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Louis Zukofsky

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Hélène Aji — Université du Maine (France)

Useless, Usable, Useful: Louis Zukofsky’s American Designs

This piece is 2,000 words or about 5 printed pages long

When, in 1931, Ezra Pound suggested that Louis Zukofsky might come to Europe, to Rapallo, and join his “Ezuniversity,” William Carlos Williams diplomatically replied that this promising younger poet would benefit from more exposure to America:

Dear Willyum the Wumpus
How badly does Zuk. want to get to yourup? and how badly ought he. Until his last letter (in which the question is not mentioned) I had held the view that he ought to get some sort of root in N.Y. before wandering. And I have allus held that sometime somehow God Damn etc. something ought to git started on the bloody spot (especially as old Europe aint what she wuz.).
However if it means killing off yet another generation… (Pound to Williams, 22 Nov. 1931)

Dear Ezra:
Aw can’t see that Zuke needs Urup just now, not at any pussonal sacrifice on his friends’ part leastwise. And he has a couple uv friends, here and there who might help him. No, his place just now is here facing the harbor, and the whited Statue of Miss Liberty–which his cubicle in Brooklyn faces very pleasantly–if it does face north and a french window his only bulwark against the wind. But he has a private bath and toilet to boot. Leave him lay for the moment at least. (Williams to Pound, 8 Dec. 1931)

The fact that Zukofsky’s New York harbor view includes the Statue of Liberty is of course not just incidental to Williams and it is a striking contrast to the Italian Cinqueterre exoticism from which Pound is writing; nor is it by chance that Williams insists on Zukofsky’s private bathroom and toilet. In the back of Williams’s mind, ever since his first look at Stieglitz’s photographs of “the city of ambition” and its harbor, and at Duchamp’s “fountain,” there has been the preoccupation with an autochtonic art, one that not only integrates the objects of American daily life and constructs them into emblems of the American reality, but also and above all one that becomes part of this landscape, an object among its objects. Exposure to the north winds implies exposure to America and its “climate”: an exposure to the tacky and delusional transcendence of “Miss Liberty” and to the standardized comfort of a “toilet” of one’s own, these ambivalent signs of energization and stagnation, revolution and conformity.

In his poetic enterprises, Zukofsky responds in the most extreme and fascinating manner to both the encyclopaedic thrust of a Pound or a Williams and their urge to establish a poetry in situ for America. Moving–like them–away from any conception of poetry as confined to the aestheticizing and decorative modes, a poetry “useless” to man, and stepping–like Williams, but unlike Pound–beyond the utilitarian idea of a “usable” art, one ancillary to ideologies and their didactic and prescriptive aims, Zukofsky works at making “useful” art in the twofold sense of the term: art with a way and art with an objective. His texts are “useful” as Williams’s “machines made of words” can be, but in a more rationalized or standardized manner: they are means of production as well as products, matrixes and results. In that sense, his poems possess the “diagrammatic” quality that Gilles Deleuze recognizes in Francis Bacon’s paintings: as he defines it in Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation [Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation] (Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1981), the “diagram” is what makes the artistic project extant in the finished work, thus producing an object that stands witness to the work that presided over its production, that compounds the project and its actualization, and above all shifts the receiver’s attention from product to process or “labor,” to take up one of Zukofsky’s concepts. The main interest of this shift is the way it disrupts our relation to the art work, forcing us to break away from fetishism and the aestheticizing delusion of the art work’s special status in a world of otherwise ordinary objects. The Deleuzian notion of the diagram indeed also applies in the analysis of procedural poetry, in which the compositional rule becomes the locus of meaning, while it also desacralizes the resulting works by opening the work’s future to a multiplicity of actualizations, some made concrete in texts that we can read, some remaining in the limbo of potentiality. Hence Zukofsky’s fortune with members of the OuLiPo, whose focus is, at its name indicates, to open onto potential literature, that is onto literature that has remained potential until they actualized it, but also and more provocatively onto literature that will remain potential. “To turn from equated/Values to labor we have approximated” is Zukofsky’s declared agenda in “A–9” (108), which he carries out through reconsiderations of the very status of objects in our world, and, as the poem itself becomes defined as object, through experiments in the standardization of its production processes.
In the winter of 1963, the journal Blue Grass published a special issue which is a micro-anthology of Zukofsky’s poems, ranging, as the title to his introduction points out, from 1962 to 1926. The reversal of the chronological order is a provocation and the suppression of dates for the poems, as well as the challenge to “historicism” and Carbon-14 dating for poems, is a way of obviously conditioning the poems’ reading as “found objects.” However the text which accompanies these “found objects” does not actually echo the theories of the erasure of the agent, nor those of the ironical Duchampian gesture. The parallel between Duchamp and Zukofsky is brought up and documented by Marjorie Perloff in 21st-Century Modernism, when she compares Duchamp’s text The and Zukofsky’s Poem Beginning The (93-95) as she underlines, in spite of their common preoccupation with “the,” the two texts evidence diverging agendas. Whereas Duchamp’s exercise, replacing “the” with an asterisk in his text, then instructing the reader to restore the text’s legibility, shows a concern for grammar and the rules of intelligibility, Zukofsky’s poem, made of numbered quotations, provides the reader with a hierarchy, or at least an order, a selection, a grid for the reading of itself and of other texts. In Zukofsky’s poem, the agent behind the poem, and the systematic process of composition, rather than deceptively autonomous functionings of language, are thematized. As a consequence of this analysis, one could be led to wonder about Zukofsky’s 1962 designation of his poems as “found objects” in Blue Grass:

This material has been removed as a result of this demand from Paul Zukofsky: “I am the only child, and sole heir, of Louis and Celia Zukofsky. I am also the person with sole control over all their copyrights, including works both published and unpublished. Jacket 30 is in gross violation of those copyrights. [....] I demand that you remove all Louis (and Celia) Zukofsky material forthwith, from Jacket 30, as well as any other material that you may have posted. Please be aware that I reserve all options in the vigorous defense of my property. Sincerely, Paul Zukofsky”

Clearly enough, the poet’s positioning here is in relation to the “found objects” that make up a large part contemporary art, but he is far from equating his poems to such “found objects”. On the contrary, what he unfolds is a keen critique of the Duchampian ready-made and its avatars in the visual arts: beginning with a perfunctory dismissal of his “personal prescriptions,” motivated, one reads later, by the wish not “to offend anyone,” the poet in fact traces the discrepancy between the ideology of “nature as creator” which extend to some readings of the ready-made (readings grounded on Duchamp’s claim to spontaneity) and the actuality of those so-called “found objects.” The insistence on doubt (“perhaps,” “as it were”) and on appearances (“the look of found objects,” “wood that appears talisman,” “the struggles [… ] do not seem to have been human,” “they appear entirely natural,” “considering nature as creator ”) surreptitiously constructs the whole introduction as antiphrastic. Zukofsky’s poems are to be defined precisely in terms of those “human struggles” that produced them, rather than exhibited as the dated and fetishized objects of the ready-made.

It has been stressed that Duchamp’s urinal or his snow shovels are American artifacts, retrieved from the hardware store and planted in the museum, so as to undermine the sacralization of the work of art and thematize, in a Dadaist way, the artistic gesture as artificial and potentially fraudulent aestheticization. Giorgio Agamben’s account and analysis of the ready-made and of Duchamp’s evocation of a “reciprocal ready-made,” by which a Rembrandt painting would be used as an ironing board (L’Homme sans contenu [Man Without Content], 102-103), confines with a rejection of the object into the limbo of enigmatic undecidability. Removed from the hardware store in the case of the ready-made and removed from the museum in the case of the reciprocal ready-made, the object paradoxically acquires the characteristics of the icon or the fetish, a pure object of desire, a shell without content or meaning. Not so, I would argue, with Louis Zukofsky’s objects and his Objectivist project. On the contrary, one needs to take further Michael Davidson’s analysis of Zukofsky’s practice as distinct from Mallarméan symbolism: as he states in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (133), “the roots of this practice lie not in Symbolism or in the desire for a discrete realm of literariness [or its undermining, I would be tempted to add] but in the struggle to define the material basis of lived experience.” We all know that Zukofsky’s essays on American design were written on order for the Federal Arts Project, and as such might never have been written but for the revival of handicraft and renewed interest in American wares taking place at the time. However, what is of interest here is not so much the existence of these texts as the approach they evidence to these crafts as indeed “lived experience.” Systematically, but perhaps more obviously in his longest essay on “American Ironwork,” Zukofsky does not limit his topic to a history of the products of American design or to a description of their characteristics. The distinction between “ironworking” and “ironwork,” and the inclusion of a point on “ironworkers and ironmasters” marks an insistence on the processes of production and on the agents behind the products. As a whole, American ironwork, in the same way as American poetry in Zukofsky’s eyes, comprises the workers, the work and the wares. With Zukofsky’s essays, the index of American design takes on the whole gamut of meanings and implications that the word “design” possesses, all of them experienced in the field research that the essays called for: conception or a project, realization or fabrication, application or use, with workers operating on each level.

To conceive of the poem in those terms radically removes it from its definition as found object and the reduction of the procedural poem to a randomized arrangement of found texts. Rather, I would like to suggest as a provisional conclusion, this Zukofskyan approach to American design is an avatar of his approach to the poem, insofar as it extends the realm of the poetic to the determining gesture which the poet performs in choosing the compositional rule and through which he enforces his “personal prescriptions,” as well as to the thus standardized processes presiding over the production of the poem. Rather than reifying the poem, Zukofsky’s objectivist poetics underlines its part in a project, the part they play as diagrams for the poet’s program.

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