Section 3 - Louis Zukofsky
Louis Zukofsky’s preface to his Autobiography is of characteristic brevity:
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. —Little
As a poet I have always felt that the work says all there needs to be said of one’s life.1
The first sentence is from his roman à clef, Little: For Careenagers, and is spoken by Dala, Zukofsky’s persona.2 His widow, Celia Zukofsky, has said that all of Zukofsky’s work is autobiographical, especially Little, although she also said that he would have denied it.3 His point might have been that his work has objectives that go far beyond the representation of his life. The true subject of Little is not Louis Zukofsky; it is his son, Paul.
In Autobiography, Zukofsky gives us five brief paragraphs of the bare facts interspersed among twenty-two musical settings composed according to his suggestions by Celia4 to eighteen of his poems, which present the meaning of his life.
The songs, whose lyrics, Celia Zukofsky’s other work, are always idiosyncratic and elliptically extrasyntactic, are sometimes frivolous (“General Martinet Gem Coughed A-hem, and A-hem, and A-hem” in F Minor, 4/4 time, for four voices),5 sometimes elegant (“Little wrists, Is your content My sight or hold, Or your small air That lights and trysts?” in F Minor, 3/4 time, for tenor and piano),6 and sometimes simple (“Isn’t this a lovely field in winter. Lovely field. Lovely field” —complete, a round, four bars in C Minor, 4/4 time).7 They seem therefore a marriage of dissimilar qualities: the ranging tone of the lyrics with their peculiar informality, coupled with the formality of the music.
But the bare facts are: I was born in Manhattan, January 23, 1904, the year Henry James returned to the American scene to look at the Lower East Side. The contingency appeals to me as a forecast of the first-generation American infusion into twentieth-century literature. At one time or another I have lived in all of the boroughs of New York City—for over thirty years on Brooklyn Heights not far from the house on Cranberry Street where Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was first printed.8
Zukofsky mentioned the city by which he claimed connection with James and Whitman; he did not mention that he was born of Jewish parents, except obliquely by including himself among the first generation Americans who infused twentieth-century literature. His father, Rabbi Pinchos, figures in “A”-12:
- When I sit down to eat, my father drouses.
- This is a “fall to” bench-trestle
- It leans to the table.
- My guest Henry (masculine)
- What a face has the great American novelist
- It says: Fie! Nancy, finance.
- I have just met him on Rutgers Street, New York
- Henry James, Jr.,
- Opposite what stood out in my youth
- As a frightening
- Copy of a Norman church in red brick
- Half a square block, if I recall,
- Faced with a prospect of fire escapes—
- Practically where I was born.9
Here Louis, at the table with his drowsing father, reads James’ The American Scene, wherein Henry visits a place near where in that very year Zukofsky claims he was born.10 In writing this passage Zukofsky was following Pound’s suggestion: “Still, if one is seeking a Spiritual Fatherland, if one feels the exposure of what he would not have scrupled to call, two clauses later, such a windshield, ’The American Scene’ greatly provides it.11 The American scene is more real to Zukofsky than his European fatherland. The contingency of James’s presence in it proves a kind of continuity that transcends his sleeping blood-connection to the Old World.
In a letter written to Carl Rakosi in 1931, Zukofsky gave more than the bare facts about his life. The intimacy of his family who spoke Yiddish to one another, was weakened by marriage, death, and cultural difference. Louis was much younger and the only one born in America. The others were born in Russia—his father, Pinchos, about 1860, his mother, Chana, about 1862, his oldest sister in 1888, his sister, Fanny, in 1890, and his brother, Morris, in 1892. They came to America in 1903. His eldest sister died about the age of 25, leaving Louis a nephew; Fanny and Morris were both married and had two sons and a daughter. His mother had died on 23 January 1929, Louis’ birthday. They had spoken little to each other. Although this belied a deep mutual understanding, it did them little good. His father—who most religiously followed the philosophy of Spinoza—was resigned to poverty. The family could not sympathize with Louis’ commitment to literature and writing, which was not a part of their lives.12
Even so, Louis’ family influenced his career. First, his father’s devotion to Spinoza is reflected by the constant presence of Spinoza in his own work, for example, in “Prop. LXI” and the second half of “A”-9.13 Secondly, as he admitted to Rakosi, just as his father’s pride in his unpretentious nature glorified his own abilities, although Louis could not play or read a note, he said he would like to learn about music, to drive a car, to operate machines, or after the revolution to take advantage of his undeveloped talent as a teacher.14 And, thirdly, Louis received from them a rich Yiddish culture.
In his Autobiography, Louis wrote:
My first exposure to letters at the age of four was thru the Yiddish theaters, most memorably the Thalia on the Bowery. By the age of nine I had seen a good deal of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed—all in Yiddish. Even Longfellow’s Hiawatha was to begin with read by me in Yiddish, as was Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. My first exposure to English was, to be exact, P.S. 7 on Chrystie and Hester Streets. By eleven I was writing poetry in English, as yet not “American English,” tho I found Keats rather difficult as compared with Shelley’s “Men of England” and Burns’ “Scots, wha hae.”15
Yiddish theater was then a strong international, cosmopolitan force. Kenneth Rexroth wrote:
After 1900 Jewish influence became increasingly strong and has endured, decreasing again, until the present time. From about 1910 to 1925 New York was one of the major capitals of Yiddish culture, a strong competitor with Warsaw or Frankfurt. Plays by the leading European playwrights were performed in the Yiddish Theater. A majority of the leading Yiddish writers came to America to visit, many of them to stay. Yiddish magazines and newspapers discussed the literature and drama, philosophy, and political theories of Europe for a general audience, when such issues were known only to a handful of intellectual English-speaking Americans. The influence was reciprocal. The American Populist writers were translated into Yiddish, or read in English by Yiddish writers. The poet Yehoash was a disciple of Ezra Pound. The influence of Yiddish writing itself on American literature in English was practically nil. In that direction the influence was largely personal or seminal and postponed for a generation, until the children of Yiddish speakers began to write in English. . . . Since this extraordinarily active Yiddish culture was isolated both by language and prejudice, it is without doubt the most underestimated factor in the American intellectual synthesis.16
To the Yiddish, Zukofsky’s work owes not only an early literary and philosophical education of cosmopolitan, international, and classical scope, but, in part, a Jewishness whose effect is ubiquitous and subtle. Also, it owes much of its subject-matter and its humor. His writings, especially “Poem beginning ‘The,’” “A”, and Little, contain routines, parodies, and puns reminiscent of the Yiddish theatrical tradition.
He met Celia Thaew in 1933 and they married in 1939. It is to her talent and Louis’ promptings that we owe the music. One child, Paul, born in 1943, was taught at home and became a virtuoso violinist, making his debut in Carnegie Hall at the age of thirteen. Although Louis never learned to play an instrument or read a note,17 few if any modern writers are more concerned with the musical basis of poetry and require of their readers as much musical intelligence as does Louis Zukofsky.
II. Poem beginning ‘The’
Zukofsky, a child of Yiddish speakers who wrote in English, like Yehoash, a disciple of Ezra Pound, translated Yehoash into English and put him into a macaronic structure with Bach, Bede, Beerbohm, Beethoven, The Bible, Chaucer, Cummings, Dante, Norman Douglas, Elijah, Eliot, John Erskine, Heine, Herrick, Horace, Aldous Huxley, Henry James, Joyce, Lawrence, Christopher Marlow, George Moore, Marianne Moore, Mussolini, Pater, Poe, Pound, Robinson, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Spengler, Max Stirner, Villon, Franz Werfel, Virginia Woolf, and others in his “Poem beginning ‘The,’” which appeared in Pound’s Exile 3.
This role-call is taken from the notes which precede the poem, in which each item is followed by the number of each line in the poem which refers to the item. This list suggests the parodic nature of the poem. The fact that in a poem of 330 numbered lines there are over 79 allusions to at least 52 different persons and things is indicative of Zukofsky’s intention. His playfulness is especially shown by the three items for which he gave other than the normal literary references:
Obvious—Where the Reference is Obvious, *** Power of the Past, Present, and Future—Where the reference is to the word Sun, *** Symbol of our Relatively Most Permanent Self, Origin and Destiny—Wherever the reference is to the word Mother.18
Although the motifs of Sun and Mother help unify the poem, their use is partly pretentious. There are at least twenty-one lines which either refer to or contain the word “Mother.” For some of them this noted designation is facetious. Similarly, to insist that the lines
- 313 O my son Sun, my son, my son Sun!
- would God
- 314 I had died for thee, O Sun, my son, my
refer to “Power of the Past, Present, and Future” is to stretch a point to comic dimensions. The lines are taken from the words of King David in 2 Samuel 18:33, but with the word “Sun” substituted for “Absalom” they have an insincere effect.
As one begins the poem, the device one first notices is the overlaying of voices, and confounding of allusions. Here are the first five lines:
- 1 The
- 2 Voice of Jesus I. Rush singing
- 3 in the wilderness
- 4 A boy’s best friend is his mother,
- 5 It’s your mother all the time.
The first line, “The,” begins the poem as the title promises. Lines 2 and 3 are adapted from Matthew 3:3, in which Jesus associates Isaiah’s prophesy with John the Baptist: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ’The voice of one crying in the wilderness.’” In Zukofsky’s poem, “one” is replaced by the character “Jesus I. Rush,” who is singing, not crying. “I” is Mr. Rush’s middle initial. His last name, “Rush,” reminds me of Moses, who is associated with the bulrushes, or, to stretch it a little, with the burning bush of Exodus 3 and 9. Mr. Rush is thus an amalgam of Moses, John, Jesus, and “I,” which could represent Zukofsky or the reader, singing. This lamination of persons onto the archetypal figure is typical of Zukofsky. If “Rush” is also a verb, then this multi-person is said to rush into the wilderness singing, as appropriate poetic action for a poem in a magazine titled Exile. I think of the burning bush because the next line, although absurdly in the language of a “Popular Non-Sacred Song,” echoes the fifth commandment. Or better, since we are given the voice of Jesus, they echo Mark 7:10, in which Mark records the voice of Jesus quoting Moses quoting God’s commandment.
The first five lines already both confirm and confute the title of this first movement, from Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls”: “And out of olde bokes, in good feith.”19 Like Chaucer’s narrator’s dream, Zukofsky’s poem is from old books, but of questionable faithfulness. The old books provide for Chaucer’s narrator only the seed for a dream which he will search in vain to find in a book, unless he has a self-reflection to consider his own.
The first movement, of 60 lines, surveys the state of Western literature, beginning with the voice of Jesus in the Bible and ending with the voices of rabbis living on Cathedral Parkway in New York City. In lines 1 through 13, Christ is linked to Odysseus, to Aldous Huxley’s Tyrrhenian, and to Joyce in Paris by the epic themes of banishment and the power of women. These, in turn, merge with the theme of the loss of paradise. In a series of ten questions, Zukofsky ponders the state of modern literature. Norman Douglas’ South Wind, Pound’s Mauberley, D. H. Lawrence’s Lovat, Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, Marianne Moore’s Observations, and George Moore’s Kerith, compared rhetorically to Eliot’s waste land.
- 25 Are dust in the waste land of a raven-
- winged evening.
- 26 And why if the waste land has been explored
- traveled over, circumscribed,
- 27 Are there only wrathless skeletons exhumed
- new planted in its sacred wood,
- 28 Why—heir, long dead,—Odysseus, wandering of ten years
- 29 Out-journeyed only by our Stephen, bibbing
- of a day,
- 30 O why is that to Hecuba as Hecuba to he!
Most of the poem’s references and allusions are remade to fit Zukofsky’s purposes. Line 30 echoes Hamlet’s lines obliquely referring to his mother: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?”20 Here Hamlet queries the mock passion of one of the players and ridicules his own lack of action. The implication is that Zukofsky s poem is an attempt to achieve more than the Eliotic “wrathless skeletons” whose monopoly over American literature the poem challenges. It is meant to be a work for which one will look in vain in “olde bokes.”
Zukofsky felt that The Waste Land, unlike the Cantos, was flawed by structural redundance. In “American Poetry 1920-1930,” he wrote that the meaning of the whole Cantos cannot be discoverd in its part: “One cannot pick from them a solitary poetic idea or a dozen variations of it, as out of Eliot’s Waste Land, and say this is the substance out of which this single atmosphere emanates.” And his footnote to this discussed his own reply to Eliot:
Zukofsky’s Poem Beginning “The” (1926) written as a reply to people concerned with the end of the world, the dedication and attendant numbers intended as a kind of hors d’oeuvre not as an aid to digestion, is obviously more of a thought sequence than The Waste Land is from movement to movement. The images in The; are incidental and its intention is hardly an atmosphere. The result is certainly not an improvement on The Waste Land but something different—something perhaps nearer to an intellectual control (one doubts its value), to statement than pointilism. For the rest, since there is probably no relationship one should distinguish differences—i.e., Z. perhaps uses stress and consonance too much, with too little relief of the lighter vowel qualities characteristic of the French hexameter which Eliot adapted for English use.21
Lines 31 through 44, interweaving lines which refer to the French language and a popular song with New York colloquialisms and E. E. Cummings’ coinages, represent the material that Zukofsky has to work with in trying to “make it new.” Lines 45 through 53 (these parts are separated by strophe breaks) represent Zukofsky’s ironic release from the absurdly melodramatic: the college cheer, Christopher Marlow’s Edward II, Poe’s beating heart, and Virginia Woolf’s Dalloway, awakening! In the last section of the movement, Zukofsky dares to challenge his Jewish roots, which he has to transcend to live by his art.
The “SECOND MOVEMENT,” whose title, “International Episode,” is credited to Henry James, is “the aftermath / 62 when Peter Out and I discuss the theater.” In the first part; lines 61 through 75, they discuss Dante, Franz Werfel’s German “Jew goat-song” (a literal translation of “tragedy”), the Greek tragedians, and the funereal power of Mussolini. Death and the dream-life of the stage are linked; his metaphor is from Macbeth V, v. 24-26:
- Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player
- That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
- And then is heard no more . . .
The themes of shadow-life, dream, and death prepare us for the next two parts, lines 76 through 92 and lines 93 through 103, an elegy to “Lion-heart, frate mio.” Lines 104 through 113 are transition from this lament to a translation of a poem by Yehoash, which continues through line 129. Yehoash’s poem, about a Bedouin resurrected to leap on his steed and embrace the desert night, is a response to the question “109 What, in revenge, can dead flesh and bone make capital?” The answer is poetry, for here one can resurrect the dead. The lines:
- 114 With the blue night shadows on the sand
- 115 May his kingdom return to him
could be understood to mean: “With his walking shadow on the page, may his life return to him.” There is an excellent discussion by Harold Schimmel of Zukofsky’s use of Yehoash. Schimmel compares this part with a similar passage in “A”-4:
In both cases Zukofsky choses to exhibit Yehoash first by a piece of exotica (a Bedouin lyric in “Poem,” Samuri in “A”-6), some folk motifs, and a hymn to the sun. The strangeness of introducinmg foreign materials via Yiddish is apparent and allowed under the banner of “Song’s kinship.” Still, “Shimannu-San, my-clear star” as an illustration of “the courses we tide from” is not without some irony.22
These two phrases are from “A”-4, but they match the theme of the international nature of literary roots in both poems. The Yiddish theater in Zukofsky’s youth was a strong international force. Schimmel continues:
With the two exceptions of the Yiddish of Yehoash and the Yiddish of Jewish Folk Song most of Zukofsky’s references are slapstick or parody. The only sequential lines of any significance truly quoted are those from the Yiddish. . . . Zukofsky’s contribution . . . to the succeeding stanza is mainly in way of padding to keep Yehoash’s meter. Translation follows syllable for syllable.
But now the scene shifts quickly. As Schimmel notes, “Transitions are often absent or absent-present in the mode of vaudevil1e.”23 The “lion-heart” elegy and the Bedouin translation become like two theater productions discussed and discarded by Zukofsky and Peter Out:
- 130 I’ve changed my mind, Zukofsky
- 131 How about some other show—
From here, the movement continues in an absurdly comic manner. Lines 132 through 135 list works by E. A. Robinson, Spengler, D. H. Lawrence, and others as if they were plays on Broadway. In a ribald, punning playfulness, the following titles are suggested by the name of Zukofsky’s sidekick, Peter Out:
- 144 “Tear the Codpiece Off, A Musical
- 145 Likewise, “Panting for Pants,”
- 146 “The Dream That Knows No Waking.”
This is not simply impertinent. The last line refers to the themes in the first part of the movement, and the list of literary plays mirrors the survey in the first movement.
The tone of this part and that of the first part contrasts with the tone of the elegy and the translation which they frame. Zukofsky’s statement seems to be that true art, art which makes the dead live, must exist in the context of the cheap, superficial, and witty showmanship that for a popular audience recreates the cosmic into the comic.
The “THIRD MOVEMENT: In Cat Minor” is only 15 lines long, 146 through 161. The metaphor of the title reminds us of the musical structure of the entire poem, divided into “movements” in which each numbered line is like a bar of music. The relation between poetry and music will concern these poets for their entire careers. Here, “Cat Minor” is Zukofsky’s linguistic substitute for a minor chord. (It is also a new constellation, a complement to Canis Major.) The repeated phrases in the first lines of each of the five, three-lined stanzas, rhymed X, A, A, make this movement the most lyrical of the poem. Its combined themes of the complaint and the carpe diem (the last line, “161 —And r-r-run--the Sun!,” alludes to the end of Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress”) seem delightfully playful from the mouths of a chorus of cats.
In the “FOURTH MOVEMENT: More ‘Renaissance,’” lines 162 through 185, Zukofsky continues his search for a rebirth of his art, for something other than Eliotic skeletons. The title refers to Pater’s work, and there is irony in the fact that “More” implies that such renewals have become a frequent, old-fashioned occurrence:
- 162 Is it the sun you’re looking for,
- 163 Drop in at Askforaclassic, Inc.,
- 164 Get yourself another century,
- 165 A little frost before sundown.
- 166 It’s the times don’chewknow,
- 167 And if you’re a Jewish boy, then be your
- Plato’s Philo.
Line 163 is attributed, in the notes, to “Modern Advertizing,” line 165 to Pater, line 166 to “The King’s English,” and line 167 to “Myself.” Line 165 is a parody of Coleridge’s “Frost Before Midnight.” Zukofsky’s attitude toward the classics is made very clear by the following parody of a poem by Poe, “To Helen,” lines 168 through 182. Its first stanza follows:
- 168 Engprof, thy lectures were to me
- 169 Like those roast flitches of red boar
- 170 That, smelling, one is like to see
- 171 Through windows where the steam’s galore
- 172 Like our own “Cellar Door.”
This mimics Poe’s stanza:
- Helen, thy beauty is to me
- Like those Nicean barks of yore,
- That gently, o’re a perfumed sea,
- The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
- To his own native shore.24
The romantic mediterrenean air of the original is entirely corrupted: not Helen or beauty, but Engprof and lectures; not unreal ships on an unreal sea but red meat on a New York City street. Zukofsky’s deformations have a point to them. The time of “poetic” subjects and diction is past. The poet is free to indulge in what is closest to him, even if it’s as mundane as a lecture or as crass as a local deli.
Hugh Kenner wrote: “‘Say it,’ wrote Williams, ’no ideas but in things.’ And say it, no ‘poetry’ but in poems. Wallace Stevens was the Last Romantic, the last poet of a long era that believed in ‘poetry,’ something special to be intuited before the words had been found, something of which one’s intuition guided the precious words.”25 Kenner then credited Pound and Williams for “a new species of composition: the American Poem.” Although this species is relatively new, accepting for the first time as object the “crass and quotidian,” it is not strictly American, not when among its originators are T. E. Hulme and Ford Madox Ford, and among its continuers Basil Bunting. Nevertheless, Kenner’s concept of the poetic as something which inheres in the poem is exactly the “Objectivist” understanding.
Wallace Stevens, writing a preface for the Objectivist Press edition of Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931, was compelled to characterize Williams’ verse as “anti-poetic.” In spite of the fact that for Stevens to admire Williams at all Williams had to be considered a romantic poet, he was “rarely romantic in the accepted sense.” Williams becomes in Stevens’ mind a man whose sentimental spirit requires the cure of its opposite, the “anti-poetic.” The anti-poetic is attributed to Williams’ root in realism, in imagism: “The implied image, as in YOUNG SYCAMORE, the serpent that leaps up in one’s imagination at his prompting, is an addition to imagism, a phase of realism which Williams has always found congenial.” This anti-poetic realism concerns the “exceptional view of the public dump and the advertising signs of Snider’s Catsup, Ivory Soap and Chevrolet cars” from the poet’s ivory tower.26
Wi1liams’ concern for the objects of realism: the secular, the corporal, the temporal, the local, is something he shares with Zukofsky and the other “Objectivists”; the figures on the billboards advertising Wrigley’s Gum sing and dance in “A”. Williams did not understand Stevens’ bias; Williams was too close to Stevens to make Kenner’s distinction. As late as 1957, when he was interviewed by Edith Heal, Williams protested:
I was pleased when Wallace Stevens agreed to write the Preface but nettled when I read the part where he said I was interested in the anti-poetic. I had never thought consciously of such a thing. As a poet I was using a means of getting an effect. It’s all one to me—the antipoetic is not something to enhance the poetic—it’s all one piece. I didn’t agree with Stevens that it was a conscious means I was using. I have never been satisfied that the anti-poetic had any validity or even existed.27
It is in this light that we must regard Zukofsky’s rewriting of Poe. Zukofsky’s release from Poe’s unreal “poetic” subject is manifest in a burst of violent energy. Zukofsky then recovers and ends the movement with a qualification concerning the usefulness of such parody:
- 183 Poe,
- 184 Gentlemen, don’chewknow,
- 185 But never wrote an epic.
Parodies of the classics won’t achieve an epic in an unheroic age. This poem merely explores the ground which Zukofsky’s attempt at an epic, “A”, tries to cover. As we will see, “epic” is a vital concept in Zukofsky’s “Objectivism.”
The fifth and penultimate movement, lines 186 through 269, is titled: “Autobiography.” It is divided into three parts. In the first and last parts, lines 186 through 204 and lines 238 through 269 Zukofsky addresses his mother, taunting her about the nature of her relation with his father, and about her sentimental attachment to Russia; about her illiteracy, about her racial prejudices (the yellow Chinamen and the fair Angels), about her religious faith, and about the way she’s overprotected her son (“in the cradle”).
The measure by which he judges her is the epic. The two themes which we found in the first movement associated with the Bible and Homer are necessary qualities of the present age. The first is the power of women:
- 186 Speaking about epics, mother,
- 187 How long ago is it since you gathered
- 188 Gathered mushrooms while you mayed.
The second is exile, banishment:
- 195 Speaking about epics, mother,—
- 196 Down here among the gastanks, ruts,
- 197 It is your Russia that is free.
The second part of the movement is a translation from Yehoash of a Yiddish folk pastoral, lines 205 through 223, and an original Shakespearian sonnet in praise of horses, lines 224 through 237, which is lyrically beautiful notwithstanding the absurd and unconventional bestiality of its subject. Together, they represent the mother’s sentimental ideal and they subtly contrast with Zukofsky’s perspective of “gastanks, ruts, eemetery-tenements.” This part begins by asking the wild geese “Where lies the passage” to paradise, presumably the paradise whose loss is noted in the first movement. “17 But why are our finest always dead?” is echoed by: “210 Where has our sun gone forth?” In this Eden, ducks float “On a cobalt stream,” “A barefoot shepherd boy” tends “jaded sheep,” and “An old horse strewn with yellow leaves” rests “By the edge of a meadow.” Horses continued to fascinate Zukofsky. Here the horse in the Yehoash translation is the occasion for an invocation to the Lord for the protection of “224 Horses that pass through inappreciable woodland. . . . 230 Reared in your sun.” This theme echoes the grace and freedom of the steed in the Bedouin translation, lines 116 through 126; the horse, like Pegasus, is a metaphor for poetry.
The movement ends with a message characteristically put in another’s voice, creating a potential for irony, three lines from Heine and one by Zukofsky, line 268, inserted:
- 266 I, Senora, am the Son of the Respected
- 267 Israel of Sargossa,
- 268 Not that the Rabbis give a damn,
- 269 Keine Kadish wird man sagen.
Zukofsky is also the son of a respected Rabbi, but line 268 gives away his hand: he is bitter towards the group of which he is a part. Although, through Heine, he says he will say a little Kaddish, his Kaddish is already said; he ironically participates in a ritual of his people to celebrate his distance from them.
The last, the “HALF-DOZENTH MOVEMENT: Finale, and After,” wraps up the themes of the previous movements as would a musical postlude in a fugal structure, and leaves us with a promise of things to come. Lines 270 through 280 translate the Jewish folk song “Raisins and Almonds,” as sung by the son to his mother. In turn, lines 281 through 285 are sung by the mother to her son. In the first part, lines 270 through 296, we see again the cradle of a mother’s overprotection (lines 270, 282), the cat of the third movement (line 280), the racial fairness, “Even in their dirt,” of the Angles (line 291), and Zukofsky’s gastank perspective (line 294).
In the second part of this movement, lines 297 through 308, Zukofsky contemplates an affair with the attractive “Helen Gentile.” This echoes Homer’s and Poe’s Helens and the theme of the power of women. But she’s impossible for the young Jew:
- 303 Angry against things’ iron I ring
- 304 Recalcitrant prod and kick.
The next part is attributed to J. S. Bach and “Myself” (line 309) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (310-312). As if in reaction to Helen Gentile, Zukofsky embraces Life and God by its magic. Next, lines 313 and 31h parody King David’s lament for Absalom. The theme is the value of life, symbolized, as previously in the poem, by the sun. Finally, in the last two parts, lines 315 through 326 and lines 327 through 330, sun, son, and mother come together to sing a song 3-19 they all can sing, their “Sun-song” of eternal love, endless strength, and future fruitfulness:
- 327 How wide our arms are,
- 328 How strong,
- 329 A Myriad years we have been,
- 330 Myriad upon myriad shall be.
On the basis of this poem, Pound knew Zukofsky was a poet who was “making it new,” who was not merely repeating, as were most writers of the time, the over-used innovations of previous writers, but who had progressed beyond what most had not yet understood. Pound therefore began a correspondence with Zukofsky which carried him to the end of his life. He also recommended to his good friend Williams that he take on this younger man as a friend and fellow poet, and insisted to Harriet Monroe of Poetry and to Lincoln Kirsten of Hound and Horn and to Nancy Cunard of the Hours Press and to Samuel Putnam of the New Review and to T. S. Eliot of Criterion that they publish Zukofsky. With only limited success in establishing Zukofsky’s reputation as a writer and a critic, Pound nevertheless persuaded Zukofsky to become the center of an informal group of working writers who tried to establish their reputation for being, they believed, the developers of the modernist tradition, the originators of lasting poetic accomplishment, and the forerunners of a new wave of poetic energy.
Our first record of Zukofsky’s correspondence with Pound is 18 August 1927, when Pound wrote Zukofsky about Zukofsky’s submissions to Exile, and 6 September 1927, when Zukofsky sent Pound corrections for “Poem beginning ‘The’” and asked if Pound would indicate which of five volumes of unpublished Zukofsky should be destroyed.28 This correspondence began a friendship which lasted the rest of their lives. Pound’s generosity in helping establish the careers of those he admired is well-documented. In this case, he went even further than getting Zukofsky published; he began to advise Zukofsky on matters relating to his future career as a writer. In turn, Zukofsky not only read proofs and edited work of Pound’s friend Williams for Exile, but kept Pound in touch with developments in America.29
In his letter to Zukofsky of 5 March 1928, Pound accepted, for Exile 4, “the prose, both the Cummings and the Preface,” by which he referred to “Mr. Cummings and the Delectable Mountains” and “A Preface.”30 This preface had originally been written for a series of eighteen poems (including “Constellation: In Memory of V. I. Ulianov”—Lenin). In it Zukofsky reconciled the correspondence of each poem to its epigraph from Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. He felt his poems were “indicative” of “a singular sociological myth as great in its way, and as binding on peoples, as the solar myths of the ancients in their times.” The idea came from Georges Sorel, who postulated the socialist “march towards deliverance” as such a myth. According to Sorel, the revolutionary pessimist accepts deliverance by violence because he is bound by two conditions: the “feeling of social determinism” and the “conviction of our natural weakness.” Zukofsky wrote:
—it becomes clear why the quotations accompanying my 18 poems, indicative of such a singular sociological myth as mentioned above, are from Pilgrim’s Progress.
Because, Bunyan, who had a conception of Deliverance by the right way, straight and narrow, was, if similitudes are employed, a Revolutionary pessimist with a metaphysics such as George [sic] Sorel wrote of in his Reflections on Violence . . .
The passage which follows in Sorel’s French tells us, in translation, that pessimism “is a philosophy of conduct rather than a theory of the world; it considers the march towards deliverance as narrowly conditioned. . The pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded, so that the system is given, as it were, in one block, and cannot disappear except in a catastrophe which involves the whole.” Deliverance by violence is both determined and made necessary by social conditions. Zukofsky continued:
In these 18 poems, then, the pessimistic philosophy of proletarian violence, the only contemporary Deliverance to minds thinking in terms of destiny and necessity.
Zukofsky felt that poets in his age must do more than, as Eliot wrote, “be difficult.” “If they are to outlive their experience— a refined sensibility for appreciating love, war, death, El Greco, Krazy Kat, Negro Spirituals and relativity,—and mean anything to the future,” they must “subordinate the cries and twists of our present generation to the creation” of the new myth.31
Pound noted a discrepancy between the sensibility stated in this preface and the technique implicit in Zukofsky’s poems (except for “Constellation”). He wrote:
Preface appears to me NOT pref. to poems enclosed but to poems as yet unwritten. You postulate a new sensibility or a new state of mind, but the verse still boggles along with the cadence and diction of 1890: obviously is botch.
(all except the Lennin [sic], which I am ready to print, if you care to detach from the rest; though even that (saved by contents and drive) is not wholly in language of post-1917).
Zukofsky’s cadence and diction was archaic; his technique was not proof of his “new sensibility.” Pound felt that the antidote for this “mediaeval habit” was “mass-consciousness”:
C. S. Wood has been writing intelligent stuff on massconsciousness. One cant fall back merely into mediaeval habit of allegorical utterance: Everyman speaking, and speaking old fashioned pre-unanimiste english [sic].
Cadence of this stuff is its weakest component. Not by any means up to the level of Poem begining THE.
Jah, art iss long.
Gertie and Jimmie both hunting for new langwitch, but hunting, I think, in wrong ash-pile.
The writer’s ethic, his technique, and the times must all be in harmony. The fragmentation of the age did not assure the validity of writing for everyone. Modern masses are not “detached individs. capable of sym-pathy,” so the writer must write not allegorically but, as perhaps Pound would say, directly. This necessitates cadence and diction which precisely affect the object—not literary precedent but the English language itself. The problem was to craft a language that could relate the poet and the public. Pound continued:
Re language: poets since Adam’s uncle Joe, have been trying to speak “for humanity,” for NOT merely themselves but for “everyone” :::: considered probably AS a series of detached individs. capable of sym-pathy or of looking out from same critical point as author.
Suggest you look up ALL Jules Romains Unanimiste stuff (vide my Instigations, in pub. lib. if not obtainable elsewhere) :: that was an attempt, J. R. found something but not enough. That was 1911 and 12.
. . .
Not sure one can write TO the future. IF a man can manage to write IN the present it is about the apogee of human potential.32
In Instigations, Pound devotes fourteen pages to Jules Romains’ work, including a section on Unanimisme which is largely Romains’ “Reflexions.”33 Unanimisme is a theory about the importance of groups which requires, instead of the Newtonian analytic consciousness of humanity as a collection of individuals, an Einsteinian synthetic consciousness of a field in which groups of humanity without definite limits (like time and space, or like the emotions, for example, of love and friendship) merge with one another. In this field, as Romains observed of beings in space, “everything overcrosses, coincides, cohabits.”34 Although Pound retained his “full suspicion of agglomerates,”35 he recognized the potential poetic validity of Romains’ “organic consciousness.” As Romains wrote:
we must know the groups that englobe us, not by observation from without, but by an organic consciousness. And it is by no means sure that the rhythms will make their nodes in us, if we be not the centres of groups. We have but to become such.
. . .
The men who henceforth can draw the souls of groups to converge within themselves, will give forth the coming dream, and will gather, to boot, certain intuitions of human habit.36
Zukofsky, urged by Pound to form a group to foster the 1iterary life in America and given the editorship of Poetry for February 1931, named such a group “Objectivists.” In his “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931,” Zukofsky defined “An Objective” in poetry as “Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particu1ars.”37 This definition combined, as Pound advised, the ethic, the technique, and the times. The basis of the “Objectivist” poem, like the basis of Romains’ groups, is a convergence, and that convergence requires a political awareness, an “Organic consciousness” of “historic and contemporary” conditions. Although Romains found something, he did not find enough Zukofsky’s poetics contain two criteria of value not in Remains’ Unanimisme. For the first, “sincerity,” the poet must limit his “organic consciousness” to something more precise that “rhythms” which “make their nodes in us.” He must attend to “particulars” and the direction he extrapolates from them must be “inextricable.” For the second, “objectification,” the poet must realize the convergence of nothing so vague as the “souls of groups” for “the coming dream,” whose interpretation may depend on tolalitarian arbitration. He must achieve “what is objectively perfect,” whose determination depends not on any individual’s intentions but on matters of poetic craft.
Zukofsky agreed with Pound’s suspicion of agglomerates, and would have been happier if “Objectivism” could have been limited by the kind of precision of which only poems are capable, but yet his new poetics is based on consciousness of his present age, leaving behind the archaisms of his juvenalia.
Zukofsky responded to Pound on 20 March 1928 to both agree and disagree. Considering Pound’s criticism, Zukofsky realized that it was not the language of the eighteen poems that was archaic; it was the sensitivity that created the language. This sensibility was archaic because it was tied by nature to Spinoza’s natura naturana, which results in a Jewish humility unsupportive of the revolutionary philosophy described in “A Preface.” Zukofsky was tied yet to imperialism; all he could do (misquoting Pound’s “If a man can manage to write in the present”) was to “unite” the present. Unlike Bunyan’s Christian, Zukofsky could not entirely escape the masses’ “slough of despond.” But, even so, he realized a mass-consciousness more geniune than Romaine’ idealization of groups.38
“Natura naturans,” nature as creator, is a key phrase for Zukofsky. He took his definition of “An Objective” (for “Program: ‘Objectivists’ 1931”) from “A”-6, where, first, he opposed naturans with naturata: “Natura naturans—/Nature as Creator,/Natura Naturata —/Nature as created,” and, second, he paired it with “An Objective”:
- An objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,
- An objective—naturans—desire for what is objectively perfect,
- In extricably the direction of historic and
- contemporary particulars.39
The fact that “objective” is syntactically equivalent to naturans and not naturata signifies that the mind should be active and not passive and that the “Objectivist” poem should deal with conception, not merely perception. In Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, Pound wrote:
There are two opposed ways of thinking of a man: firstly, you may think of him as that toward which perception moves, as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions; secondly, you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing.”40
This distinction helped Pound distinguish Vorticism (“which is, roughly speaking, expressionism, neo-cubism, and imagism gathered together”) from futurism (which “is descended from impressionism”).41 Zukofsky insisted on the consequences of Pound’s distinction. As a necessary antidote to the dilutions of Imagisme in the twenties, “Objectivism” undercut mere phanopeia with logopoeic structures. As Williams put it, “The mind rather than the unsupported eye entered the picture.”42
In Ethics, Spinoza wrote that emotion may either be an ACTION (active) or a PASSION (passive), and that the goal of a wise man is the virtue of living according to reason, that is, of acting according to his own nature rather than suffering the nature of other things.43 At the same time, however, the result of this effort at responsibility is “humility” because one must become aware of the extent that our emotions are passive, that our natures are created instead of creating. Such humility, then, is Jewish not because Spinoza was Jewish but because, as Carl Rakosi wrote, “the historical way of looking at sin” is that one should take responsibility for the sins of others as if they were one’s own:
In this view every member of the “congregation of Israel” . . . that is, all Jews . . . has to acknowledge not only his own sins but also the sins of others as if they were his own, and carry the responsibility for them and beg to be forgiven for them and promise to reform, a thing not only illogical but unjust, though historically understandable, for the covenant which God made with the ancient Israelites was not with the individual but with the people as a whole.44
Zukofsky must have been aware that the Jew is in greater danger than the gentile of suffering the natures of others. His “feeling for mass-consciousness” was bivalent. He was sufficiently conscious of the mass, but he was unwilling to embrace it in its “slough of despond.” This, as he wrote, “does not work for victory.” Neither does it work for tolitarian victory. Instead, with the intentions of Unanimisme converted into the more precise terms of poetic craft, it made for a reliance on formal necessity, an insistence on poetic structure, and a regard for the poem as an object.
Nevertheless, Zukofsky’s sympathies were for the oppressed rather than the oppressors. when he identified with the masses in “Preface—1927,” they were “natural forces to come,” “being of the same quality as running waters,” which were due to displace “the economic appointers” of his generation. Like them, Zukofsky was obliged to “live with the whip of my being. . . . To escape it would mean I hide not only myself but betray others.” They would sting “the appointers” only as they burned, being damned.
Zukofsky’s disdain for the wealthy was not lessened by his life-long poverty. In “Critique of Antheil,” he despised the audience whom Antheil tormented with what must have provided “the basis” for the “new music” that Pound heralded. Their wealth did not redeem (as poverty would excuse) their ignorant inability to appreciate “your timespace, your musical machines in fourth-dimensional blues.” After Antheil’s “Mockery of the vortex sucking them, leaving them more and more the drenched wet rags they are,” Zukofsky noted that “from where I sit / I can look down into the expensive pit / And spit.”45
Permission to quote the letters by Ezra Pound at notes 30 and 32 from POUND/ZUKOFSKY, copyright © 1981, 1987 by the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.