Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 18)
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.)
Philip R. Yannella
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...
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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...
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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"...
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