LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: A POET WORTH FIGHTING FOR
A REVIEW OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: SELECTED POEMS, EDITED BY CHARLES BERNSTEIN (THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA AMERICAN POETS PROJECT)
In Ulysses, to depict the babbling of a woman going to sleep, I had sought to end with the least forceful word I could possibly find. I had found the word ‘yes,’ which is barely pronounced, which denotes acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance. In Work in Progress, I’ve tried to do better if I could. This time, I have found the word which is the most slippery, the least accented, the weakest word in English, a word which is not even a word, which is scarcely sounded between the teeth, a breath, a nothing, the article the.
People referred to Gertrude Stein as "ahead of her time." In fact, Stein-like Joyce or Pound-was entirely of her time: she was living within twentieth-century assumptions whereas most of the people around her were living within nineteenth-century assumptions. "Modernism" was in part an attempt to find forms which expressed the assumptions of the twentieth century. "The child born in 1900," wrote Henry Adams at the
very dawn of the century, "would…be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams…could not deny that the law of the new multiverse explained much that had been most obscure…."
Jack Foley, from a journal
In December 1978, a few months after Louis Zukofsky’s death, a soon to be notorious event occurred, shaking the foundations of the anything-but-homogeneous group of poets living in and near San Francisco. Outtakes of Louis Zukofsky’s appearance in a 1966 NET television documentary, USA Poetry, produced by Richard Moore, were being shown at the San Francisco Art Institute under the auspices of the Poetry Center. Tom Mandel, director of the Poetry Center and a poet associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, introduced Barrett Watten (himself a prominent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet) to speak about Zukofsky’s work. As Watten spoke, the distinguished (and older) San Francisco poet Robert Duncan-who had championed Zukofsky’s poetry but who was no friend to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets-grew more and more impatient. Finally, in an astonishing move, Duncan seized the stage from Watten and began himself to speak about Zukofsky.
"I in no way believe that there is such a thing as ‘just language,’" Duncan insisted, "any more than there is ‘just footprints.’"
Duncan’s action was both passionately defended-Watten, Duncan felt, was desecrating Zukofsky’s work-and passionately rejected. "Duncan’s interference and reseizure of the stage," writes Eleana Kim in "Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement" (1994), "was seen by some to be indicative of the fear and reactionary censorship characterizing the general attitude of the New Americans [poets associated with the 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry] to the Language project. But also at stake were questions of tradition, the implications of poetic assumptions and alliances."
Now, Louis Zukofsky’s work has been edited and selected for the Library of America’s American Poetry Project by another prominent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, Charles Bernstein, and he has done a superb job. It is no easy task to deal with a writer as enigmatic, even chameleonic as Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky’s poetry alone ranges from something like light verse to an immensely complex, dense medium. It operates in both formal modes and free verse. This amazing passage (eight lines, approximately five words in each line) is from 80 Flowers-a book originally meant to have been published in the year of the poet’s eightieth birthday, 1984:
Heart us invisibly thyme time
round rose bud fire downland
bird tread quagmire dry gill-over-the-ground
stem-square leaves-cordate earth race horsethyme
breath neighbors a mace nays
sorrow of harness pulses pent
thus fruit pod split four
one-fourth ripens unwithering gaping
But, in addition to poetry, Zukofsky published a short story, a play, critical writing (including the formidable Bottom on Shakespeare), translations, even a novel. His extraordinary early work, "Poem Beginning ‘The,’" was first printed in 1927 in Ezra Pound’s magazine, The Exile. Zukofsky had written the poem in 1926; when it appeared he was 23 years old. The poem’s title is generally believed to refer somewhat ironically to The Waste Land-the phrase, "the waste land" occurs in the work-but it perhaps also has a relationship to the concluding word of Finnegans Wake. (Joyce’s novel had begun to appear as Work in Progress in 1924.) James Joyce is perhaps the one modernist whose work is as various and complex as Zukofsky’s, and it’s as if Zukofsky simply picks up where Joyce leaves off. (It’s a short step from the to a.) A more certain influence on Zukofsky is Henry Adams, whose great book, The Education of Henry Adams was completed in 1907 and published in 1918, after the author’s death. Zukofsky wrote a Master’s thesis on Adams and maintained a lifelong interest in him.
One way of seeing the body of Zukofsky’s work is as a series of attempts to give form to what Adams called "the multiverse." Zukofsky’s work may well be-in Adams’ phrase-"not…a unity but a multiple."
In any case, "Language" in one form or another is definitely at the center of Zukofsky’s work, and translation is a major element of his use of language. If James Joyce had an uneasy relationship to the oppressor language, English, so did Louis Zukofsky, whose parents spoke only Yiddish. Charles Bernstein writes, "For Catullus, the Zukofskys developed a technique that has come to be called homophonic translation-translation with special emphasis on the sound rather the lexical meaning."
The purpose of such translation, writes Mark Scroggins in "A Biographical Essay on Zukofsky" is "‘to breathe the "literal" meaning’ of the Latin original, adhering as closely as possible to the sounds and rhythms of Catullus, and letting the meaning take a distant back seat." Scroggins’ comments are accurate and helpful, but there are many moments in Catullus when Zukofsky deliberately chooses "lexical meaning" over sound. The opening line of Catullus 3, "Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque," is not sonically very close to the opening line of Zukofsky’s version: "Lament, o graves of Venus, and Cupids." Zukofsky’s version of the poem is in fact a more or less literal translation, though with some interesting added attractions. This is the supposedly "literal" Loeb Clasical Library version of the poem; it was written by F.W. Cornish:
Mourn, ye Graces and Loves, and all you whom the Graces love. My lady’s sparrow is dead, the sparrow my lady’s pet, whom she loved more than her very eyes; for honey-sweet he was, and knew his mistress as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor would he stir from her lap, but hopping now here, now there, would still chirp to his mistress alone. Now he goes along the dark road, thither whence they say no one returns. But curse upon you, cursed shades of Orcus, which devour all pretty things! My pretty sparrow, you have taken him away. Ah, cruel! Ah, poor little bird! All because of you my lady’s darling eyes are heavy and red with weeping.
This is Zukofsky’s version (not included in the Selected Poems):
Lament, o graces of Venus, and Cupids,
and cry out loud, men beloved by Her graces.
Pass here, it's dead, meant so much to my girl, the
sparrow, the jewel that delighted my girl,
that lovable in her eyes she loved them less:
like honey so sweet he was sure to know her,
with her ever as a girl’s with her mother;
not seizing a moment to stray from her lap,
silly crazy to hop up here and down there,
one endless solo to his only goddess.
Who now? it's hard to walk thru tenebrous flume
down there, where it is granted not one comes back.
On you be the curse of the blind and dead shade
Orcus, hell that destroys all beautiful things:
so you stole my beautiful sparrow from me.
Why pick evil? why my little fool sparrow
It's your doing-my girl’s own, darling's sweet
excellent eyes a little swollen and red.
"Pass here" is Zukofsky’s version of the Latin "passer," sparrow, a word which may have reversed some of its letters as it found its way into English. (Another example would be the Greek "morph"-m sound at the beginning, f sound at the end-which became the English "form"-f sound at the beginning, m sound at the end.) Zukofsky’s "one endless solo to his only goddess" is a marvelous transmutation of Catullus’s "ad solam dominam usque pipiabat" and far better than the Loeb version of the line. Zukofsky’s word "goddess" may also be a kind of historical joke. The Latin word for "lord" is dominus. The corresponding female word is domina, the word Catullus uses. The two words would be accurately translated into English as "lord" and "lady," as in "the lady of the house" or, as the Loeb translation has it, "mistress." With Christianity, the word dominus took on the meaning of "God," as in the Latin Mass: "Dominus vobiscum," "The Lord be with you."
Zukofsky’s translation is perhaps the only example in English of a corresponding change of meaning for domina. If dominus means god, shouldn’t domina mean goddess? Another marvelous Zukofsky translation occurs in Catullus 115. Catullus calls his acquantance Mamurra "Mentula." "Mentula" is used here as a proper noun, but the joke is that the word means "penis." The Loeb translation, acutely aware of propriety, translates the word only as a proper noun and leaves it at that. Peter Whigham’s translation is more accurate: "Mentula" becomes "O’Toole." But Zukofsky clearly gets the prize: in his version "Mentula" becomes "Meantool." ("Non homo sed vero mentula magna minax" becomes "known homo said hero Meantool a man gnawn mean ax.")
Zukofsky’s playfulness and his interest in sound-in evidence throughout his Catullus translation-is matched by a deeply historical consciousness which constantly interrogates the words he uses. In the television documentary the poet remarks, "[Erik] Sati said it very nicely: he was born very young in a world that was already very old." What is a poet’s relationship to history-to the entire burden of poetry he inherits?
Zukofsky’s historical consciousness also takes the form of what Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence." Catullus is one of many "precursor poets" for Zukofsky. (Another is William Shakespeare. Still another is the Yiddish-American poet, cited and translated in A, Solomon Bloomgarden or "Yehoash.") Zukofsky’s Catullus insists on both the similarity of his American English to the Latin and its utter, appalling distance. The American poet "breathes with" Catullus as he makes similar sounds to the Latin, but he also frequently creates a "meaning" which has nothing to do with anything Catullus meant to say-a "meaning" which is in some ways liberating but in others approaches nonsense.
In the television documentary, Zukofsky quotes a poem by the English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674):
When a daffadil I see
Hanging down his head t’wards me,
Guess I may what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buried.
Zukofsky comments, "I wanted to do something as good as that, if possible." He then reads his own "Little Wrists" (later titled "So That Even a Lover"):
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.
(The two poems are also juxtaposed in Zukofsky’s book, A Test of Poetry.) Grousing about "this horror of explaining a text-especially one’s own," Zukofsky comments ruefully, "You think I made it. I just wonder." Zukofsky’s poem, which is about his son Paul, is quite beautiful and complex, playing on various meanings of the word "do," a word emphasized by the sudden shift in the poem’s rhythm. (Paul may "break" in various senses-as he "does" in various senses.)
The poem is different from Herrick’s. It’s not a question of whether Zukofsky succeeded in equaling Herrick, whether he "made it." The more interesting point is that Zukofsky initially felt himself to be in competition with Herrick, and, even upon completion of the poem, he wasn’t sure that he had won the competition. The poet’s sense of competitiveness is very likely part of what led him to the "bitterness" he experienced in his later years-years in which he was nonetheless enthusiastically "discovered" by younger poets such as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. Zukofsky "seemed to many to have become irremediably bitter," writes Mark Scroggins, "convinced that he had somehow been unreasonably passed over by the powers that conveyed poetic recognition."
The poet’s sense of exile from those powers-not to mention his equally intense sense of exile from the dominant power structures of America-was, among other things, linguistic. He was not only born young into a world that was already very old; he was born as a necessarily English-speaking American into a household of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. The "past" was palpably present in every sound his parents made. He read Shakespeare’s works in Yiddish before he read them in English. In "Poem Beginning ‘The’"-sometimes directly addressed to his mother, who would not have been able to read it-Zukofsky momentarily (and ironically) takes on the persona of Shakespeare’s Shylock:
Assimilation is not hard,
And once 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.
The villainy they teach me I will execute
And it shall go hard with them,
For I’ll better the instruction,
Having learned, so to speak, in their colleges…
I, Senora, am the Son of the Respected Rabbi,
Israel of Saragossa,
Not that the Rabbis give a damn,
Keine Kadish wird man sagen.
The concluding line is a quotation from Heine and is simultaneously defiant and submissive: after all, wasn’t Heine also a Jew?
In his later years Zukofsky moved away from the radical political consciousness of his youth-a consciousness which sometimes shows up in the extremely complex context of his poetry-into the comforts of his immediate family life, as his musician wife Celia and his son Paul (later to become a well-known violinist) became (in all senses of the word) figures in his poetry:
for Celia and Paul
River that must turn full after I stop dying
Song, my song, raise grief to music
Light as my loves’ thought, the few sick
So sick of wrangling: thus weeping,
Sounds of light, stay in her keeping
And my son’s face-this much for honor…
His voice in me, the river’s turn that finds the
Grace in you, four notes first too full for talk, leaf
Lighting stem, stems bound to the branch that binds the
Tree, and then as from the same root we talk, leaf
After leaf of your mind’s music, page, walk leaf
Over leaf of his thought, sounding
The grace that comes from knowing
Things, her love our own showing
Her love in all her honor.
As both these lines and "Little Wrists" suggest, the poetry about family is not sentimental but frequently daunting, difficult, if ultimately positive. Charles Bernstein remarks, "Often Zukofsky’s poems have no speaker"-the poems in 80 Flowers would be a good example-but it is also true that the figure of "Zukofsky the poet" haunts the poet’s work. The opening poem of A depends on our understanding exactly who the speaker is and his relationship not only to "A / Round of fiddles playing Bach" but to the "Black full dress of the audience." And there are many other poems in which persona is important: "A Song for the Year’s End," Section 9 of "Light," "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times," the title poem of Barely and Widely.
There is even a poem (happily included in Selected Poems) which imitates the sound of a person sneezing:
TO FRIENDS, FOR GOOD HEALTH
(Sneezing on it:)
In his introduction to the Selected Poems Charles Bernstein remarks on "the intricate patterning of sound that everywhere pervades [Zukofsky’s] work," on "the microtonal shifting of vowels," and goes on to write of "the syntactic rotation of the same words shifting to different parts of speech." One of the great examples of this latter technique is Zukofsky’s famous, kaleidoscopic "A Song of Degrees":
In her care-
Care his error
In her care
In the TV documentary Zukofsky recites the poem and adds, "The effect-I don’t know if you pray these days-is something like a prayer." It is not the content which gives the poem a religious quality-the content perhaps has something to do with a family argument or Celia’s relationship to Louis-but the sound and the repetition of the words. Zukofsky’s title emphasizes the religious aspect of the poem. In the Old Testament, Psalms 120 to 134 are each called "A Song of Degrees."
The New Scofield Reference Bible comments that the word "degrees" is better rendered by "ascents": "these Psalms were either sung by pilgrims on the ascending march from the Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, or…were sung by worshipers from all parts of Palestine as they went up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. An alternate view is that the headings, ‘A Song of Ascents,’ refer to the fifteen steps leading to Court of Israel in the Temple, and that these Psalms were sung on these steps." In Zukofsky’s case, the poem suggests some sort of purification process-a movement from "error" to "clarity"-and the "degrees" are perhaps the different modes of understanding we have as the poem’s syntax constantly causes the words to change contexts. The twelve individual words of the poem are each understood, as Henry Adams puts it, as a "multiple."
Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems is an absolutely necessary book for anyone seeking to understand twentieth-century American poetry. Zukofsky is a master, but he is definitely a formidable master. Charles Bernstein’s selection guides us through both accessible and "difficult" aspects of Zukofsky and does it in a way that constantly sheds light on the work as a whole. Bernstein’s introduction is also excellent: well-written and, in general, compelling. I do have some problems with some of his specific readings, however. Often the difficulty of dealing with Zukofsky is the difficulty of why Zukofsky chooses to use the words he does. Bernstein quotes this short poem (which, he notes, arose from the poet’s thinking of a tugboat),
and offers this commentary:
I love the simple fact of the title, The, by the author of "A"…Is the title pronounced thuh or thee? Beats me. Both. Syllable count: 1/2/1/2. [I hear "desire" as three syllables, not two-JF] Tow the line?; but, they say it’s supposed to be toe the line. So much depends upon…whether you want to be towed, since this is the desire, not a desire. Now, go back to the image: Tiny tug drags large barge. Perhaps this poem’s a counter-poetics: Do you want a poem to tow you or to do some towing yourself? A Zukofsky poem does not tow you along for a ride; that’s what [Peter] Quartermain means by emphasizing "thinking with the poem." In contrast to the desire of towing, we might speak of a desire not to be towed. Or anyway, told.
This seems to me more to trivialize the poem than it does to illuminate it. Everyone knows that Zukofsky plays on various meanings of words, so often critics do a kind of free-associating around a particular word in a poem. But what if the critic chooses the wrong word? The problem, I think, is that Bernstein thinks the operative word of "THE" is "towing," and so he expends all his critical energy on that word. (Zukofsky does pun on "tow" in section 9 of "Light," but it’s "two" and "tow-headed" that he chooses, not "toe.") What if the operative word of "THE" is "desire"-a word which shows up on the very first page of Bottom on Shakespeare and, as the index indicates, is repeated frequently throughout the book. Zukofsky quotes Spinoza, "Desire which arises from reason can have no excess" and insists that "the art of the poet must be to inform and delight with Love’s strength"; he cites Aristotle on "those things, which we desire with such affection that nothing can obliterate them from the mind." Why does a tugboat tow? Is it because the boat or its captain is being paid to do it? Or is there a "desire of towing"? Does a tugboat operate the way a poem does-through desire, love, and not through money?
The tugboat, Zukofsky suggests, tows not through economic necessity but for another reason-and the poet writes for that very same reason. Desire is central to any genuine activity. The title of the poem suggests that it can go in any direction: the… whatever. This happens to be the subject matter the poet chooses, but other subject matter is possible. There are myriad modes of desire. Of course the poem may also "tug at your heartstrings," and if this sounds like an overly sentimental formulation for such a radically experimental poet, we should remember that Zukofsky specialized in writing "valentines"-poems of love, poems which "inform and delight with Love’s strength."
Louis Zukofsky’s deep interest in text, in the complexities of scholarship, is, like his sense of language, in part a reflection of his Jewishness. There is a definite Kabbalistic side to this poet. (A is partly a playful title: the poem is A by Z….) But the poet’s interest in breath, in sound, points in a somewhat different direction from his interest in the "literal." In the TV documentary Zukofsky refers to his Catullus translation as "noise." An insistence on the poet’s "breath"-on "voices"-on "noise"-suggests an emphasis on what the voice proceeds out of: the body. It suggests as well an emphasis on immediacy and on the aliveness of the present moment-the moment in which we are breathing and speaking.
Such an emphasis necessarily moves towards "performance," a condition in which the speaker’s "breath" is immediately present and no longer dependent upon the text-interpreting actions of "eyes." (Homer, one remembers, was blind.) The performative element which haunts modernism-and which was ignored by most of modernism’s explainers-haunts this poet as well. Zukofsky’s son Paul became not a poet but a performer, and the grand concluding movement of Louis’s life-poem, A, is a complex performance piece utilizing texts by the poet but entirely "composed" by Celia and meant to be presented aloud. The following poem from Bottom on Shakespeare is Louis’s take on a line from Two Gentlemen of Verona-significantly, a line from a play. Like much (but not all) of his work, it cries out to be spoken, to be heard. Just before reciting it Zukofsky remarked, "I’ve taken liberties."
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.