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"A" LOUIS ZUKOFSKY (1931-1974, 1978)
Among the most ambitious and demanding of American long poems (see long and serial poetry), the composition of "A" represents a major bridge from the high modernist epics of T. S. eliot, Ezra pound, and James Joyce to a language-oriented postmodern poetry. The title of Zukofsky's masterwork—the first, shortest, and possibly most ubiquitous word in the English language, tellingly highlighted with quotation marks— indicates an attention to discrete and seemingly insignificant detail that avoids heroic postures or subject matter and focuses on the nuances of linguistic possibilities. As Zukofsky remarked: "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve" (Prepositions 10). During the 46 years of its composition and irregular publication in sections, "A" received little recognition, but after World War II younger poets, such as Robert creeley and Ronald johnson, discovered the poem as a major development of experimental modernism in contrast to the dominant conservative modernism exemplified by the work and influence of Eliot. Subsequently, "A" has been an exemplary model and resource for many poets of the language school.
Zukofsky began "A" at a remarkably early stage in his career. By 1928, at age 24, he had composed the first four sections, or movements, and would work intermittently on the poem until 1974. At the outset Zukof-
sky decided the work would have 24 movements, but instead of subordinating them to overarching formal or thematic patterns, he allowed each movement to develop its own distinct form and content. The formal diversity of the poem is immense, including movements with a variety of complicated predetermined forms as well as looser collage structures assembled out of fragments from diverse textual sources. Zukofsky's interest in rigorous formal models is reflected in his attraction to mathematics and scientific thought, and the major intellectual presences in "A" tend to be demandingly formalistic, with such figures as Aristotle, Spinoza, and Bach contributing both philosophical and formal ideas to the poem. The poem's opening, "A / Round of fiddles playing Bach," announces both the structural and thematic centrality of music, adhering to a basic tenet of his objectivist poetics: "thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody" (Prepositions 12). "A" explores a broad range of intricate musical effects that are distinct from more conventional melodic expectations in poetry. Through sound and cadence, Zukofsky hoped to give abstract ideas a sense of density and substance.
The first six movements bear a striking resemblance to the ideogrammic or collage method of Pound's the cantos, but their themes and perspective reflect the poet's working-class and leftist sympathies. "A"-7 marks a decisive turn toward an increasingly dense and formally intricate verse that is self-consciously artificial. The movement consists of seven sonnets in which the
poet meditates on and transforms seven sawhorses which each form the letter A) into words—the poem itself. The movements written up through the 1930s, "A"-1 to -10 (excepting the second half of "A"-9), probe the possibilities of how the modernist poet might align herself or himself with the workers' revolution, culminating in "A"-10's bitter reaction to the triumph of fascism in Europe. The extraordinary "A"-9 is a pivotal double-movement, each half written a decade apart on either side of World War II and mirroring exactly the intricate canzone form of the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti, down to the complex internal and terminal rhyme scheme. Whereas the first half takes its content from Marx on the degradation of value under capitalism, the latter half adapts material from Spinoza's Ethics on the theme of love: The revolutionary hopes of the prewar movements give way in the cold war to a concentration on the domestic concerns that will dominate the rest of the poem. The trinity of the poet, his wife, Celia (married in 1939), and son Paul (born 1943) becomes the microcosm in which Zukofsky realizes his utopia despite public neglect and the social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s.
The later movements of "A" become increasingly diverse and daring in their formal experimentation, as well as demanding on readers. The tumultuous events of the 1960s frequently come into the poem: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy figures prominently in "A"-15; the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War, and other news events appear in "A"-14 and -18; and sardonic allusions to the space race occur throughout. However, more often than not conventional meaning is submerged in the sound and play of the language. "A"-15 opens with a famous homophonic "translation" from Hebrew of a passage from the Book of Job that translates the sound rather than merely the sense of the original text. Zukofsky also deploys this technique extensively in "A"-21, a complete transliteration of Plautus's comedy Rudens. "A"-22 and -23 are each a thousand lines of virtually impenetrable verbal texture that compresses an enormous amount of reading on natural and literary history, respectively. These sections push to an extreme Zukofsky's effort to create a poetic language that embodies a maximum of sight, sound, and "intellection" (Prepositions 171), a language that suggests multiple meanings yet is stubbornly resistant to any definitive sense. Zukofsky countered the charge of obscurity by insisting: "why deny what you've not / tried: read, not into, it" ("A" 528).
The massive concluding movement of "A" was appropriately composed by Celia, who constructed a compendium of the poet's work in five voices: The first consists of the musical score of Handel's Harpsichord Pieces, which is counterpointed with selections from Zukofsky's criticism, drama, fiction, and poetry (from "A" itself). As a final curiosity, there is an index, including entries for a, an, and the, as well as topics and names that suggest alternative readings of the poem.
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