions as sounded "meanings" (speech) and as configured sounds (music); measure, the abstract law from which aurality is suspended (mathematics). And so A begins in motion, with words "playing" the finite fugal structures of Bach, with words "played" against the measure (the isolated "A" subtly dislocating the iambic tetrameter line with an unfamiliar downbeat)…. What is unique about the work is not that is is about music or that it is "musical" or that it was intended for musical setting (though it is often all these), but that it is a poetry reaching out toward a system of measure which, in this sublunary world, is best exemplified by music, and best of all by Bach. Zukofsky's "music" is a music in respectful proof of the "caged/'silence'" from which it issued, the mathémata, the science or knowledge, which both propels the poem into being and receives it at its close. Music here is epistemology.
It is the implementation of this concern with aurality and measure which most distinguishes the poet from those other moderns to whom he is, in many ways, a blood relative. Like Ezra Pound, Williams, and Charles Olson, Zukofsky is given to the use of so-called "anti-poetic" materials, to the epic-long, continuing poem, and like them, too, he is "difficult," which is to say that he is difficult to "explain." But the principle of organic form we find more or less operative in the Pound/Williams line is significantly modified by a classical disposition toward a strictly articulated measure. Both the Cantos and Paterson were allowed to spill over beyond their original intentions…. I doubt very much, however, that Zukofsky will exceed his plan of twenty-four movements to A, not only because twenty-four is generically right (the number which organizes Homeric epic), but also because the poem thus far demonstrates too respectful a working-out of numerical method…. [The reader feels] that within the density of "information" which the poet submits, there is yet a means to keep, literally, time with the poem. Quantity is thus a useful descriptive grammar: "A"-18 is executed almost entirely in eight-word lines; eight quatrains made up of two-word lines open "A"-19 and are followed by twenty-five pages of skinny Spenserian stanzas (twelve two-word lines and then one three-word line), the last two lines of which ("raz'd nine/so soon twenty") modulate the poem into "A"-20, where "nine" and "twenty" act as private structural keys; and "A"-21, a translatìon of Plautus' Rudens, is...
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A bare and unpretentious way of speaking, brevity of phrase and concentration on the matter nearest to hand: such features of a language of survival are those [Louis Zukofsky's] work has chiefly tended to establish. Its intrinsic qualities are richer and deeper….
At the age of 22 he conceived the idea of a poem that should run concurrent with his life, predetermined by number of sections or movements but undetermined as to form or content, the determined but unforeseeable course of history. He called it "A" and finished it after he had turned 70. (p. 11)
He shared Pound's conception of poetry as something semi-musical but in some respects his native gifts were more like Joyce's. He had a deep sense of dedication, great technical skill and little imagination. He combined an extremely keen literary sense with a grasp of large intellectual structure. He too had the strength to be sentimental as well as comic. His sense of rhythm was however delicate and restricted rather than powerful. In compensation he had a swiftness and subtlety of thought and feeling which earned him in his youth Pound's superlative: the most intelligent man in America and later Guy Davenport's: the poet wisest in his time about love.
It is not possible to give a simple description of Zukofsky's writing because he wrote differently as different parts of his work required. The diversity of his pace and tone has...
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