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

An Examination of Louis Zukofsky - Part Two
by Eric Hoffman

The Middle Work - The Music

A Round of fiddles playing Bach20

The urgency of the Depression and the Second World War interrupted the progress of modern, experimental poetry (even interrupted the composition of Zukofsky's ninth section of "A"; he did not work on the poem, except for revisions, from 1940 to 1948); the audience for even popular poetry, mostly considered a distraction, significantly dwindled. Zukofsky and others like him lapsed into relative obscurity for many years. During this period he managed to publish, in an extremely limited edition by a small Illinois press, a single volume of poetry, 55 Poems (1941). He found work at a number of jobs, including substitute teaching in the public schools and editing instruction books for a variety of companies before landing a position as instructor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, his longest held job, from 1947 to his retirement in 1966.

The war had its victims; most notably among modernist poets was the fall of Ezra Pound into blind fascism. While Pound was standing trial for treason following the war, Zukofsky was, with Williams, one of many poets who attested to Pound's literary significance, whatever his political beliefs. While Zukofsky and Pound's relationship never recovered the intensity it had in the crucially productive years before the war, the two didn't have a total falling out; in later years Zukofsky even brought his wife Celia and son Paul to St. Elizabeth's where Paul, a child prodigy on the violin, serenaded the elder poet on the asylum's lawn.

Following the war, increased conservatism and an outright rejection of modernist experiment led to a new formalism in the academy as the New Critics and confessionalist poets returned to classic forms, subject matters and Romantic navel-gazing. Modernism appeared to have failed, despite continued efforts by Williams and Pound, until the mid-1950s when the Beat Poets of San Francisco, led by Kenneth Rexroth (once an "Objectivist" though he had long since renounced membership) and the Black Mountain school of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the latter an admirer (and emulator) of Zukofsky's highly concentrated, knotty and musical poems from the 1920s and 1930s, helped resuscitate avant-garde experimentalism. Allen Ginsberg visited Zukofsky at Brooklyn Polytechnic to show Zukofsky his early poems. Charles Olson requested Zukofsky teach at Black Mountain but the salary offered was pitiable. Two publishers associated with the Black Mountain School, Cid Corman and Jonathan Williams, began to publish Zukofsky's poetry in the former's influential journal Origin (which also returned fellow "Objectivists" Lorine Niedecker and Carl Rakosi to print and was among the first to publish young writers influenced by Zukofsky, including Creeley and Taggart) and the latter's Jargon Press which published a beautiful, limited edition of Zukofsky's Some Time in 1956, a book that contains some of Zukofsky's finest work:

Little wrists,
Is your content
My sight or hold,
Or your small air
That lights and trysts?

Red alder berry
Will singly break;
But you-how slight-do:
So that even
A lover exists.21

In addition to poems published in Origin, Corman published in 1959, in a limited edition, the first twelve movements of "A". Though it quickly went out of print, it remained the only major collection of Zukofsky's work until Norton press published All: The Collected Short Poems in two volumes in 1965 and 1971. Zukofsky's short poetry from this period, as with sections of "A", show an artist increasingly concerned with achieving the effects of music in poetry; "A-12" is perhaps the closest Zukofsky came to achieving the goal of "A-6":

The design
Of the fugue
Be transferred
To poetry?22

By 1948, when Zukofsky returned to "A", specifically to the ninth part, which remained incomplete since 1940, rather than return to Marx he chose Spinoza:

Love speaks: "in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time; now
Weep, love's heir, rhyme no how song's exaction
Is your distraction - related is equated,
How else is love's distance approximated.23

One year earlier Zukofsky began writing Bottom: On Shakespeare, which, like Poe and his Eureka, is a work of dense prose its author insisted was poetry (Zukofsky, unlike Poe, later retracted the claim). Bottom consists of a collage of quotes from, among others, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Henry James, and especially Baruch Spinoza. Zukofsky's theme is "love : reason :: eyes : mind" and the work is a seven hundred page explication of the statement (232 pages consists of Celia's operatic setting of Shakespeare's Pericles). The work, mostly unacknowledged by Shakespeare scholars, took nearly thirteen years to complete and was for editors dense and difficult enough that Zukofsky had to donate his papers to the University of Texas in return for its publication in 1963. It is an interesting work that has found admirers (particularly among writers and critics such as Guy Davenport, John Taggart and Hugh Kenner). A recent symposium on the work of Zukofsky focused on Bottom, possibly due to Wesleyan University's lovingly reprinted edition in 2002 as part of their effort at bringing the complete critical work of Zukofsky into print. As Bob Perelman observes in his introduction to the work, "Bottom is central" to the "efflorescence" of work Zukofsky completed "midway through the final twenty years of [his] career, a period during which he often felt isolated."24 For Perelman, Bottom's single theme is (in Zukofsky's words) "simply that Shakespeare's text throughout favors the clear physical eye against the erring brain." As Zukofsky described the work to critic L.S. Dembo, Perelman notes that "Bottom is a long poem; it does away with epistemology; it is an autobiography."25 As with most of Zukofsky's work, it is as frustrating as it is rewarding.

Bottom was completed during a period that also included the writing of the central sections of "A", most notably "A-12", as well as his controversial phonetic translations, with his wife Celia, of Catallus. Where the first half dozen sections of "A" treated major abstract themes like art, death and music in the style of Pound's ideogrammatic method, and the following three parts had dealt with public life (politics, culture and society), the middle sections trace a growing concern with private life, from his interpretations of love and the recovering of sanity by way of Spinoza's Ethics in the second half of "A-9" (which shares a similar concern with Bottom), to his treatment of family life in the eleventh and the aforementioned twelfth sections.

Zukofsky had by now been married to Celia Thaew, a composer, for over a decade; their only son, Paul, was a gifted violinist. Much of "A-12" deals with an idealized presentation of their life together, Zukofsky's memories of his mother and father, with borrowings from the by now usual suspects of the Zukofsky pantheon, Bach, Spinoza, Aristotle, Paraclesus. To fit within his schema of "B.A.C.H." he includes Blest (Spinoza), Aristotle, his wife Celia, and Hohenheim (Paraclesus). The notable difference is that the poet has now elevated his wife to the level of the poet's chosen few noble minds. Part of the reason for this concern with the private world was that the poet's world had grown increasingly cloistered.

Ardent    good,
Celia,    speak simply, rarely scarce, seldom -
Happy, immeasurable love
   heart or head's greater part unhurt and happy,
   things that bear harmony
   certain in concord with reason.26

As Zukofsky writes in "A-12": "if love exists, why remember it?" From "A-9" to "Bottom" to "A-12" this seems the guiding inquiry, the reason for these works. His answer?

So to light up Whether one moves or is still.27

Or as he observed to L.S. Dembo, "I suppose love means if you do something, that's love; otherwise you don't do anything."28 And this action consists of saying "yes" or "no": "That's about all we have ever done as far as action is concerned."29 So much for the age old philosophical conundrum of freedom versus determination.

Late Works - The Intellect

For you I have emptied the meaning
Leaving the song30

Subsequent movements of "A" and the Catallus translations written during the 1960s31 show that Zukofsky's poetry, always difficult, had grown increasingly hermetic. Some critics, like Mark Scroggins, argue that by removing the context for his highly allusive poetry Zukofsky had in fact made his poems more universal. Others, like Zukofsky's "Objectivist" alumni, George Oppen, felt Zukofsky's obscurity to be a "tactic." Zukofsky's argument at the time was, according to Oppen, that no one reads his work anyway, so what does it matter?32 This statement was made at the time Oppen was enjoying considerable success. Following Oppen's comment to Zukofsky that he preferred his own poetry to Zukofsky's, Louis refused to speak to Oppen or even, as in the somewhat famous case of an issue of Stony Brook, to be published along side him. Oppen, inheritor of a considerable estate, had returned to poetry from exile in Mexico after decades of activism in the Communist Party and was writing poems Zukofsky probably felt were a betrayal of the "Objectivist" aesthetics Oppen held prior to his 24 year self-enforced poetic silence, poems being published by Oppen's considerably wealthy sister June Oppen Degnan and New Directions' James Laughlin. That Oppen would win critical and commercial success and, in 1969, the Pulitzer Prize, did little to ingratiate the still somewhat obscure and economically struggling Zukofsky. Oppen apparently tried to convince Laughlin to publish the work of Oppen's one-time mentor; one can imagine that such pity did little to win Zukofsky's endearment.

From "A-22":

Ox world needs put on
the Furniture of a Horse . . .
who can make Shadows, no
thanks to the Sun? 4 tones
teen blood's tide to think
or panser, dress wounds or

What is a reader to make of the above lines? Even with Pound's Cantos, a dense work if there ever was one, armed properly with encyclopedias, history books, French and Italian poetry and a Sanskrit and Chinese dictionary, one could, in time, come to grasp the poem's many allusions and dense, multi-layered meanings. Yet with Zukofsky, it is clear that no such library exists; if it does, the meaning is absent of context to such an extent that a reader would not know the first place to look for a meaning. The words seem random, almost nonsense. No doubt there appears to be meaning there; the poems make syntactical sense, much in the same way that Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is syntactically correct. Hugh Kenner is correct in his estimation that scholars would be "elucidating" the poem well into the "22nd century," but whether or not any courageous scholar with copious free time will be able to create a guide to the poem as Carroll Terrell did with the Cantos, who can say? Perhaps the only clear result of these last sections of "A" is Zukofsky's development of the five-word-per-line poetic structure, utilized in his 80 Flowers, to have been published on the poet's eightieth birthday in 1984; it was eventually published in an extremely limited edition the year of his death. Consisting of eighty-one poems, it makes the last books of "A" seem somewhat clearer, by contrast:

Wild time liveforever horsethyme ice
by shard green red-purple thyrse
shadowed stone or a flurry
troth orpine kin acre yellow-red
mossy stonecrop love-entangle your kind's
roof houseleek old-man-and-woman who woo
thatch song quicksilver cold would
won't know All sedum no34

This is the poem in its entirety. The eighty-one page book 80 Flowers notably inspired a 400-page book of criticism by Michelle Leggot titled Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers; she only interprets sixty or so. Despite Kenner's prediction, the amount of criticism written on Zukofsky is considerably less than it could be, especially by comparison to other, more established modernist poets such as Eliot, Pound and Williams. But the essays, explications, studies, symposiums, and books are being written. A biography is in preparation, to be published later this year by Wesleyan University.


Twenty years ago, Louis Zukofsky, retired, was busying himself in his garden, formulating the extremely dense poems that appeared in 80 Flowers, a book that was to be followed by 90 Trees, to have been published on his ninetieth birthday. He had no major collection in print, the prior major collections having quickly disappeared from the shelves. Some progress had been made: his "Objectivist" theories from a half century before had finally found critical reception, inaugurated by a series of perceptive interviews conducted by the critic L.S. Dembo at the University of Wisconsin in 1968. Younger poets like Allen Ginbserg and Robert Creeley considered him a poet of great importance and a powerful influence. Zukofsky had some successes to look forward to, as well: the single volume publication of the whole of "A", completed one year before, and a collection of his critical essays, Prepositions (as in "before positioning one's self"), for which he had been editing the essays over a half-century old in an attempt to make some final statement on his theories of "sincerity and objectification" and statements on Pound, Williams, Henry James, Spinoza, and his late-career fondness for the work of Wallace Stevens.

The final essay in that book, "About the Gas Age," was a transcript of a question-and-response session following a reading he made at London's American Embassy in 1969. In the spirit of Vico, Zukofsky formulates his theory of the three stages of existence: solid, liquid and gas. Images are solid, music is liquid and the intellect is gas (or, to put it another way, sight, sound, and intellect). We are living, Zukofsky explains, in a gas age, an intellectual age. He admits his admiration for Spinoza, emblematic of the "gas stage." Shakespeare stood at the turning point of the transition from liquid to gas, or from music to intellect. "The wonderful thing about Spinoza's philosophy," Zukofsky observes, "is that out of 8 definitions and 7 axioms he builds the whole system." He then goes on to explain,

When I was a kid I started the Objectivist movement in poetry. There were a few poets who felt sympathetic towards each other and Harriet Monroe at the time insisted, we'd better have a title for it, call it something. I said, I didn't want to. She insisted; so I said, all right, if I can define it in an essay, and I used two words, sincerity and objectification, and I was sorry immediately. But it's gone down into the history books; they forgot the founder, thank heaven, and kept the terms, and of course, I said objectivist and they said objectivism and that makes all the difference. Well that was pretty bad, so then I spent the next thirty years trying to make it simple.35

In retrospect, that last adjective seems painfully ironic. Zukofsky, like Spinoza, developed a system, and for Zukofsky it is a whole system. He discovered it at a young age; he spent the next thirty years making it increasingly precise, maddening, beautiful, dense, brilliant and difficult. The forgotten founder, tending to his flowers, remembering love.

Who may not anymore
show his writing to friends
not till it's print
or his dreamed words
of trooped galaxies
a night of the day
they move in

glad some envy
stopped showing
its writing to him
art is not covetous
whose life is long 36

20 "A", p. 1
21 "So that Even a Lover," CSP p. 114.
22 "A", p. 38
23 Ibid, 110-111
24 Zukofsky for the most part avoided literary companionship besides forming informal groups with a number of his students at Brooklyn Polytechnic, among them Hugh Seidman and Fielding Dawson.
25 Bottom: On Shakespeare, p.vii-ix
26 "A", p. 127
27 Ibid, 170
28 L.S. Dembo, ed. The Contemporary Writer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), p. 230
29 Ibid, 219
30 CSP, 81
31 The list includes parts 13 through 21 of "A", the most dense and difficult parts until the appearance of the notoriously difficult parts 22nd and 23rd in the mid-1970s shortly before Zukofsky's death. I will not discuss the works in any detail here; suffice to say there have been numerous perceptive studies written on "A". The best introduction by far is Barry Ahearn's Zukofsky's "A": An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California, 1983); I am clearly indebted to his reading of Zukofsky's long poem. Also notable is Mark Scroggins' Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998) and the Scroggins-edited Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997).
32 As Zukofsky wrote in his novel Little, "I too have been charged with obscurity, tho it's a case of listeners wanting to know too much about me, more than words can say."
33 "A", 532
34 "Liveforever," CSP, 326
35 Prepositions, 170-171.
36 From a poem with the distinctly Stevens-like title "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times" CSP, 229