Section 18 - “A”
I have discussed various aspects of “A” in previous sections: the inception of “A” with Zukofsky’s interest in and attendance of the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion on 5 April 1928, Williams’ role in stimulating that interest and Williams’ admiration of the beginning movements of “A”, and the relation of “A” to “Poem beginning ‘The’” and to The Waste Land in Sections 4 and 9; the evidence in “A” of Zukofsky’s translation of the Albert Einstein biography and of his trip to California in Section 11; the concepts of naturans, naturata, and “An Objective” in “A”-6 as they relate to other “Objectivist” writings in Sections 3, 15, and passim; the fact that the first seven movements of “A” were completed by l9 August 1930 in Section 11, and Zukofsky’s brief descriptions of “A”-7 in his letters to Harriet Monroe of 12 and 14 October 1930 in Section 13. I have yet, however, to discuss the relation of “A” to Pound’s translation of and commentary on Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi Prega” in the July 1928 issue of the Dial (the topic of this part), and to present the correspondence between Pound and Zukofsky after Zukofsky sent “A” 1-7 to Pound in November 1930 (the topic of the next part).
I. Donna Mi Prega
In “American Poetry 1920-1930,” Zukofsky wrote that Robert Frost, by “continued tinkering with accent,” could not achieve the “melody” and the “conversational overtones” which Pound achieved in the Cantos by attention to quantity: “Pound’s contribution is quantity, and the dealers in stock and trade sonnets and iambs have never taken up his challenge. They have also dissipated the sonnet as a form; it is time someone resurrected it.”1 Since this survey of American poetry was not finished until 2 June 1930,2 this challenge might be seen as an elegant condensation of some comments Pound made on the sonnet published in “Donna Mi Prega by Guido Cavalcanti with Traduction and Commentary by Ezra Pound: Followed by Notes and a Consideration of the Sonnet,” in the Dial of July 1928.
In this “Consideration,” Pound claimed the sonnet was a stunted form:
The sonnet was not a great poetic invention. The sonnet occurred automatically when some chap got stuck in the effort to make a canzone. His “genius” consisted in the recognition of the fact that he had come to the end of his subject-matter.
. . .
Historically the sonnet, the “little tune,” had already in Guido’s day, become a danger to composition. . . . It marks the beginning of the divorce of words and music.
. . .
NOTE: All this is not so unconnected with our own time as might seem. Those writers to whom vers libre was a mere “runnin’ dahn th’ road” videlicet escape, and who were impelled thereto by no inner need of, or curiosity concerning, the quantitative element in metric; having come to the end of that lurch, lurch back not into experiment with the Canzone or any other unexplored form, but into the stock and trade sonnet.3
The ideas in this final note were in part repeated for Zukofsky in Pound’s letter to him of 28 October 1930, which recommended that Zukofsky edit for the Poetry issue a historic section to disinfect the “state of things . . . covered by dilutions of” Pound, Williams, Eliot, and perhaps Cummings, “plus mess caused by reaction against these dilutes. I mean the Tennysonian sonnet etc. now being done.”4 Those who reacted against the escape versifiers were equally incapable of the virtue that was originally intended to justify the new liberty. Even worse, in returning to accentual metrics and standard forms, they lacked not only the musical contribution of quantity but also denied themselves the freedom in which they might experimentally discover it themselves.
Pound’s publication in the July issue of the Dial was important to Zukofsky beyond its useful ideas regarding the sonnet and the reactionist writers of sonnets. In it Pound made clear a distinction which Zukofsky found useful in his essay on Reznikoff (Section 8) and in his translation of Taupin’s essay on Salmon (Section 17). Reznikoff’s metaphor and simile, like Salmon’s “non-metaphorical image,” is not ornamental; “it is a confirmation of similarities strongly felt together” in the object. It is not, as Taupin put it, “qualitative,” it is “interpretive.” Pound wrote:
I spoke to him [T. E. Hulme] one day of the difference between Guido’s precise interpretive metaphor, and the Petrarchan fustian and ornament, pointing out that Guido thought in accurate terms; that the phrases correspond to definite sensations undergone; in fact, very much like what I had said in my earlier preface to the Sonnets and Ballate.5
In this preface, dated 15 November 1910, Pound wrote that Cavalcanti was “more keen in his understanding, more precise in his expression” than any “psychologist of the emotions,” for “we have in him no rhetoric, but always a true description” of the sensation. Further, Pound wrote of “absolute” symbol, metaphor, and rhythm: “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence.” And “It is the poet’s business that this correspondence be exact, i.e., that it be the emotion which surrounds the thought expressed.”6 An “absolute” is “interpretive” in the same sense that a good translation is interpretive: it neither creates a new thing altogether nor simply transforms the literal accidents of the original.7 Finally, Pound wrote in “A Retrospect”:
As to Twentieth century poetry . . . It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretive power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.8
Pound’s essay in the Dial did more than assert the essential importance of the Imagiste principle of exactitude; it concretely proved its viabilty. The fact that it could be embodied in a form as complex as Cava1canti’s “Donna Mi Prega” was an inspiration to Zukofsky.
In the commentary on the poem, Pound mentioned “Bach’s opinions on the fugue” and compared the fugue to the canzone: “The canzone was to poets of this period what the fugue was to musicians in Bach’s time. It is a highly specialized form, having its own self-imposed limits.”9 Zukofsky quoted this passage and the following, which describes the canzone’s “self-imposed limits” in terms of numbers of syllables and terminal and internal rhymes, in First Half of “A”-9, which he published by mimeograph in 1940. There, Pound’s two translations of “Donna Mi Prega,” his own “A foin lass bodders,” and Jerry Reisman’s “A dame ast me” were presented as analogues or prototypes of “First Half of ‘A’-9.”10
“A”-9 was not begun until 1938;11 however, Pound’s comparison of Bach’s fugue to the canzone made an immediate impression on Zukofsky. He began to consider the fugue as the appropriate musical type for the structure of “A” as a whole. “A” should be capable of the structural intricacy of the canzone; it had already begun with Bach’s Passion as a theme. The fugal form was indeed consonant with the Passion’s own rich, verbal, spiritual, musical, and psychological counterpoint. “A” 1-4 were finished or at least already planned before Zukofsky read Pound’s publication in the Dial. “A”-5 was written by 18 September 1929.12 Starting with “A”-5, then, the fugue became part of the poem’s critical foundations, part of what Zukofsky called “the continuously present analysis of his work.”13
Zukofsky’s first mention of the fugue, however, was not until 1930, in “American Poetry 1920-1930,” where the term describes the “continual friskiness” of Williams’ Kora in Hel1,14 and in “A”-6 (composed in the summer of 1930) where the concept occurs three times.
In the first instance, Zukofsky speaks of the dispersion of the Jews:
- . . . tesselation as sands of the sea,
- The Speech no longer spoken and not even a Wall to worship,
- Holy, laundered into a blank and washed over
- Tradition’s pebbles, the mouth full,
- The fugue a music heap,
- only by the name’s grace music.15
Here the fugue is presented as the appropriate form for one who is burdened with the remnants of tradition. The Jews’ burden strengthens them, as the pebbles which Demosthenes put into his mouth improved his elocution. Similarly, the fugue’s intricate, contrapuntal requirements should increase the poet’s effectiveness.
The second instance:
- Laughter. Kay, naked,
- Pajamas flung thru the crook of his elbow:
- Zoo-kawnkaw-someone opens his mouth and you copy.
- When you’re phosphates, they’ll look you up and discover
- For six years you was out of a job—
- But J.S.B.—Polyphony—’e was a Latin instructor—
- Ye daughters!—tiaras, tantrum, tiaras—or taught ’em
- something of that sort or other—
- Six jobs, six themes at once and fughatta, and all music—
- the sea, yeh, yeh, the sea.16
Appropriately for the sixth movement, there are six each of years, jobs, and themes. Although perhaps not the six main themes of the movement, six themes of this passage might be identified as (1) onomatopoeia (Zoo-kaw-kaw” or Zukofsky, and “tiaras, tantrum, tiaras” or Kay’s attempt at a Latin declension), examples of the “clear music,” so-named in the opening of “A”-2, at its most obvious: the melody in which the thought moves, (2) conversational mimicry (”someone opens his mouth and you copy,” and so forth), demonstrations of what a quantitative metric is capable of, (3) the type of the creative artist struggling against an indifferent society (in Kay’s comparison of Zukofsky and Bach), (4) Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (”Ye daughters!” the double chorus’s opening invocation, here applying to Bach’s students), (5) reflexive poetics (”Polyphony” and “Six jobs, six themes at once and fughatta, and all music—”), and (6) the false undervaluation of the labor of being a poet (”out of a job” is a thing of disgrace, yet “job” does not include, as would the Marxist labor theory of value, the “six jobs” of composing this intricately-themed contrapuntal “music”).
Lastly, in the third instance, Zukofsky repeated his own challenge. In essence, this represents his own realization, inspired by Pound’s publication in the Dial, that his long poem ought to have an overall structural rationalization:
- The design
- Of the fugue
- Be transferred
- To poetry?
- At eventide, cool hour of rest
- Who rests?
- That is Venus come up!
- And I,
- How shall I—
- Her soles new as the sunned black of her grave turf,
- With all this material?
- To what distinction,
- Horses, she saw?
- Seventh Movement: “There are different techniques”17
Zukofsky s question modulates through elements of cultural, cosmic, and mundane histories to the more pertinent question as to how he should apply the fugal form to what next concerns him, someone’s perception of horses. His answer is twofold. First, it is “My— / Seventh Movement, whose subject is the perception of saw-horses, and, second, in the subtitle to the movement, it is the fact that there are different techniques.
These three instances of the concept of fugue in “A”-6, and especially these final questions and answers, applying specifically to the seventh movement, are instances of Zukofsky’s theme of reflexive poetics. The poem itself, breaking new poetic ground, educates its own readers in how to best read it, effectively and concretely demonstrating the principles on which it is based.
In his notes on the canzone, Pound had recourse to Dante’s comments on the canzone in, as Pound spelled it, De Vulgari Eloquio, “the eloquence of the vernacular,” the mother tongue. Here Pound referred to his own work as an advance on Dante’s: “My own brief study of Arnaut Daniel may throw a further light on earlier phases of the canzone in the ‘lingua materna.’”18 In his study, Pound claimed En Arnaut “tried to make almost a new language, or at least to enlarge the Langue d’Oc, and make new things possible.”19 In fact, Pound’s study, like his translation of and commentary on “Donna Mi Prega,” throws light, not only on Daniel’s and Dante’s mother tongue but also, as does any advance in poetry, on Pound’s own. Zukofsky fully understood this, for when he wrote to Monroe on 12 October 1930 he described “A” incidentally, as a contemporary version of Dante’s De Vulgaria Eloquentia.20 Furthermore, in “‘Recencies’ in Poetry,” Zukofsky wrote that “A”-7 “attempted to resolve the writer’s criticism of poetry into the movement of the poem.”21 It would itself present the “Objectivists” critical principles.
One such principle for Zukofsky was an expanded concept of the musical values of poetry, so that there could be “different techniques.” Only by this expansion can “the fugue / Be transferred / To poetry.“ Pound discussed this in the Dial:
The reader will not arrive at a just appreciation of the canzone unless he be aware that there are three kinds of melopoeia, that is to say: poems are made to speak, to chant, and to sing. This canzone, Guido’s poetry in general, and the poems of mediaeval Provence and Tuscany in general, were all made to be sung. Relative estimates of value inside these periods must take count of the cantabile values.22
For this statement, Pound drew upon what he had written for the New Age in March 1918 as a music critic under the pseudonym William Atheling. Matters of substance from these reviews were collected and published in Chicago by Pascal Covici in 1927 as Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony with Supplementary Notes. That Zukofsky studied this text is indisputable. He quoted “Atheling” in “A”-1:
- Atheling—“There are different techniques,
- Men write to be read, or spoken,
- Or declaimed, or rhapsodized,
- And quite differently to be sung.”23
“A”, therefore, increasingly depended on the certain blending of words or syllables to give a musical equivalent of actual experience, the appropriate technique for a work which like the canzone was meant as a marriage of words and music. Pound conceived his translation of “Donna Mi Prega” and Zukofsky conceived “A” as a step toward healing the divorce of words and music. Quantitative metrics and experiment with the canzone/fugue (forms invented more-or-less prior to the divorce) are means by which they felt they accomplished this. Accentual metrics and standard forms (”the stock and trade sonnet and iamb”) were, as the melodic and conversational falsities of as good a poet as Robert Frost testified, too rigid to register the subtlety shifting emotional values of actual speech, actual experience.
“A”-7, begun in 1928 after Zukofsky read the Dial for July 1928 and finished finally by 19 August 1930,24 was the “different technique” by which the breach in music and words could be healed. Accordingly, he wrote Pound on 8 September 1930 that it was the resurrection of the sonnet that he had requested.25 “A”-7 was the first thing of his own he considered including in his issue of Poetry (see Section 13). Zukofsky’s feeling for the musical integrity of “A”-7 was eventually confirmed by his friend Tibor Serly, the musician and composer. On 7 December 1931 Zukofsky wrote Pound that Serly had secretly taken the trouble to analyse the rhythms of the poem into musical notation and had discovered that it had a complex and ideal rhythmic structure.26
II. “A” 1-7
Pound received the last of “A” 1-7 by 27 November 1930 when he replied:
recd. one development of fugue or fuagal etc. produced by Ludwig von Zuk und Sohn, on not always digested meat of his forebears but with a ditional and final contortion or fugal (quasi) termination in form of canzone (miscalled 7 sonnets) but still a canzone a la sestina but with 14 lines to the strophe.
Crit. wd. be
(A.) eliminate top dressing inherited. . . .
Wd. be (B.) the purely rational and commentatarian expositions a bit perfessorial in parts.
. . .
. . . ought to end with a “to be continued”
At least I don’t think it ought to go on after your seven wollups. NOT unless you are making it a life work. Which; if I remember rightly; was not yr/ orig. intent.
“A” a work not in but showing progress.
You have not wasted the year or however long it has been.
I strongly suggest that YOU send me a crit. of it before I say anything more about it.27
Pound’s characterization of “A”-7 as “a canzone a la sestina” was his recognition of the fact of its relation to his study of Arnaut Daniel and his translation of and commentary on “Donna Mi Prega.” It is his acknowledgment that “A”-7 throws a further light on the capability of the mother tongue (against the darkness of non-qualitative dilutors and reactionaries), and it expresses his admiration of the formal intricacy of “A”-7. The sestina is the most complicated of the verse forms initiated by Pound’s admired troubadours, and is alleged to have been invented by Arnaut Daniel himself.
Pound perhaps surmised that “A” would not be a life’s work from Zukofsky’s statement nearly two years before that he had envisioned only twenty-four movements.28 If seven movements could be completed in two years, twenty-four ought to take only seven.
Zukofsky responded in full to Pound’s request for a criticism on “A” on 12 December 1930.29 He began by declaring that “A” was as far as he could presently see a life’s work; he could only write two movements each year and had to finish a heroic twenty-four. With this note, one sees that the number of movements in “A” principally derived from the poem’s epic constitution and the fact that Homer’s lliad and Odyssey each have twenty-four books. In this, Zukofsky was building upon the Joycean model;30 however, unlike Ulysses, he wished to reflect not the Homeric themes but the Homeric structure. There may have been other justifications for the number. Zukofsky was an avid numerologist. It could reflect the twenty-four hours in the day, for example, or the alphabet (like Williams’ alphabet of the trees in “The Botticelian Trees”) from “A”, the poem as a whole, to Z, Zukofsky as its author, representing the universal potential of the language.
Replying to Pound’s description that “A” 1-7 were developed “on not always digested meat of his forebears,” Zukofsky claimed that “A” was initially conceived not on the model of the Cantos but in conscious reaction to The Waste Land. Specifically, Zukofsky wrote that when he began “A”-1 and -2, he had read only the Cantos in Instigations, Lustra, and Poems 1918-1921, not “Canto II” and not the Paris edition of “Cantos 1-16.” Although he read A Draft of the Cantos 17-27 (London: John Rodker, 1928) after finishing “A”-2, “A” was already begun to fulfill the intention of “Poem beginning ‘The,’” in which he had tried (and as a whole failed), while shunning Eliot’s prosody and polish (and failing to achieve his clarity), to prove that the land was not only unwasted but could produce new life. Zukofsky took issue with Eliot’s grandiose synchronic motifs by composing “The” in a discursive diachronic mode, but as a whole the poem did not transcend parody. “A” was intended to do so.
On the other hand, the fact that Zukofsky did not initially conceive “A” on the model of the Cantos does not mitigate the fact of Pound’s great influence. The high incidence of hyphenated terms and the coincidence of the word “hyaline” in “A”-2 as in “Canto II” show an influence not structural but textural.31 Also, many of the principles important to Zukofsky and relevant to “A” were, if not learned from Pound, at least confirmed by him. For example, Zukofsky claimed almost complete adherence to the principles in Pound’s “A Few Don’ts.”32
His letter of 12 December continues by describing how he returned to a synchronic mode for “A”, but sought to unify the poem by his original use of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. In this, he was working immediately from line 309 of “Poem beginning ‘The,’” “Our God immortal such Life as is our God,” which was the first line of each of the four strophes of a poem Zukofsky wrote in 1925, “For a Thing by Bach,” then published in Pagany of October-December 1930. This poem is repetitive and symmetrical, but its regularity is a matter not of accent or syllables but of tone and timing. It appears to have been designed, as its title suggests, as a lyric for a piece of music. Its diction is as abstract as the diction that Zukofsky later wielded in poems such as “Memory of V. I. Ulianov” but without any of its later power: “apportion us thy rest,” “vaunt not against us,” “thy vault of strength,” “Hope nor force wasted,” “if like to errant stars we flutter,” and ending “(as to the immortelle / Form, color, long after the gathering, is given). Our wish: / Give measureless your urge that is our strength still increate-”33 It is in theme an almost messianic, devotional glorification, foreshadowing Zukofsky’s later fascination with the theme of the Passion, and in intention a marriage of word and music, but in technique and structure nothing like “A”.
Zukofsky went on to remind Pound that when he began “A”, he had read Cantos only as distinct poems with different subjects; he did not imagine Pound’s purpose for the Cantos as a whole. If he had read “Cantos XIV, XV, XVI,” and others with American themes, he would not have begun “A”; however, since he was unable at the time to write brief lyrics (excepting only “Two Dedications” in 1929), he could only persist. Zukofsky realized that he duplicated Pound’s efforts, but felt it was an accident of his youth and his inability to afford the necessary books. Yet he thought that he could rescue the poem by focusing on the particulars of his experience—his personality, place, and time—his unique emotions directing the prosody and his peculiar technical gift twisting the language to set his work apart from the work of any of his predecessors.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged the immediate inspiration of Pound’s statements in the July 1928 issue of the Dial for his subsequent movements. Specifically, “A”-7 was, in Pound’s words, an “effort to make a canzone” and not get stuck automatically with the sonnet because “he had come to the end of his subject-matter.” Zukofsky said that he meant “A”-7 to reinforce his criticism in “A”-1 of the writers of sonnets whose repetitions and obfuscations pretended lineage from the classics just as the inane and superficial patronizers of the arts after the performance of the Passion falsely identified themselves with the cultural elite. Moreover, “A”-7 also took up Pound’s criticism of “those writers to whom vers libre was a mere . . . escape,” who “having come to the end of that lurch, lurch back not into experiment with the Canzone or any other unexplored form, but into the stock and trade sonnet.”34 Zukofsky felt that in his experimental canzone he avoided coming to the end of his subject-matter, and avoided writing a mere sequence of sonnets, because he was inspired not by mere ideas but by the play of themes which he kept spinning together in the air, attentive to the appearance of their shifting configurations. This process was the same, Zukofsky claimed, for the poem as a whole. The themes originally configured in the first two movements were variously reconfigured in the other movements, each time appearing in a new context of particulars and from a new vantage.
The first twelve movements, Zukofsky indicated, would carry on this play of themes registered in varying historic and contemporary particulars and the second twelve would begin “An” and experiment with translating into the English language the possibilities that Pound suggested in the Dial for the canzone. In fact, only “A”-8 and -10 register the kind of particulars registered in “A” 1-6. Perhaps Zukofsky’s interpretation of and relation to the contemporary situation after 1940 did not justify continuing that scheme. By then, he had effectively isolated himself within his marriage, and after Paul was born in 1943 this isolation intensified. “A”-9, a double canzone,” “A”-11, a love devotional “for Celia and Paul,” and “A”-12, an autobiographical poetical treatise (136 pages in the collected edition), are more introspective. Although “A” 14-19, perhaps 20 and 21, and 22-24 begin with “An” (or those two letters), they are not in any structural sense canzoni, but it may be said that in part at least they reproduce in English a virtue of the canzone, its marriage of music and word.
Next in this letter of 12 December 1930, Zukofsky tried to identify the passages of possible weakness in the poem, requested of Pound whether specific weaknesses he could see could be strengthened by any method he knew, and asked Pound not to spare his work if it were imitating the Cantos. In comparison to other poems appearing with it in his Poetry issue, Zukofsky wrote that “A”-7 was less decorative but more a departure from the English standard than Williams’ “The Botticellian Trees,” and it was less incisive of direct experience than Rakosi’s “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” (where Rakosi was not imitating the fashion). In his opinion, it was not, however, as Pound called it, a “contortion,” although he was unsure of Pound’s meaning. In other words, Zukofsky felt that “A”-7 was more accessible than Williams’ poem but less than Rakosi’s. Accessibility is a matter of poetics, which creates the “language” of a poem. Zukofsky’s concern is not trivial. He so much wrenches English diction and syntax in his attempt to make something distinctive, or, like En Arnaut, “make new things possible” in his language, that he challenges the comprehension of the native speaker.
Zukofsky was worried, as he confessed to Pound (betraying his admiration of Pound’s ability to retain spoken and conversational values while, as he put it in “American Poetry 1920-1930,” “communizing quotation”), that “A” was inaccessible unless it were seriously chanted or intoned, even in passages that were originally speech or discursive commentary. In this it differed from the Cantos, since his poem had to be approached not as speech but, concluding his discussion of “A” on a positive note, as melodic design.35 Perhaps on this note Zukofsky realized that he need not be worried. The fact that his poetics requires a special approach to effectively realize its complex intentions, both isolates and redeems “A”. “There are,” after all, “different techniques.”36 Meaningful uniqueness might create difficulty of understanding but also rewards one’s effort to master it; the difficulty of “A” gave the work its being.
Pound responded on 25 December 1930:
Re / yrs / re / “A”
I concurrrrr. I see no reason fer yr/ being discouraged. No pale regrets. And printing “7” in yr/ issue has my O.K.
The whole thing is an advance. The Whistlerian dictum that a picture ought to be finished at every stroke of the brush, comes from Japan and has to be taken cum grano. (Danger of a thing that stops at the end of every chapter and yet DONT stop.
Also, thinking of Zukofsky’s statement that his only conscious design to unify “A” was based on the line from “The” and the Passion, Pound added: “You can’t unconsciously multitudinously incarnadine the sea.”37 Pound implied that the original on which “A” depended is so obvious and so unique that its dependence could not have been accidental. At any rate, Pound advised Zukofsky to go on with “A”.
Pound and Zukofsky continued to discuss “A” through the thirties. Aside from notes on practical matters regarding, in 1931 and 1932, the inclusion of “A” 1-7 in An “Objectivists” Anthology and, in 1933, the inclusion of “A” 5-7 in Pound’s Active Anthology, they were concerned with mainly two questions: (1) its length (the question of whether it would sustain a life’s work), and (2) its dependence and departure from Pound’s advances (its relation to the Cantos).
. . . I pussnly dont believe “A” is geared for a life work. I think if you cut if off about the length of “Homage to S.P.”, you wd. hold something.
Not because I objekk to peepul writing epicts;
Me, I am ritin another opry. More musical.38
Pound’s unargued opinion did not move Zukofsky,39 and so Pound later added: “re/‘A’ not a question of weight but of AGE. of course you may be precoc=ior than I am, but still / my calklashun wd. be you cd/ finish a pome of reezonable length now to now=ish and do a longer one when you grow up.”40 But in this important matter Zukofsky was not to be mastered. “A” was not finished until 1974: in the collected edition, over 750 pages later.
On 22 December 1931, Pound had repeated that he was against “A” as a poem of some length.
Wot you posterlate is an abstracter kind of poesy than my generation went in for. Waller TOOT.
If the alternative is McLeishing fer KRRists sake go on and do fugues and double cannons and letter puzzles and sequences of pure consonants with no god damn trace of god damn lichercgoor in ’em AT ALL.41
Pound also referred to the poem’s “incomprehensible sections,” to which Zukofsky replied that the poem could not be abstruse since he followed Pound’s principles in “A Few Don’ts” as if they were his own, and that he doubted that Pound’s phrase “abstracter kind of poesy” described “A” 1-7 because beyond its melodic design it invariably conveyed or intended to convey a meaning.42
Yet the poem’s specific syntax, Zukofsky’s twisting of English, make reading the poem difficult in spite of its adherence to the Imagiste principles. Partly, this is the result of what is not there to be governed by “A Few Don’ts”—the poem’s ellipses, which Rakosi claimed saved the poem from banality. Partly, also, this difficulty is the result of Zukofsky’s rigorous efforts to increase the structural burden of his verse. He wrote Pound that the Cantos took more advantage of cinematic montage (being less of narrative) than “A” 1-7 but that “A” was more like a fugue than the Cantos because the Cantos was polyphonic whereas “A” was duophonic, and because the many voices in the Cantos were angels whereas the two voices in “A” were derived from one human being and were differentiated by theme.43 Zukofsky’s cinematic distinction is clear and might have been based on Taupin’s review in Poetry where he associated Salmon’s method of composition with the work of Eisenstein (Section 17), but Zukofsky’s distinction between angelic polyphony and human bi-vocalism is both unclear and original. Since “A” 1-7 seems to be as polyphonous as the Cantos (as far, that is, as polyphony can be approximated by the necessarily linear arrangement of the poem), Zukofsky’s distinction and the structural burden carried by the fugal nature of “A” 1-7 can not be clear until we have learned exactly what he meant by his divided human voice.
There does not appear to be any hint of an explanation until “A”-5 where, having there begun with the fugue as a compositional principle, Zukofsky must have realized the necessity for at least two voices to establish a fundamental thematic counterpoint. One might suppose that Zukofsky’s two voices are music and thought:
- Those loved seeking their own completion, in a voice, their
- own voice sounding—
- Melody, sequence, concepcione, melody,
- O head, think, how climbing, you would be,
- O heart,
Or, more simply: “The thought in the melody moves.”45 But this pair is neither thematic nor divided. Zukofsky attempted their union throughout the work. Trying again, one might suppose they were structurally represented—by the alternation between two margins, but these are not thematically consistent.
The following passage, the most direct statement of the idea, suggests that the split is between the themes associated with the Passion and the themes of Zukofsky’s more contemporary particulars:
- And I:
- I shall continue one song
- Tho’ its sound go two ways,
- My two voices
- The words Matthew weeps
- (Plaint Clavicemba1o)—
- Corale, the kids in the loft
- (O love untold, love lying close);
- Or say, words have knees,
- water’s in them, all joints crack,—
- (Yet, N.Y. tonight, the rat-lofts
- with the light of a trefoil46
However, Zukofsky’s reflexive poetics is not that direct. Although the Passion theme, rarely dominant, is linked by the repetition of its key phrases (in italics in the text) to corresponding and associated themes throughout, the set of these themes is too complex to be resolved by the reader in any meaningful way into only one of Zukofsky’s two voices.
A less difficult challenge and more inclusive distinction is posed by the paired concepts Zukofsky drew from Spinoza: naturans and naturata. These suggest that one divide all Zukofsky’s themes into two groups: received themes and original themes. In “A”-6:
- Natura Naturans—
- Nature as creator,
- Natura Naturata—
- Nature as created
- He who creates
- Is a mode of these inertial systems—
- The flower—leaf around leaf wrapped around
- the center 1eaf47
Here are the roots of Zukofsky’s identification of the poet with “natural dispensation,” with which Tyler and Ford disagreed in the “Symposium” of the Poetry issue (Section 16). “Nature as creator” is immediately apposed to “He who creates”; “Nature as created” to “these inertial systems.” Naturans, being “a mode of” naturata, as yang is a mode of yin, the two wrap around each other, like the circulation of the light that creates the Golden Flower of the Tao,48 to create “the flower—leaf around leaf wrapped around / the center leaf,” which image links Zukofsky’s two voices to the everlasting flower metaphor for the music of the Passion in the previous movements of “A”. In “A”-2:
- Johann Sebastian . . . old . . .
- Listen . . .
- Listen, Kay . . . the music is in the flower,
- Leaf around leaf wrapped around the center leaf,
- Profuse but clear the outer leaf breaking on space;
- Bountiful the flower, there is space to the central heart49
The first thematic voice records “these inertial systems”—what is given by his environment for him to speak, such as the Passion and the lines attributed in “A”-1 to “those who had been at the concert and in “A”-2 to Kay. The Images of this voice might also be regarded in Pound’s distinction as “objective,” and the Images of the second voice be regarded as “subjective” (see Section 8). The two voices are then registers of received and original themes.
A reexamination of the passage above reaffirms this hypothesis: “the words Matthew weeps” is in the first voice, naturata; “Or say, words have knees” is in the second, naturans. From the beginning of “A”-5, Zukofsky’s “conversation” with Kay is resolved into these two voices:
- Kay: Flowers over the heart,
- Offal (I’m kiddin’ sure)
- Offal-and-What, the imagination,
- In case of emergency follow the
- next lunatic.
This registers something received, with a bit of folk wisdom from Kay as “Anybody, but a particular Anybody”50; however, Zukofsky’s response, his rationalizing, comic juxtapositioning, and mimicry, is purely original:
- The reason we’re not further along (But this is a swell sun,
- brother comrade,)
- Ask Faust aquaplaning, Go-ethe, his spiritual (whew)!
- (Hu!) he-er vent Hel-ee-na squat from our Sidewalks,
Bernard MacFadden was the publisher of a love-confession magazine, True Story, which between 1919 and 1926 established “a record of rapid growth probably unparalleled in magazine publishing.”52 Zukofsky’s comparison of Faust to True Story and the German-accented parody of Helen in lewd posture could not be naturata.
The passage in “A”-6 which defines “An Objective,” analytically restates the wrapping-around of the naturans and naturata voices (the grace note, “Sea,” beginning this passage has already been associated with the environment of “nature as created”)53:
- Obligato, the melody, obligato,
- The melody, the rest are accessory,—
- Kay, but Anybody (caps) a particular,
- Says you! my one voice; my other—is
- An objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,
- An objective—naturans—desire for what is objectively
- Inextricably the direction of historic and
- contemporary particulars.54
The words of Kay, and Kay himself (”a particular”) are in Zukofsky’s first voice—naturata—(“says you! you one voice”). His other voice is “An objective—naturans,” the inextricably and objectively perfect, focused object created by Zukofsky from the “particulars” which he received from the world and which he sometimes reported in his first voice. The objective, to put it in somewhat Poundian terms, is to make it new, to weave received particulars into an original Image. Just as the poem is distinct from the elements of its content, so “An objective” is distinct from “historic and contemporary particulars,” and Zukofsky’s one voice from the other. And yet they wrap around each other to form the “central heart,” their meanings interrelate to create the ultimate meaning of the poem.
Since “A”-7 was intended to prove more effectively the transference of the fugue to poetry, Zukofsky’s conversation with Kay there appropriately assumes a more dramatic structural role. “I,” the persona of the naturans voice, who insists on the primacy of the imagination and recreates wooden saw-horses (straddling the excavation and closing the street) into a grotesque Pegasus (with “airs” and “streaming guts”), emphatically altercates throughout the poem, often in quick alternation, with “you,” the persona of the naturata voice, who insists on the primacy of the real and reestablishes the fact (that “there are no airs,” “no singing gut”).
Their argument extends through the entire poem, but their distinctive roles are only partly labelled, beginning in the second sonnet with “Says you! Then I—” which verbally links the two voices here to the “An objective” passage in “A”-6. In the fourth sonnet:
- Two voices:—Airs? No birds. Taxi? No air—
- Says one! Then I—Are logs?! Two legs stand “A”—
- Pace them! in revolution are the same!55
The naturata voice insists there are no airs, and, above this passage, that their stomachs are logs and their legs are wood, but the naturans voice disbelieves they are “logs” (”Are logs?!”) For him the horses have stomachs and legs.
Though these voices are not always clearly differentiated in “A”-7, the tension between them creates a dynamic movement which revolves each voice around the other to form the whole a in wonderful way. The words and their music are full of comic and spirited effects.
Such is Zukofsky’s thematic bi-vocalism. We now must admit the truth of his distinction between his and Pound’s methods. The Cantos is surely not resolved in terms so clear and effective. Zukofsky’s work has an added structural burden: the resolution of all his themes into these two voices. He reduces a complex thematic and angelic polyphony (as in the Cantos) into a simpler thematic and human duophony.
Pound similarly claimed that all the themes of the Cantos were to be resolved into three thematic groups. He wrote his father on 11 April 1927:
Afraid the whole damn poem is rather obscure, especially in fragments. Have I ever given you outline of main scheme ::: or whatever it is?
1. Rather like, or unlike subject and response and counter subject in fugue.
A.A. Live man goes down into world of Dead
C.B. The “repeat in history”
B.C. The “magic moment” or moment of metamorphosis, bust thru from quotidien into “divine or permanent world.” Gods, etc.56
W. B. Yeats reported in 1928 similarly:
Now at last he explains that it will, when the hundredth canto is finished, display a structure like that of a Bach Fugue. There will be no plot, no chronical of events, no logic of discourse, but the themes, the Descent into Hades from Homer, a Metamorphosis from Ovid, and, mixed with these, mediaeval or modern historical characters. . . . He has shown me upon the wall a photograph of a Cosimo Tura decoration in three compartments; in the upper the Triumph of Love and the Triumph of Chastity, in the middle Zodiacal signs, and in the lower certain events in Cosimo Tura’s day. The Descent and the Metamorphosis—A B C D and J K L M—his fixed elements, took the place of the Zodiac, the archetypal persons—X Y Z—that of the Triumphs, and certain modern events—his letters that do not recur—that of those events in Cosimo Tura’s day.57
It appears that Pound applied his ideas as published in the Dial in July 1928 to his own work a year before Zukofsky began “A”. One can see the Cantos on these grounds, like Zukofsky’s flower of “leaf around leaf,” as a vortex of “ply over ply.”58 Of mythical, historical, and personal archetypes all in fugal counterpoints. However, one must acknowledge that Pound did not succeed with the application of the fugal structure as well as Zukofsky. Not only was Pound’s plan of writing 100 Cantos and then going back to revise their “drafts” later abandoned, but his thematic scheme is more superficially imposed on the text. Zukofsky’s scheme is texturally and dramatically se1f-evident and resolved.
Permission to quote the letter by Ezra Pound at note 40 from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Permission to quote the letters by Ezra Pound at notes 4, 27, 37, 38, and 41 from POUND/ZUKOFSKY, copyright © 1981, 1987 by the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.