Louis Zukofsky Zukofsky, Louis - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


First Half of "A" -9 1940

55 Poems 1941

Anew 1946

Some Time 1956

Barely & Widely 1958

"A" 1-12 1959

*Louis Zukofsky: 16 Once Published 1962

I's (Pronounced Eyes) 1963

Found Objects: 1962-1926 1964

After I's 1964

All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1958 1965

Iyyob 1965

An Unearthing: A Poem 1965

I Sent Thee Late 1965

Finally a...

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Lorine Niedecker (essay date 1956)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Louis Zukofsky," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1956, pp. 198-210.

[An American poet, Niedecker focused on the distillation of images and thoughts into concise expression, composing verse known for its stark, vivid imagery, subtle rhythms, and spare language. Although her long correspondence with Zukofskywho frequently published her poems in his journal Originsand contact with such respected writers as Cid Corman and Basil Bunting brought her some critical notice, her work was generally overlooked until late in her life. In the following essay, Niedecker calls attention to the experimentalism, intellectual richness, and musical...

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Kenneth Rexroth (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From the Past, Two Familiar Voices," in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1957, p. 5.

[Rexroth was one of the pioneers in the revival of jazz and poetry in the San Francisco area during the 1940s and 1950s. In his criticism he has examined such varied topics as Greek mythology, the works of D. H. Lawrence, jazz, and the cabala. In the following excerpt, he asserts Zukofsky's preeminence as an American poet and offers effusive praise for Some Time.]

Louis Zukofsky is one of the most important poets of my generation. Like Richard Eberhart, Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, he has been for many years independent of organized literary fashions, a genuinely...

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Denise Levertov (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Necessary Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. XCVII, No. 2, November, 1960, pp. 102-09.

[Levertov is a leading post-World War II American poet. Her early verse is often described as neo-Romantic, while her later writing reflects the influence of the objectivist poetry of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as well as the projectivist work of "Black Mountain" poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. In the following review of "A" 1-12, Levertov expresses high esteem for the volume and defines the strength of Zukofsky's poetry.]

A sense of stress, even of strain—of words spoken out of a necessity that is often painful—words spoken in a low...

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Robert Creeley (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Note on Louis Zukofsky," in Kulcher, Vol. 4, No. 14, Summer, 1964, pp. 2-4.

[Creeley was one of the originators of the "Black Mountain" school of poetry, along with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov. These poets developed the theory of "projective verse "a poetry designed to transmit the poet's emotional and intellectual energy directly and spontaneously, relying on natural speech rhythms. In the following essay, Creeley claims Zukofsky's poetry bears a true correspondence to human experience.]

I want to speak quickly, and openly, because I cannot now make an essay or that sense of a formal situation clarify my own concerns...

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Adrienne Rich (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Heirlooms of Tradition," in Poetry, Vol. CV, No. 2, November, 1964, pp. 128-29.

[One of the foremost contemporary American poets, Rich also writes criticism from a feminist perspective. In the following review of Found Objects, she evaluates Zukofsky's verse in terms of the poetic traditions that shaped it.]

Zukofsky calls this collection Found Objects because, as he states in his fore-note, "nature as creator had more of a hand in it than one was aware. The work then owns something of the look of found objects in late exhibits—which arrange themselves as it were, one object near another—roots that have become...

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Donald Davie (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "After Sedley, after Pound," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 201, No. 14, November 1, 1965, pp. 311-13.

[Davie is a highly regarded English poet, critic, educator, and translator. During the 1950s he was associated with the Movement, a group of poets who emphasized restrained language, traditional syntax, and the moral and social implications of poetic content. In the following review of All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1958, Davie compares Zukofsky both to writers of the 1930s who apotheosized intellect and the manipulation of language and to the tradition represented by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.]

For those who need to know that Picasso...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louis Zukofsky," in Poetry, Vol. CX, No. 6, September, 1967, pp. 420-22.

[Carruth is a well-respected and prolific American poet whose verse is frequently autobiographical, varied in mood and form, and noted for its unadorned and precise language. In the following essay, he contends that in Zukofsky's best poetry linguistic simplicity belies thematic and structural complexity, but finds the remainder of his verse "unexceptional."]

When a poet who has written for years in relative obscurity is picked up and "discovered" by a group of his juniors, is republished by them and made a figure in their critical and polemical discussions—as now appears to be the case...

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Julian Symons (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "All = Nothing," in London Magazine, n. s. Vol. 6, No. 5, August, 1966, pp. 82-6.

[Symons has been highly praised for his contributions to the genres of biography and detective fiction. His popular biographies of Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and his brother A. J. A. Symons are considered excellent introductions to those writers. Symons is better known, however, for such crime novels as The Immaterial Murder Case (1945), The Thirtyfirst of February (1950), and The Progress of a Crime (1960). In the following essay, he disparages Zukofsky's verse, labeling it insubstantial. ]


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Louis Zukofsky with L. S. Dembo (interview date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 203-19.

[Dembo is an American educator and critic who is the author of Conceptions of Reality in Modern American Poetry (1966), as well as book-length studies on the poets Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. In the following interview, Zukofsky explains his views on poetry.]

[Dembo]: I know that "objectivism" was short-lived as a movement, if it ever existed at all, but your essay in the February 1931 issue of Poetry does seem to suggest a particular way of looking at reality. In fact, you actually use the term nominalism in connection with André Salmon. Wouldn't you say that...

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Hugh Kenner (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Classroom Accuracies," in A Homemade World: The American Modernist, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, pp. 158-93.

[Kenner is the foremost American critic and chronicler of literary Modernism. He is best known for The Pound Era (1971), a massive study of the Modernist movement, and for his influential works on T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Wyndham Lewis. In the following excerpt, Kenner discusses Zukofsky in the context of the Objectivist movement, focusing on the objectivist preoccupation with language.]

Like all such groups—the Imagists, for instance—the Objectivist group had fluctuating boundaries. The usual list includes, in alphabetical...

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Barry Ahearn (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Origins of ¢' : Zukofsky's Materials for Collage," in ELH, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 152-76.

[An American educator and critic, Ahearn is the author of Zukofsky's "A": An Introduction (1983). In the following essay, he explicates the origins of the collage method evident in "A."]

In "A"-12 Zukofsky obligingly invites the reader to examine a paradigm for his own artistry. He has assembled a collage which he introduces as his "fetish for building." At the bottom of the collage stands "Duncan Phyfe's house, workshop and store—/ After an old engraving." To the right and above is "a postcard / Of Chardin's House of Cards." Left of the...

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John Tomas (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jew: Zukofsky's 'Poem beginning "The"' in Context," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 9, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring-Fall, 1990, pp. 43-64.

[In the following essay, Tomas explicates "Poem beginning 'The'" as a statement by Zukofsky on his situation as a Jew in modern, secular Western society.]

Critics coming to the work of Louis Zukofsky have long recognized how important his Jewish heritage has been in his poetic development. That recognition started very early in Zukofsky's career. Yet, despite this critical history, few critics have discussed how Judaism has specifically shaped Zukofsky's work. This neglect is particularly striking in that a...

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Bruce Comens (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From A to An: The Postmodern Twist in Louis Zukofsky," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 10, No. 3, Winter, 1991, pp. 37-62.

[In the following essay, Comens asserts that Zukofsky's poetry heralds postmodernism through the negation of the absolute.]

Despite the acknowledged importance of World War I for the beginning of literary modernism, little attention has been paid to the impact of World War II on its endings. Yet it was the second war that precipitated the indefinite deferral of Pound's earthly paradise, and with it the end of The Cantos. And it was the war that compelled Williams's

urgent struggle to complete Paterson. Norman Cousins's...

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Michael Davidson (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dismantling 'Mantis': Reification and Objectivist Poetics," in American Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 521-41.

[Davidson is an American poet, educator, and the author of The San Francisco Renaissance and Postmodern Poetics (1983). In the following essay, he assesses the signif icance of "Mantis," Zukofsky's "most graphic example of formalism in dialogue with modern materialism"; Davidson notes that the amalgamation of poetic form and materialism is also a prominent aspect of "A."]

"… thinking with the things as they exist. I come into a room and I see a table. Obviously, I can't make it eat grass."


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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bailey, Alvin R. "A Selected, Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources, 1932-1985, on Louis Zukofsky." Sagetrieb 10, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1991): 169-208.

Items are arranged chronologically by year. Bailey supplies an author index to facilitate use of the bibliography.

Prestianni, Vincent. "Louis Zukofsky: An Analytic Bibliography of Bibliographies." Sagetrieb 8, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1989): 257-59.

Annotated list consisting mainly of primary bibliographies.

Terrell, Carroll F. "A Bibliography of Works about Louis...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)