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.
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...
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