A review of Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry
Lorine Niedecker


Originally published in Madison's Capital Times on 18 December 1948 in the "Books of Today" column edited by August Derleth. Reproduced by permission / (c) Cid Corman, literary executor for Lorine Niedecker. Page edited by Jenny Penberthy and typeset by Patrick F. Durgin May, 2002.


Zukofsky's arrangement is as clean in form as its criticism and the good examples of poetry it offers. It is appraised correctly on the jacket of the book by Clifton Fadiman, Mark Van Doren and William Carlos Williams. Distilled excellence, rich portions from the poets from Homer thru the present, some of these difficult -- poetry is not soft -- supported by Zukofsky's precise interpretive remarks. "The lines of poetry of great emotional significance in any age are rare. To obtain, therefore, an accurate criticism of them and of the lesser work which surrounds them, reading should not shun analysis." To read for pleasure, that is the aim here. Poetry out of the "living processes" of everyday and from there "to always another phase of existence" -- the world needs it.

What makes certain lines of poetry good and others not so good? Part II, the pivot for the entire book, begins so far as Zukofsky's remarks are concerned: "A simple order of speech is an asset in poetry." Next, in that section, regarding William Morris' roundabout translation of Homer: "He is piling it on thin." And we're off. Parts I and III offer more examples of good poetry, but without comment or authors' signatures -- to add to the zest of a lovely game. A turn to the chronological chart shows the full use of an index with titles, authors, dates when supplemented by standards such as "content," "emotion," "inevitability," "measure." A book for the general sensitive reader -- in classroom and out.

Zukofsky is moved, of course, by certain perceptions: the exact word; any word a poetic word "if used in the right order, with the right cadence, with a definite aim in view"; "song, one of the mainsprings of poetry"; a poem: "an emotional object" close to the people and their experiences, i.e., the source, something to put your hands on as against metaphysical rockers; "in any age" . . . "The lasting attraction in the words of a poem and its construction make it classic and contemporary at the same time."

In this day of adding machines in bookshop windows, or comic greeting cards, the surface tilt, the armed avoidance of quiet, of deep satisfaction, this book is printed. The book could be bigger -- the reader can make it so. Omissions -- at first glance -- until one realizes that it is more than an anthology.