Showing posts with label Zukofsky. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zukofsky. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Robert Creeley & Louis Zukofsky
having a chat
in 1961

(being a link to the recording
on the PennSound Zukofsky page)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I make use of a lot of bots, automated web tools and searches that bring me things in which I might be interested. For example, a good percentage of the various overseas web stories about poetry I sometimes link to here come from a daily search of all news items tracked by Google. Once you peel off the clichéd pieces that seem to pockmark the world’s media – Local Author’s Work Accepted for New Anthology (almost invariably one of the vanity press publications that Gary Sullivan was targeting when he first invented flarf) – and the usual gaggle of book reviews (it is startling just how few newspapers bother to get decent writers for their reviews of poetry), a significant portion of what remains will give you a perspective on the world of poetry you might not otherwise come up with on your own.

Likewise I have standing “keyword” searches on eBay & elsewhere for work by writers & musicians in whom I have an interest. It was in that connection a couple of weeks back that I came across a Louis Zukofsky item that I had never before seen firsthand, and at a price that was notably lower than any of the copies listed as available on The item, Zukofsky’s Found Objects, is a chapbook issued in 1962 by H.B. Chapin as Blue Grass no. 3  from Georgetown, Kentucky.

The subtitle of the book, 1962-1926, offers a sense of its organization, reverse chronological order, something I think I’ve seen elsewhere only in Early Days Yet, the collected poems of Allen Curnow, the late (& definitely great) New Zealand poet. It’s a slim volume, just 44 pages, only eleven poems, tho the poems include “Mantis” and “Poem Beginning ‘The’” among them. At the time, only one of the poems here, “The Ways,” had not yet appeared in any book. The “book of origin” for every other poem here is duly noted at the end of each text. (But, in the Johns Hopkins edition of Zukofsky’s Collected Short Poetry, Found Objects is not credited as the source book for this poem, but rather After I’s.) Typed rather than typeset, Found Objects reflects a particular moment in Zukofsky’s career, the instant before he becomes – after four decades of work – widely read & influential.

Like all of the Objectivists, Zukofsky went through a “quiet period,” going ten years between books between 1946 and 1956. This hiatus echoes – it’s what a financial analyst would characterize as a “trailing indicator” – the eight year break Zukofsky took from the composition of “A” between 1940 and ’48. Other Objectivists, including Carl Rakosi, George Oppen & Basil Bunting, all went through even deeper periods of silence & non-writing. At the time Zukofsky “went dark” publishing, he had had just three real books, his curious critical tome Le Style Apollinaire; 55 Poems, published in 1941, a good 13 years editing the Objectivist issue of Poetry, and Anew, published in 1946.

The seeds of Zukofsky’s eventual success lay in some typed pages of his poetry – this was literally pre-Xerox – that Robert Duncan took with him to Majorca in the early 1950s where he shared them, and his boundless enthusiasm, with new acquaintance Robert Creeley. By 1954, both had gone to teach at Black Mountain & were actively promoting Zukofsky and his writing to almost anyone who would sit still & listen. It was, in fact, one of the Black Mountain students, Jonathan Williams, who would publish the book, Some Time, that would return Zukofsky to print in 1956. But it is worth noting that Williams’ Jargon Press did so with just 300 copies hors commerce, plus another 50 copies numbered and signed.

Zukofsky’s two books in the 1940s, 55 Poems, published in 1941, and Anew, published in ’46, had at least been published by one of the more prolific publishers of poetry in the United States, James Decker of Prairie City, Illinois. Virtually unknown today¹, Decker was the Sun & Moon of its generation, publishing August Derleth, William Everson, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Henri Ford, Norman MacLeod, Edgar Lee Masters, Clark Mills, Edouard Roditi, Selwyn Schwartz, David Ignatow, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth & Parker Tyler in addition to a magazine & several anthologies during its 13-year run as a press.

Zukofsky’s first book with the press went through several bindings, if not multiple print runs, and thus probably got more visibility and distribution than Some Time received 15 years later. Indeed, Barely and Widely, Zukofsky’s next collection, printed in 1958, probably his best known volume prior to the publication of his collected short poems under the title All and the emerging publication of “A,was functionally self-published – the publisher is listed as Celia Zukofsky – again with an entire press run of just 300 copies.

If Zukofsky couldn’t get his poetry to stay in print, he could at least recycle poems in chapbooks to keep his work in front of readers. In 1962, two years before Found Objects, Celia edited a collection called 16 Once Published, containing works from Anew, Some Time, 55 Poems & Barely and Widely, published by the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn press. It wasn’t until 1965, when “A” 1-12, which had been initially done in a limited edition by Black Mountain fellow traveler Cid Corman in 1959, was reprinted in the U.K., and then Denise Levertov (again a friend of Creeley & especially Duncan) brought out All in two volumes from Norton, that Zukofsky’s poetry finally became widely available (if barely understood).

Found Objects needs to be read in the context of this history, and its simple production values suggests that this volume had a limited distribution, at best. Zukofsky himself, tho, who once proposed a “scientific” definition of poetry, would be the first to disagree. His introduction to Found Objects reads as follows:

With the years the personal prescriptions for one’s work recede, thankfully, before an interest that nature as creator had more of a hand in it than one was aware. The work then owns perhaps something of the look of found objects in late exhibits – which strange themselves as it were, one object near another – roots that have become sculpture, wood that appears talisman, and so on: charms, amulets maybe, but never really such things since the struggles so to speak that made them do not seem to have been human trials and evils – they appear entirely natural. Their chronology is of interest only to those who analyse carbon fractions etc., who love historicity – and since they too, considering nature as creator, are no doubt right in their curiosity – and one has never wished to offend anyone – the dates of composition of  the poems in this book and their out-of-print provenance are for them, not for the poets.


¹ Decker’s press had a tragic history. After sinking an initial investment into the press, Decker and his sister Dorothy were able to publish books at first using the revenues from their earlier books, in part by continuing to live with their parents. By the end of World War 2, however, authors were being asked to help subsidize their volumes by buying in advance as much as half of the print runs. Decker eventually sold the press to one of his authors, E.H. Tax, staying on as an employee. A year later, however, Tax discovered irregularities in the books & dismissed Decker, who then left town with his parents, leaving Dorothy to work with Tax. In 1950, however, she shot & killed Tax before committing suicide.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Julia’s Wild

Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come shadow shadow, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, come shadow, and take this shadow up,
Come, come and shadow, take this shadow up,
Come, up, come shadow and take this shadow,
And up, come, take shadow, come this shadow,
And up, come, come shadow, take this shadow,
And come shadow, come up, take this shadow,
Come up, come shadow this, and take shadow,
Up, shadow this, come and take shadow, come
Shadow this, take and come up shadow, come
Take and come, shadow, come up, shadow this,
Up, come and take shadow, come this shadow,
Come up, take shadow, and come this shadow,
Come and take shadow, come up this shadow,
Shadow, shadow come, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, take, and come this shadow, up,
Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up.

One of just two poems in the new Zukofsky Selected Poems not to have appeared before in any collection of his poetry, “Julia’s Wild” is the closest the poet came to a pure poetics of the signifier, the same line taken from Act IV, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona turned 19 different ways over a space of 20 lines.¹ It’s worth noting the full sentence from which Cid Corman first took this quotation & fed it to Zukofsky:

Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,
For 'tis thy rival.

Julia, Proteus’ betrothed, has, unbeknownst to him, followed her fiancé disguised as a young man only to discover him chasing after Sylvia, his best friend Valentine’s love. In this scene, Julia, has just exchanged a ring Proteus gave her – the same one she earlier gave to him before he set out from Verona – as a token to Sylvia in return for a picture. In the line as originally written, Julia directs the first shadow at herself – she is both disguised & here quite deflated at her lover’s inconstancy – the second at the portrait.

This is not the only moment in Verona, where the Shakespearean formula that Zukofsky finds everywhere in the bard’s labors, love is to reason as eyes are to the mind, suggests a clear downside. Later in the play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, Proteus will in fact attempt to force himself upon the unwilling Sylvia, only to be stopped by Valentine. Yet when Proteus apologizes to Valentine, it is Valentine who willingly gives his lover over to his friend:

that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee

This is perhaps the strangest end to a rape scene in all of English literature. And it is interrupted solely by the cry of the disguised Julia, who now gives Proteus the ring that he had exchanged with her before departing Verona. The instant the deceit is undone & Julia revealed, Proteus’ desire shifts course:

Inconstancy falls-off, ere it begins:
What is in Silvia's face, but I may spy
More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye?

At this moment, all treachery is forgotten, as though it had never happened. Valentine rebukes Thurio’s own attempt to woo Julia, the duke forgives Valentine &, in turn, lifts the banishment on his now suddenly reformed gang of outlaws.

The corollary of Zukofsky’s formula, it would seem, must be out of sight, out of mind. It’s ultimately acceptable for Proteus to rape his friend’s beloved so long as both friend & his own betrothed are out of view. Sylvia may protest Proteus’ initial assault, but she’s silent when Valentine bequeaths her back to Proteus. Seeing the offer transforms the act from the theft of her chastity to its mere exchange. It is Julia the unseen who is forced to protest – she’s not taken into account because she is in disguise. If, in fact, she were not there, it’s not clear what would then ensue. But, once revealed, the shift from this sex-as-chattel to Julia’s declaration that “I have my wish forever” takes less than 40 lines. All exeunt in the direction of a double wedding.

So, conceding for the sake of argument that Zukofsky may be correct about the centrality of sight in the work of Shakespeare, what precisely is the value of his formula, Love is to reason as are eyes to the mind? It’s the unvoiced question at the bottom of Bottom. And it’s not clear ultimately what Zukofsky’s answer would be.


¹ The first & 19th lines are identical.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

This is a coda to yesterday’s note on the idea of books as representation. It’s also a follow-up to my complaint back on the comment stream for May 12 that Le Style Apollinaire is “the great missing element in every LZ study I've ever read.” The reason, I think, is simple: of all Zukofsky works, with maybe the exception of WPA folk-art material, it has been the least available, the least known, the least read. The edition finally published last year by Wesleyan under the title of The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire demonstrates why. Of all Zukofsky texts, including the homophonic translation of Catullus, Apollinaire proves the hardest to read. Then there is the question of how best to situate it within the framework of Zukofsky studies overall. Here, to give a sense of the flavor of it all, is the very first sentence, opening a section entitled “Le Flâneur”:

“Le flâneur de deux rives” who visited “le plus rarement possible dans les grand bibliothèques” and liked “mieux (se) promener sur le quais cette délicieuse bibliothèques publique” listened receptively and wrote down the words of a singularly mindful reader of his acquaintance:

This pastiche of English & French is nobly translated by Serge Gavronsky – just possibly the only translator I can think of with whom I would have trusted this text – as follows:

“The stroller of both banks” qui n’allait “as rarely as possible to the great libraries” et aimaitmieux (se) promener” along the quays, that delightful public library,” savait aussi prêter l’oreille:il a note les paroles d’un lecteur de sa connaisance singulièrement observateur:

Were it all in English, perhaps it might read:

The stroller of both banks who visited as rarely as possible to the great libraries and liked better (to) walk along the quays, that delightful public library, listened receptively and wrote down the words of a singularly mindful reader of his acquaintance:

Given that my own French borders on non-existent, I’m guessing a little there. Still, it would seem to me to be a deliberately resistant syntax even had it been monolingual. Hopscotching for no apparent reason from one language to the other only renders it that much more opaque. This is followed by a lengthy paragraph entirely in French in the spirit of Apollinaire’s “Le Flâneur des deux rives” but describing instead Zukofsky’s own experiences trying to find contemporary French volumes in the Carnegie Library, where they were often stolen due to poor stock control vs. the far richer collection of Yiddish literature at the 14th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The section then concludes with a short passage, this time in English:

Years after the War, following the shadow of the flâneur’s seeming divagations, his three books Il y a, L’Hérésiarque & Cie, and Calligrammes disappeared from the “Bibliothèque Carnegie” for several months, and after that passage were again available for public use.

The passage is dated “New York, March 14, 1932.” One can only imagine what a man like Zukofsky, who later in life is said to have kept every publication in its own separate plastic envelope, must have thought of theft & the chaos of a public library. But if it is Zukofsky speaking here, albeit through a filter of dueling tongues, who then is “Le flâneur de deux rives” to whom this is addressed? Guillaume Apollinaire, dead 13 years in 1932, or perhaps René Taupin, Zukofsky’s collaborator on this booklength critical project?

How one answers that question will set up to some degree just how one reads this work. And here is the conundrum: if the language of this passage (and this book) is not stable, neither is its sense of authorship, literally its author-ity, and finally its motivation. Gavronsky, in his English language introduction (following a French foreword by Jean Davie), puts a great deal of interpretive weight on a note penned to “an original unique written copy with the initials ‘G.A. & L.Z.” to the effect that “This collaboration was written entirely by L.Z. and the French quotations are also his arrangement. It was subsequently translated by R.T. into French, and the French version was published by Les Presses modernes, Paris, France, 1934.” This would hardly be the last time in the history of the academy where the junior author of a critical collaboration did all of the work, only to find the more established ‘collaborator’ listed first.

Yet this note, Brad Haas points out, is flatly contradicted by letters that Zukofsky sent to Ezra Pound in 1931 & ’32. In these, Zukofsky portrays himself as essentially a ghost-writer, motivated by the $50 per month – a living wage, even if a marginal one, during the Depression – Taupin is paying. The letters suggest that Taupin directed some if not all of the book’s focus, but left it to Zukofsky to get it into Taupin’s style:

Great difficulty of the work is that it must sound as if it came out of one consorted mind – Taupin’s – that is, his next on inspiration & mine must show the same woof of thought…. Net result: writing as an individual handiwork pretty distasteful.

The two letters to Pound, written a year and eight days apart, are quite consistent in presenting Le Style as a job for hire. Still, Zukofsky is adamant that the work entailed was his alone:

No, it’s not René, as you will see when you see his adaptation entirely in French (remarkable what a difference), but it’s L.Z. alright painstakingly obstructing the technique of FLOW.

Haas, who teaches at a Seventh-Day Adventist College in D.C. (where he also matriculated), and who has written usefully before on David Jones & Ronald Johnson, publishing for the most part in Carlo Parcelli & Joe Brennan’s webzine, Flashpoint, presents the contradiction between Gavronsky’s presentation – the work is an integral part of the Zukofsky canon – and LZ’s own to Pound – the work was a “job” – as though it were a scandal, rather than a question of how to represent the project given directly contradictory information. If Gavronsky is to be faulted, it’s for framing the context too simply. But the fuller version yields an irresolvable, and primary, question: Is this portrait a true Zukofsky? Or is it closer to A Useful Art, LZ’s WPA-financed writing on design, clearly a job for hire? One might ask the same of Kafka’s insurance writing, or of Charles Bernstein’s pharmaceutical newsletters in the years before he was hired into the academy. Some of my own handiwork can still be found in the California Penal Code, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think of it as “my writing.”

Gavronsky obviously wants to answer yes with regards to Apollinaire, Haas wants to at least entertain a negative response. The answer ultimately is to be found in the text, not necessarily just in the autobiographical passages – such as when Zukofsky seems to anticipate Benjamin’s elevation of the Baudelarean concept of the flâneur in confessing how he got the materials on which this project was based – as in its methodology, “L.Z. alright painstakingly obstructing the technique of FLOW.” That dimension is unmistakable. But is it possible to have a work that both is & isn’t a part of a poet’s oeuvre? On this point I agree with Einstein’s view: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I don’t think the question of the Apollinaire is an either/or – I think it’s a both/and.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Louis Zukofsky (L) & Jerry Reisman

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

Those two sentences, the opening of John Ashbery’s “The New Spirit,” have been ringing in the back of my imagination of late, not with regards to Ashbery & his work – tho I think Three Poems to be his very best work – but with regards to Louis Zukofsky & the thought experiment of two weeks ago, in which I created a hypothetical Selected Poems that contained roughly one-third of his oeuvre, totaling some (again hypothetical) 427 pages. What if the assignment had been different? What if, instead, I had been given a set number of pages with which to work? Let’s say 150, more or less what the little Library of America (LoA) selected volumes for the likes of Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser et al have had. How would one represent Zukofsky in such a space?

In that first version of a Selected, I allotted “A 265 pages, a bit of a fiction since the UC Press of “A” is set in 9-point type on an 11-point line where Zukofsky’s Complete Short Poetry from Johns Hopkins is set in 11-point type on a 14-point line. Set in the same point size – say the more common 9-on-11 – the short poems would shrink down roughly 20 percent, say 32 pages. What this means in practice is that our earlier version would have set almost exactly two-thirds of its pages aside for “A.

Working with a predetermined page count, I would take basically that same stance, setting 100 pages aside for “A,giving the rest to the short poems. Further, using the Library of America as a model, I would reverse my adjustments for page size in the opposite direction. That is to say, to get to 100 pages in the LoA format, I would have to limit myself to something like just 80 pages of the UC Press version of “A.” My basic premise with regards to that longpoem would be to keep complete sections, but if I choose the one that I think show off Zukofsky at his strongest – 1 through 3, 7, 9, 15 & 16, 22 & 23 – I have ten pages too many and, save for the Poundian opening of the first three numbers, I don’t really include any of the passages in which Zukofsky lets his thinking air out, developmentally. This would be exactly the sort of impossible trade-off that a project like this would entail. If I were to think of the book less as a Selected and more as an introduction to Zukofsky’s work, I might be inclined to go the other way – excising 22 and maybe including some passages (the same material I noted on May 31) from “A” – 12. Yet dropping “A” – 22 would probably cause me to cry myself to sleep that night.

Either way, I’m now going to have to reduce my selections from The Complete Short Poems down to just 42 pages. Twelve of those go immediately to “Poem beginning ‘The’,” leaving me just 30 pages for the remainder of Zukofsky’s career. This is the hardest single part of this project – worse even than choosing between “A” – 22 & excerpts from “A” -12 – because there are two projects, “Mantis” and “Song of Degrees,” that by themselves would take up 15 pages, both of which deserve to be here. Two other sequences or longer poems, “4 Other Countries” and “The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times,” are simply too long to consider. For similar reasons, I would drop all of the poem I love from the sequence “29 Poems,” part of the book 55 Poems that was Zukofsky’s first.

So let’s say that from the “29 Songs” section of that same book, I keep numbers 5 (“It’s a gay li-ife”), 16 (“Crickets’/thickets”) & 22 (“To my wash-stand”), plus “Mantis” & “’Mantis’: An Interpretation” from that first volume. Including “Poem beginning ‘The,’” 55 Poems has 23.5 of my sum of 42 pages for non-“A” work. That’s right, I think, in terms of representing his best work, since some portion of this represents his best work prior to that project while the shorter poems during it tend generally to be more slight.

I could, for example, pack all of Anew down into two pages, including 9 & 10, 20 & 21, 24 & 38. I would include just the first two sections from “Song of Degrees,” the only work I would keep from Some Time, and only the title poem from Barely and Widely, three books reduced to just a little over five pages.

From I’s (pronounced eyes), however, I would include Motet, which here as in the longer selected would be the one piece with a musical score included, “Peri Poietikes,” the title sequence & finally, the lone poem from After I’s, “Atque in Perpetuum A.W.” This is closer to six than to five pages, but with the three previous books, let’s say they all come in at eleven pages total. This leaves me with 7.5 pages remaining for all of Catullus, 80 Flowers & LZ’s final poem, “Gamut.” As I did before, I not going to spell these out here, simply because I haven’t done the homework on those texts that they require. However, here I think I would opt for giving more room to 80 Flowers, and for including “Gamut,” thus reducing Catullus to two or, at most, three pages.

So my table of contents would look something like this:

  • “Poem beginning ‘The’,” sections 5, 16 & 22 from the “29 Songs” section of 55 Poems
  • “A” 1-3, 7
  • “Mantis” & “’Mantis’: An Interpretation”
  • “A” – 9
  • Poems from Anew & Barely and Widely
  • Excerpts from “A” -12
  • Poems from I’s (pronounced eyes), After I’s, &Catullus
  • “A” – 15, 16, 23
  • Poems from 80 Flowers, “Gamut”

That, I think, is a do-able book. It would be, in fact, an introduction to Zukofsky far more than a true Selected, which dampens somewhat the value of printing the works in a rough version of chronological order, but it would still be – Zukofsky’s accomplishment, not that of an editor – an incontestably great book. And, I hope, not one that would have critics howling at “obvious” omissions, such as would happen if I did a similar volume for Ashbery & included nothing from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or the books that immediately followed that while devoting enough pages to Flow Chart to show how that work resists development.

Projects like this I think foreground all the ways in which books transform any writer’s poetry into poems, which from my perspective of always preferring the former to the latter is certainly going to be problematic. We forget, I think, all the ways in which books themselves are representations. That, after all, was the essence of what Jennifer Moxley was noting in her afterword to Often Capital, a concern with how that book might portray, or misportray, the whole of her writing. And it’s the issue ultimately behind the question of Ronald Johnson’s collected works, including Radi Os as published (four sections) vs. as written (nine sections). Not to mention the struggle between the project never completed, WOR(L)DS, and the version that got finished, ARK.

Not long ago, a publisher asked me to review the Complete Poems of an author, a member of the 1950s generation, now deceased. Save for an unpublished manuscript from his college years, the manuscript contained almost nothing that had not appeared in book form previously. I loved the manuscript & told the publisher so, but seriously recommended that they lose the word Complete from the title. The instant that book is published, dozens of other later poems are destined to show up in the manuscripts & correspondence of friends of the poet. Indeed, one of the fun aspects of attending the Zukofsky centennial last year at Columbia consisted precisely of hearing several short poems not contained in the Johns Hopkins Complete Short Poetry.

All of which suggests that in addition to the Complete Collected – an edition that does not yet exist – and reissues of Catullus & 80 Flowers, plus for my money “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, there are at least two, possibly more, selecteds that could easily be justified. Like the old Vietnamese war slogan – One, Two, Three, Many Zukofskys.


¹ Because it’s impossible to demonstrate via excerpts the ways in which Ashbery executes the most vicious parody of the School of Quietude imaginable, which is important historically precisely because the people being ridiculed lapped it up.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Obviously, I think that editing a selected poems for a writer like Louis Zukofsky needs to begin by defining how one approaches the longpoem “A” – not only does it give one a sense of how much room is or might be available for excerpting from the shorter poems, but the process alone should help one to address what I see as a critical question – how to incorporate both the short poems & the lengthy segments of “A into a single, coherent sequence. No poet I can think of has such a disparate relationship between his long works & his short ones. Would one, for example, follow a strictly chronological sequence, interspersing sections of “A” with short poems? Or would one place all of them at the front or back of the book? Basil Bunting, for example, who probably comes closest to LZ in the formal gap between his longer poems and the snippets he called “Odes,” treated the latter almost as if they were an appendix to the primary work. An awful lot of Spicer’s early poetry got treated the same way in the Black Sparrow Collected Books.

But Selecteds are not Collecteds, and presumably nothing would be chosen for a Zukofsky selected that one could imaginably call an “appendix” to anything. My first thought was to keep all of “A” together – but then going through the short poems, I changed my mind. The great pauses & gaps in writing that poem really argue for weaving in the shorter poems. Putting them into this chronological sequence also would give a selected an additional rationale for existing at all – it would be the first book to actually show the interplay of his longpoem with the shorter works.

My instinct here – that really is what it is – would be to keep all of my selections from the short poems through Some Time together before starting “A in the text. Those really are the early works. Then I would run my excerpts from “A” – 1- 12 together. Then I would insert poems from Barely and Widely and I’s (pronounced eyes), following this sequence with my suite of “A” – 13 – 16. This I would follow with excerpts from After I’s, then “A” – 19. I would then insert excerpts from Catullus, followed by “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, then excerpts from 80 Flowers & finally “Gamut,” which I take to be the lone poem completed from the envisioned project LZ was thinking to call 90 Trees.

So which poems, exactly, would I include from these collections?

  • “I Sent Thee Late” – this is the first poem in the Collected Short Poetry, an uncollected piece from 1922, during LZ’s matriculation at Columbia. It’s a schoolboy poem, perhaps, but superb & contains, tucked into its seven lines, so many of the seeds of his formal sensibility.
  • “Poem beginning ‘The’” – also from LZ’s Columbia days, but already a major poem, even if it is a parody of Eliot & “The Waste Land.” With this poem, Zukofsky announced publicly that he was going to be an important poet, ironic & erudite. This was the first poem in LZ’s first collection, 55 Poems (which contained, by my count, 62 poems).
  • From “29 Poems,” the first of two long sequences in that book, I would eight poems (permitting LZ the use of the N word in no. 6 because it isn’t charged with the ideological hatred that I find in the anti-Japanese lines of “A” – 10), numbers 16 & 17, then poems 26, through 29.
  • From “29 Songs,” the second, counter-balancing sequence in that book, I would include numbers 1, 5, 16, 22, 23,27 & 28 – some of Zukofsky’s finest & most well-known short poems are included in this sequence.
  • I would include both “Mantis,” (LZ himself uses the quotation marks) and “'Mantis,' An Interpretation.” As with “Poem beginning ‘The,’” and the prose piece of 28, LZ is showing an early proclivity for poetry that contains a critical dimension – in this, he goes beyond what might be implicit in Pound. These are poems that, of themselves, changed poetry.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that I’ve included 54 pages out of 73 possible. From the 43 poems Zukofsky gathered into Anew, his second book, I would be more circumspect. There are some great poems here, but by now Zukofsky’s best work generally was directed into “A,and the overall quality of this collection reflects that. By the time LZ starts Anew, he has already completed the first seven sections of A,” and by its end, he has completed “A” – 10 & is already midway into the ten-year hiatus that will separate that section from those that would follow it.

  • From Anew, I would include 1, 9, 10, 20, 21, 24, 31, 36 & 38 – depending on the layout, this would come to the most six pages.
  • From Some Time, a volume that partly overlaps with Anew & contains the remainder of the little Zukofsky wrote during the hiatus from “A,” I would include only “que j’ay dit devant,” “To My Valentines,” and the sequence “Songs of Degrees,” ten pages.
  • From Barely and Widely, I would include the title poem, numbers 4 & 8, both being examples of LZ’s use of the valentine, and 11, one of my favorite of his shorter pieces for its uses of found language. Number 12, “4 Other Countries,” is a problematic choice – at 27 pages, it’s one of Zukofsky’s most substantial short poems, which in the economy of a Selected volume can be a minus even as, in poetry, it should be a plus. Let’s say here that I’d include it, but if I got static from a publisher, this (along with the excerpts from “A” – 12) would the first to go. But at 33 pages, Barely and Widely is the volume of the shorter collections mostly thoroughly represented after 55 Poems.
  • I would similarly include a large portion of I’s (pronounced eyes), tho it’s a much shorter volume than Barely and Widely. Included would be “(Ryokan’s Scroll),” “Her Face the Book of – Love Delights in – Praises,” “Motet,” the one piece I would include that contains a score by Celia, “Peri Poietikes,” the book’s title sequence, and “To Friends, For Good Health,” an instance of the deliberately dumb joke as poem (the inspiration, I suspect, for much of Jonathan Williams’ poetry).
  • Selections from After I’s would appear after the most sustained sequence from “A in the collection. Here I would include the first eleven pages, through “The.”

I’m not going to specify which sections I would include either of Catullus, or of 80 Flowers, because I would really need to sit down & read both again closely. Catullus is the only book of Zukofsky’s I’ve ever sold without having a replacement copy in hand – a fit of stupidity on my part occasioned by the fact that when I lived in SF & Berkeley, I had to be ruthless in marshalling how much room was set aside for books (the impact of the cost of real estate on poetry collections). I never owned a copy of 80 Flowers I was using a Xerox of Robert Duncan’s copy until the Complete Short Poetry came out from Johns Hopkins. If I say that my goal would be to include 20 pages of each sequence, it comes with the understanding that this is a demonstrably larger portion of 80 Flowers than it is of Catullus. Both books are excellent examples – as is “A” – 22 & 23 – of volumes that ought to continue in readily available separate volumes, Catullus with the Latin on facing pages as it was in the original edition, 80 Flowers generally accessible as its own book for the very first time. Catullus is historically important, given LZ’s role in the evolution of homophonic translation, although there are passages in “A that also make use of the device. But to my eye 80 Flowers works better as poetry, so I would be happy to include a larger percentage of that volume.

Thus, with “Gamut,” Zukofsky’s final poem, to conclude the book, I would have – it would seem some 427 pages (presuming all pages to be equal, which they wouldn’t be – the UC Press version of “A” using a smaller font than the Johns Hopkins version of the Complete Short Poetry¹). Roughly one-third of Zukofsky’s oeuvre.

Again, published roughly chronologically as such, this is a volume that would serve a purpose, giving readers sense of Zukofsky that they can’t really get from either “A by itself or the Complete Short Poetry. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that these other books shouldn’t continue in print forever or that volumes that deserve their own separate existence (as the three volumes mentioned above do, or even 55 Poems & Barely and Widely) shouldn’t be republished.

Which to my mind proves that if the typical “new & selected” is a volume that almost always didn’t need to exist, a carefully chosen Selected can indeed prove to be an essential book.


¹ Which, I feel compelled to note, is not complete at all, omitting most of Zukofsky’s juvenilia from his days at Columbia, plus other pieces written under pseudonyms. Happily, I’m not aware of any that would deserve to show up in a Selected.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

All weekend I’ve been thinking that there’s an absent third missing between Collecteds & “Books as They Happen” – it’s the case of the Selected. Sometimes even that literary act of category miscegenation, the “New & Selected” (a.k.a “Didn’t write enough new poems for a full book, but wanted/needed to publish one anyway”).

Selecteds are notoriously problematic & there are the horror stories about different ones, such Bob Grenier’s editing of a Creeley Selected that proved too radical for its publisher & was scrapped for something that the publisher thought more of as a Greatest Hits volume. You can find Grenier’s original table of contents in the 1978 Boundary2 issue devoted to Creeley – it would have been a great book.

So I was trying to think about how you might do that. How would one approach the question of thinking it through? I’ve always thought, for example, that my own work wouldn’t lend itself to that form, that you couldn’t intelligibly “excerpt” from these booklength poems that are themselves parts of larger projects. But I wanted to think it through without that double-sided investment of editor/author, so thought about who hasn’t ever had a Selected, and how would I approach their work. Louis Zukofsky. How would I think to edit a Selected works of his poetry?

Even as I’m resistant to the idea that one could/should excerpt from my own poems, I don’t sense that same taboo with his. Is that because it’s not my own work, or because there’s something fundamentally different between his poetry & my own (well, there is, obviously, but besides all of those reasons)?

So what would I pick from “A,” for example? I tend to read “A” not as a continuous whole, but as a series movements:

  • 1 through 6, the opening sequence written very much under the influence of The Cantos
  • 7 through 11, the poems in which LZ first reaches his mature works
  • 12 all by itself, the great WW2 poem, heavily influenced by Paterson
  • 13 also by itself, “partita,” one of LZ’s finest works, as finely tuned a modernist work as exists
  • 14-20, not “formally” the whole of An (that poem-within-the-poem that is a major sequence unto itself), but its gut”
  • 21, “Rudens,” a text I never understood until I saw it performed last year at the Centennial Conference at Columbia, LZ’s lust for Shakespeare’s late fantasies, the weakest section in the entire work¹
  • 22-23, which I think of as “the twins,” the finest writing LZ would ever do
  • 24, Celia’s gift to LZ proved to be closure, or perhaps cloture

Of these, I would include the following:

  • 1 through 3, a brilliant opening, it shows his roots, his indebtedness to Pound & the role of music as a template
  • 6, because it is where LZ really is thinking through the problem of the form of the long poem
  • 7, because it’s a great poem & where LZ really takes leave of his predecessors
  • I love “A” – 8, but realistically, it's too long for a Selected & its involvement with issues of labor, Marx, the question of social movements are all handled more compactly – and more profoundly from a poetic perspective – by the great double-canzone of “A” – 9. “A” – 9 is a must
  • “A” – 10 is the first WW2 poem & not nearly so long as “A” – 14, but in the compact environs of a Selected, I’m caught by the easy, careless (and never redacted) racism of lines like “No slant-eyed devil on stilts,” so I wouldn’t include it, even tho the evocation of a lost Paris is one of the most powerful images of the war from an American poet
  • “A” – 11, a love poem to his wife & son, one of the clearest statements of his theme of family love, one of his finest poems
  • “A” – 12 is both long & problematic from my perspective – this is the only number I would pull excerpts from: the first nine-plus pages up through the stanza on “How does the Czar sleep Nights?” – the section beginning with (big cap) “Blest” and continuing through the passage that starts (also big cap) “Ardent” – the final 11 pages or so, beginning with “These are some things I wanted / to get into a poem” –

Thus after the first 261 pages of the volume, I’ve selected just 70, and if I had to cut back, “A” 12 would be the first to get cut. The second “half,” by which I mean “A - 13-23, is not a whole lot longer, 302 pages, but I would include considerably more from this second half of the volume, which LZ did not begin until nine years after completing 12. The second half where Zukofsky’s greatest work lies.

  • I would include all of “A - 13 through 16, an uninterrupted swath of 114 pages.
  • I love “A” - 17, the coronal for Floss & elegy for her husband William Carlos Williams, but it’s not Zukofsky’s best work, in spite of its embodiment of poetry as community (&, as such, one of the first truly post-avant works) – likewise, I wouldn’t think to include “A” – 18
  • I would include “A” – 19, formally the strongest of the later portions of the 1960s work, a period when, from my reading, LZ’s work was again starting to level off – Zukofsky had a pattern of making enormous strides in his work, followed by longer fallow periods.
  • For those reasons, I wouldn’t include either “A” – 20 or 21, but I would include all of “A” – 22 & 23, written in the early ‘70s after the gift of Celia’s musical montage of 24. These two pieces are Zukofsky’s very best work.

That’s a total of 265 pages taken out of a work that contains over 800 once you fold Celia’s piece in. It would of course be the core of any Selected. But would these excerpts “represent” or at the least not entirely gut “A? My sense is that it wouldn’t, tho I think you could argue for including others, especially 8, 10 & 17 (another 85 pages). That’s where I’d have to start thinking about just how large my Selected would be, and just how adequately I thought to represent the shorter poems.


¹ This is where it becomes clear that Olson’s uses of Shakespeare completely trumps Zukofsky’s.

Saturday, November 30, 2002

Robert Kelly self-published Axon Dendron Tree in 1967 as Salitter / 2, distributed variously through his other small press journal, Matter, as well as the legendary Asphodel Bookshop of Cleveland, Ohio. The stapled 8½ by 14 publication appears to have been mimeographed, a process that would have limited distribution to the approximately 150 copies that could reliably be run off each paper master. The process also partly explains why the 80 page publication was printed only on one side of each page, rendering the volume as thick as a typical 160-page book. The other part of that explanation lies in the stapling – the book is so thick that extra-length staples have been driven in both front & back, but in no instance make it through the entire volume – I have to squeeze them by hand back into place whenever I read from this volume. This is one fragile book. The title – centered on a strip of white paper, 11 inches high but only 2 inches wide – is glued along the left side of the cover’s brown construction paper. The brush strokes of the glue have long since stained through on my copy.* Because of its size, this volume has spent 35 years sitting atop my book cases, never filed within one.

This is an awfully fragile, fugitive publication to argue as one of the defining poetic texts of the 1960s, but it certainly is/was such an event for my 1960s. In fact, it may have proven more so for me than for Kelly, who accords Tree just one six-page excerpt in his selected poems, Red Actions (Black Sparrow, 1995). The differences between the 1967 edition and his 1995 description of it are worth considering.

A note to the reader at the top of the dedication page reads as follows:

Axon Dendron Tree grew out of my reading of that issue of Poetry [October, 1965] wholly & with immense rightness given over to one section of Louis Zukofsky’s A (sic). This poem began swiftly in response & dictated in the first few dozen lines its own formal procedure. To the extent that I had any intention, it was to honor Zukofsky by letting his measure foster a like but different measure in my utterance. The concerns of this poem are its own, and have no bearing on Zukofsky’s there or elsewhere, apart from a few teasing relations.

Kelly discusses Axon Dendron Tree’s formal procedures in the notes at the back of Red Actions:

Axon Dendron Tree. A long poem organized on a numeric structure. Each section consists of 111 unnumbered stanzas; the first section’s stanzas are nine lines each, the second section’s of eight, and so on, diminishing to the last section, 111 one-line stanzas. In my own sense of my work, this is my first real achievement using any sort of compositional grid or organizational principal other than the Local Music, which has always been the self-arising guide of the poem.

The 999 line structure described here is certainly elegant. However, the opening section of Axon Dendron Tree is composed of stanzas of eight lines each, not nine. At least as published in 1967, the poem has 888 lines. Tree begins with, of all things, an image of golf:

& be
on grass
this is
of eighty

in the book
a form
I counted
7 then
8 came

or hard
to render
like boxes
each one
a line
of Wace
his Engels

while Laзamon
his Brut
the augury
of heard

Lazamon – there are multiple ways to spell that name & Kelly picks one of the more difficult to cast into HTML – translated Wace’s own French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin history of Britain, Brut, into alliterative verse around 1190. Henry Wace, however, was a mostly 19th century religious scholar who focused on early Christianity, a topic that also concerned Karl Marx’s collaborator. So Kelly is almost instantly playing with several layers of connotation at once, the discussion of form cast into many directions from which the poet might then proceed. & does.

It’s interesting to contrast Kelly’s programmatic conception of form with that of his model.  Zukofsky’s “A” – 14, Beginning An, starts with four stanzas, even more extreme in their verticalism than Kelly’s:





First of
eleven songs
beginning An

in the
middle of
solar winds

Beginning with the above italics, Zukofsky proceeds with 169 tercets, all but one line containing two words, then with 247 tercets with three words – save for two “ringers,” one a four-line stanza with one word per line, the other just two stanzas further on, a couplet, one of whose lines has just two words – before dropping back first to a tercet of two-word lines, and then two concluding stanzas of one-word lines.

Zukofsky’s formal focus is very much on the line, Kelly’s on the stanza – it’s almost as if two men looked at one phenomenon with just slightly different lenses. Zukofsky’s conception of form generates the line, perhaps, but Kelly’s sense generates the poem. It’s a critical, even decisive, difference. In Red Actions, Kelly again acknowledges Zukofsky’s relation to the Axon Dendron Tree:

The whole poem is dedicated to Louis Zukofsky, in thanks for his creative kindness, as a poet to us all, and as a man to me when I was beginning. He is one of the Four Masters (with Olson, Duncan, Blackburn) who boxed my ears.

One name Kelly doesn’t mention here is that of Jackson Mac Low, whose work he certainly knew, having published several pieces in A Controversy of Poets, but whom I suspect Kelly must have seen more as a peer, given how late Mac Low got started publishing.** Mac Low’s sense of program as the motive principle behind a text was already quite developed by the mid-1960s. Axon Dendron Tree, however, may be the first such attempt to “just write poetry” by such method without constraint as to how the vocabulary might look or sound. Where Mac Low was consciously striking the ego’s presence in his work, Kelly gives it pretty much free rein. In this sense, Axon Dendron Tree is closer to two other programmatic texts that were composed in the late 1960s, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On.

Axon Dendron Tree thus represents a signal moment in the history of the American poem, the point when true formal procedure “comes inside.” The poem itself is raucous & witty, perhaps the high point of the Projectivist tradition, which is so often accused of being ponderous, as just fun. Kelly of course is moving quite far from some of his masters – Olson & Blackburn – in utilizing measure rather than speech as his modeling principle for language, but that is precisely what he takes from Zukofsky & Duncan. That push-pull aspect of the Projectivist  tendency, which has never been fully explored critically, is nowhere more clear than in Kelly, and almost never to greater purpose than in this poem.

When I would begin Ketjak seven years after the publication of this book, Axon Dendron Tree was one of the works that gave my own project its sense of permission & possibility. Would that every poet had the opportunity to read Robert Kelly’s long, thin book.

* actually lists seven copies available through used & rare book dealers, ranging in price from $30 to $275 (for a copy signed to Joel Oppenheimer).

** At 48, Mac Low had published just four books.