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A Poet

How Louis Zukofsky grappled with Marxism, music, and math

Jonathan Ivry
February 27, 2009

In 1930, Harriet Monroe, the editor of <i>Poetry</i> magazine, was looking to showcase the next big thing in American poetry. On the recommendation of Ezra Pound, Monroe invited Louis Zukofsky, a young, unknown Jewish poet from New York City, to guest-edit a special issue devoted to the next generation of poets. Pound had at that point never actually met Zukofsky—Pound was living in Italy and Zukofsky was in New York— but the two had developed an intense correspondence after Zukofsky, in 1927, sent Pound a poem with an idiosyncratic title—“Poem Beginning: The”—written while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia. The poem, consisting of 330 lines, each one inexplicably numbered, was Zukofsky’s calling card to Pound, and it showcased a young writer who, while learning the tricks of Pound and Eliot—obscure allusions, jagged juxtapositions—was also rejecting the bleak pessimism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Instead, the poem celebrated the young poet’s own possibility and ambition, his eagerness to explore the cultural realm recently opened up and made available to a Jewish immigrant, even as it wryly noted the price of admission into Western culture:

251 Assimilation is not hard,

252 And once the Faith’s askew

253 I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.

254 I’ll read their Donne as mine,

255 And leopard in their spots

256 I’ll do what says their Coleridge,

257 Twist red hot pokers into knots.

258 The villainy they teach me I will execute

259 And it shall go hard with them

260 For I’ll better the instruction,

261 Having learned, so to speak, in their colleges.

Who was this young poet, making a bold stab at the “great men” of Anglo-American poetry, while slyly echoing Shylock’s most bitter lines? Louis Zukofsky was born in January 1904 in New York’s Lower East Side to parents who had emigrated from Lithuania six years earlier. He was the baby of the family—12 years separated him from his next older sibling—and the only one of his parents’ children to be born in America. His parents were already in their 40s when he was born, and Zukofsky, like many first-generation Americans, was growing up in a world vastly different from the one his parents knew. His mother died when he was in college, and his father toiled for years in low-paying jobs. In a section from “A”, Zukofsky’s epic poem, he recalls his father’s hardscrabble existence:

The miracle of his first job

On the lower East Side:

Six years night watchman

In a men’s shop

Where by day he pressed pants

The elder Zukofsky was an observant Jew—“His own business,” Zukofsky wrote, “Is to keep Sabbath”—but as a young man Zukofsky was drawn to secular culture. As a boy he attended Yiddish theater productions of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Strindberg, and he knew passages from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” by heart—in Yiddish translation. Though Yiddish was Zukofsky’s first language, he never wrote in it, and after learning English in grammar school, he dove into English literature, reading through all of Shakespeare, who was to become a lifelong passion. At 16, he entered Columbia University, immersing himself in literature and philosophy, and becoming part of a loose coterie of intellectually precocious students, some of whom Columbia English professor Mark Van Doren featured in a 1927 essay entitled “Jewish Students I Have Known.”

Just as calculus could provide an equation that quite literally defined motion, so too should the poem become a kind of equation that might capture something essential in the world.

By the time Harriet Monroe’s invitation arrived, Zukofsky had decided on his life’s course, but recognition and publication were slower in coming. With Pound’s encouragement, he wrote an introductory essay for the special issue of Poetry that sought to lay down some core principles of a new poetics. Like Pound, Zukofsky rejected metaphor and symbolism as ineffectual and outmoded forms of writing. “Writing occurs,” Zukofsky wrote, “which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.” Metaphors provided false and misleading images—mirages. True poetry didn’t rely on superficial metaphor, just as it refused to follow artificial impositions such as regular meter or rhyme schemes. Instead, the poem sought to get at the core of an experience or of an object, to “think with the things as they exist.” Zukofsky’s ideas were inspired by the model of mathematics and science. Just as calculus could provide an equation that quite literally defined motion, so too should the poem become a kind of equation that might capture something essential in the world. The resulting “school” was called Objectivism, to suggest that poetry, like physics, might be an objective means of rendering the world.

Heady stuff, and, in fact, it didn’t go over well, perhaps because it was somewhat vague and obscure, or perhaps because, by 1930, people were impatient with literary manifestoes, or at least those that were not overtly political. The trend was toward more accessible, socially-engaged writing. Though Zukofsky had Marxist leanings, his work was too abstract and not political enough to please Marxist readers. Mike Gold, the author of the classic proletarian novel Jews Without Money and editor of the journal New Masses, invited Zukofsky to serve as poetry advisor to his journal, but Gold was promoting a poetry of engagement, while Zukofsky thought that the true Marxist poet had deeper aesthetic and intellectual commitments that might bring about a revolution in thinking and expression. Gold, Zukofsky wrote to Pound in 1936, is a “confused shit-head.”

Throughout the 1930s, Zukofsky was developing a reputation among a small group of poets, even if he wasn’t exactly having great success as a poet. There were fellow travelers in the short-lived Objectivist group, many of whom were Jewish, including Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. Zukofsky also met William Carlos Williams in 1928 and the two quickly developed a deep friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Williams, by far the more famous and successful poet, had deep admiration for Zukofsky’s work and valued him as an editor of his own writing. In 1941, after reading the latest installment of “A,” Williams wrote to his friend: “Your poem is a beauty, you are fast becoming the most important and neglected poet of our time and place.” But the admiration of fellow avant-garde poets did not translate into regular publication. And then there was the business of making a living. Zukofsky spent an unhappy year teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1930, and then returned to New York, leaving academia for a series of jobs, mostly technical writing in industry. In 1933, he met Celia Thaew, and the two began a protracted courtship, waiting to marry until they reached some measure of financial stability. They finally did so in 1939, and their only child, Paul, was born in 1943. (Paul Zukofsky would go on to have a highly successful career as a concert violinist.) In 1947, Zukofsky left technical writing for a job teaching English at Brooklyn Polytechnic, where he remained until retiring in 1965 at the age of 61.

Zukofsky’s life was quiet on the outside, centered on writing, family, and work obligations. After World War II, his world shrank further. Ezra Pound’s increasing anti-Semitism, paranoia, and fascist sympathies created a rift between the two. The Marxist dream that Zukofsky, like so many, thought might be an answer to capitalist excesses, was discredited by the crimes of Stalin. Zukofsky continued on with his writing. He was a reserved, gracious, and formal man. In photographs he is often seen wearing a suit and tie on his thin frame. His round, dark glasses made him look a little bit like the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. But underneath this placid exterior, Zukofsky was passionately devoted to the epic poem—“A”—that he worked on for close to fifty years. As early as 1927 or 1928 he had sketched out a plan for the work. It was to have 24 sections, with certain themes repeating. The earliest sections—Zukofsky preferred to call them “movements” borrowing the term from classical music—were composed in 1928 and the last ones were written in 1974. The last “movement” is, in fact, a musical setting of some of his writings, composed by Celia Zukofsky, who was herself an accomplished musician.

It is impossible to sum up this varied, wildly ambitious, and experimental epic poem. Like Pound’s cantos, “A” references a wide range of subjects, including history, myth, economics, philosophy, and literature. The amount of erudition on display is daunting, and Zukofsky does not stop to explain or identify sources. Zukofsky thought of his work as a kind of modern music, the idea being that a poem is something one experiences, like a symphony, rather than an essay whose goal is to instruct. “I’ll tell you / About my poetics—” he writes in the 12th movement of “A”: “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” The “integral” is from the same model of calculus that inspired his Objectivist poetics. Like music, poetry seeks to provide an aesthetic experience that is at once wholly other to the world, and also captures something essential about the world, translating experience into art.

To take but one example, Zukofsky liked inserting snippets of “translations” of other works into his poetry. But these are no ordinary translations. Instead, they seek to render the sounds of the original language into English characters, so that what we are seeing, or hearing, are really transliterations, or so-called “homophonic” translations. The result, in English, is of course nonsense, but Zukofsky, always attentive to the inherent magic of language and utterance, claimed that these kind of translations let a reader “breathe the ‘literal’ meaning” of a text. So we have in the 15th movement of “A” a bizarre string of lines that turn out to be “translations” from the Book of Job:

He neigh ha lie low h’who y’he gall mood

So roar cruel hire

Lo to achieve an eye leer rot off

Mass th’lo low o loam echo

This can be either maddening or exhilarating, depending on how a person chooses to approach what poetry is supposed to do or mean. But even as we prepare to dismiss it as utter nonsense, Zukofsky shifts ever so slightly, allowing something of the original “sense” to enter into the lines:

Wind: Yahweh at Iyyob

Mien His roar ‘Why yammer

Measly make short hates oh

By milling bleat doubt?

With an awareness of the story of Job, of Job’s suffering and his pleading with God to explain the reasons for his suffering, we can start to “hear” in this translation the suffering and confusion of Job, of his thwarted desire to crack the mystery of God’s ways. And in reading this aloud, we become Job ourselves, unknowingly speaking the words Job himself says.

More than any other poem in English, “A” seems deliberately to court an oscillation between resistance and revelation. This rejection of straightforward “meaning” thwarted many opportunities for publication, although Zukofsky did live to see most of his work published before he died in 1978. After his death, the literary critic Hugh Kenner published an appreciation in the New York Times Book Review, in which he predicted that “they will still be elucidating [him] in the twenty-second century.” The attention to the vagaries and mysteries of language, however, had made Zukofsky into a hero for a new generation of poets, the so-called Language poets who first came on the scene in the late 1970s. They, too, wanted to break through conventional syntax and language corrupted by politics and capitalism. For these poets, Zukofsky became a sort of bridge between their own radical aspirations and the innovations of Pound and Eliot—who, because of their reactionary politics, were not always easy models to revere.

In recent years, a mini-revival of Zukofsky seems to be taking place. Wesleyan University Press has published his prose writings in a series of volumes, and a number of academic studies have appeared, including a recent biography by Mark Scroggins. If Zukofsky remains a “difficult” poet, there is, throughout his work, a palpable sense of joy at the play of language, the way words bounce off and echo each other, resonating through time and space. And there is also an appreciation of love that pervades so much of his work. Zukofsky had a theory about how love functions in Shakespeare’s plays—the evidence is always before the eyes, but the mind plays tricks on understanding. True love was equivalent to clear-sightedness, to an attention to the beauty of the world and people around you. This sense of love comes through in many small poems, in “valentines” that Zukofsky wrote to Celia and friends. Not ordinary love poems, these short poems use punning language to reveal the “one” that can emerge from two. In “To My Valentines,” he writes:

From one to two

is one step up

and one and two

spell three

and we agree

three is a sum

a run

of two and one.

The joy of language, of the interplay between sound and sense, is everywhere in Zukofsky. It’s a music that takes some getting used to, but we are starting to hear it more clearly.

Jonathan Ivry is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He writes more about Louis Zukofsky in the June 2009 issue of Texas Studies in Literature & Language.

Jonathan Ivry is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He writes more about Louis Zukofsky in the June 2009 issue of Texas Studies in Literature & Language.