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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2205

Despite being admired and encouraged while still in his twenties by such poetic luminaries as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and being friends with such illustrious contemporaries as William Carlos Williams, in addition to being the principal exponent of the Objectivist theory of poetry, Louis Zukofsky has become the most overlooked major American poet of the twentieth century. In part, this neglect may be explained by the reaction against experimentation among poets and critics in Zukofsky’s closing years, when he might have expected greater recognition for the fruits of his imaginative labors. In addition, the concentration of so much of his poetic energies in the massive opus “A”(1978) perhaps deprived him of an audience weaned on lyrics. At the same time, however, as is amply demonstrated by his Complete Short Poetry, there is no denying the essential difficulty of Zukofsky’s work and the inevitable conclusion that much of its appeal is to minority tastes.

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Despite problems relating to his significance in the history of twentieth century American poetry, to his challenging prosody and restless experimentation, and to the ideology of taste to which such problems ultimately pertain, Zukofsky is by no means a poet to be written off. The publication of this handsome edition of his Complete Short Poetry is important in a number of ways. It facilitates the availability of the complete Zukofsky canon, thereby potentially prompting renewed critical interest in the poet. And, as the choice of Robert Creeley as author of the volume’s foreword reminds us, Zukofsky was an important influence on those American poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s whose work continues to bear an uneasy and illuminating relationship to the canon of postwar American verse. Creeley himself is an obvious case in point, as are—to name the most prominent—Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Denise Levertov. In view of this volume’s intrinsic interest as well as its historical value, therefore, it is to be regretted that it does not include bibliographical or other editorial material.

By collecting for the first time all of Zukofsky’s shorter verse, this book supplants the earlier All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971). To the contents of that volume has now been added the remarkable versions of the Latin poet Catullus, which Zukofsky made with his wife, the composer Celia Zukofsky. Also reprinted in Complete Short Poetry is the late work 80 Flowers (1978), hitherto available only in a limited edition. Other individual items, culled from the small magazines to which Zukofsky contributed, are also included, though their provenance is not given.

Complete Short Poetry gives an indelible impression of the poet’s range. There are few poets for whom the arbitrary separation of form from content is less justifiable than it is for Zukofsky. In all cases, and as a matter of artistic integrity as well as prosodic principle, form is content for Zukofsky, and it is the peculiarly subtle resourcefulness which he brought to this principle which places him on the same level of literary significance as Pound and Williams. Given the challenge of his prosody, however, and the ostensibly obscure theory which underlies and governs it, a separation of content from form will prove useful.

The son of Russian emigrants who did not speak English, Zukofsky proved himself in the first instance to be academically brilliant. It is illuminating to consider many of the themes which recur throughoutComplete Short Poetry as the result of the interplay between the poet’s origins and his attainments. His attachment to the life of New York, which assumes various related expressions throughout his poetic career, is filtered through a sensibility which is at once extraordinarily refined and intellectually sophisticated. The life of the city in some of the early work contained in the section entitled “29 Poems” evokes echoes of William Carlos Williams and also of such New York painters of the 1920’s as John Sloan. Though perceived through an inimitably oblique perspective, and scenes are loving testaments to the city and its inhabitants. The poem “Ferry” (“Gleams, a green lamp/ In the fog”) and the rhythm of one of the untitled poems’ opening lines—“Cars once steel and green, now old,/ Find their grave at Cedar Manor”—not only effectively conjure certain moods and atmospheres but also release the poet’s pleasure and engagement with his material.

In addition to, and much more important than, these early poems’ affection for the poet’s native place and their Whitmanesque embrace of even its less prepossessing features is their clear attachment to the people. This attachment is expressed in such asides to his family as this, to his mother, from the early “Poem beginning ‘The’”: “Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare.” Yet in these presumed limitations, she implicitly remains as much a subject for poetry as some more conventionalized theme. While, as this section of the same poem goes on to claim, “Assimilation is not hard,” it is not clear that Zukofsky was ever entirely seduced by its blandishments, preferring to express himself in poetic realities which are not readily assimilable, to create poems which are realities by virtue of that very daunting yet undoubtedly human characteristic.

Zukofsky’s fidelity to his New York should not be considered a simplistic honoring of roots. A major facet of Zukofsky’s overall significance is the manner in which his work accomplishes a sustained critique of a facile humanism. One of the achievements of these poems of the 1920’s and 1930’s is the manner in which their original commitments are translated in a plausible political poetry. This transformation is clearly announced in such poems as “Aubade, 1925,” “‘The Immediate Aim,’” and the biting “During the Passaic Strike of 1926.” The nature of Zukofsky’s transformative practice, even in an explicitly political context, may be studied by comparing his early “Memory of V. I. Ulianov” and the “Hymns to Lenin” of the Scottish radical poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. Zukofsky is unwilling to make his poem a vehicle for an excoriating commentary on things as they are. By comparison, MacDiarmid offers a speech from a soapbox. In Zukofsky’s hands, even subjects such in historical reverberations are permitted to outlive their strictly empirical integument.

The transformative interplay between the world of conditions and commitment on the one hand, and the poetry which may be made from it on the other, is present just as appealingly in poems of greater delicacy of tone and subtlety of movement. Such poems express the poet’s fascination with the family of man, as well as his capacity for regarding such an entity with tenderness and joy. Zukofsky’s regard should not, however, be thought of as generalized to the point of attaining nothing more than sophomoric intensity. The increasing emphasis on, or orientation around, his own family life which the survey of his career offered by Complete Short Poetry offers, should not be considered a diminution either of his aesthetic commitments or his moral interests. The poems for his son Paul and for his wife, for all the simplicity of their vocabulary, are sophisticated emotional testaments: unabashed, playful, exuberant, decorous, charming, the very kind of verse which, by virtue of its glancing evanescence, becomes memorable by being so transient, becomes a permanent monument to atmosphere rather than to content.

It is difficult, for example, to think of a twentieth century poet to whom Valentine’s Day was as frequent a source of inspiration as it was to Zukofsky. The airy inscriptions with which he records the day, however, are far from being complacent emotings. On the contrary, they impress by the grace and tact with which they articulate good faith. Among the poems featuring his son, “So That Even a Lover” readily comes to mind as an equally affecting expression of a delighted consciousness. The value of these qualities may be perceived in the rather more complex pieces in 80 Flowers, which, while conceived in the domestic spirit of the poet’s Long Island garden, are emblematic of Zukofsky’s career-long engrossment with the livingness of the world, and with his benign rage to capture this in words. The language of flowers, in other words, is not invited to speak symbolically for something other than the natural phenomena themselves. The seventeenth century English lyricist, Robert Herrick, was a favorite of Zukofsky’s, and it is easy to hear afresh Herrick’s geniality and relish of the experience of the moment.

His perspective makes of delicacy and tenderness an ethos rather than a repertoire. “The simple truth is/ That men love the good,” as he unselfconsciously and persuasively attests in “Reading and Talking.” And the expression of that ethos is as much the form of its poetic occasion as that occasion’s content. Like many poets, Zukofsky hymns transformation, as distinct from recapitulation. What makes his imaginative practice significant and influential, however,is not the fact of transformation. His verse is not that of the idle, facile purveyor of metaphors. On the contrary, many of the poems here enact their transformative energies while stopping short of metaphor. At one level, Zukofsky is clearly interested in identifying with the prevailing outlook of his most powerful contemporaries, and intends to “make it new.” This commitment is achieved in terms made familiar by the modernist poets, notably Eliot and Pound, through the prosody of free verse and in a relativized sense of poetic form. At the same time, however, Zukofsky is equally clearly interested in mapping out his own theory of poetry. His theorizing culminated in the doctrine of Objectivism, the principles of which were developed largely by Zukofsky though also with the support and example of, among others, two important contemporaries, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff.

The most original aspect of this aesthetic strategy is its preoccupation with process. An Objectivist poem articulates its subject’s potential for poetic representation. The deferral of metaphor, together with the condensed syntax and formal idiosyncracies, of Zukofsky’s verse are all enlisted to reveal that potential. By his act of revelation, the poet makes his poetic object. And it is to fashioning of such objects that the Objectivist poet devotes himself, rather than to, for example, expressing himself. This change in emphasis regarding the poet’s aesthetic quest is perhaps the most important contribution to twentieth century poetics which the Objectivists—and notably Zukofsky—made. The new emphasis identifies the dynamics of social, historical, and interpersonal relations as being poetic and the poet’s responsibility to chart what of poetry is in them, thereby enabling them “to speak,” as Zukofsky intended, “to all men.”

It is debatable, however, if Zukofsky would have successfully developed Objectivist theories in practice were it not for his passionate interest in music. A helpful way of thinking of his poetry is in musical terms. This approach will not only alert the reader to Zukofsky’s extremely keen ear for verbal texture and for his extraordinarily vivid sense of tempo but also help explain the numerous musical allusions with which theComplete Short Poetry is suffused, and in particular the volume’s recurring overtures to song. More important, what Zukofsky desires poetry to be is something analogous to what music is, an experience rather than a product. The difference between how Zukofsky thought of poetry and how poetry was—and indeed continues to be—regarded conventionally is the difference between what a musician is heard to play and the printed score upon which his playing is based. The art’s significance resides in its modes of transmission and reception, in its analogical rather than its reproductive properties, in the distinctiveness of its amalgamation of idioms, rhythms, and sounds, and, above all, in its being unmistakably faithful to its own nature. The reader with a keen appreciation of the rhetorical and aesthetic resources of counterpoint will find Zukofsky’s verse intriguing and rewarding. Arguably the most ambitious attempt in Complete Short Poetry to assemble a musical language, as such, is in the versions of Catullus, where the aim is not to translate in the literal sense but to find an English which would convey the tone values of the original.

Zukofsky’s musical inclinations provide a ready set of reasons for appreciating his significant contribution to the growth and development of the prosody of a distinctively American poetics. Perhaps the most noteworthy reason is the sense of integrity which both adorns and illuminates his career, an integrity which possesses a particularly exemplary force not only from an artistic standpoint but also, as perhaps Zukofsky himself would not have been surprised to discover, in a political sense, in view of the increasing cooption of literary artists to serve institutional objectives often far removed from literary concerns. Despite the difficulties, or rather the intellectual sophistication, of his aesthetic theories and the challenge presented by his syntactical and formal spontaneity, Zukofsky’s work will continue to be prized precisely for the success with which “The lines of this new song are nothing/ But a tune making the nothing full.”

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXVIII, July, 1991, p. 1784.

Library Journal. CXVI, April 15, 1991, p. 97.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 1, 1991, p. 10.

University Press Book News. III, June, 1991, p. 37.

The Village Voice. December 10, 1991, p. S17.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVII, Fall, 1991, p. 135.

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