return to examinations archives

Examinations Mental Contagion
Essays on the Work & Lives of the Artistic Poplace

An Examination of Louis Zukofsky • Part One
by Eric Hoffman
Voice of Jesus I. Rush singing
                         in the wilderness 1

So begins Louis Zukofsky’s seminal 1927 "Poem beginning ‘The’," the first work the poet did not dismiss as juvenilia he wrote under the amusing pseudonym Dunn Wyth. It is a bravura work, the voice of a Russian Jew singing in the wilderness of New York’s Lower East Side. The poem caught the eye of Ezra Pound, who had all but co-authored T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the poem Zukofsky’s "The" was, in a way, satirizing. Pound, then editor of The Exile, one of many small magazines dedicated to publishing the highly unprofitable work of modernist writers, received "The" as a submission; he later claimed the decision to accept the poem for publication was made on the basis of the lines
The prowl, our prowl
Of gentlemen cats
With paws like spats 2

as Pound’s wife Olga had a love of cats. To prove his point, Pound included on his acceptance letter the drawing of a cat. So began one of several important correspondences after Pound introduced the young poet to the other elder statesman of modernist poetics, William Carlos Williams, with whom Zukofsky would collaborate on a number of William’s better mid-and-late career works.

"The" is a highly allusive poem, which makes reference to everyone from Joyce to Eliot to Ibsen, among others, and is, in a sense, a sort of essay on the development of modernism up to the year it was written. Zukofsky had, Pound pleasingly noted, immersed himself in Pound’s modernist credos that had for years appeared in the pages of Poetry, Hound and Horn, and other small magazines sold in metropolitan bookshops. Zukofsky’s own poetics, particularly his later theories concerning "sincerity" and "objectification" were heavily influenced by Pound’s Imagiste and Vorticist programmes. Zukofsky modeled his career on Pound’s when he undertook completion of a long poem, "A", which, at over 800 pages in length, holds the distinction of being, along with Pound’s Cantos, the lengthiest of American long poems. Like the Cantos it utilizes an "ideogrammatic" method, or juxtaposition of groups of discrete images in order to suggest cohesiveness. Unlike the Cantos it is finished. "A" is, as critic Guy Davenport notes, the first completed American long poem since Melville’s Clarel.

Zukofsky came of age during a time of crisis. The crises he followed: world war and economic depression, and the crises through which he persisted: a second world war and its aftermath. He is a modernist poet foremost; like any good modernist he read, interpreted, translated and alluded to the classics. He wrote his poetics, borrowing old forms and breathing into them new life (his rewriting of a song of Shakespeare’s can be seen as the inspiration of all of poet John Taggart’s work from Peace On Earth to the present).3 Despite Zukofsky’s relative obscurity, which persisted until well after his death, his work has, by the end of last century, undergone a major critical re-evaluation. Zukofsky’s poems, "poet’s poems," have inspired a generation of younger writers, particularly the works of the poets associated with the "Language" school (Charles Bernstein, the Howe sisters and Ron Silliman) and loners Taggart and Ronald Johnson.

Zukofsky was, for most of his life, a hypochondriac that never took pills, "not even aspirin" according to his wife, Celia4. Incredibly thin; an omnipresent cigarette dangled from his bony, spidery fingers. His wardrobe consisted almost exclusively of gray suits; he had a long face and a pale complexion. His voice was thin and reedy; his prodigious eyebrows above black-rimmed glasses made him look somewhat like Groucho Marx. He never played sports and rarely exercised. Aside from a few vacations and excursions, he spent his entire life in New York City. He was, in the estimation of Guy Davenport, "America’s greatest poet" and by the time of his death in 1978, none of his books were in print (though he was overseeing the publication of an edition of "A", a poem he began writing over half a century before).

Early Work — The Image

Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purpose
When thought shows it to be deep or dark?

See sun, think shadow.5

Considering Zukofsky¹s dictum in "A" of "Lower Limit Speech/Upper Limit Music"6 as well as his highly concentrated, intellectually rigorous and meticulously structured shorter works, it should hardly be surprising that a poet commonly associated with athe sound and texture of language, was not writing in his first language. Born a Yiddish-speaking American in Manhattan in 1904 to Pinchos Zukofsky (ca. 1860-1950), a pants presser and night watchman, and Chana Pruss (ca. 1862-1927), immigrants to the Americas from an area of Russia now Lithuania, their son’s birth coincided, he happily noted, with the year Henry James last visited the continent. As Zukofsky observed in his Autobiography (actually not much of an autobiography), "The contingency appeals to me as a forecast of the first-generation American infusion into twentieth-century American literature."7 Zukofsky was a perceptive writer of the Jewish immigrant experience in the early part of 20th century New York:
Assimilation is not hard,
And once the faith’s askew
I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.8

Arrived mostly with bedding in a sheet
Samovar, with tall pitcher of pink glass,
With copper mugs, with a beard,
Without shaving mug —
To America’s land of the pilgrim Jews?
To buy, after 20 years in a railroad flat,
A living room suite of varnished
Mahogany framed chairs and
Blue leather upholstery,
To be like everybody, with what
                                         is about us.
And the youngest being born
                            here (in New York)
Always regretted having as a kid
Hit his brother’s head with a shoe
In bed one bright Sunday morning.9

Chana, Zukofsky’s mother, is the a primary subject of his "Poem beginning ‘The’," first published in the year of her death, a death chronicled in his one play Arise, Arise (1936) and in the long poem "A." The figure of Pinchos is central to the poem’s central section, "A-12."10 Pinchos was an Orthodox Jew; by thirteen years of age Louis ended his crisis of faith and was from that point forward avidly non-religious. He was the only child of Pinchos and Chana’s born in America. The family lived in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood. It was there Louis attended the Yiddish theater where he first encountered Shakespeare (of whom he later claimed he had read in entirety by eleven years of age and of whom he wrote a major critical treatise), Strindberg and Tolstoy in performances in Yiddish on the Yiddish stage of New York’s Lower East Side. He read Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in Yiddish. By comparison, reading Keats and Burns in their original tongues proved problematic for the young reader.

Pinchos and Chana, sensing their son’s precociousness, managed to send Zukofsky to Columbia, despite the fact that he would have been able to attend City College at no expense. At Columbia, Zukofsky met Whittaker Chambers, then a poet and member of the Communist Party. Chambers had until recently been, according to Celia, a devoted admirer of Calvin Coolidge. He sponsored Zukofsky for membership in the Party; Ella Reeve Bloor, one of the founding members of the CPUSA and head of the Party Chapter, vetoed Zukofsky’s membership. The Communists then recommended that he seek membership with a chapter on the Lower East Side. This experience left him with a distaste for Leftist Politics, Communists in particular, though he later came to admire the writings of Karl Marx, as he did of any writer that espoused an all-encompassing system (e.g. Spinoza, Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Pierce and Wittgenstein). Zukofsky was particularly fond of Marx’s "Labor Theory of Value" and page after page of his correspondence with the staunchly anti-Marxist fascist Ezra Pound is filled with Zukofsky’s thoughtful absorption of Marx’s theories. Regardless of Zukofsky’s distaste for Party dictate, he did attempt to heed the Party’s call for proletariat writing and submitted a number of John Reed Club-style poems to the Communist literary magazine New Masses in a failed attempt to adapt his poetry to the aesthetics of the Left. He wrote didactic party-line poems for Lenin and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Whatever he didn’t abandon he almost entirely revised for book publication.11 A more striking (and less myopic) representation of Zukofsky’s political vision from this period is the admirable "Mantis" and "Mantis," An Interpretation (CSP 65-73). Unlike his peers George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, who by 1935 were members of the American Communist Party, Zukofsky continued to further himself from politics; in 1935 he abandoned his planned Worker’s Anthology.

At Columbia, Zukofsky studied with such luminaries as Mark Van Doren and John Dewey; he graduated in 1926 with a Master’s Degree, having written his thesis on Henry Adams, notably the first work of Adams criticism. The long thesis, slightly revised, is still included among his published essays. Zukofsky was fond of Henry Adams’ "phase" theory of history; like Marx’s Labor Theory and Spinoza’s Propositions (Zukofsky’s collected essays are titled Prepositions) Adams’ theories appealed to the poet’s liking for unified systems. During this time he became enamored of Pound’s writings, particularly his essays and articles on poetics and sent Pound his Poem beginning "The" which Pound published in his 1928 issue of The Exile. The poem caught the attention of William Carlos Williams, to whom Ezra Pound had introduced Zukofsky, and a young George Oppen, who at the age of nineteen had arrived in New York City with his wife Mary, in search of living poets. Oppen read "The" in an aisle at the Gotham Book Mart and by chance met Zukofsky later that night at a party. Zukofsky in turn introduced Oppen to Charles Reznikoff, an older, mostly unknown Jewish poet whom Zukofsky had read in the small magazines and had come to know and admire. A group of like-minded poets was beginning to form and would find its program in a February 1931 issue of Poetry edited by Zukofsky, titled "Program: ‘Objectivists’." With quotes firmly locking the irony in place, he later insisted that the idea of a movement was demanded by the magazine’s publisher Harriet Monroe, looking to capitalize on the "marketability" of a visible poetic school, a lesson well-learned by the success of the Imagiste group published in her magazine over fifteen years earlier. Pound, an avid self-promoter and believer in the benefits of group-based poetics, was in support of the idea. Zukofsky, who had written a lengthy essay on Reznikoff’s poetic style, with the intent on publishing it in the pages of the Jewish Menorah Journal where he had first read Reznikoff, shortened the essay and focused on two qualities he found in the poet’s work, "sincerity" and "objectification."

While interpretations of Zukofsky’s somewhat abstract "Objectivist" theory are widely divergent, one can fairly approximate Zukofsky’s general idea and intent for the theory, as well as its influences, mostly from his mentors, Pound and Williams. From Pound’s phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (or image, cadence, and idea) come Zukofsky’s focus on sight, sound and intellection. Zukofsky found much in Pound’s 1912 statement on Imagist principles:
  1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.
  4. 12

Pound’s advice to "go in fear of abstractions" and to use "either no ornament or good ornament" can also be applied to Zukofsky’s "Objectivist" theory. Above all, it is Pound’s attention to craftsmanship that most appealed to Zukofsky. From Williams comes the value of the thing itself being its own best metaphor; in Williams’ terminology "no ideas but in things." Williams himself had been influenced by readings in Alfred North Whitehead, a popular philosopher among modernist writers, whose influential 1925 book Science and the Modern World includes the following:
[. . .] the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world; and that this world is a complex of things, including indeed our acts of cognition, but transcending them. According to this point of view the things experienced are to be distinguished from our knowledge of them. So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa. But the point is that the actual things experienced enter into a common world which transcends knowledge, though it includes knowledge. The intermediate subjectivists would hold that the things experienced only indirectly enter into the common world by reason of their dependence on the subject who is cognizing. The objectivist holds that the things experienced and the cognizant subject enter into the common world on equal terms.13

Or, as George Santayana, another philosopher read by the modernists, observed in 1910 of the Epicurean poet Lucretius:
We seem to be reading not the poetry of a poet about things, but the poetry of things themselves. That things have their poetry, not because of what we make them symbols of, but because of their own movement and life, is what Lucretius proves once and all for mankind.14

From his readings in Pound, Williams and elsewhere, Zukofsky formulated the twin poles of his "Objectivist" theory, "sincerity and objectification." A poet must apprehend an object of the world with "clarity;" their attention to the object and their observations must be "sincere," by which Zukofsky means must be free of abstraction, cliché and other tired poetic conventions. "Objectification" is obtained by the apprehension of "minor units of sincerity" the appropriate combination of which will achieve unity and therefore, "perfect rest." According to Zukofsky, an objectivist poem occurs when it exhibits "the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody." Or, in Pound’s terminology: image, idea and cadence, the "dance of the intellect." 15

Critical response to Zukofsky’s Poetry issue, which published Reznikoff, Oppen, Whittaker Chambers, T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting and a wealth of Williams and Zukofsky’s "A", among many others, was mostly antagonistic; publisher Harriet Monroe issued a statement in a subsequent issue questioning Zukofsky’s aesthetics, motives and wholesale rejection of a number of poets the magazine supported and considered important. Many readers appeared to be interested in Zukofsky’s theories; however, the fall of 1931 Zukofsky was telling audiences at readings to drop the issue. Many of the poets Zukofsky included in the Poetry issue and the subsequent anthology did not consider themselves part of any ‘movement,’ most notably Kenneth Rexroth. The following year, however, Zukofsky edited an anthology of "Objectivist" poems, along with a new preface, titled An "Objectivist" Anthology, this time including Richard Aldington and Mary Butts, along with Eliot, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Bunting, Rexroth, a considerable amount of Williams, Zukofsky’s first seven sections of "A" and a wildly anti-Semitic contribution from Pound (which Rexroth, among many others, found in extremely bad taste and indicative of Zukofsky’s perceived idiotic devotion to the elder poet). The anthology, published by George and Mary Oppen, while the couple was living in southern France, came on the heels of Williams’ A Novelette and Other Prose, edited by Zukofsky, and the first volume of a planned complete prose of Pound, Prolegomena Volume One: How to Read. The press folded soon after for lack of funds and inexperience at sales and marketing (it was, after all, the height of the Great Depression); subsequently, George and Mary returned to the United States. A future publication for the press would have been Zukofsky’s first collection of poems, a distinction that would have to wait several more years.

Another attempt at publication was made the following year when Zukofsky, the Oppens, Williams and Reznikoff started the Objectivist Press. The collaborative, which consisted of the group of poets sharing the cost of publishing the work of one of the group’s members, published Williams’ moderately successful Collected Poems 1921-1931, which Zukofsky had helped Williams select and edit. Following volumes included Oppen’s first book of poetry Discrete Series, a gathering of experimental, "Objectivist"-influenced poems, and three volumes by Reznikoff (which made sense as Reznikoff owned and operated the press the books were printed with). Again, a volume by Zukofsky was planned, but never realized; the press dissolved soon after 1936 thanks partly to economics, partly to the writer’s disinterest.

During this tumultuous time Zukofsky found work writing a study of Guillaume Apollinaire, written with French critic René Taupin and published in France;16 he translated a popular biography of Albert Einstein, taught for a year in Madison at the University of Wisconsin (where Kenneth Rexroth was his colleague) during 1930-1931, worked for the Oppens as editor of TO, Publishers during 1931-1932. As with many other artists and writers, Zukofsky found employment with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression years 1935-1942 writing essays on American furniture and kitchenware; these studies helped to reinforce Zukofsky’s perception of the poet as craftsman and nicely correlated to his idea of the poem as object, as much an object as a chair or frying pan.17 During this time Zukofsky began to assemble his poetics manual A Test of Poetry (compiled 1935 to 1940, published 1948) in which he furthers his "Objectivist" concerns together with the importance of craftsmanship, and continued to write his excellent "Objectivist" style poems, including the emblematic "Ferry":
Hour-gongs and the green
Of the lamp.

Plash. Night. Plash. Sky.

and "To My Washstand":
      To my washstand
in which I wash
      My left hand
and my right hand

      To my washstand
whose base is Greek
      whose shaft is marble
and is fluted18

During this period he also completed parts seven through ten of his epic "A". While the first six sections of "A" concentrate on subjects as grandiose and abstract as art, death, religion and modern malaise, sections seven and eight focused on economic, social and political matters, including readings in Marx, Thorstein Veblen, Henry Adams, Einstein and Poincaré; section nine is a poem in two halves, the first composed between 1938 and 1940, is a sort of summation of Zukofsky’s reading of Marx, composed of extremely structured, highly dense lines. Indicative of Zukofsky’s growing allusiveness and density, the first half of "A-9" is also a translation of Cavalcanti’s canzone "Donna mi priegha"; Cavalcanti’s rhyme scheme is intact, regardless of phrases lifted from Das Kapital:
We flee people who made us as a right is
Whose sight is quick to choose us as frequenters,
But see our centers do not show the changes
Of human labor our value estranges.19

Next Month: The Middle Work — The Music, Late Works — The Intellect, and Epilogue

1 The Complete Short Poetry, p.9. Hereafter cited as CSP.
2 Ibid, 14
3 "Julia¹s Wild" in Bottom: On Shakespeare, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002) p.393
4 Carroll Terrell, ed. Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation), p. 69
5 CSP, 88
6 "A" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 138
7 Autobiography, 13
8 CSP, 17
9 "A", p. 83
10 Zukofsky, like Pound and Dante before him, was somewhat superstitious when it came to numbers; when conceiving of his long poem "A" he arbitrarily chose the number 24 for the number of parts and when writing the 12th, or middle section of the poem, he arguably wrote the most important, or central, part, certainly it is the most autobiographical and, aside from "A-24," the longest.
11 See "Memory of V.I. Ulianov" CSP 21-22, "During the Passaic Strike of 1926" CSP 26, and "D.R." CSP 38-39.
12 Pound, Literary Essays (New York: New Directions Press, 1968), p.3
13 I am indebted to Tom Sharp¹s note in his Ph.D. dissertation "Objectivists" 1927-1934, p. 25 for passage, who in his notes refers to Robert von Hallberg¹s essay "Olson, Whitehead and the Objectivists" in Boundary 2 1 &2 (Fall 1973/Winter 1974) 85-111. The passage from Whitehead is quoted from Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), p. 124.
14 George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945), p.34.
15 For further writings of Zukofsky on "Objectivist" theory see Zukofsky¹s "Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Poetry of Charles Reznikoff" in Poetry 37.5 (February 1931), p. 272-285, "Program: ŒObjectivists¹ 1931" in Poetry 37.5 (February 1931) p. 268-272, "Preface-ŒRecencies¹ in Poetry" in An "Objectivists" Anthology, ed. Louis Zukofsky. (LeBeausset: TO Publishers, 1932), p. 9-25 and "An Objective" in Prepositions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) p. 12-18.
16 Titled Le Style Apollinaire the book was only recently published in English as volume five of the Wesleyan Centennial Edition of Zukofsky¹s Complete Critical Writings.
17 A number of these essays have been published as Contributions to the Index of American Design, volume six of the Wesleyan Centennial Edition of Zukofsky¹s Complete Critical Writings, with a perceptive analysis by John Taggart.
18 "Ferry," CSP p. 24, "To My Washstand," CSP, 52-53.
19 "A" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) p. 106