Louis Zukofsky

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

Although Louis Zukofsky (zew-KAHF-skee) has been called the consummate poet’s poet and even one of the greatest American poets born in the twentieth century, his challenging and innovative poetry has received little attention from either the popular or the academic world. Zukofsky pioneered the Objectivist movement in the 1930’s, wrote an inventive poetry that emphasized the music of verse, and contributed various innovations to the epic tradition in his lengthy poem “A,” which represents a lifelong endeavor.

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The son of immigrant Russian Jews who spoke only Yiddish, Zukofsky was born in the lower East Side of New York City. He learned English and succeeded in school, and at the age of fifteen he enrolled in Columbia University, earning an M.A. in English by the time he was twenty. While at Columbia, Zukofsky began to write poetry and to read such poets as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H. D.

In 1926 Zukofsky wrote his first significant work, Poem Beginning “The,” a text clearly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). He sent the poem to Ezra Pound, who published it in his 1928 spring issue of Exile. As he did for a number of talented writers, Pound acted as a mentor to the young poet. It was on his urging that Zukofsky met the American poet William Carlos Williams in 1928, the beginning of a lifelong friendship in which each commented upon and supported the other’s work.

In 1928 Zukofsky also began writing his long poem “A,” a work that was a lifelong undertaking and eventually consisted of twenty-four movements drawing from art, economics, and Zukofsky’s personal life. Zukofsky has stated that part of his purpose in writing his epic included the desire to incorporate “historic and contemporary particulars” in his poem and to transfer the form of the fugue to poetry. Over almost fifty years Zukofsky used his autobiographic epic to enact aesthetic theories concerning language’s musicality and its materiality—that is, the ways that words themselves not only represent ideas but also act as physical objects in his poems.

In the 1930’s Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, invited Zukofsky to guest-edit an issue. For this issue Zukofsky gathered together such writers as William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and George Oppen—most of whom later came to be identified as Objectivists. Although Zukofsky disliked the idea of “isms” and later disclaimed that he had inaugurated any movement, he participated in a number of joint projects with members of the group—including collaborating on An “Objectivists” Anthology and founding To Publishers and the Objectivist Press. Moreover, Zukofsky the theoretician also articulated some of the aesthetic assumptions that the group shared in his essay “Sincerity and Objectification.” Later Zukofsky claimed that the objectivist was simply a craftsman who put words together in an object and a poet who was interested in “living with things as they exist.”

In many ways the 1930’s were Zukofsky’s most socially active years—in both senses of the word “social.” During these Depression-era years he wrote some of his most politically committed poetry, including such works as “Mantis” and “A,” which demonstrated his interest in the philosophy of Karl Marx. Although Zukofsky and Pound were quite close in the early 1930’s—Zukofsky even visited Pound in Italy—they became estranged as the decade closed because of their political differences, heightened by Pound’s increasing commitment to fascism and anti-Semitism.

During this decade Zukofsky also met and married his wife Celia Thaew, an accomplished pianist. They shared a love for music, and their son Paul, born in 1943, proved to be a gifted violinist. Although Zukofsky worked at various times as a teacher, editor, and technical writer, his lifelong commitment was primarily to his family and to his poetry.

In the second half of his life Zukofsky became increasingly reclusive, and his personal and poetic interests focused increasingly on his family. This may have resulted above all from Zukofsky’s conviction that he had not been granted sufficient recognition. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, he won awards from such institutions as the National Endowment for the Arts and was able to publish not only his poetry but also his criticism, his translation Catullus, and his drama Arise, Arise—a work actually written in 1936. He died in 1978, while “A” was being prepared for publication. Although Zukofsky never achieved the renown he desired, some critics have predicted that his poetry will eventually become more widely acknowledged as a significant part of twentieth century literature.

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