The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A” is one of the longest poems in the English language, numbering more than eight hundred pages. It was written over a forty-six-year period (1928-1974) and is divided into twenty-four sections (referred to as movements) that differ widely in length, from the single page of “A”-16 to the 242 pages of “A”-24. “A” is generally considered to be the greatest poetic achievement of the twentieth century Objectivist school of poetry, which was led by Louis Zukofsky and included George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi./POE_16479650000335

The title “A” is significant in that it is not only the first word of the poem but also an indefinite pronoun and as such is a response to Zukofsky’s earlier poem, “Poem beginning ‘the’” (1926). The twenty-four movements of “A” suggest the twenty-four hours of the day—that is, the solar day representing the totality of human civilization. The a of “A” is also the first step in the poet’s attempt to comment upon this process literally from a to z (the z of Zukofsky, that is).

“A”-1 begins with a description of a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 5, 1928. The dichotomy between intellect and emotions is examined and is continued in “A”-2, in which the narrator Zukofsky engages in a debate with the eponymous character Kay. The death of one Ricky (in reality, the suicide of Ricky, the brother of Whittaker Chambers, who was one of Zukofsky’s fellow students at Columbia University) is mentioned in “A”-3. “A”-4 is concerned with origins, and specific references are made to the poetry of Yehoash (the pen name of the Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarden). The dichotomy between intellect and emotions that was first seen in “A”-1 and “A”-2 is rehashed in “A”-5. “A”-6 constitutes a reexamination of “A” 1-5, which the reader now discovers to have been only a preamble to the central aesthetic question posed by the poet: “Can/ The design/ Of the fugue/ Be transferred/ To poetry?” (page 38).

“A”-7 and “A”-8 concern themselves with the worsening conditions of the Great Depression and constitute Zukofsky’s effort to examine the roles of the individual and society within the contexts of three intellectual constructs that strive for universal validity and will only be fully revealed in “A”-12: Marxist economics, Einsteinian physics, and Pythagorean music theory. The interweaving of these and other ideas is a poetic approximation of the interplay of musical lines in the fugue. “A”-8 functions, then (as do “A”-12 and “A”-24), as a summation and amalgamation of all that has transpired so far in the poem.

“A”-9 provides lyrical relief from the literary pyrotechnics of the preceding movement and is the poet’s paean to memory, the recollection of love as well as musical themes. In “A”-9, music is equated with action, action being remembrance, a necessary prerequisite, in Zukofsky’s mind, for the existence of love. By the time of “A”-10, the Great Depression is over, and the Nazi occupation of Paris and the regime of Marshall...

(The entire section is 1343 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A”-24 exhibits a dazzling display of poetic forms and devices, many of which are derived from musical procedures. Leitmotifs—that is, short recurring phrases—occur throughout the poem. “A”-8, “A”-12, and “A”-24 are long movements in which poetic approximations of the musical fugue are attempted. One of Zukofsky’s common “fugue” themes is the use of Bach’s name as an acrostic. Bach’s name was used by the composer himself and many others as the theme of musical fugues (in German musical notation, B-A-C-H equals the notes B flat-A-C-B natural). Zukofsky uses Bach’s name in “A”-12, “A”-23, and several other movements of the poem as an acrostic representing the words Blest-Ardent-Celia-Happy. This acrostic is later transformed into a representation of Baruch Spinoza (Hebrew baruch, blessed)-Aristotle-Celia-Hohenheim (the last name of the medieval scientist Paracelsus).

The sonnet is a favorite poetic form of Zukofsky’s. “A”-7 is very close to being a crown of sonnets, in which seven sonnets are linked; the last line of each of the first six sonnets becomes the first line of the next sonnet, and the last line of the seventh sonnet repeats the first line of the first sonnet. “A”-9 is a double canzone, two sets of five sonnets, in which the last word of each line of the first set is used as the last word of each corresponding line of...

(The entire section is 485 words.)