Louis Zukofsky

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Zukofsky, Louis 1904–1978

Zukofsky was an American poet, critic, translator, and novelist who, with William Carlos Williams and others, helped establish the Objectivist movement. His major work is the multivolumed poem sequence A, which utilizes a wide range of forms and themes to examine American culture and poetic thought. Zukofsky was relatively unnoticed by the general public until late in life, though throughout his career he was praised by fellow poets. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)

Philip R. Yannella

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Autobiography is as good a place as any for new readers of Zukofsky to begin. Its warning is direct, a caution sign to those who would do other than read the words of the poet. Its gifts, its songs, tell the reader of the poet's achievement: an art of precision, intellectual range, simplicity, and, above all, of grace.

Mathematicians are fond of using the word "elegance" to signify the sum of such characteristics. It is, in many ways, the perfect word to express the totality of effect Zukofsky's work achieves, for even on those occasions when the poet misses the mark … one is convinced of the irreducible quality of the language. But by bringing in the idea of elegance at this point I have something more in mind, the variety of ways in which Zukofsky's poetry can be imaged as a series of processes, movements, and equations which have their most immediate analogies in mathematics. I do not wish to imply that his poetry is inordinately difficult, nor do I wish to suggest that Zukofsky moves into abstraction. To the contrary, Zukofsky is strongly motivated by a desire to simplify, to bring the form of his work down to its most precise dimension. In this respect, his poetry shares with modern American poetry the same tendency: to produce a "plain stile." But Zukofsky characteristically deals with complex issues, and in that respect he is quite different from most of his contemporaries. Or, to put the point another way, he is at once our most "intellectual" of poets and one of our most "simple."… Zukofsky has learned much from the example of the natural sciences, to which he has been receptive, exceedingly. He has seen in them vital correspondences to his own art, and references to them occur with startling regularity…. (pp. 77-8)

But Zukofsky's comments [in his critical essays] have neither the arrogance of the poet cum scientist … nor the stridency of the poet discovering a new field to be "used" in his writing…. Rather, they possess an essential rightness as well as a remarkable accuracy. Happily, also, the words lead somewhere; that is, this is not merely poetics, not a lovely theory contained within what has become an autonomous sub-genre. That poetry is measure, that poetry is, in part, a system of relationships and recurrences, that poetry is, or ought to be, concerned with the most minute particles of human expression—these are verities demonstrated throughout Zukofsky's work. (p. 79)

Zukofsky has gone far beyond his contemporaries both in his knowledge of music and in his application; only Wallace Stevens comes to mind as a near parallel in this respect. Three levels of accomplishment can be distinguished, what I will call the purely sonic, the compositional, and the structural. The first, the sonic, is least important. It consists simply of the use of device, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, phrasing, and so forth. Common enough, though it should be remarked that Zukofsky, a master at it, is an exceedingly graceful poet who has a strong drive to restore the lyric poem to its status as song....

(This entire section contains 1119 words.)

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Examples abound in his work: lightly written valentines, airs, occasional poems, dedicatory poems. The second, the compositional, is more complex, more rare in modern poetry, or in poetry in general, and more difficult to accomplish. It consists in the creation of complex pieces traditional to the histories of poetry and music. Zukofsky's latitude in this mode is great. He has written, among other things,canzoni, sestinas, madrigals, motets, and a partita … involving a saraband, toccata, air, gigue, and courante. The matter here is not simply that of tradition as opposed to innovation; it is, as "Mantis" indicates, a matter of a poet getting maximum use out of proven forms. The third mode, the structural, involves the use of musical technique and means of organization over the long haul. It involves the use of the accumulated intelligence of music to bring cohesion to a vast structure.

"A" is the title of the long poem Zukofsky began writing in 1928 and which is presently nearing completion. The fact of a modern long poem being finished is itself a literary event—consider The Bridge, the Cantos, Paterson, and the Maximus poems—but that is of secondary importance. What is of the utmost importance is that "A" possesses … a remarkable coherence, a startling luminosity of structure…. "A" is indeed the "poem of a life," and in reading it one understands why Zukofsky is so impatient with presenting the facts of his life in different contexts. He has obviously worked at giving his history shape for nearly fifty years. And indeed [, as the poet says in the forward to "A" 1-12,] "Bach is a theme all thru it." (pp. 82-3)

In terms of the overall structure of the poem, Bach recurs as much more than a narrative ploy. In fact, aside from Zukofsky's use of the special forms developed or perfected by the composer, it can be argued that "A" is our most advanced literary fugue, occupying in literature a position similar to that occupied in music by Bach's The Art of the Fugue. (pp. 84-5)

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Zukofsky is that he appears to have achieved a remarkable sense of himself as poet and as man, as adventuring intellect and as husband and father. To a great degree, his work is an extension and deepening of the chief tendencies of twentieth century poetry. To an equal degree, though, his work reveals a different though complementary direction, a centripetal thrust which consolidates aesthetic/moral value in home and family. He is a poet whose work, even while it is involved in breaking new ground, always points back to the family…. (p. 86)

With all his other achievements taken into account, the special yield of Zukofsky is a poetry of grace and harmony. These are unfashionable qualities, at least in the twentieth century. Similarly, the "normalcy" of his family life will strike some readers as peculiar. But harmony is the lynchpin, nevertheless. Zukofsky's love poetry is quite unusual in our time, it must be admitted, though this is scarcely a criticism of Zukofsky. We are not accustomed to such poems as the "1959 Valentine," which functions on the levels of pure simplicity and pure grace:

                      The more that—
                           who? the world
                      seeks me so
                           to speak
                      the more
                           will I

His intellectual range, on the other hand …, is of a sort we are, again, unaccustomed to in our time. As much as his love poetry, his absorption of musical theory and modern science marks him as a distinctive voice. (pp. 86-7)

Philip R. Yannella, "On Louis Zukofsky," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1974), Vol. 4, No. 1, September, 1974, pp. 74-87.

Joseph Cary

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In its wisdom [Zukofsky's] publisher is pushing Hugh Kenner's judgment that "A" is "the most hermetic poem in English, which they will still be elucidating in the 22nd century." They of course will be the descendants of Prof. Hugh Kenner and long may they thrive. In the meantime such a distinction is not likely to start a stampede to the bookshops of our post-modern day. Nor is it one, I think, that the poet himself would have coveted. Granted that his verse is, in Ezra Pound's phrase, "more thoughtful than toffee-lickers require," Zukofsky's own words seem more apropos: "the poem of a life—and a time."…

I have found "A" alternately and in no special order strange, beautiful, mad, touching, unreadable, readable, elusive, fascinating. Now that I have all 800 pages in hand … I see no reason to change my mind—except to say that in sum I respect and am moved by it all … the labor of one quiet, stubborn, possessed man's lifetime. It is a big poem in all senses. (p. 573)

Zukofsky's early poem "Poem Beginning 'The'"] about 100 lines shorter than The Waste Land (which in part it parodies), has—like that poem—helpful-cum-facetious notes [and] is divided into six "movements."… Written in 1926, it provides the best possible introduction to "A", begun two years later.

Partly a put-on of the modernist poem it also means to be, "'The'" comes fitted out with numbered lines, an exegete's delight. But while Eliot's notes were an afterthought and postscript, Zukofsky's are positively flaunted: a massed squadron of sources and line references confronts one just beneath the title at the threshold…. Among other things, "'The'" is a funny poem but along with the horseplay a central recognition is in the making: that the past, muffled and modified as it well may be, persists in the present; that its voices are neither lifeless souvenirs nor literary grace notes but presences that shape—remind, rebuke, foster—the living; that "my" voice therefore is not mine only, since others speak through me. The same point is made, of course, in The Waste Land and the Cantos, but in Zukofsky's case it is complicated by the fact that he speaks an acquired tongue [Zukofsky was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants] and so, in assuming the language of "strangers," is disloyal to his own…. Caught between the claims of a small world and a larger, an old world and a new, past voices and an unsounded future, the protagonist of "'The'"—very much Louis Zukofsky—struggles to join and heal his divisions in a single song; this in fact is the plot of the poem. And its resolution—very tentative and conscience-hounded (the author is 22)—is phrased toward the end in the words of Peer Gynt:

             I must try to fare forth from here.
             I do not forget you,
             I am just gone out for to-night …

The story of this faring-forth, from 1928 almost to the death a half-century later, is the burden of "A".

As the high-spirited "'The'" began with the ("The / Voice of Jesus I. Rush singing / in the wilderness") so the soberer "A" begins mid-Depression with a ("A / Round of fiddles playing Bach")…. My dictionary says that a "connotes a thing not previously noted or recognized, as contrasted with the, which connotes a thing previously noted or recognized." The indefinite a, then, seems to be the correct article for faring, seeking and perhaps finding, the right sign for a poem in and about process, as "A".

The process begins on April 5, 1928 with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall and ends decades later with a "masque" prepared by Celia Zukofsky, a five part score with Handel's Pièces pour le clavecin (the musical notes reproduced on the page) as one "voice," excerpts from her husband's various writings—criticism, drama, fiction, "A" itself—to be spoken, not sung, as the others. (pp. 573-74)

I find it difficult to give a sense of the shape as an objective whole but some of his "things," from a to Zion, are listed in an index at the back of the book. Others, unindexed but logged in my memory, include: the contents of a writer's desk drawer, depression (both economic and psychological) and recovery, Valentine's Day as a day of reckoning, the attendance of spirits at the summons of love, the scale of a "nuclear" family of three, the flickering vision of a comprehensive music ("One song / Of many voices") linking history and myth or the casual and the permanent, the finding of a lost child, words as sounds as much as sense, song's physical sensation, the longest meditation on record, the autobiography of "Anybody, but a particular Anybody."

I have two further impressions. The first is of a passion epitomized in a frequently quoted sentence from Plato: "If number, measure and weighing be taken away from any art, that which remains will not be much." In other words, no verse is gratuitous or "free" for Zukofsky, and "A" is a manual of ways and means of measuring, timing and counting out one's holdings. The second is of what might be called a cult of recurrence. "All art is made, I think, out of recurrence," he once said. "Each writer writes one long work whose beat he cannot be entirely aware of. Recurrences follow him, crib and drink from a well that's his cadence…."… The poet's note at the close of Celia's masque—his poem's last words in fact—may be read as a wish and a key for us:

                     the gift—
                     she hears
                     the work
                     in its recurrence.

The work in question—an "object" of 826 printed pages, 8 1/4 inches by 5 1/2 inches by 1 1/2 inches in size and weighing 2 1/4 pounds—is now for the first time available in its entirety. Its place is in the great line of American personal epic begun in Song of Myself and stretching through the Cantos, Paterson, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Maximus and The Dream Songs.

It should be read. (p. 574)

Joseph Cary, "Poems of a Lifetime," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 19, May 19, 1979, pp. 573-74.

Robert Creeley

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Louis Zukofsky's life work is "A"—not the, mind you, but a, for as he said, "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a…." The good life is one thing, then, and a life quite another…. [The] first section of the poem (there are 24 in all, which number echoes for me significantly the human measure of a day) was written in 1928, when the poet was 24 years old. The last writing is dated 1974 ("A" 23), so that one has the range of 46 years—without question a life's commitment, in all possible respects, to what does come and go, of a day, and what does stay put—as value, as measure, as possibility.

Unlike Pound's "Cantos" (whose time of composition might be seen as parallel), Zukofsky's work is grounded in a triad, a life lived with two intensively significant other people, his wife Celia and his son Paul. They are presences in the poem as much as the poet's own. So there is a clear domestic locus, and the fact of these three is humanly vulnerable always, yet tenaciously coherent in that they are a human relationship, a seemingly timeless pattern of organic order: becoming, being and ending. There is also the world, of course, and all that it proposes and/or constitutes. And the art of poetry….

Zukofsky's art, in this work, is without equal. No poet of our time can so sound the resources of language, so actuate words to become all that they might be thought otherwise to engender…. But how begin to suggest all that is heard here—all ears hear here, one's tempted to say. For, led by Bach ("A / Round of fiddles playing Bach …") into this complexly various dance, there follow all this life's responses to all: "… mathémata/swank for things/learned ('like' caged/'silence' which pulses)—/yet in each/case what happens…." So come Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, J. Q. and H. Adams, Swift, among many signifying others…. (pp. 15, 40)

The close of the poem is a melding, "a five-part score—music, thought, drama, story, poem"—as its title says, "L. Z. Masque"—in which his wife Celia composed "four voices" of his writings following the "one voice" of Handel's "Harpsichord Pieces" in the order noted (from "Prepositions," his collected essays, "Arise, Arise," a play, "It was," a story, and "A" itself)—to effect a polyphony of senses, simultaneously, where all had begun and now ends. In that shifting, reiterating order, no one is now dominant—or rather, all is now one. And who had been speaking to us is forever now this mingling, recollective harmony. Because—as he once wrote in the wish to define his own commitment to this art, "For My Son When He Can Read"—the poet's "major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men…." Pray, friends, that we can hear. (pp. 40-1)

Robert Creeley, "All Ears Hear Here," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1979, pp. 15, 40-1.

William Harmon

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[Zukofsky is] the classic eiron described in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: self-deprecating, seldom vulnerable, artful, given to understatement, modest or mock-modest, indirect, objective, dispassionate, unassertive, sophisticated, and maybe foreign…. (p. 8)

For whatever reason (and reasons are legion), the eiron's art—irony—amounts to saying two or more things at one time, so that an auditor with 20/20 ears ought to hear an ironic utterance as a chord of sorts, one that displays its own meaning in its own sound as harmonies among cord and chord, accord and a chord, even choral and coral. (p. 10)

What the solo modern prose voice at the beginning of "A" accomplishes is … to suggest both irony and fugue complexly: by talking about a piece of vocal-instrumental polyphony and by doing so in ways that are themselves fugal or quasi-fugal:

                 Round of fiddles playing Bach.

"A" equals air (aria) with different values in ancient and modern English, or in English and other European languages, or in English itself variable according to stress. Prefixed in this way or that, it means "with" and it means "without." It means "one" and "he" and "they" and "of." Here, right off the baton, it plays "around" against "a round," which is iridescent with musical, poetic, geometric, and mundane meanings. The part-for-whole figure of "fiddles" (for "fiddlers") plays against the whole-for-part figure of "Bach" (for "a work by Bach"), and "playing," as I have been leaking none too subtly, means everything that both "work" and "play" can mean, including the ideas of performance and impersonation and contest. (p. 11)

[An] etymological history of three words converging in a single sound—rote—may be seen as a model of Zukofsky's main themes and techniques in "A." No modern ironic poem of any length could possibly be self-standing, and Zukofsky's resembles those by Williams, Pound, and Eliot in including precursors and companions. (p. 12)

Zukofsky begins his poem on a particular April evening in 1928, and for him—as for Whitman, Yeats, and Eliot before him—this paschal time of Passover and Passion, converging in the syncretism of Eos-East-Easter with its terrible beauty, furnishes an ideal prism for seeing the world clearly and for intelligently hearing its ironies and harmonies…. Given this matrix of ideal convergences, the eiron's eyes and ears can subject language to a detailed inquisition, though it hardly takes the full third degree to remove hide and hair from verbal surfaces. In a sixty-year career, Zukofsky experimented with every species of rhematic and thematic irony as ways of saying more than one thing at a time, and he devoted an inordinate amount of his genius to the transfiguration into English of various foreign texts. Since Zukofsky tried to preserve sound and sense alike—which is impossible—"translation" is not quite the correct word for this process…. Zukofsky's refinement, which may echo certain Talmudic or Cabalistic techniques of interpretation, has been to apply this principle of nomenclature to whole texts, typically ironic or comic-lyric, and to produce a complete Catullus by this method, as well as a version (appearing as "A"-21) of Plautus' Rudens, which is evidently a reworking of a lost Greek play by Diphilus. (pp. 13-14)

Zukofsky's novel handling of Latin and other foreign languages has been duly admired by some, but I have to say that I think his Catullus and Plautus are dull distortions. Their purpose may be to breathe (literally) new breath through their consonants and vowels, but the result is a high-handed botch.

I am not qualified to discuss the fine points of this complicated problem of translation. It's just that sound and sense cannot be transferred from one language to another, and it may also be true that not even sense by itself can be moved. (p. 14)

Kept up doggedly for seventy pages, Zukofsky's Plautus' Diphilus' Rudens is the most tiresome part of "A."

The next most tiresome part is "A"-24, which is another fugal experiment. "A"-21 amounts to a superposed transmogrification of the folk theme of the recovered daughter with Greco-Roman voices joined by synthetic English…. "A"-24, which was composed by Celia Zukofsky (with help from the Zukofsky's brilliant son, Paul) … is not so much the real conclusion of "A" as a kind of addendum called L. Z. Masque, "a five-part score—music, thought, drama, story, poem." The score is presented contrapuntally with music in two staves (treble and bass) above four verbal lines in type of varying sizes. The music is Handel's, the words from Zukofsky's Prepositions (thought), Arise, Arise (drama), It was (story), and "A" itself (poem)…. I have taken some pains to describe "A"-24, because I don't want to be judged indifferent or careless when I say that the thing is unreadable. I have done my best, line-by-line and also measure-by-measure, and in my cranial studio I get only the effect of five non-profit educational stations going at one time. I'll keep at it, but for the present I can't find anything to admire. In both "A"-21 and "A"-24 the fugue fails [and subtracts from the overall integrity and intensity of "A"]. (pp. 15-16)

The remaining twenty-two sections add up to about five hundred pages of poetry that takes the initial fugal subjects and styles through a forty-five-year development, conditioned by external historical and personal events but never, I think, completely irrelevant to the promises potently implicit in

                 Round of fiddles playing Bach.

Earlier I suggested a number of the possible meanings, but I did not mention the chance that the fiddles are playing B A C H, which, in a peculiar German style of notation used at one time before the seven-note nomenclature was adopted, would sound as B-flat, A, C, B-natural…. Zukofsky's use of this musical acrostic to organize the very long (135 pages) "A"-12—

                            unhurt and

brings us back to the alphabet and its gifts and challenges to the ironic poet. (pp. 16-17)

[A] work of art inherently resists being used for autobiography or any other kind of direct representation. Only by certain tricks can an artist register his own presence in a self willed medium, especially if he is an eiron approaching that medium and its social environment from below or outside. The eiron's infra-structural position resembles the alien's extra-structural condition, so that if one has to be both—a talented son, say, of Yiddish-speaking immigrants—then one's ears will, with luck, be attuned to speech as a foreign entity and, particularly, to American English as the native property of others…. Poetry tests the language as language tests the world.

An ironic epic, accordingly, is going to be partly an ordeal for words themselves, starting, conventionally enough, with the virtually pure air of the first letter and first vowel, a. The purpose of the ordeal, from the viewpoint of ironic skepticism, will be to follow the contours of language without undue distortion, so that most of Zukofsky's prosody is a natural-seeming measure of syllables-per-line or words-per-line with no twisting, chipping, or padding to fit an imposed meter that may depend on an arbitrary Morse of qualitative or quantitative dots and dashes given further shape by a rhyme scheme. Once the measure by syllable unit or word-unit is established along with a modest devotion to short lines, however, the purest music of consonant and vowel, stress and pitch, fancy and plain can come through with an effect, usually, of delicacy, eloquence, accuracy, and fidelity.

Such an idiom works best with its inherent data of ambiguity, inquisition, and multiple irony. These data are most lucidly presented in fairly short poems (like Zukofsky's, and like those of Cid Corman and Robert Creeley, both of whom owe much to Zukofsky's example) in which the courtesy and modesty can balance the potentially injurious clarity of perception and memory. The idiom does not work so well in longer flights, in which it tends to become otiose or academic. ("A" comes equipped with an index, but it quirkily omits some important items…). Yet another difficulty with this idiom is the way it refreshingly insists on seeing everything anew, with unprejudiced eyes; but that means the propagandist for the idiom, whether in lyric or in critical writing, had better be sure he is original. Often, however, Zukofsky seems merely derivative. His A Test of Poetry, for instance, promises to chuck out academic biases but winds up as little more than a replay of Pound's "How to Read" and A B C of Reading…. I am not sure that originality is very important. I am not even sure it is quite possible. But if you make a fuss about it, then you ought to be able to do some other thing than imitate, echo, and repeat.

At his best, Zukofsky dissolves illusion and punches sham to pieces. He breaks things up into particles and articles: under his testing, for example, the ambiguity-loaded anathema is analyzed into "an, a, the—"…. Once the alphabet has been taken apart, though, the problem is how to put it back together with honest energies and designs. (pp. 18-20)

As "A"-24 is arranged, the whole book ends on a nicely cadenced C-minor chord in the harpsichord, the drama voice saying, "New gloves, mother?" and the poem voice repeating the end of "A"-20, "What is it, I wonder, that makes thee so loved." Finally, with "love" sounding simultaneously in "gloves" and "loved," a valentine, indeed.

Well, I must be churlish. I prefer consigning "A"-24 to the status of appendix or addendum, because I think the poem itself (if not the life of the poet) finds a more authentic and convincing conclusion in the end of "A"-23, which was the last part written by Zukofsky. It does not end, Heldenleben-style, with a survey and synthesis of the artist's life-in-work, but with a return to the alphabetical keynote that started "A"-1. What we have is a scrupulously measured twenty-six-line alphabet-stretto…. (p. 20)

In "A"-12 there is evidence that Zukofsky had the twenty-four-book plan in mind by 1950 and possibly somewhat earlier…. But Zukofsky's general design does not gracefully fall into twenty-four shapely parts. With or without the marginal "A"-21 (Rudens) and "A"-24 (L. Z. Masque), the shape of the whole is asymmetrical. The contour may match that of a diary or revery, but there is no essential literary progression. Such development as may emerge is more along the lines of an experimental fugue and variations, with room along the way for one poem 135 pages long ("A"-12) and another four words long ("A"-16)…. When the "plot" has to include a piece of history—such as the death of Williams or the assassination of President Kennedy—then the writing slackens, and the grief seems perfunctory. In other stretches, the author's vigor and sincerity seem to thin out and his word play ("Pith or gore has" for "Pythagoras") nose dives towards the asymptote of crossword puzzles and tricks….

The scholiasts have their work cut out for them. For all I know, the audience for poems like Zukofsky's may be nothing but scholiasts…. [Maybe] the publisher should … issue a 250-page volume of selections. I would suggest that 1-7, 9-11, 15-18, and 20 could be kept as wholes, 21 and 24 done without, and the rest given in generous selections. That sort of book would reach more people with a more concentrated representation of a fine poet's best work. (pp. 21-3)

William Harmon, "Eiron 'Eyes'," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 5-23.


Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 11)


Zukofsky, Louis (Vol. 2)