Published on October 24, 2010
LOUIS ZUKOFSKY IS AN important American poet. Why? Because I said, so, naturally, and even though the bulk of this essay is snitched from other sources, I have split my sandwiches with this poet in question on many a toil. All italics mine. His book, A, dominated my thought back in the late 1980s, when I was still chasing a reason to be poet after already having written what I consider my best work, until I rode my elephant sling shot straight into punk rock, fickle women, and cheap booze, and friends who never knew where I was coming from much less where I was aiming to sink a mark, if any. This is my story.
The son of immigrant Russian Jews, he was born into the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1904. What a headstart he had. I was raised by intelligent but socially illiterate, lingusitically stunted, financially crippled parents with little historical awareness of places and predicaments in a tiny town in SE Georgia, and I don't mean the Caucasion state in Asia. Zukofsky's conception of himself as a poet was indebted to Kaballistic Judaism, with both its emphasis on the magically transforming power of language and its division of the world into a tiny circle of initiates and a great mass of ignorant outsiders.
If Zukofsky was a New York Jewish poet, responsive to the cacophonous voice of the cosmopolitan city and determined to find a place for himself in the world beyond the ghetto, I was the epitome of plain white bread sandwich Tom Sawyerwith the crusted edges still attached. Zukofsky's route out of his festering ghetto was poetry. Mine was the result of that ever diminishing highschool diploma and the vital scream for liberty and exile I found in the wet sack and subsequent scattering of seed called making my way into the world without a clue. Leaving home within a month following a pirate's blue and gold graduation, I soon married a woman twice my age, with three kids nearly my own age, and a religion I was never built to suffer. But suffer I did for three years almost to the day under the yoke of the Jehovah's Witnesses, once removed, and a family I was ill-prepared to feed, clothe, or diminish that ridiculous notion that shibboleth shell games were all that mattered in a book so heavily translated and re-translated that no pretty monkey could ever come clean with the notion of theological typing again. Anxious for something else altogether, I hungered after something of a higher or lower caliber; it didn't matter, so Jehovah God (her phrasing) and I parted company for those three years as I sunk into a calculated misery with an initial declination of 180.
At age sixteen, Zukofsky entered Columbia University, where he wrote for and helped edit various student literary magazines. He identified with the literary avant garde (as represented especially by James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot) that saw itself as an elite committed to a revolutionary assault upon a dead bourgeois culture.
Zukofsky's first major poetic work, "Poem Beginning 'The,'" written in 1926 and published in Exile in 1928, demonstrates his commitment to a modernist poetic. "The poem's obvious predecessor," said Barry Ahearn in Zukofsky's "A": An Introduction, "is T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land.' In an attempt to surpass Eliot, Zukofsky pushes formal details to an excessive, but liberating, limit." "Poem Beginning 'The'" cultivates a tone of Eliot-like irony, as the poet tries to mediate between the insistently alien, Jewish particulars of his experience and an aspiration toward a broader American, "English," vaguely Christian culture.
If "Poem Beginning 'The'" resonates with echoes of Eliot, Zukofsky soon abandoned Eliot for Ezra Pound, who was at once more approachable and more overpowering. Pound's warm response to "Poem Beginning 'The'" led to a flurry of letters between the two men, and Zukofsky eventually visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy. Pound gave Zukofsky's poetic career an important boost by urging Poetry editor Harriet Monroe to appoint the young New Yorker as guest editor of a special issue devoted to new English and American poets.
For this Poetry issue Zukofsky invented the name "objectivists" to describe himself and the other poetsincluding Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting whose work he liked. (Zukofsky, however, never used the term "objectivism" and never claimed to be the leader of a movement named "objectivism.") Most of these objectivists also appeared in Zukofsky's An "Objectivists" Anthology, where they were joined by Pound and even Eliot.
The core group of Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Bunting, Oppen, Rakosi, and Niedecker eventually cohered into something approaching a movement, with Zukofsky established as both the principal theorist andâ€”until World War IIâ€”the most diligent critic of and advocate for the poetry of his friends.
Objectivist verse owed a great deal to imagism. Indeed, in his preface to An "Objectivists" Anthology Zukofsky quoted Pound's 1912 Imagist credo: "direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective." But in two respects objectivist poetry went beyond imagism. First, unlike such imagists as Amy Lowell, most of the objectivists were unwilling to treat the poem simply as a transparent window through which one could perceive the objects of the world.
Rather the objectivists wanted, as Zukofsky declared in his Poetry essay "Sincerity and Objectification," to see the "poem as object," calling attention to itself by, for example, deliberate syntactic fragmentation and by line breaks that disrupt normal speech rhythm.
Second, following Pound's poetic practice of the 1920s, the objectivist poets were at least as much interested in historic particulars as they were in immediate sensory images. All the objectivists shared Pound's aspiration to create a "poem containing history"; and Pound's incorporation into his Cantos of various historic documents showed these poets a way of incorporating history into their poems without violating the principle of objectivity.