It is not surprising that the themes and meanings of a work as long and complicated as “A” cannot be distilled into a neat package. The meaning of “A” is really the meaning of life itself, whether or not there is a unity or unifying force by means of which the entire universe may be understood or into which it may be subsumed. The thematic structure of “A” is therefore correspondingly dense. A cursory (and very incomplete) list of the thematic material of “A” includes the music and life of J. S. Bach, birds, flowers, horses, labor, love, eyes (both the subjective “I” and the objective seeing “eye”), Zukofsky’s family, Spinoza, Aristotle, Paracelsus, Pythagoras, Karl Marx, leaves, light, and Shakespeare.
The creation of the twenty-four movements of “A” was designed by Zukofsky to occupy a lifetime of work and to be a commentary on the lifetime that was being occupied by the process of creating the poem. Zukofsky’s fascination with the linguistic possibilities of small and seemingly insignificant words such as pronouns is an attempt to extrapolate the universal from the microcosmic or the individual, and is influenced by the Cantos of Ezra Pound (1917-1970) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The Pythagorean and Boethian concept of the harmony of the spheres (the tripartite categorization of actual musical harmony, the “harmony” among individual human beings, and the cosmic “harmony” linking everything in the universe) is omnipresent in “A.” By utilizing an extremely dense structure of themes or leitmotifs, Zukofsky presents analogues of universal harmony in his examinations of himself (as poet attempting to find an individual poetic voice) and of his relationships with his wife and son.
Also present throughout the poem is the tension arising from the dichotomy between historical determinism and the contingent nature of art. The indefinite articles “a” and “an,” therefore, seem to represent the unlimited possibilities of art, as opposed to the definite article “the,” which symbolizes the eschatology of historical forces represented by Marxist thinking and Judeo-Christian theology, both of which Zukofsky ultimately rejected.
History and art become somewhat reconciled for Zukofsky in “A” in that both are acts of remembrance. The historian “remembers” events that have already transpired while the artist seeks the remembrance of the eternal verities implicit in the autonomous work of art. Memory, the human capacity for the self-understanding of recurring (or even contingent) patterns of existence, found its analogue not only in the casual repetitions of the poetic refrain but also in the more organic type of repetition found in musical forms. The evolutionary “musicalization” of “A,” from the report of a musical performance in “A”-1 to the actual notated musical score of “A”-24, is a process whereby Zukofsky equates music with the human (and humane) capacity for remembrance.
At the end of “A,” Zukofsky has found no ultimate resolution or single key to the understanding of the interconnectivity of the individual with his fellow humans, of humankind with nature, or of the present with the past and future. Unlike the similarly grandiose Cantos of Pound, however, which deal with similar ideas and end on a note of defeat, Zukofsky’s “A” is triumphant, life-affirming, and open-ended, implying poetic and human possibilities left to be examined. Zukofsky’s conclusion is that there is neither a hermeneutic key to understanding existence nor a grand Hegelian synthesis of the disparate elements of the cosmos. There remains, however, the universal “fugue” in which each voice sounds its music simultaneously. Understanding the individual life, the nature of art, the history of humankind, or the cosmos will always be, in Zukofskian terms, a close and objective examination of the particularities of existence as they appear before the poet’s eye.