Finding His Voice.
By: Bob Perelman,

Tikkun, , May/Jun2007, Vol. 22, Issue 3

LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: SELECTED POEMS edited by Charles Bernstein. The Library of America, 2006

LOUIS ZUKOFSKY WAS ONE of the most accomplished American modernist poets, but a quarter century after his death it's still not an ironclad certainty that he won't be confused with a very different kind of American poet--Charles Bukowski--or that his name won't be misspelled "Zukovsky" in anthologies or critical articles. So it's a sign of poetic justice that the canonically-minded Library of America has published Zukofsky's Selected Poems in an attractive little hardback of 175 pages. Contemporary poet Charles Bernstein uses these pages skillfully to present a compact but diverse selection of Zukofsky's writing, and he supplies a cogent introduction to both the biography and the poetics. Zukofsky himself insisted that, often, poets' works comprised a single long poem, and that there was no interesting distinction to be drawn between the writing and the life: "The words are my life" was his emphatic summary. Yet the usefulness of Selected Poems is not that it provides a single, concentrated sense of Zukofsky's poetry, but precisely the opposite, that it offers glimpses of a remarkably multifarious body of work. While Zukofsky described his poetics as "An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music," this collection should draw our attention not to the integral but to how wide a range there is between those limits.

There's Zukofsky the epic poet, whose long poem "A" (the quotes are part of the title) belongs in the company of Ezra Pound's Cantos, William Carlos Williams' Paterson, Hart Crane's The Bridge, and H.D.'s Helen in Egypt. There's Zukofsky the lyric poet, writer of exquisitely delicate miniatures; Zukofsky the fanatical game-player, who wrote a number of the most intricately-patterned works in the language; Zukofsky the poet of class-struggle; Zukofsky the Jewish cultural provocateur; Zukofsky the family sentimentalist; Zukofsky the cultural dandy. All of these modes have distinct tones. While Zukofsky was remarkably attentive to the sound and placement of each syllable he wrote, he never lavished that care on the creation of a characteristic personal style--he never, as they say, found his voice. Instead, he used writing with emphatic variousness: to speak of his father, "The miracle of his first job / On the lower East Side"; to wax lyrical, "River that must turn full after I stop dying / Song, my song, raise grief to music"; to anatomize English into an approximation of Catullus's Latin,

"Mool 'tis homos, 'Naso 'n' queer take 'im mool 'is ho most he / descended"; to leave discursive syntax behind and to sing, "tongues commonly inaccurate talk viable / one to one, ear to / eye loving song greater than / anything."

Zukofsky was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 to Yiddish-speaking parents, attended Columbia, became an ardent student of modernist poetry, and soon got in touch with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Thanks to Pound's efforts, he edited an issue of Poetry magazine in 1931 where he introduced a group of poets that he labeled "Objectivists." As with "A," the quotes were part of the label, though now Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, and Carl Rakosi are referred to simply as Objectivists. Succeeding generations of poets and critics have increasingly seen them as an important chapter in modernism, but initial readers such as Horace Gregory expressed skepticism, detecting unappealing hints of urbanism, Marxism, and Jewishness.

Tepid as the reaction was, this was the high-water mark of Zukofsky's literary visibility until near the end of his life. He continued to write, conceiving and completing a remarkable array of work--his epic "A" in twenty-four sections, the last seventeen of which are written in highly varied styles (close to Ulysses in that respect); books of short poems; a play; a novella; a book of criticism; a 500-page cento of philosophy in homage to Shakespeare; a homophonic translation of Catullus--but his audience was limited. At one point he describes his wife Celia as "my one reader who types me." Eventually, Zukofsky did attract other readers. In the 1950s, poets Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, and Cid Corman discovered his work with an enthusiasm that eventually diffused itself, so that by the time of his death in 1978 his work was more widely available and he himself was considered a major predecessor by avant-garde poets such as the Language writers.

Zukofsky's writing is fascinating for many reasons. The extremity of his formal ambitions is striking. The most famous example is the ninth section of "A," where Zukofsky uses the intricate template of Guido Cavalcanti's thirteenth-century canzone, "Donna mi Prega," to present a précis of Marx's doctrine of commodity fetishism. He takes his vocabulary from Capital and a textbook on quantum physics, while matching the original rhyme scheme: "An impulse to action sings of a semblance / Of things related as equated values, / The measure all use is time-congealed labor…" To my mind, equally remarkable is his early response to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," entitled "Poem beginning 'The.' "Whether it is to be taken as a parody or homage remains an open question. Either way, it furnishes an apt emblem of the difference that ultimately fueled Zukofsky's lifelong exertions toward wholeness: "Assimilation is not hard, / And once's the Faith's askew / I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew. / I'll read their Donne as mine, / And leopard in their spots / I'll do what says their Coleridge, / Twist red-hot pokers into knots."


Review by Bob Perelman

Bob Perelman has published over fifteen volumes of poetry, most recently The Future of Memory and Ten to One: Selected Poems. He is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.