The Poem

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“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 Pétain are being examined.

“A”-11 and “A”-12 both examine the tightly knit and loving relationships among the members of Zukofsky’s immediate family, including the poet, his composer wife Celia, and their violinist son Paul. The 135 pages of “A”-12 are longer than the previous eleven sections of the poem combined. In “A”-12, the specific nature of the relationships or harmony among the members of the Zukofsky family is examined in universalizing contexts symbolized by the many references to the works of those who strove for the totality or “universal harmony” of artistic creation,...

(This entire section contains 1343 words.)

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such as Pythagoras, J. S. Bach, Arnold Schönberg, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“A”-13 and “A”-14 are movements that signal Zukofsky’s retreat into a very personal and hermeneutic poetic world. “A”-13 is an attenuated description of a walking tour of New York City taken by the poet and his son. In “A”-14, which mostly consists of three-line stanzas with two or three words per stanza, Zukofsky limits his syntax so severely that the words become direct images rather than metaphors of the objects and ideas they are trying to describe. “A”-15, “A”-16, and “A”-17 are concerned with Zukofsky’s musings on history and his appropriation of the literary montage techniques utilized by William Carlos Williams in Paterson (1946-1958). “A”-15 contains an English approximation of the Hebrew of the Book of Job and describes the tragic events of the early 1960’s: the assassination of President Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the deepening American involvement in the Vietnam War. “A”-17 includes a chronology of the writing of “A” and the rest of Zukofsky’s canon, as well as an extended tribute to the poetry of Williams.

“A”-18 and “A”-19 provide an interesting contrast. The former movement concerns itself with the theme of societal decline. Zukofsky makes additional references to the Vietnam War as well as to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) and works by Henry Brooks Adams, including Degradation of Democratic Dogma (1919) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907). “A”-19, however, is concerned with renewal—specifically, Paul Zukofsky’s very promising career as a concert violinist, which is given impetus by his participation in the Paganini Violin Competition, held in Italy. Paul Zukofsky’s career as one of the foremost performers of avant-garde music forms the topic of “A”-20.

“A”-21 is Zukofsky’s idiosyncratic English translation of Plautus’s Latin play Rudens. The play within the poem is indicative of Zukofsky’s efforts at translation (particularly the poetry of Catullus) and is somewhat analogous to the literary influence of Shakespeare, a lifelong infatuation for Zukofsky. Rudens is a recognition comedy, set outdoors for the most part, which contains a storm scene; as such, it is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611). “A”-21 is connected to the rest of the poem not thematically but as a testimony to the literary work in which Zukofsky was engaged and as a symbol of the past as present and the permanence of art as opposed to the vagaries of history.

“A”-22 and “A”-23 are perhaps the most densely textured, difficult to comprehend, and personal sections of the poem. They constitute Zukofsky’s attempt to resolve the many themes of the poem, to seek the unity and totality of human existence. “A”-22 and “A”-23 point toward the resolution of Zukofsky’s aesthetic dilemma in “A”-24 and also make oblique references to his final poetic work, 80 Flowers (1978). Zukofsky’s poem, therefore, progresses from poem as music (music in both the literal and the Pythagorean sense) to a resolution of the “music” of humanity with that of nature.

“A”-24 is a summa of Zukofsky’s entire poetic career. Here the “music” of Zukofsky’s poetry leaves the abstract Pythagorean realm and becomes literal music. The implied counterpoint of the earlier sections of the poem becomes actual musical counterpoint. “A”-24 also reveals how inextricably linked were Zukofsky’s work and family life; this section is and is not a work of Zukofsky’s. As a birthday present, Celia Zukofsky gave her husband a work entitled “L. Z. Masque,” which became “A”-24. This work consists of four different texts by Louis Zukofsky that are set to selections from George Frideric Handel’s Pièces pour le clavecin. The result is a five-part “score” in which music (Handel’s pieces), thought (Zukofsky’s book of essays entitled Prepositions), drama (Zukofsky’s play, Arise, Arise), story (the poet’s short story “It was”), and poetry (excerpts from earlier sections of “A”) are simultaneously presented. The gift of “L. Z. Masque” delighted the poet, who realized that it contained the solution to the resolution of his lifetime’s work.

Forms and Devices

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“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 second set. “A”-9 also employs the standard musical canzona rhythm of long, short, short.

Unusual forms and devices abound in “A.” “A”-10 approximates a medieval troped Mass, in which words and music were added to the text and music of the original Gregorian chants of the Mass. Zukofsky calls “A”-13 a partita (a baroque musical suite, a collection of instrumental dance pieces in varying moods and tempi), and he divides this movement into five subsections that in meter and spirit are roughly analogous to the allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, and chaconne of the baroque dance suite. “A”-19 consists of two-word lines. This section is concerned with Paul Zukofsky’s appearance in the Paganini Violin Competition in Italy; therefore, the two-word lines are meant to represent the up and down motions of bowing the violin. “A”-20 makes references to Paul Zukofsky’s interest in modern music, particularly dodecaphonic (or twelve-tone) music. This movement consists of four twelve-line stanzas with introduction and epilogue and is meant to approximate the variations on the tone row of a dodecaphonic musical composition.

“A”-22 and “A”-23 are similarly structured, each consisting of one thousand lines in which twenty five-line stanzas (with five words per line) precede and follow a main body of eight hundred lines. Both movements begin with the word “an,” continuing the precedent of the “An” songs found in “A”-14 and displaying once again the wealth of meaning Zukofsky found in simple words.