Born on the Lower East Side in 1904 to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, Louis Zukofsky spent his entire life in New York City, reading and writing and doing as little else as possible. He was abstemious, hypochondriac, a chain-smoker; he cared little for food, took almost no exercise and insisted that the windows of his apartment be shut tight at all times: he was very susceptible to draughts. At 35 he married a Jewish pianist and composer called Celia Thaew, whom he had met six years before while supervising a Work Projects Administration programme. She had had a copy of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain at the corner of her desk, which she had bought so she’d have something to read on the long subway ride to and from work. The couple had a son, Paul, in 1943, a musical prodigy and now a well-known violinist and conductor.
Over the course of his long writing life Zukofsky produced several volumes of lyric poetry, a good deal of it splendidly musical, spare and challenging. It’s hard to determine what any given poem is about, however; Zukofsky’s work is resistant to that sort of reading, and he held that the meaning was embedded in the sound. Kenneth Rexroth, reviewing Some Time in 1956, wrote that the poems were ‘exercises in absolute clarification, crystal cabinets full of air and angels’. Here, in the first half of a poem for the two-year-old Paul, Zukofsky seems to have had Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’ in mind:
Is your content
My sight or hold
Or your small air
That lights and trysts?
Red alder berry
Will singly break;
But you – how slight – do:
So that even
A lover exists.
As well as shorter lyrics Zukofsky wrote an 800-page poem entitled A. He also wrote book-length studies of Apollinaire and Shakespeare, the latter including Celia’s 232-page musical setting of Pericles. The first 450 pages or so of the Shakespeare book consist almost exclusively of quotations, from the plays themselves and from the writings of scores of philosophers, physicists, painters, poets, religious figures, you name it, based loosely on Zukofsky’s notion that ‘Love is to reason as the eyes are to the mind.’ There was a teaching anthology in 1948, A Test of Poetry, very close in format to Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, which placed poems from different eras side by side and evaluated them by measuring ‘sight, sound and intellection’. Any poem can only be improved by reading it, as is also true of Pound’s book. He also wrote critical essays and a book’s worth of fiction that is slight and mannered, but playful, charming, and at moments brilliant. With Celia he produced a translation of Catullus in 1961 which ‘follows the sound rhythm and syntax of his Latin – tries, as is said, to breathe the “literal” meaning with him’. It fails to do this, but is nevertheless Zukofsky’s greatest achievement and, intermittently, one of the most idiosyncratic and memorable translations in English. Here’s a patch:
What demented malice, my silly Ravidus,
Eggs your pricked conceit into my iambics?
What god not too benign that you invoked would
care dream your parrot’s skit of ire and ruckus?
And it wants to purr in the public vulva?
What wish to live it up, be noticed – apt as
air is, squandering in my love’s amorous
vice longer than you wished it, marred but poignant.
Catullus’ carnality makes a good foil for the severe, involuted and cerebral quality of much of Zukofsky’s own poetry.
Zukofsky, like Charles Olson and Jeremy Prynne, is a monstre sacré: his reputation precludes any serious discussion of individual pieces of work. The project is the thing, not a particular piece of writing. How we feel about Zukofsky is affected by how we feel about difficulty, a quality greatly valued by what was once called the avant-garde. Zukofsky is difficult, usually if not always. Another problem in assessing his achievement is that his major work, A, is an unholy mess, an extraordinarily complex, often brilliant and heroic mess, but a mess.
By no means all of A is difficult or obscure, however. There’s a fair bit of prosaic reportage, even actual newspaper items are reproduced; a large proportion is quotation, another large proportion translation. ‘A-12’, which is longer than the previous 11 sections combined, includes, inexplicably, perhaps sentimentally, seven pages of letters from a dopey family friend written while in the army in 1951. Then there’s ‘A-9’, which consists of two canzones, written ten years apart, modelled on Cavalcanti’s poem ‘Donna mi priegha’. The first canzone, using Cavalcanti’s end rhymes, explains Marx’s labour theory of value, using phrases from Das Kapital. The sounds ‘n’ and ‘r’ are distributed throughout ‘according to the formula for a conic section’: ‘i.e. the ratio of the accelerations of two sounds (r, n) has been made equal to the ratio of the accelerations of the co-ordinates (x, y) of a particle moving in a circular path with a uniform angular velocity.’ Zukofsky seemed to enjoy such technical challenges and then solving them. To what end this serves the poetry is not necessarily an impertinent question: the purpose of the difficulty is partly the amusement of the poet. The second canzone, a rewriting of the first canzone using the same distribution of ‘n’s and ‘r’s and the same Cavalcanti rhyme scheme, gives a Spinozan definition of love, using language from his Ethics.
‘A-14’, as Mark Scroggins puts it, ‘begins with yet another meditation on the space programme, then shifts through a dizzying array of Zukofskyan source texts … translitered passages from the Psalms’ Hebrew, bits of a biography of Bach, some smatterings of Montaigne, and – most strikingly – a run of 57 continuous stanzas distilled from Milton’s Paradise Lost’, which Zukofsky boiled down from the original 12 books of the poem. These passages, the ‘meat’ of the poem, are spread out in six-word stanzas over six pages of ‘A-14’. There are also passages from Heart of Darkness and allusions to the May 1963 marches in Birmingham, Alabama and the September bombing of a Baptist church in which four black children were killed. Then there are the semantically dense clusters, like this one from ‘A-23’:
Cue in new – old quantities – ‘Don’t
Bother me’ – Bach quieted bothered;
Since Eden gardens labour, For
series distributes harmonies, attraction Governs
destinies. Histories dye the street:
intimate whispers magnanimity flourishes: doubts’
passionate Judgment, passion the task.
Kalenderes enlumined 21-2-3, nigher … fire –
Land or – sea, air – gathered.
Not long after his death in 1978, Zukofsky was taken up by a group of young writers who referred to themselves as the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. The work of this group was always wrapped in self-justifying, crudely fashioned, post-structuralist commentary, and emphasised indeterminism, resistance to figuration, narrative, subject-matter, verbal music, imagery or any pleasure that might be associated with poetry, pleasure which they believed pandered to bourgeois capitalism. They thought of themselves as Marxists (as Zukofsky had thought of himself early on), and were intent on challenging the convention of how a poem is read, by generating reams of unreadable poetry and supplementary text. Their real (and amusing) precursors were not Zukofsky or Gertrude Stein, who were, in fact, signifying up a storm, no matter how bewilderingly, but the more anarchical Dada poets along with the Surrealists and their experiments in automatic writing. But no matter: Zukofsky would do, and since he had been architect and chief theorist of an earlier movement, the Objectivists, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E group pushed hard to position itself as the Objectivists’ legitimate and natural heir.
Zukofsky edited a special Objectivist feature for Harriet Munro’s Poetry magazine in 1931. He had been roped into the project by Ezra Pound and then compelled to come up with some sort of manifesto. He did so, but it was largely irrelevant and silly – ‘In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations’ – and later disowned by Zukofsky, who regretted the business for the rest of his life. One of the poets included in the Poetry gathering, Basil Bunting, a lifelong friend and admirer of Zukofsky who never considered himself an Objectivist or had any interest in the other Objectivists, was so exercised by the theoretical nonsense of his friend’s manifesto that he published an ‘Open Letter’ to Zukofsky in a Rapallo weekly newspaper, which is reproduced in the Scroggins biography:
If I buy a hat I am content that it should fit, be impermeable, of good texture, and of colour and cut not outrageously out of fashion. If I am a hatmaker I seek instruction in a series of limited practical operations ending in the production of a hat with the least possible waste of effort and expense. I NEVER want a philosophy of hats, a metaphysical idea of Hat in the abstract, nor in any case a great deal of talk about hats.
Carl Rakosi, the one Objectivist poet still alive and lucid at the time of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E group’s appropriation, protested vigorously, as did an older generation of advocates such as Robert Duncan, whose work was heavily influenced by Zukofsky and who resented what he felt was brazen opportunism and a fundamental misreading of the poetry. There was quite a noisy back and forth for a while – great fun really. Scroggins discusses all this in a sketchy, gently scolding (towards Duncan), unsatisfactory way. Regardless, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E folks carried the day and when the Library of America recently published Zukofsky’s Selected Poems, Charles Bernstein, one of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, was chosen as the editor. This means that much of Zukofsky’s current reputation is based on a questionable reading of the work.
Modernist critics such as Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport and Kenneth Cox were earlier advocates and all wrote with enthusiasm and insight about Zukofsky, all three regarding him as the pre-eminent American poet born in the 20th century, although Cox later changed his mind. Donald Davie, if not quite so enthusiastic, admired Zukofsky’s shorter poems, their music and their 17th-century echoes, of Charles Sedley especially, but also noted Zukofsky’s debt to Williams and Pound, particularly Pound.
Zukofsky didn’t discount his enormous debt to Pound, even if he felt he had superseded Pound’s achievement. He had begun corresponding with Pound after submitting his ‘Poem Beginning “The”’ to Pound’s new periodical Exile in 1927. Zukofsky was 23 at the time, Pound 41 and living in Rapallo. The poem was Zukofsky’s first serious experimental or Modernist effort and Pound liked it straightaway, very much. Two aspects of this longish poem presage Zukofsky’s mature style: the highlighting of the definite article in the title; and the way the text consists almost entirely of quotations from other writers mixed in with Zukofsky’s own work.
Pound and Zukofsky’s long correspondence was clearly stimulating to both men, with Zukofsky holding to Pound’s notion that the poet must ‘compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome’, while seeing precision, clarity and economy of language as principal virtues. He would take the idea of economy to a radical extreme, and it is this, along with the scrambling of syntax and confusion of parts of speech, that makes for most of the difficulty in his work – this attempt to fold the universe into a matchbox, as Kenner somewhere puts it.
Zukofsky’s letters to Pound, though argumentative at times, tend to be fawning and do not always make for easy reading, especially at the height of Pound’s anti-semitism. Zukofsky had a strange, rather conflicted relationship with his own Jewishness. The youngest son of an Orthodox father who seldom saw his son between his two jobs and the synagogue, he was not a practising Jew as an adult, nor was his wife, who was also from an Orthodox background. He never hid his Jewishness, though: it comes up again and again in the work. For Zukofsky, Pound’s anti-semitism was a disagreeable aberration in an otherwise brilliant, generous and enlightened man and he tended to shrug it off. His friend Bunting could not. (The two met in 1930 in New York at the urging of Pound and became fast friends.) When in 1938 Zukofsky showed Bunting a letter Pound had sent him, blaming Nazi anti-semitism on the ‘buggering vendetta of the shitten Rothschild which has run for 150 years and is now flopping back on Jewry at large’, Bunting wrote to Pound: ‘Every anti-semitism, anti-niggerism, anti-moorism, that I can recall in history was base, had its foundations in the meanest kind of envy and in greed. It makes me sick to see you covering yourself with that filth … To spew out anti-semitic bile in a letter to Louis … is uncommonly close to what has got to be called the behaviour of the skunk.’ Pound told Zukofsky there had been a ‘Lot of hot steam from Bzl’. Zukofsky wrote back, more or less apologising for his friend’s outburst. Soon afterwards Bunting broke off relations with Pound, not only because of his anti-semitism but also his embrace of Mussolini.
Scroggins doesn’t shrink from this episode and one catches glimpses throughout the book of mildly unbecoming aspects of Zukofsky’s character, as one might of anyone’s character over 500 pages, but these remain only glimpses. And there are egregious omissions in a book that is clotted with detail and the dreariest sorts of coming and going. Among the most inexplicable omissions is any serious treatment of the forty-year-long friendship between Zukofsky and Bunting, most of it in the form of correspondence. Bunting’s end of the correspondence, at least a good part of it, is available at the University of Texas, but Scroggins makes paltry use of it.
Zukofsky and Bunting’s poetic aims remained very close throughout, and Bunting thought his friend easily the most important poet of his generation and, in the introduction to his own Collected Poems, after citing the influences of ‘poets long dead’, writes: ‘but two living men also taught me much: Ezra Pound and in his sterner, stonier way, Louis Zukofsky. It would not be fitting to collect my poems without mentioning them.’ Zukofsky would have agreed with Bunting about his own importance and influence: it is unclear whether Bunting had the same influence on him.
More peculiar still is the almost complete absence of Lorine Niedecker in this biography, except in an appendix at the end of the book, which is there to argue against the notion that she had an affair with Zukofsky. The Niedecker side of their correspondence (heavily edited by Niedecker at Zukofsky’s insistence) has been published, and is a remarkable record of thoughts on literature, nature, place and poetic development, even in its severely altered form.Niedecker’s letters also find their way into Zukofsky’s work, directly and indirectly, in A. Their friendship began with Niedecker as acolyte and protégée, but over time she became quite as important to Zukofsky as he was to her. The two almost certainly did have an affair, one which resulted in a pregnancy and an abortion. This is of no great importance, but the literary friendship is of central importance in Zukofsky’s life and writings, and in American letters. It’s unclear why Scroggins fails to take it seriously and why he finds it necessary to deny so vehemently that the two had an affair. Celia has been dead since 1980.
Nor is the relationship between Celia and Louis Zukofsky examined except in the most superficial detail. One is given almost no sense of her character. In Scroggins’s telling, no one in the book, Zukofsky included, seems to have a psychological or inner life. They were, at the very least, complicated characters. If there is a major theme in Zukofsky’s work, it is his domestic life with Celia and Paul. Celia and Louis had a close marriage: Louis, apparently, wouldn’t even speak on the telephone without Celia present. It was also the only significant collaborative relationship that comes to mind between an important poet and his spouse. Celia set much of her husband’s poetry to music, these settings appearing with the poetry in book form, and was responsible for the 237-page ‘L.Z. Masque’, a ‘five-part score – music, thought, drama, story, poem’ – set to Handel’s ‘Harpsichord Pieces’, which constitutes one voice, the other four being arrangements of bits and pieces from Louis’s various writings. It was composed as a present for Louis, and he decided to make it the final movement of A. It is no less confounding or strange than the rest of the poem, and wonderful in concept and gesture, however unapproachable or difficult to perform.
Rather than read Scroggins, anyone interested in Zukofsky’s life should read the interview with Celia conducted by Carroll Terrell not long after Zukofsky’s death, which appears in Terrell’s Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Celia comes across as very smart, a bit stubborn and droll, like her husband, understated and steadfast, determinedly so as regards her husband’s reputation. She is clearly someone out of the ordinary.
Zukofsky would have been next to useless away from his books and desk, and not easy to live with, especially in later life when the years of neglect seem to have got to him. In ‘A-12’ Zukofsky addresses Celia as ‘My one reader/Who types me’. Of herself and her role in Zukofsky’s life, Celia says this in her interview with Terrell:
I always worked closely with Louis, but I always felt his literary friends were his, and I’d rather mind my own business, stay out of the picture. I think most people always have a feeling that one, either I knew nothing about it or two, I was Louis’s housekeeper. I prefer to go into the kitchen and make the coffee and serve it though I was very aware, very knowledgeable about what he was doing.
Zukofsky and Celia produced a lovely little book in 1970 titled Autobiography, 63 pages long, consisting, according to Zukofsky, of 18 (I count 15) short lyric poems written between 1931 and 1952, with 22 musical settings by Celia, and five brief autobiographical prose fragments. There are two epigraphs at the front of the book, the first from Zukofsky’s novella Little, about a very young violin prodigy, based on Paul: ‘I too have been charged with obscurity, tho it’s a case of listeners wanting to know too much about me, more than the words say.’ The other reads: ‘As a poet I have always felt that the work says all there needs to be said of one’s life.’
Scroggins asserts, not unreasonably, that Zukofsky’s reputation rest with A. Similarly, Pound’s reputation rests with The Cantos, another 800-page poem that doesn’t cohere or succeed on its own terms, though it is a boundlessly more interesting poem than A. As Bunting put it in an interview not long before he died, speaking of both poems, their size and composition over 45 years: ‘in a changing world the long poem is impossible because the world has changed and you’ve changed because you have to face that world.’ What makes Zukofsky and Pound important is their shorter poetry and translations; this is where their influence is vast in Pound’s case, smaller but significant in Zukofsky’s.
Zukofsky has the non-native speaker’s fascination with the English language. He is interested in words as self-enclosed, individual entities within a poem, objects unto themselves, as he would put it. He has the Talmudic scholar’s zeal in running any given word, especially small neutral ones like ‘a’, ‘the’ and ‘all’ (All is the title of an earlier edition of Zukofsky’s collected shorter poems), through every conceivable permutation: semantic, phonological, morphological, even graphical, and not just the word itself but its constituent parts, and the entire range of valencies possible in the relation to the words and sounds around it. A has an index of words at the back, which is curious enough, but originally the index was to contain only the words a, an and the. Kenneth Cox wrote that ‘Zukofsky’s exploration of language looks like a child’s exploration of a new toy: heedless or ignorant of its original function, fascinated by a number of other possibilities, eager to test them.’
Cox, perhaps Zukofsky’s closest and most appreciative reader, changed his mind about the work near the end of his own life. It was a highly unusual and extreme reversal. ‘What is lacking is afflatus,’ Cox wrote of Zukofsky’s work, ‘the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved in the memory. Assiduous industry and cautious calculation do not replace creative energy, they point up its absence.’ This is a harsh appraisal, and not in every instance justified, but I find it difficult to argue with finally.