Louis Zukofsky, Poet

24 Oct


Poet Louis Zukof­sky (1904–1978)


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 Sawyer—with 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.

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.
In his brief Auto­bi­og­ra­phy Zukof­sky report­ed how he began to appro­pri­ate the her­itage of West­ern lit­er­a­ture, first in Yid­dish and then in Eng­lish: “My first expo­sure to let­ters at the age of four was thru the Yid­dish the­aters.… By the age of nine I had seen a good deal of Shake­speare, Ibsen, Strind­berg and Tol­stoy performed—all in Yid­dish. Even Longfel­low’s Hiawatha was to begin with read by me in Yid­dish, as was Aeschy­lus’ Prometheus Bound.… By eleven I was writ­ing poet­ry in Eng­lish, as yet not ‘Amer­i­can Eng­lish.’ ”

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.


Zukof­sky, as usu­al

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 poets—including 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 and—until World War II—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.

Read it all.

© 2010 — 2013, Gabriel Thy. All rights reserved.

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