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 to examine American culture and poetic thought. 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)
Autobiography is as good a place as any for new readers of Zukofsky to begin. Its warning is direct, a caution sign to those who would do other than read the words of the poet. Its gifts, its songs, tell the reader of the poet's achievement: an art of precision, intellectual range, simplicity, and, above all, of grace.
Mathematicians are fond of using the word "elegance" to signify the sum of such characteristics. It is, in many ways, the perfect word to express the totality of effect Zukofsky's work achieves, for even on those occasions when the poet misses the mark … one is convinced of the irreducible quality of the language. But by bringing in the idea of elegance at this point I have something more in mind, the variety of ways in which Zukofsky's poetry can be imaged as a series of processes, movements, and equations which have their most immediate analogies in mathematics. I do not wish to imply that his poetry is inordinately difficult, nor do I wish to suggest that Zukofsky moves into abstraction. To the contrary, Zukofsky is strongly motivated by a desire to simplify, to bring the form of his work down to its most precise dimension. In this respect, his poetry shares with modern American poetry the same tendency: to produce a "plain stile." But Zukofsky characteristically deals with complex issues, and in that respect he is quite different from most of his contemporaries. Or, to put the point another way, he is at once our most "intellectual" of poets and one of our most "simple."… Zukofsky has learned much from the example of the natural sciences, to which he has been receptive, exceedingly. He has seen in them vital correspondences to his own art, and references to them occur with startling regularity…. (pp. 77-8)
But Zukofsky's comments [in his critical essays] have neither the arrogance of the poet cum scientist … nor the stridency of the poet discovering a new field to be "used" in his writing…. Rather, they possess an essential rightness as well as a remarkable accuracy. Happily, also, the words lead somewhere; that is, this is not merely poetics, not a lovely theory contained within what has become an autonomous sub-genre. That poetry is measure, that poetry is, in part, a system of relationships and recurrences, that poetry is, or ought to be, concerned with the most minute particles of human expression—these are verities demonstrated throughout Zukofsky's work. (p. 79)
Zukofsky has gone far beyond his contemporaries both in his knowledge of music and in his application; only Wallace Stevens comes to mind as a near parallel in this respect. Three levels of accomplishment can be distinguished, what I will call the purely...
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In its wisdom [Zukofsky's] publisher is pushing Hugh Kenner's judgment that "A" is "the most hermetic poem in English, which they will still be elucidating in the 22nd century." They of course will be the descendants of Prof. Hugh Kenner and long may they thrive. In the meantime such a distinction is not likely to start a stampede to the bookshops of our post-modern day. Nor is it one, I think, that the poet himself would have coveted. Granted that his verse is, in Ezra Pound's phrase, "more thoughtful than toffee-lickers require," Zukofsky's own words seem more apropos: "the poem of a life—and a time."…
I have found "A" alternately and in no special order strange, beautiful, mad, touching, unreadable, readable, elusive, fascinating. Now that I have all 800 pages in hand … I see no reason to change my mind—except to say that in sum I respect and am moved by it all … the labor of one quiet, stubborn, possessed man's lifetime. It is a big poem in all senses. (p. 573)
Zukofsky's early poem "Poem Beginning 'The'"] about 100 lines shorter than The Waste Land (which in part it parodies), has—like that poem—helpful-cum-facetious notes [and] is divided into six "movements."… Written in 1926, it provides the best possible introduction to "A", begun two years later.
Partly a put-on of the modernist poem it also means to be, "'The'" comes fitted out with numbered lines, an exegete's delight. But while Eliot's notes were an afterthought and postscript, Zukofsky's are positively flaunted: a massed squadron of sources and line references confronts one just beneath the title at the threshold…. Among other things, "'The'" is a funny poem but along with the horseplay a central recognition is in the making: that the past, muffled and modified as it well may be, persists in the present; that its voices are neither lifeless souvenirs nor literary grace notes but presences that shape—remind, rebuke, foster—the living; that "my" voice therefore is not mine only, since others speak through me. The same point is made, of course, in The Waste Land and the Cantos, but in Zukofsky's case it is complicated by the fact that he speaks an acquired tongue [Zukofsky was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants] and so, in assuming the language of "strangers," is disloyal to his own…. Caught between the claims of a small world and a larger, an old world and a new, past voices and an...
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Louis Zukofsky's life work is "A"—not the, mind you, but a, for as he said, "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a…." The good life is one thing, then, and a life quite another…. [The] first section of the poem (there are 24 in all, which number echoes for me significantly the human measure of a day) was written in 1928, when the poet was 24 years old. The last writing is dated 1974 ("A" 23), so that one has the range of 46 years—without question a life's commitment, in all possible respects, to what does come and go, of a day, and what does stay put—as value, as measure, as possibility.
Unlike Pound's "Cantos" (whose time of composition might be seen as parallel), Zukofsky's work is grounded in a triad, a life lived with two intensively significant other people, his wife Celia and his son Paul. They are presences in the poem as much as the poet's own. So there is a clear domestic locus, and the fact of these three is humanly vulnerable always, yet tenaciously coherent in that they are a human relationship, a seemingly timeless pattern of organic order: becoming, being and ending. There is also the world, of course, and all that it proposes and/or constitutes. And the art of poetry….
Zukofsky's art, in this work, is without equal. No poet of our time can so...
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[Zukofsky is] the classic eiron described in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: self-deprecating, seldom vulnerable, artful, given to understatement, modest or mock-modest, indirect, objective, dispassionate, unassertive, sophisticated, and maybe foreign…. (p. 8)
For whatever reason (and reasons are legion), the eiron's art—irony—amounts to saying two or more things at one time, so that an auditor with 20/20 ears ought to hear an ironic utterance as a chord of sorts, one that displays its own meaning in its own sound as harmonies among cord and chord, accord and a chord, even choral and coral. (p. 10)
What the solo modern prose voice at the beginning of "A" accomplishes is … to suggest both irony and fugue complexly: by talking about a piece of vocal-instrumental polyphony and by doing so in ways that are themselves fugal or quasi-fugal:
Round of fiddles playing Bach.
"A" equals air (aria) with different values in ancient and modern English, or in English and other European languages, or in English itself variable according to stress. Prefixed in this way or that, it means "with" and it means "without." It means "one" and "he" and "they" and "of." Here, right off the baton, it plays "around" against "a round," which is iridescent with musical, poetic, geometric, and mundane meanings. The part-for-whole figure of "fiddles" (for "fiddlers") plays against the whole-for-part figure of "Bach" (for "a work by Bach"), and "playing," as I have been leaking none too subtly, means everything that both "work" and "play" can mean, including the ideas of performance and impersonation and contest. (p. 11)
[An] etymological history of three words converging in a single sound—rote—may be seen as a model of Zukofsky's main themes and techniques in "A." No modern ironic poem of any length could possibly be self-standing, and Zukofsky's resembles those by Williams, Pound, and Eliot in including precursors and companions. (p. 12)
Zukofsky begins his poem on a particular April evening in 1928, and for him—as for Whitman, Yeats, and Eliot before him—this paschal time of Passover and Passion, converging in the syncretism of Eos-East-Easter with its terrible beauty, furnishes an ideal prism for seeing the world clearly and for intelligently hearing its ironies and harmonies…. Given this matrix of ideal convergences, the eiron's eyes and ears can subject language to a detailed inquisition, though it hardly takes the full third degree to remove hide and hair from verbal surfaces. In a sixty-year career, Zukofsky experimented with every species of rhematic and thematic irony as ways of saying more than one thing at a time, and he devoted an inordinate amount of his genius to the transfiguration into English of various foreign texts. Since Zukofsky tried to preserve sound and sense alike—which is impossible—"translation" is not quite the correct word for this process…. Zukofsky's refinement, which may echo certain Talmudic or Cabalistic techniques of interpretation, has been to apply this principle of nomenclature to whole texts, typically ironic or comic-lyric, and to produce a complete Catullus by this method, as well as a version (appearing as "A"-21) of Plautus' Rudens, which is evidently a reworking of a lost Greek play by Diphilus. (pp. 13-14)
Zukofsky's novel handling of Latin and other foreign languages has been duly admired by some, but I have to say that I think his Catullus and Plautus are dull distortions. Their purpose may be to breathe (literally) new breath through their consonants and vowels, but the result is a high-handed botch.
I am not qualified to discuss the fine points of this complicated problem of translation. It's just that sound and sense cannot be transferred from one language to another, and it may also be true that not even sense by itself can be moved. (p. 14)
Kept up doggedly for seventy pages, Zukofsky's Plautus' Diphilus' Rudens is the most tiresome part of "A."
The next most tiresome part is "A"-24, which is another fugal experiment. "A"-21 amounts to a superposed transmogrification of the folk theme of the recovered daughter with Greco-Roman voices joined by synthetic English…. "A"-24, which was composed by Celia Zukofsky (with help from the Zukofsky's brilliant son, Paul) … is not so much the real conclusion of "A" as a kind of addendum...
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