“A”. By Louis Zukofsky. New Directions. 826pp , $24.95.
Anew: Complete Shorter Poems. By Louis Zukofsky. New Directions. 365pp, $18.95.
For the epigraph to his 1984 collection Apples and Pears and Other Stories, Guy Davenport chooses a passage from Louis Zukofsky’s “A”—23:
since Eden gardens labor, For
series distributes harmonies, attraction Governs
Davenport is plotting a scheme of his own with these lines, in which words like “series,” “harmonies” and “Governs” resonate with the thought of Charles Fourier, the pre-Marxist utopian to whom Apples and Pears is dedicated. Why Davenport was seduced by the French crackpot is another story but the lines from his friend Zukofsky’s long poem suggest something essential about that poet: despite his oversized ambitions – let’s say “pretensions,” the American long-poem syndrome—Zukofsky was a poet of small effects. Consider this early lyric, part of a sequence titled “All of December Toward New Year’s”:
Not the branches
half in shadow
But the length
of each branch
Half in shadow
As if it had snowed
on each upper half
This is Zukofsky at his simplest and most charming, a poem based on an observation from nature in which “series distributes harmonies.” His lines possess a mathematical harmony, the rigor of a syllogism, balanced and pleasing to the ear and mind. In this poem he is most like his fellow Objectivist, Carl Rakosi, whose charm was rooted in modesty and precision. Zukofsky’s defining unit of thought and sound was the word, sometimes the syllable or letter (“A”). Something else is also evident in the poem—call it stasis or flatness. Nothing happens in the words once the initial perception is registered. It’s a stylistic tic we can trace back to Williams, Pound, and the Imagists, and it runs through nearly all of Zukofsky’s work. His poems, though sometimes pleasing at the level of line or phrase, remain coolly inanimate, without the invigorating constraints of form, which makes rereading Zukofsky in bulk a harrowing experience. A quality seldom noted by his admirers is the sheer dullness of so much of his work, especially when swallowed whole.
As though in imitation of the atomic nucleus, Zukofsky attempts to hold his little units together with a “residual strong force,” with attraction governing destinies. Instability is built into this delicate balance of forces, and everything threatens to fly apart, and often does. His poems, long and short, returned to print by New Directions—the longtime home of his principal masters, Pound and Williams—are a monument to one poet’s sabotage of his own poetic gifts, and to the foot-shooting tendency in much of modernist and post-modernist poetry.
The trials of Zukofsky’s publishing history are legendary, and contribute to his aura of outsider romance. He spent forty-six years, from 1928 to 1974, working on his long poem “A.” It was published piecemeal in three countries, and the complete work appeared shortly after Zukofsky’s death at age seventy-four in 1978, issued by the University of California Press. The rest of his poems, never before gathered in one volume, were published as Complete Short Poetry by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1991. Anew, the New Directions reissue, reprints that collection in paperback.
Zukofsky had the ear and brains to be the author of small exquisite lyrics. He might have been the Herrick of his time. Instead, the pretensions of literary Modernism, exemplified by the career of James Joyce and the encrypted longueurs of Finnegans Wake, seduced him into a private language. He sought not readers but annotators and acolytes, and he has found legions of them. Joyce suggested a reader ought to devote as much time to reading the Wake as he had spent writing it (seventeen years). Does anyone have forty-six years to spare for “A”? Zukofsky’s natural audience is composed of critics, graduate students and their academic allies. The bigger theme exemplified by Zukofsky’s work is the fatal fate of Modernism, how the avant-garde perpetuates itself through self-congratulatory devotion to obscurity and inaccessibility. Only the illuminati need apply. In “A-13,” Zukofsky writes:
They can’t understand intellectual larking.—
If I collect these things to live
It is that I think my eyes, ears and head are still good.
If I quote it is myself I have seen
Coming back to learn conveniently from one book:
It is not night when I do see your face.
“Intellectual larking” is enjoyable in a couplet. Across eight hundred pages, it’s soporific. (In “A-12,” Zukofsky asks: “I’m talking you to sleep, my friend?”) In these lines we hear the haughty tones of the hermetic poet who wishes to have it both ways—to revel in willful obscurity while reveling in the reader’s bafflement; to be admired and to feel vindicated when admiration is not forthcoming from the masses, readers be damned.
In 1932, Zukofsky edited An `Objectivists’ Anthology, the influential collection that lent its name to a loose grouping of poets including Basil Bunting, Rakosi, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Zukofsky himself. Most members were second-generation Modernists, young enough to have looked upon Pound and Williams as poetic mentors. One of their nonaligned contemporaries, Yvor Winters, reviewed the collection in Hound and Horn, an American quarterly dedicated to other strains of modernism. The first sentence of his review is useful: “This anthology is of clinical rather than of literary interest.” Winters might have been thinking of lines like this, from “A-8″:
`What I did’ said Marx, `was to prove’
One) that the existence and war of the classes
Springs from the means of production
Further) that class war brings on itself
The dictatorship of the proletariat
Last) (and without repetition)
This dictatorship dies, is the end
of the classes.
Zukofsky chops prose to dress it like poetry and preserves his early flirtation with Communism (his sponsor when unsuccessfully applying for Party membership was Whitaker Chambers). Later, he turned Catullus into nursery gibberish, a harbinger of the Language poets. In his final book, 80 Flowers, densely crabbed words stuffed into eight-line stanzas overflow like sausage packed in small casings. Here is “Dandelion”:
No blanch witloof handbound dry
heart to racks a comb
lions’-teeth thistlehead golden-hair earth nail
flower-clock up-by-pace dandle lion won’t
dwarf lamb closes night season
its long year dumble-dor bumbles
cure wine blowhall black fall’s-berry
madding sun mixen seeded rebus
No doubt industrious thesis-mongers have translated this into a semblance of sense, but what’s the point? That Zukofsky strikes most verbs from his lines is telling—the poem is inert and goes nowhere. In 1973, Guy Davenport judged Zukofsky “our greatest living poet” and wrote:
It has been complained of Zukofsky that he confuses obscurity and profundity. He is profound (but never arcane); he is profound as music is profound, for his words are powerful enough to stir response, sympathy, and revery. They reward attention, and keep rewarding attention.
One of the reasons I’ve periodically returned to Zukofsky’s poems for some thirty-five years are these very words, and similar judgments by Hugh Kenner. There’s no critic to whom I owe more of my reading sensibility than Davenport, but my attention is no longer rewarded by engagement with the author of “A”. I take no pleasure in this admission.
In his 1932 review, Winters says Zukofsky’s preface to the anthology is “so badly written that it is next to impossible to disentangle more than a few intelligible remarks.” Indeed, Zukofsky’s prose is often more incoherent than his poems. Winters observes that Zukofsky’s theories and methods of composition, and those of the poets he assembles, are “sinking rapidly to lower and lower literary levels; they should be in a few more years no serious cause of consternation.”
Winters, for once, was wrong.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- My Little War by Louis Paul Boon My Little War Louis Paul Boon (trans. Paul Vincent). Dalkey Archive Press. $12.95, 120pp. We in America are, and have been for more than eight years now, living in wartime. Yet, it’s often easy for those of us who aren’t on or in direct contact with the front lines to...
- The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand At the heart of The Metaphysical Club is the American Civil War, an epochal event which split America in two and forever scarred a generation of Americans. It was so profound an experience that many Americans would, like Oliver Wendell Holmes (one of the four “members” of the Metaphysical Club),...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Patrick Kurp
Read more articles about books from New Directions