Louis Zukofsky 1904–1978
American poet and critic.
The primary theorist of Objectivism, an avant-garde poetry movement of the 1930s, Zukofsky paradoxically remained the most obscure objectivist poet. His extended poem "A," composed over a span of nearly fifty years and published in its entirety just after his death, best evinces Zukofsky's aesthetic aims and originality. In keeping with objectivist principles, "A" employs syntactic fragmentation, disruptive line breaks, unusual typography, terseness, wordplay, minimal punctuation, and similar strategies to call attention to the poem as a constructed object and thing in itself—in contrast with the traditional conception of a poem as an unobtrusive medium for themes, images, and ideas. Such devices also emphasize the ambiguities and complexities of language by placing words in new contexts, thereby multiplying meaning and causing the reader to focus on the sound, rhythm, and appearance of each word. The objectivist poets eschewed abstraction in the form of myth, metaphysics, and cultural and historical theories, preferring to focus on immediate sensory images, historical particulars, and the way that language defines our experiences. Hence, "A" incorporates a wide range of subjects—including music, mathematics, philosophy, politics, the natural sciences, and Zukofsky's personal life—primarily through discussion of and allusion to specific people, texts, and events. Zukofsky's poetry is not widely read or anthologized and his audience has mostly consisted of poets; the verse of writers such as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan reflects the influence of philosophical, technical, and formal elements in Zukofsky's critical writings and poems.
Zukofsky was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to Russian immigrant parents and spoke only Yiddish before beginning public school. A superb student, he entered Columbia University at the age of 16 and completed his graduate studies there in 1924. In 1926, Zukofsky wrote "Poem Beginning 'The'" and sent it to the poet Ezra Pound in Italy. Pound responded enthusiastically and published it in the Spring 1928 issue of his journal Exile. At Pound's insistence, Zukofsky visited William Carlos Williams in New Jersey and they struck up a lifelong friendship and correspondence during which they often discussed each other's work. In 1928 Zukofsky began "A," a poem projected as having twenty-four discrete sections, the first seven of which he composed by 1930.
He also taught English at the University of Wisconsin in 1930 and 1931. Through the influence of Pound, he served as guest editor of the February 1931 issue of Poetry, in which he included verse by poets that he termed "objectivists": Basil Bunting, George Oppen, William Carlos Williams, Carl Rakosi, Kenneth Rexroth, and Charles Reznikoff, among others. Zukofsky returned to "A" in 1935, writing sections 8 through 10 over the course of the next five years. In 1939 he married Celia Thaew, a conductor and musician, with whom he collaborated on several projects that merged literature and music, most notably Bottom: On Shakespeare and the twenty-fourth section of "A." Zukofsky wrote some short poems in the 1940s but suspended work on "A," focusing instead on family life. In 1947 he became a professor of English at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he taught for nearly two decades. Zukofsky resumed "A" in 1950, finishing parts 11 and 12, and therefore the first half of the poem, by 1951; he did not recommence "A" until 1960 but composed and published parts 13 through 21 by 1969. Zukofsky died in 1978 not long after approving the galley proofs of the University of California Press edition of 'A," the first volume to contain all twenty-four parts of the poem.
Zukofsky's early works express a concern with social oppression and class struggle. For example, the poem "Mantis" considers the plight of New York City's poor through a meditation on the presence of a praying mantis in the subway. The theme of "Mantis" is overtly political: the praying mantis becomes a symbol of the poor, lost and harried in a harshly mechanical world. Individually, the "separate poor," like the solitary mantis, are powerless; but the poem concludes with a vision of the mantis drawing up the "armies of the poor," which, inspired by this fragile bit of nature that has managed to survive in the concrete subway, will "arise like leaves" to "build the new world." The companion piece, "'Mantis,' an Interpretation," describes the compositional process of "Mantis." Also concerned with the modern political and historical situation, "Poem Beginning 'The'" addresses Zukofsky's uncertainty about the creation of relevant and significant poetry in the context of twentieth-century economic, cultural, and military upheaval. Here he also examines his identity as an individual torn between his roots in the rich, ancient Jewish culture and his presence in callow, secular western society. Highly erudite, Zukofsky had great knowledge of literary tradition. His adaptation of the poetry of Catallus seeks to reproduce the sound, rhythm, and syntax of the original Latin—a singular and ambitious project, according to critics. The study Bottom: On Shakespeare examines the nature of love, interweaving quotations from thinkers throughout history with extracts from William Shakespeare and other poets in order to consider the relation of the senses and emotion to intellection. As Steven Helmling has stated: "All of this elaborates an epistemology in which love emerges as the force that, if fed by accurate sensous perception, can redeem the relation of humankind to nature."
Far broader in scope and ambition than the rest of his writings, Zukofsky's "A" ranks as one of the twentieth century's most comprehensive and daunting works of poetry. While acknowledging that the work is a pastiche and that major ideas recur throughout, Barry Ahearn has observed broad thematic patterns in the poem: "'A' 1-7 is concerned with the self cut loose from the family circle and an ancient, cohesive culture. The individual under inspection is the one Zukofsky knew best—himself. In 'A' 8-12 the poet examines and creates connections between past and present, specifically the relation of himself and his poem to history and literary tradition. As a consequence, this section of 'A' is dense with quotation…. 'A' 13-20 catalogues mingled disasters and good fortune. Zukofsky's declining vitality, the withdrawal of his son Paul from the household, and his continuing obscurity [with literary audiences] provided the poet with materials for remarkable laments and even more remarkable consolations. Finally, in 'A' 21-24 the poem expands to a comprehensive view of personal, human, and natural history. In these final movements Zukofsky makes a final accounting of those things he loves best and places them in the context of history." Extraordinarily heterogeneous, "A" is a collage of images, subjects, literary styles, anecdotes, digressions, allusions, and quoted literary passages. For example, the poem incorporates several languages, various personal and public matters, paraphrases of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and the autobiography The Education of Henry Adams by the noted American historian, consideration of the Korean War and the Nazi violation of Europe, references to the philosophers Spinoza and Aristotle, reflections on domestic life and marriage, and homage to Shakespeare and the composer J. S. Bach. Partially in veneration of Bach's work The Art of the Fugue, the structure of "A" is based on the fugue, a musical composition interweaving repeated elements. However, the influence of music on Zukofsky's poem extends far beyond Bach; many readers observe in "A" the attempt to replicate musical qualities, and through careful selection and arrangement of words Zukofsky controlled cadence, phrasing, timbre, and inflection. Furthermore, "A" -24 combines verse and a musical score. The first half of "A" is comparatively easy to read and displays Zukofsky's virtuosic mastery of language and poetic form. The second half of the poem is increasingly hermetic and difficult to penetrate.
As a prominent literary theorist, Zukofsky's proclimations about poetry have received considerable attention from scholars. His Objectivist manifesto entitled "Sincerity and Objectification" was published in the issue of Poetry that he edited, and the essay stirred controversy because many readers found it obscure and arrogantly dismissive of nonobjectivist poetry. As the editor of An "Objectivists" Anthology, which included contributions by Pound and T. S. Eliot, Zukofsky wrote a preface intended to clarify his earlier statements, yet some critics contended that the definition of Objectivism remained unclear. His early poetry tended to be more conventional, demonstrating the influence of Pound, an early proponent of Imagism; employing free verse, Zukofsky tended to depict objects and perceptions through clear, precise images. In comparison, Zukofsky's later poetry is remarkably opaque and offended many critics and even some of his former friends—for example, Zukofsky quarrelled bitterly with George Oppen, an objectivist comrade from the 1930s, after Oppen accused Zukofsky of using obscurity as a tactic. However, with the publication of All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1958, All: The Collected Short Poems, 1956-1964, "A" 13-21, and the complete twenty-four parts of "A", Zukofsky received a degree of public recognition in the 1960s and 1970s that he had never before enjoyed. By the late 1960s, critics were also beginning to acknowledge the importance of his poetry. In particular, the influential scholar Hugh Kenner became a close friend of Zukofsky and an advocate of his work. More important still, the later years brought Zukofsky the warm admiration of many younger poets. Such major poets as Duncan and Creeley have testified to his importance as a daring, experimental artist dedicated to his craft.