Zukofsky came to early public attention with his leadership of the objectivist movement in the early 1930s, but nonetheless he spent much of his career in obscurity. only in the 1960s, when his poetry began to be published in widely available editions, did he achieve some recognition as an important poet, and only since his death has a larger readership come to recognize Zukofsky as a major figure in 20th-century poetry, a crucial bridge between the high modernism of Ezra pound, William Carlos WILLIAMS, and Marianne moore and the postmodern experiments of what is called "the
New American poetry," (after 1960 anthology of the same name) and the language school (see poetry anthologies). His work is dense and highly referential and tends to twist or entirely reject conventional English syntax, yet, at the same time, his poetry attains great heights of grace and complexity.
Zukofsky was born in New York City, the child of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He learned English in the public schools and attended Columbia University, where he took an M.A. in 1924. He taught for a single academic year (1930-31) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and for most of the 1930s he worked for various Works progress Administration (WpA) writing projects. In 1947 he joined the faculty of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and he retired from that position at the rank of associate professor in 1966.
Zukofsky wrote and published lyric poetry while in college, but his public career was sparked when he submitted his autobiographical "Poem beginning 'The,'" in part a satiric response to T.S. eliots the waste land, to Pounds journal the Exile in late 1927. Pound viewed Zukofsky as a potential protégé and encouraged him to get in touch with other American poets (among them his friend Williams, with whom Zukofsky would form a lifelong friendship) and to form a literary "group" on the model of the imagist school. Zukofsky resisted the idea of such a group, but, for a while, and with some ambivalence, he advanced his own cause and that of some of his friends as "objectivists."
Zukofsky began his career writing brief lyrics and continued writing short poems throughout his life, but from 1928 on devoted he much of his energies to the 24-section-long poem "a" (1978). The poem begins at a performance of Bach's "St. Matthews Passion"—"A / round of fiddles playing Bach"—and music is a constant theme in the poem. The early movements of "A" superficially resemble Pounds cantos, but Zukofsky's sense of poetic form is far more stringent than Pound's, and while the first six parts of "A" make use of the same collage elements as The Cantos, they are also organized in a manner analogous to the baroque fugue. "A"-7 is a sequence of seven sonnets, and from that point onward the movements of "A" become more and more formally inventive. The latter movements make use of innovative translational strategies, unconventional poetic forms, and dense and complicated collages of earlier texts. "A"-24, the poem's final movement, is a musical score arranged by zukofsky's wife, Celia; it juxtaposes four different sets of zukofsky texts to George Friedrich Handel's harpsichord pieces.
In his youth zukofsky was deeply involved in leftist politics, and many of the early sections of "A", as well as many of the short poems from the 1920s and 1930s, make use of marxist rhetoric and dialectic. That political emphasis largely disappears from zukofsky's work after the 1930s, however, and in its place emerges a fascination with the satisfactions of familial love, reflected best in the many love poems and valentines included in his Complete Short Poetry (1991). Zukofsky remained enamored of systematic thinkers, however, and from first to last his writing reflects his interest in the geometrically expressed philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and the "phase theory" of history advanced by the American historian Henry Adams.
That "phase theory" led Zukofsky to his own theory of poetic language, according to which language exists in three states—solid, liquid, and gaseous, states which correspond roughly to the concrete image, the lyrically musical, and the philosophically abstract. Zukofsky clearly preferred "solid" to "gaseous" language, but his own critical prose (and sometimes his poetry) often veers from the concrete and the musical into the dauntingly abstract. Nowhere is this clearer than in Bottom: on Shakespeare, the massive commentary on Shakespeare's works which Zukofsky wrote between 1947 and 1960 and which attempts to explain the entire Shakespearean canon in terms of an emphasis on the "clear physical eye" over the "erring brain." Zukofsky himself described Bottom as a long poem of sorts, and like "A" it is a vast collage of quotations from previous texts that range across the entire history of Western culture. The second volume of Bottom consists of Celia Zukofsky's musical setting of the Shakespeare play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which Zukofsky read as a narrative analogous to Homer's Odyssey.
Between 1958 and 1966, Zukofsky, in collaboration with his wife, translated the entire works of the Latin poet Catullus. This translation, which was published in 1969, represents a stupendous reimagination of what the act of translating a foreign poet might involve (see poetry and translation). Zukofsky's aim is not to render the dictionary meaning of Catullus's words, but to "breathe the 'literal' meaning"—to follow the sounds of Catullus's Latin as closely as possible in the English translation. The result is a rich and bewildering melange of archaisms, obscure meanings, and slang, often verging upon incomprehensibility. Zukofsky, however, adopted this mode of translation—or "transliteration"—as one of his primary poetic modes in his later work, and passages of poetry directly transliterated from other languages appear in many of the later sections of "A."
While Zukofsky tended to devote most of his energies to large projects—"A," Bottom: on Shakespeare, and the Catullus translations—he also wrote a large number of short poems, many of which are arranged in thematic or imagistic sequences. Such sequences as "I's [pronounced eyes]" (1959-60), "Light" (1940-44), and "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times" (1962) combine the slight and humorous with the philosophically profound and showcase Zukofsky's wry and sometimes recondite sense of humor.
Zukofsky was always first and foremost a formalist, a poet who was obsessed with the potentialities of the forms in which verse is written. In his early work he pursued conventional English poetic forms, such as the sonnet, and he would experiment with such Ital-ianate forms as the sestina (in "'Mantis'" ) and the canzone (in "A"-9), crafting these poems with a fanatical attention to requirements of these demanding shapes. In later sections of "A," Zukofsky fashioned a poetics in which the length of the line is determined by word count, rather than by conventional accentual or accentual-syllabic meter: Each of the last-composed movements, "A"-22 and "A"-23, consists of 1,000 five-word lines. The poetics of these last movements—rigid word-counted lines that incorporate a breathtaking range of allusion, adaptation, and translation—is essentially identical to that of Zukofsky's last work, 80 Flowers (1978)—81 poems (including an epigraph), each of them eight lines long, five words to the line, about various flowers. In these poems syntax has become so elastic as to disappear almost entirely, open ing the poem up to a wide range of interpretations and reactions. The epigraph, for instance, begins "Heart us invisibly thyme time / round rose bud fire downland."
In the late 1950s, Zukofsky began to attract increasing attention among younger poets, including Robert creeley, Theodore enslin, Robert duncan, Ronald Johnson, Jonathan williams, and Cid corman, among others. By the time of his death, he was widely recognized as an underappreciated master and had proved a crucial influence on such Language poets as Michael palmer, Bob perelman, Ron silliman, and Charles bernstein, as well as on other poets, including Michael heller, Rachel Blau duplessis, and Hugh seidman.
In addition to his poetry and critical works, Zukof-sky wrote a play, Arise, arise (1973), which deals with his mother's death; a novella, Ferdinand (1968), a full-length novel, Little; for careenagers (1970), which treats the childhood of his son Paul, the violin virtuoso; and several short stories distinguished by the precision of their language and the angularity of their wit. The scope, depth, and delicacy of his work make him one of the major 20th-century American writers.
Ahearn, Barry. Zukofsky's "A": An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Leggott, Michele J. Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Penberthy, Jenny. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Perelman, Bob. The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein and Zukofsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
-., ed. Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto. Louis Zukofsky and the Transformation of a Modern American Poetics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Terrell, Carroll F., ed. Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1979.
Was this article helpful?