Louis Zukofsky

 Zukofsky feature: Return to the Contents list 

Charles Bernstein

Introduction to Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems

American Poets Project of the Library of America (2006)

The melody! the rest is accessory: …
My one voice. My other: is
An objective – rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective – nature as creator – desire for what is objectively perfect
Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars

                    — from “A”-6

Louis Zukofsky is the most formally radical poet to emerge among the second-wave modernists who composed in the wake of such first-generation innovators as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein. Each one of these older poets was an important source for Zukofsky, whose response to his modernist predecessors was precise and comprehensive. In place of a sometimes overwhelming monumentalism of “the” great poem, Zukofsky emphasized the need for “a” series of poems. He rejected the major keys for minor chords, universals for particulars, the grandiose for discreteness. In the process, he created a ravishing, yet sometimes forbidding, body of work notable for its intricacy of detail as well as for its resistance to sweeping pronouncements and vague generalizations. Zukofsky’s poetry is both emotional and accessible, but it demands much of its readers because of its refusal to separate intellect from feeling, or complexity from clarity.
Louis Zukofsky was born in 1904 on the Lower East Side of New York, the child of Yiddish-speaking parents who had emigrated from Russia (or, more precisely, Lithuania), just before Louis was born. His father Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and mother Chana (1862-1927) figure significantly in his work.

Zukofsky attended Columbia University, part of the unprecedented spike in Jewish students admitted to Ivy League colleges immediately after World War I, following the introduction of test-based admissions. At Columbia, Zukofsky studied with Mark Van Doren, already a prominent poet, and John Dewey, the philosopher so influential for artists of Zukofsky’s and the immediately subsequent generation. A precocious student, he was only 20 when he got his M.A., writing a dissertation on Henry Adams. (Zukofsky never got his B.A., having failed to take a necessary phys. ed. class.) While at Columbia, Zukofsky’s closest literary comrade was Whittaker Chambers, who at the time was involved with the Communist Party, but who later turned on his fellow travelers on the left, becoming famous as one of Alger Hiss’s principal accusers.

Among the first-wave modernists, Pound cast the biggest shadow for Zukofsky. In 1927, the 23-year-old poet sent Pound “Poem beginning ‘The.’” Pound published it in The Exile and also recommended that Harriet Monroe let Zukofsky put together a special number of her magazine, Poetry. Editing the “‘Objectivists’ 1931” issue was a turning point for Zukofsky, firmly establishing his “objectivist” aesthetic in both his lead essay and his selection of poets, including several who, along with Lorine Niedecker, whom he met a few years later, would become his most significant companions-in-poetry – George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and the British poet Basil Bunting.

Zukofsky supported himself in a decidedly ad-hoc manner until 1934, when he got a research job with a federal works program and soon after with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), where he stayed until 1942, most significantly working on a history of American handicrafts. He met Celia Thaew in 1933 and they were married six years later. The Zukofskys had one child, Paul, born in 1943, the same year Louis left the WPA to work as a substitute public school teacher and a technical writer. Paul and Celia, both musicians, figure prominently in Zukofsky’s poems, most movingly in the lyric rondo “A”-11. (Paul went on to become a prominent violinist and conductor.) Moreover, domestic themes become more pronounced in Zukofksy’s poems written after the Second World War.

In 1947, he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he would teach until retiring in 1966. For most of his life, Zukofsky lived in the heart of New York City and certainly his poems are as much in, of, and about New York – itself an urban collage of energy 24 hours each day – as anything else. In 1972, the Zukofskys moved to Port Jefferson, New York, on Long Island. Zukofsky died there in 1978.


After a prescient early poem from 1922, the selection of Zukofsky’s poems included in this volume begins with three of the six movements of “Poem beginning ‘The.’” The complete poem begins with an untranslated epigraph (in Persian) by Omar Khayyám, followed by a full page of sources given by name and line. “Poem beginning ‘The’” is a powerful response to Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land; its list of sources is a wry comment on Eliot’s appended notes to his poem – but that is just an opening gambit. “Poem beginning ‘The’” anticipates many of the major formal and thematic concerns in much of Zukofsky’s subsequent work. Composed of 333 separately numbered lines, including one left blank, the poem is a masterpiece of pointillist collage, in which the basic unit of composition, the numbered line, is allowed to stand by itself, discrete, while simultaneously being stitched together with the other lines. This concern for the relation of part to the whole – specifically, that the part is neither consumed by the whole nor isolated from it – is a key aspect of Zukofsky’s poetics and politics. Thematically, the poem addresses a central concern for the immigrant generation: the problem of assimilation, both cultural and poetical.

In contrast to Eliot, Zukofsky’s list of sources is ethnically inflected, local, comic, as well as deeply responsive to the canon of British poetry. In particular, Zukofsky gives prominent mention to, and translates, the Yiddish-American poet Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden), most famous for his Yiddish translation of the Torah. “Poem beginning ‘The’” raises the problem of the poet, through his newly acquired, lofty education, his socialist views, and his atheism, losing connection with his religious familial culture. This is evident, especially in its poignant address to Zukofsky’s mother in the fifth movement of the poem, “Autobiography,” – “If horses but could sing Bach, mother, – / Remember how I wished it once – / Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare.” In contrast to Pound and Eliot, Zukofsky – from this earliest poem – recognized the founding significance of difference for American poetry. The final lines of “Autobiography” are emblematic: “Keine Kadish wird man sagen.” The passage is adapted from Heinrich Heine’s “Gedächtnisfeier” (Memorial) – “Keine Messe wird man singen, / Keinen Kadosch wird man sagen, / Nichts gesagt und nichts gesungen / Wird an meinen Sterbetagen” (“No Mass will anyone sing / Neither Kaddish will anyone say / Not said and not sung / When I lay dead”). These same issues are addressed in the excerpts included from “A”-12, where Zukofsky’s father figures prominently.


Louis Zukofsky’s poems operate within an interval that he describes, in “A”-12, as “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” The music of poetry, in Zukofsky’s sense, refers to the intricate patterning of sound that everywhere pervades his work. This poetry leads with sound and you can never go wrong following the sound sense, for it is only after you hear the words that you are able to locate their meanings. In other words, these poems are not representations of ideas but enactments of thoughts in motion, articulated as sound. Zukofsky loved to create patterns, some of which are apparent and some of which operate subliminally. Often in reading one of his poems, you can sense multiple patterns at play; indeed, reading Zukofsky induces this sensation. But these poems are not multi-dimensional crossword puzzles: no solution is required, or, for that matter, even desired. The experience made possible through the crafting of the poems is “when the meanings are” (as Emily Dickinson puts it): the meaning is not behind the words but in the words as they unfold, and refold, in the ear.

Often Zukofsky’s poems have no speaker; they are what are, things in the world, handmade. I’s (pronounced eyes) (the title of one of Zukofsky’s collections of short poems) is his now-classic formulation for the I that becomes an other. The I in the eye, and the eye in I (aye aye; the ayes have it). In Zukofsky’s lyric, the personally expressive poem is not replaced by the poem as thing seen (recall Pound’s injunction to use no word that does not contribute to the sense of a thing seen). For Zukofsky, it’s all about toggling: between I and I, it and we, eye and you, seen and unseen, present and absent, here and there; a re-doubling-as-re-doubting of the senses. “See sun, and think shadow” (#21, Anew).

Zukofsky’s poems-as-objects are not impersonal so much as autonomous; “small (or large) machine[s] made of words” (Williams); “nature as creator” (“A”-6). There is no better example of self-reflectivity in poetry than #20 of Anew, a poem that does what it says it’s doing: “The tune’s image holding in the line.” Thinking in psychoanalytic terms, the “objectivist” poem is a transitional object, a thing that takes its meaning by means of our relation to it. Or to put it more baldly: the materiality in Zukofsky’s poetry is always a social materiality. It’s not a matter of what it says, but of what it is; or, better, it is not a matter of what it is, but of what it does. Words are things too, and in Zukofsky’s poetry they have a heft, a stuffness, a thickness that we can count on and which counts on us. These poems are not well-wrought urns but crystalline vessels of light; when we hold them in our hands we see our hands.


Immediately following “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” we present a spectrum of Zukofsky’s short poems, from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. These poems build their meaning one word at a time, the words tug at you as soon as you let the poem take you in tow. These short lyrics are not about overhearing but hearing again; each word, like a stone dropped in a pond, creates a ripple around it. The intersecting ripples on the surface of the pond are the pattern of the poem. Listen for the figures rather than try to figure anything out.

In September, 2004, before a standing-room only crowd at the Zukofsky centennial at Columbia and Barnard, Peter Quartermain spoke of “Thinking with the Poem,” citing “The,” from After I’s (1961-1964):



“A one-word title,” Quartermain noted. “Followed by four one-word lines. … Zukofsky explained to [Ian Hamilton] Finlay that he’d been thinking of tugboats, which tow very seriously.” Zukofsky also pointed out the modulating vowel sounds in the poem. The kind of microtonal attention required of a Zukofsky poem is not a matter of deciphering but of close listening, of evenly hovering attention to the sonic, linguistic, and lexical dimensions of the poem, as much for their discrepant engagements as for their fit. I love the simple fact of the title, The, by the author of “A.” In his talk Quartermain asked: Is “A” pronounced ay or uh? Eh? And now we have another poem beginning “The.” Is the title pronounced thuh or thee? Beats me. Both. Syllable count: 1/2/1/2. Tow the line?; but, they say it’s supposed to be toe the line. So much depends upon . . . whether you want to be towed, since this is the desire not a desire. Now, go back to the image: Tiny tug drags large barge. Perhaps this poem’s a counter-poetics: Do you want a poem to tow you or to do some towing yourself? A Zukofsky poem does not tow you along for a ride; that’s what Quartermain means by emphasizing “thinking with the poem.” In contrast to the desire of towing, we might speak of a desire not to be towed. Or anyway, told.

Perhaps Zukofsky’s most exquisite realization of the microtonal shifting of vowels in one of his permutational poems, or rounds, is the Valentine “Songs of Degrees,” which creates constellations among nine seed words: hear, her, clear, mirror, care, error, in, his, is. There is a moebius effect as the same words shift from noun to verb. Another striking example of word-by-word permutation, approaching fugue, is “Julia’s Wild,” from Bottom: on Shakespeare, whose multiple variants of the word order and phrasing of this eight-word, decasyllabic string: come- shadow- come- and - take - this - shadow - up, is a tour-de-force of polymetrical imagination in its aversion of (not to) pentameter.

At the other side of the spectrum from “The” and “Songs of Degree” is “Mantis,” a much-cited poem from 1934, not included in this selection. The elaborate conceit of the piece is a praying mantis “lost in the subway” – “fact,” Zukofsky notes, not “symbol,” of the “oppression” and “helplessness” of the poor. In his most explicitly proletarian mode, the author produced the single work of his that is most conducive to New Critical close reading. Indeed, “Mantis” displays how Zukofsky is able to use the closed-form sestina as a means for social reflection:

Mantis! praying mantis! since your wings’ leaves
And your terrified eyes, pins, bright, black and poor
Beg—“Look, take it up” (thought’s torsion)! “save it!”
I who can’t bear to look, cannot touch, —You—
You can—but no one sees your steadying lost
In the cars’ drafts on the lit subway stone.

Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves
The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone
And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!

More remarkable, however, is “Mantis, An Interpretation,” Zukofsy’s extensive commentary-in-verse, which suggests the insufficiency of the poem and the necessity for interpretation – not as closure but as dialectical method for opening the word’s work into a social world: “The mantis might have heaped up upon itself a / Grave of verse, / But the facts are not a symbol.” The final lines of the poem do not represent an idea but enfold “the simultaneous, / The diaphanous, historical / in one head.” As if directly confronting Kafka, Zukofsky wryly concludes: “No human being wishes to become / An insect for the sake of a symbol.”


“A” is Zukofsky’s lifelong long poem in 24 parts, one for each hour of the day, written from 1928 to 1974 (though not in chronological order). The complete poem runs about 800 pages in the Johns Hopkins University Press edition. Most of the movements begin with an A or an an. “A” is a serial collage, an explicit turning away from Pound’s desire, in the Cantos, for montage, for the parts to cohere. As such, “A” opens a “z-sited path” (“A”-23) for the long serial poems of Zukofsky’s most immediate heirs in the following generation – Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Hannah Weiner, Charles Olson, Larry Eigner, and Jerome Rothenberg. Ideas in “A” are not proclaimed but threaded into successions of voicings. The sources, themes, and forms in “A” are plural and overlaid; there is much taken from daily life, much from family life, many literary and philosophical threads, alongside explicitly addressed political and aesthetic commitments. These are Zukofsky’s “historic and contemporary particulars,” which together make up a tissue of allusion and articulation that is everywhere localized and embodied in and as the poem.

“A”-1 – first word “A” – opens on the night of April 5, 1928 – both the first night of Passover and Good Friday – at a performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. Bach weaves through “A,” whose intricate pattern of recurrences, recapitulations, and extensions can be compared, at least metaphorically, to the form of a fugue – from the chordal arrangement of syllables to the recurrences both between and within the movements of the work.

“There’s naw-thing / lak po—ee try,” Zukofsky writes in “It’s a gay li – ife,” “it’s a delicacy / for a horse.” Is this the horse Zukofsky evokes in “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” the one he told his mother he wished could sing Bach? “A”-7 returns to horses – there are many plays on horse in Zukofsky – here it’s police saw-horses closing a street, sawhorses that look like a capital letter “A” in this poem of seven sonnets.

“A” -9 is the crux of “A” – a supreme realization of what Zukofsky called “rested totality”; that is, “desire for what is objectively perfect.” The poem takes its form, and rhyme scheme, directly from Calvalcanti’s “Donna Mi Prega,” which had also been the subject of an influential translation by Pound. “A”-9 has two halves, written, respectively, before and after Word War II. The second half of the poem is a mirror image of the first. Its sources include Marx and Spinoza (the two liminal figures for secular American Jewish thought), as well as a scientific treatise on quantum physics (related scientific material is also found in “It’s hard to see but think of a sea,” #12 of Anew, included in this volume). “A”-9’s intricate system of patterning goes from its eleven-syllable lines, mostly in sonnet-length stanzas, to what Zukfosky called the “conical” distribution of n’s and r’s, to the syntactic rotation of the same words shifting to different parts of speech (as in the “Songs of Degrees” and “Julia’s Wild”). “A”-9 presents the shimmering figure of a crystal turning on its axis to an imagined beat, leaning leftward, arriving at song. The poem’s recurrent motif is for a rescaling of values toward that which is created by “hands” and “hearts” – that is, by the production of good and goods made by human hands; rather than by commodity value, that is, by how much a thing is sold for. “Labor as creator,” as Zukofsky puts it in”A”-8, from the 1930s.


One outtake from”A”-9 is the hilarious and charming “A Foin Lass Bodders,” a translation of “Donna Mi Prega” into Brooklynese. “A”-15 begins its second stanza with a homophonic translation of The Book of Job: if you listen closely you can almost hear the Hebrew percolating through the English: “He neigh ha lie low”; but this is also a horse’s song (its neigh), or “An hinny,” which is not only a backside but a cross between a “she-ass” and a stallion.

Zukofsky’s iconoclastic approach to translation would flower with Catullus, which he wrote with Celia Zukofsky, working on it from 1958-1966. For Catullus, the Zukofskys developed a technique that has come to be called homophonic translation – translation with special emphasis to the sound rather than the lexical meaning. Since Latin and English share many cognates, the results are sometimes uncannily resonant, even passionate, versions, of the original poems. It is worth comparing the Zukofskys’ versions of the poems with the Catullus originals, which is easy enough to do since editions of Catullus are available online and in print. The number for each poem is the same (note that #22 of Anew, included here, is an early version Catullus 8).

Let’s look at two examples. The Latin for #112 is–

Multus homo es, Naso, neque tecum multus homo est qui
descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus.

Literal translation by Celia Zukofsky:

Much a man you are, Naso, and that you much a man it is who
comes down: Naso, much you are and pathetic/lascivious.

Cornish edition in the Loeb Classical Library (used by the Zukofskys):

You are many men’s man, Naso, but not many men go down town with you: Naso, you are many men’s man and minion.

Finally, the homophonic version:

Mool ’tis homos, Naso, ’n’ queer take ’im mool ’tis ho most he
     descended: Naso, mool ’tis – is it pathic, cuss.

Next example, #70 –

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
       quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
       in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

The Zukofskys’s translation:

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
           whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
           in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

My quasi-literal translation:

None, says my woman, would she want to marry more
      than me, not if Jupiter himself insisted.
says: but what a woman says to a smitten lover,
       on wind, should be written, on running water

The Zukofsky version is able to take on a certain texture that brings us closer to the Latin while at the same allowing the queerness of the original to come out. (Another example with the Latin original is provided in the notes to this volume.) Leading with the sound, homophonic translation reframes what is significant in translation, challenging the idea that the translation should focus on content or create poems that sound fluent in their new language. Zukofsky insists that the mark of the translator be pronounced, and that in making the translation strange, we may provide a way to come closer to its core.

Following Catullus, Zukofsky completed the remaining movements of “A,” writing “A”-22 and “A”-23 from 1970 to 1974. He then went on to 80 Flowers, a work in which the density and overlays of “A”-23, let’s call it the mulching of sources and reflections, is extended and formalized. The work consists of 81 poems, each with eight five-word lines. After 80 Flowers, Zukofsky planned one more work, Gamut, but was only able to complete the first poem of the projected series.


Zukofsky’s work is too varied to create a representative selection. For this gathering, we have necessarily left out his prose writings, both essay and fiction (I should have liked to begin with “An Objective”). Since “A” is best read as a single long poem of 24 parts, the scale of that work cannot be reflected here. In the limited space available, I have tried to give a visceral sense of a range of formal, thematic, and aesthetic possibilities that exists within the highly articulated constellation of Zukofsky’s work as a whole.

The selection is built around three long poems that are included: First, “Poem Beginning ‘The’,” inaugural for second-wave (Jewish) modernism. Second, “4 Other Countries,” based on a European trip Zukofsky took in 1957, with its capacious range of references and locations, and also its intimation of the five-word line. (Williams expressed his enthusiastic response to this poem in a letter that was very encouraging to Zukofsky.) Last, the late, majestically refractive (not to say sublimely refractory) “A”-23, with its 1000 five-word lines, Zukofsky’s most linguistically radical achievement and a foundational work for the thickly textual American poetry of the last part of the 20th century. Those three works make a perfect interrelated set and key into the other selections. The unit of composition is not the part but the whole 160-page book: each section must contribute toward that whole but also hold its own. That is, I have tried to use Zukofsky’s principle of collage and arrangement in “A” to create an historically grounded constellation of particulars. To achieve this goal, it has been necessary to make excerpts from poems, a precarious practice that is only justified because it is part of an overall design; excerpts from single movements of “A,” published by themselves or in an anthology selection, would not be justified (nor approved by the copyright holder).

Naturally, many significant poems have had to be omitted. Zukofsky’s ode to his wash-stand (from 29 Poems) remains a useful example of the poetics of the common and the reversal of values from the worship of/at “the” altar to “a” secular everyday, with relevance to Reznikoff, for example:

       To my wash-stand
in which I wash
       my left hand
and my right hand

       To my wash-stand
whose base is Greek
       whose shaft
is marble and fluted

The first part of the three-line “partita” of “A”-13, with its twirling aphorisms is one of the highlights of “A. Those seeking out the complete “A” will be sure to take in the turn from one- to two- to three-word lines in “A”-14 and the full flowering, in “A”-22, of the five-word line (often in stanzas of five lines) that is a basic unit of late Zukofsky. “A”-22 starts with what has become something of a signature piece for Zukofsky, a Valentine tercet, made with 9 vowels and 9 consonants that concatenate multiple plays on era/anno/aer/are, and on a/an/any, and also on year/ear; perhaps you can hear, mirrored, an error in that other poem for Valentine time, “Songs of Degrees.” A round of these six words shows the care in all to come anon.


I am grateful to a number of people who made suggestions about the selection of the poems, including, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, David Wray, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Michele Leggott. Special thanks to Paul Zukofsky, for suggestions small and large; Mark Scroggins, Zukofsky’s biographer, who is a prime source and support for all Zukofsky scholarship; and to Peter Quartermain, for his clear care. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Michael Golsten for the work he did on LZ/100.

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