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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898

Two years after he taught English at Columbia, Louis Zukofsky produced his long poem, The, in 1926—a long poem in partly conventional blank verse which uses the technique of multiple voice and verbal collage. Inspired by his technical experiment for more daring and dramatic results, Zukofsky “started to think of ...

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Two years after he taught English at Columbia, Louis Zukofsky produced his long poem, The, in 1926—a long poem in partly conventional blank verse which uses the technique of multiple voice and verbal collage. Inspired by his technical experiment for more daring and dramatic results, Zukofsky “started to think of “A” as soon as I had finished The,” as he writes in a letter to his friend, Lorine Niedecker. About 1927, he began with a sketch—a plan of the form with section titles for a poem in twenty-four parts. This plan suggests that he originally envisioned “A” as more than The, but not of the length and scope of the final version of “A”, while he also made a table of difficulties to be overcome in the writing of the poem. In an interview on May 16, 1968, he answers, ““A” is written at various times in my life when the life compels it. That also means that my eye is compelling something or my ears compelling something; the intellect is always working with words.” This statement underlines three significant and crucial features found in “A”—the visual imagination, the aural power, and the quality of intelligence at work. It also indicates that the motivation behind the writing of the poem has been the very life of the poet.

Predetermined by the number of parts or movements (“the ’curve’ of it in twenty-four movements”) and undetermined as to the specific form or content, “A” is a staggering record of creative dedication, concentration, and richness spanning a period of more than forty-five years of life. 1 was written in 1928 and 23 during 1973-1974, although the final movement, 24, was done in 1968 with Celia Zukofsky’s arrangement. These twenty-four parts—“A kind of childlike/Play this division/Into 24” (12)—display a variety of poetic strategies and formal virtuosity, which demonstrates that within Zukofsky’s “childlike play” there is an astute and inventive mind in operation. For example, Part 24 is a Masque in five-part score with music (Handel’s “Harpsichord Pieces”), drama, story, thought, and poem—the last four items are in an arrangement of four voices from Zukofsky’s writings; 21, a translation of Plautus’ Rudens, but for the chorus-speeches, is in five-word lines, and 18 is totally in eight-word lines; 9, like 7 of seven sonnets arranged in a canzone form, combines an exquisite sonnet-sequence and double canzone; 13 is a “partita” verbally imitating the rhythms in Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor; 19 has twenty-five pages of Spenserian stanzas following eight quatrains of two-word lines; 17, “A Coronal,” is a collage of quotations from William Carlos Williams and Zukofsky’s writings. 12 is the longest movement, with 135 pages, and here is 16 in its entirety:

An   inequality   windflower.

Even though in his May, 1968, interview Zukofsky remarks, “I don’t know about the structure of “A”. I don’t care how you consider it . . . ,” a dominant preoccupation or element in the poem is his concern for and engagement with the form and language. William Carlos Williams, in his Note to the Kyoto edition of “A” 1-12, rightly points out that Zukofsky “is a poet devoted to working out by intelligence the intricacies of his craft,” and that “the major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men.” Therefore, Zukofsky has always, Williams maintains, devoted his care to “the spiritual unity of the world of ideas.” His entire corpus reflects this keen engagement with the craft and ideas. From the very beginning of “A”, Zukofsky strikes the note: “A round of fiddles playing/Without effort” and “longing for perfection.” One could find a definition of “A” in movement 5: “One song/Of many voices” and “Words ranging forms.” He further elaborates on his craft in 6:

The melody! the rest is accessory:My one voice. My other: isAn objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,An object—nature as creator—desirefor what is objectively perfectInextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

Again in the same movement: “Environs-the sea,/The ears, doors;/The words—/Lost—visible.” He repeatedly talks about poetics—his poetics in particular. 12 opens with a discussion on shape, rhythm, and style, then moves to “Measure, tacit is”; finally,

I’ll tell you.About my poetics  music  speechAn integralLower limit speechUpper limit music

14 further extends and expands his poetics to the ultimate statement: “lower limit speech/upper limit music/lower limit music/upper limit mathemata.”

In terms of the total construction, “A” is not an absolute success; it does not have the strength of Paterson or The Cantos. In spite of elegant and exquisite passages such as the opening sonnet in 7, parts of movements 6, 7, and 8 seem to obfuscate the content and meaning; movement 17, too, fails in its collage form; Rudens (21) is rather dull and appears to be not quite integral; and, 24, the “Masque,” not only disappoints us as an effective final movement, but also gives the impression of being too deliberate and troublesome to read. Minor inaccuracies occur; for example, Bach did not have twenty-two children (scholars say he had twenty), nor was “The Passion According to Matthew” composed in 1729 (it was written in 1727, according to Bach specialists). In 6 Zukofsky asks: “Can/The design/Of the fugue/Be transferred/To poetry?” On the whole, “A” is more of a fugal experiment; the poet may not seem to be totally triumphant “to master/music and related matter” (8). But he has “Journeyed/With an impulse to master” with humility, courage, and dedication. “A poetics,” says 12 “is informed and informs—/Just informs maybe—the rest a risk.” In this “risk”—daring—lies Zukofsky’s strength and greatness; it is the singular value of his particular perception and communication. It is not so much a matter of innovation, but more a matter of inquiry and order of expression—“That order that of itself can speak to all men.”

This concept of “order” is inseparable from Zukofsky’s sense of form—his use of language, his measure, and his style. In 12 he writes, “The order that rules music . . . /harmony”; in 6, “We need beauty in everything, . . . /Well made and well thought out”; in 8, “Or sweetness: where there is more light than logic./A full number of things in a very few words”; and, in 12, “A sound akin to mosaic:/A rhythm of eyes.” Zukofsky’s subtle and elegant mind could turn out such startling imagery and expressions as “The Treasury is like a spittoon” or “The seals pearled for a minute/In the sun as they sank” (6) or “One sky is rich in us,/Undivided” (12) or “pine needles/frost tomorrow’s/sun.” Hugh Kenner points out the “structural eloquence” in “A”, the rigorous way with language which gives the poem a “weightless structure” by the use of shorter lines, more tension, fewer words, “brief twinkling phrases,” and the “miraculous verbal transaction, shaped and shapely words by their joinery achieve meaning,” as in the opening lines of movement 7 or the “hummingbird” lines in 12.

Lorine Niedecker feels Zukofsky’s “greatest gift” is in “transmuting events into poetry” through the idea of recurrence (“All art is made, I think, out of recurrence,” writes Zukofsky) as in the case of the idea of “journey.” Mirrors, flowers, horses, sea, and “inwreathed” amply illustrate the idea of recurrence in the poem, as does the thematic orchestration in 8 of eight different themes—history, labor, physics, mathematics, poetic craft, Christ’s burial, and the nature of things—already enunciated in movements 1-7. Zukofsky’s musical sense in “A”—“aurality and its relation to measure,” to quote Duddy—has been pointedly demonstrated by Thomas A. Duddy in his essay “The Measure of Louis Zukofsky.” Dembo, on the other hand, discusses Zukofsky’s “objectivist” poetics and his remarkable mastery of style. “The eye is a function of the ear and the ear of the eye.” suggests Zukofsky. In “thinking with the things as they exist,” he has achieved not only in structure and organization of the poem, “A”, but also in the use of language, a remarkable fusion of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia—in his words, “Cadence plus definite language equal the full meaning.”

In Zukofsky’s use of line endings, submerged half rhymes, spaced intervals and words, there is a distinct kinetic relation between the speech—meaning—and the sounds—music. It is not only “music heard, but seen”; the words are, as William Carlos Williams would call, “mordents”—“words in more or less sentence formation . . . in a wider relationship to the composition or musicality.” The parsimony of adjectives, the predicative force in a whole phrase or lines without a verb, nouns and adjectives turned to verbs, the elliptical articulation and the imagery, not so much a visual image as “tangible ideation,” create in “A” such an orchestration of aural or musical power that the words generate “energies which make for meaning.” The very opening of the poem sets the tone and texture: “A/Round of fiddles playing Bach.” In his A Test of Poetry, Zukofsky suggests, “Poetry convinces not by argument but the form it creates to carry its context.” So “A” achieves a complex ascending clarity from speech to music to “mathemata”—toward the “rested totality” Zukofsky talks about with regard to his Objectivist poetics.

In 2, Zukofsky writes,

The music is in the flowerLeaf around leaf ranged around the center;Profuse but clear outer leaf breaking on space,There is space to step to the central heart:The music is in the flower,It is not the sea but hyaline cushions the flower.

In movement 8, he states, “If you know all the qualities of a thing/You know the thing itself;/Nothing remains but the fact/The said thing exists without us.” Further, he writes, “bringing together facts/which appearances separate:/all that is created in a fact/is the language that numbers it,/The facts clear,/breath lives/with the image each lights.” In his celebration and perception of the world, Zukofsky, like Wittgenstein (whose name and ideas he often uses in the poem), not only strips language of bewitchment but strips his poem of inauthentic values and sentiments as well.

As this stupendous poem weaves personal and historical facts and themes, and as it celebrates Paul and Celia, his son and wife, in particular, Zukofsky’s “intelligence moved by passion,” to quote his words on Apollinaire, notates another parallel movement with speech, music, and mathemata: “Knowledge/Identity/Idea/Negation” (13). As he states in 12, “To re-collect Be as an archetype of bees/And neglect his to not-be/A verb which he has—/No more than it would have done for an/ancient Hindu.” But this ascension toward “negation” is not nothingness, a denial of life and world, a rejection of intellect or imagination. It is, in fact, “to move on to the beginning.” The poem begins with A and ends with Z (not counting the appended movement 24), encompassing “moonwort:/music, thought, drama, story, poem/park’s sunburst—animals, grace notes—/z-sited path are but us” (23). This is the “simple mathematics”—the “divine arabesque”—of the poem, and “What stirs is/his tracing a particular line,” that reveals Zukofsky’s humility, humanity, and awareness of the fourth dimension, “the dimension of stillness,” that he so admired in Ezra Pound. “A” includes ALL and, in its fugal movement, progresses to THE ultimate knowledge—“One single number should determine our life:1” (12) and one single alphabet: A—and “the grace that comes from knowing” (11).

Reject no one   andDebase nothing.

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