By Louis Zukofsky
846 pp. $24.95
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Bob Perelman
The reissue of Louis Zukofsky's long poem "A" is a most welcome event. In the innovative regions of the poetic universe, Zukofsky is a major presence: Thanks to the enthusiasm of figures such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and the Language poets, there now is a population of admirers who will be glad "A" is back in print.
For most of Zukofsky's career such an outcome would have seemed highly implausible. After a burst of attention at the beginning, most of his writing life was spent in obscurity that lifted only toward the end. Zukofsky's poetry was always articulated to a pitch that did not invite casual reading.
And he himself was a paradoxical figure: before World War II, a left-wing hyper-experimentalist who wrote for social justice; after WWII, when the avowed Fascist and assiduously anti-Semitic Ezra Pound was in disgrace, Zukofsky remained loyal to Pound's poetics. Throughout his decades of near-anonymity, however, he persevered in his epic ambitions and finished "A" in 1974, almost a half-century after he began it and four years before his death in 1978.
Zukofsky was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 to Yiddish-speaking parents. He attended Columbia University, where he became an ardent student of modernist poetry. He soon got in touch with Pound and William Carlos Williams, and thanks to Pound's efforts, edited an issue of Poetry magazine in 1931, where he introduced an ad hoc group he labeled "Objectivists." As with "A", the quotation marks were part of the title. In hindsight, this group, which included George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker, was a significant moment in the history of American poetry. But at the time there was little response, none of it positive.
Zukofsky had already begun "A". Even though he was not yet 25 and had barely broken into print, he picked the most brashly ambitious model for his project: Pound's ongoing Cantos. The politics didn't match up: The young Zukofsky was a Marxist, Pound an enthusiast for Mussolini. But the wager to write an open-ended long poem was similar. "A" was to unite poetry and politics, bringing serious art of all eras into close contact with the present. From the beginning, Zukofsky planned to write 24 sections, which he called movements, as if the poetry were music.
The poem begins with an emphatic contrast: First we have the original performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1729. Audience and composer are part of a single community in which the great music was a normal part of everyone's schedule. Then without transition we are at the 1928 performance of the same music at Carnegie Hall, where the young leftist poet listens alongside wealthy concertgoers more concerned with cars and jewels than with Bach. The music makes him ecstatic, while the audience's chitchat enrages him.
On the street after the concert, he overhears bits of a conversation about striking coal miners; the section ends with words from the St. Matthew Passion: "Open, O fierce flaming pit!" We are meant to hear both Bach's musical genius and the contemporary coal mine. The intention is for poetry to be music and politics in equal measure.
Such trust in the wholeness of his endeavor lasted until the outbreak of World War II. Zukofsky's feats of verbal engineering could be staggeringly complex, but throughout the first parts of the poem there is never any irony about the underlying claim to be simultaneously lyrical and political.
The most extreme example of complexity is "A"-9, in which Zukofsky uses the intricate template of Cavalcanti's 13th-century poem "Donna Mi Prega" to present a précis of Marx's doctrine of commodity fetishism. He takes his vocabulary from Capital and a textbook of quantum physics, while matching the original rhyme scheme:
An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values,
The measure all use is time-congealed labor
In which abstraction things keep no resemblance
To goods created; integrated all hues
Hide their natural use to one or one's neighbor . . .
After World War II it was clear there would be no external validation for Zukofsky's poetic labors, and he turned emphatically away from any political horizon. The last movements of "A" display as much compositional extravagance as before, but the emphasis now would be on art, family, domestic life.
One constant remained: Zukofsky's insistence on the musical dimension of his poetry. In "A"-12, he describes his poetics as "An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music." By the late stages of the poem, Zukofsky has worked the language into a lyrical quickness and complexity like nothing else in American poetry:
Summers looking across marches to
mountains an old mind sees
more, thinking of a thought
not his thought, older complexities: the fractional state of the
annals, a bird's merrythought graving
of quill and down, apposed
human cranium's dendritical crystallizations offer
no sure estimate of antiquity
only archaic time unchanged unchangeable.
This quicksilver motion continues for a thousand lines.
The ambitions that produced "A" are extravagant. Zukofsky's compositional prowess calls for continuous alertness from the reader. "A" belongs in the company of the major modernist epics such as Pound's Cantos or Williams' Paterson. It will repay as much attention as it is given.