back toJacket2
Louis Zukofsky

 Zukofsky feature: Return to the Contents list 

Steve Shoemaker

Modern Times: “Objectivist” Movies and Thinking Matter in Louis Zukofsky’s Poems of the Thirties,

Or, The Behavior of Objects in the Gas Age

[The text below is an excerpt from my dissertation Of Being Numerous: The Modernist Revolution, the Objectivist Vortex, and the Poetry of Survival (University of Virginia, 1997). This text was cut down and adapted for the talk I gave at the conference. — S.S.]

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 I am also the person with sole control over all their copyrights, including works both published and unpublished.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”

For Louis Zukofsky the modern period is the Gas Age, an age of rampant “intellection,” which may approach, “[l]ike mathematical formulae,” the beauty of “pure abstract state,” but which poses dangers as well. It is an age in which the “erring brain” threatens to overwhelm “the natural human eye,” to undermine its attention to the world of things until all substance is thoroughly abstracted, turned to “vapor” (“About the Gas Age” 170). For Zukofsky, this tendency is opposed to the purposes and capacities of art:

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 I am also the person with sole control over all their copyrights, including works both published and unpublished.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”

Capable of being touched, palpable, corporeal, capable of being exactly comprehended, that can be treated as a fact  — these are some of the meanings of that thoughtful word “tangible” which overlay and reinforce Zukofsky’s insistence on the objective, the solid object. Art is what it is by virtue of its ability to achieve this solidity, its capacity, which may run counter to the whole tendency of an age, to imbue even that which is abstract, like “intellection,” with weight and substance. In Zukofsky’s playful but devotedly materialist cosmology, even thought approaching “pure abstract state” still occupies one of the three material “states of existence,” the gaseous, the least dense and most ethereal of conditions, but still substantial  — thought still arising from an organ, the brain, imaginings still tied to bodies.

Zukofsky’s fanciful cosmology, with its suggestive “states of existence,” dramatizes a kind of “Objectivist” epistemology. Another Objectivist, Basil Bunting, would write to Zukofsky expressing a similar view: “A mind is a piece of man completely surrounded by facts, & they are all relevant. And there is no need to be exclusively or mainly cerebral. One’s skin probably thinks . . .” (qtd. in Zukofsky to Niedecker, folder 3, HRC).[1] The “mind” is “surrounded by facts” and it is also one of these “facts,” embodied (“a piece of man”), not easily separated from the workings and processes of the organism of which it is a part (“One’s skin probably thinks . . .”). In his introduction to An “Objectivists” Anthology, Zukofsky had written about poetry in this same mode : “A poem as object — And yet certainly it arose in the veins and capillaries, if only in the intelligence” (“‘Recencies’” 15). In making these observations, Zukofsky and Bunting are elaborating their own views on what Williams called, in a book-length manuscript composed from 1928 to 1930, “the embodiment of knowledge.”[2]

This “Objectivist” concern with “thinking with the things as they exist” arose at the intersection of various but related strains of thought.[3] Williams’ manuscript, for example, was directly influenced by Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925), which laid out the “objectivist” position as follows:

This creed is that the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world; and that this world is a complex of things, including indeed our acts of cognition, but transcending them. According to this point of view the things experienced are to be distinguished from our knowledge of them. So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa . . . . The objectivist holds that the things experienced and the cognisant subject enter into the common world on equal terms. (88)

Zukofsky would later claim that he had not read Whitehead when he edited An “Objectivists” Anthology, but he has also written that “influence,” at least in one of its varied forms, is “in the air” (“Influence” 135).[4] Whitehead’s insistence that “the things” and “the cognisant subject” enter “the common world on equal terms” is very close to the sense of poetry’s relation to its materials developed by the Objectivists.[5] In one of their earliest encounters (around the same time he was working on The Embodiment of Knowledge), Williams had written to Zukofsky praising his important early work, “Poem Beginning ‘The’,” as “actual word stuff, not thoughts for thoughts” (2 Apr. 1928, SL 94), as well as criticizing some other early poems as not sufficiently “objectivized” (5 Jul. 1928, SL 101).[6] The poem, according to Williams, “is an object, an object which formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes” (Williams, Autobiography 264). And as we have already seen, that object, in assuming its place among the other objects of the world, should be “consonant” with the dialectical necessities of the age.[7] What was a question of philosophy to Whitehead was literally a matter of poetics for the Objectivists.

Whitehead, Williams, Zukofsky  — all were in fact aware of themselves as writing in relation to a long lineage of “Objectivist” thought. Whitehead refers, for example, to “the objectivism of the medieval and ancient worlds” (141). Similarly, Zukofsky had found the “Objectivist” stance traced (in Friedrich Engels’ essay, “On Historical Materialism”) to the tradition of British materialist philosophy  — to Locke and Hobbes and Bacon, and even to the medieval theologian Duns Scotus. The latter made it into Zukofsky’s life’s work, the long poem “A”, asking a central question: “Whether it was ‘impossible for matter to think?’” (“A”-8, 46). The poem goes on to paraphrase Engels’ citation of Marx’s reply to this question with approval: “Unbodily substance is an absurdity / like unbodily body. / It is impossible to separate thought and matter that thinks” (46). A few stanzas later, “A” approaches the question from a slightly different direction, drawing not on Marxism but on the great modern mathematician and scientist, Jules Henri Poincaré: “No thought exists / Completely abstracted from action, / Without the solids of bodies / There is no geometry . . .” (“A”-8, 47). In a letter to Lorine Niedecker glossing this passage, Zukofsky argues that what Poincaré says of geometry is also true of poetry.[8] Again, the concern is with how an “order,” whether of geometry or art, is constructed on the basis of the perceiving subject’s relation to the physical, tangible world.


In Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” (1920), the modern age demands not poetry but a “prose kinema” to capture its “accelerated grimace” (Selected Poems 61-2). In this scheme, prose is of a lower order than poetry’s classical beauties, and a “prose kinema,” it would seem, is lower still, the mass-produced popular novel and the popular movie representing two new forms characteristic of an age of “tawdry cheapness” (62). Since Pound is satirizing both the modern world, and (in the guise of Mauberly) his own too-aesthetic clinging to the past, it is difficult to sift the attitudes in this poem with precision, but it seems fair to say that Pound was not especially interested in the movies as an art form.[9] By contrast, Louis Zukofsky felt strongly that the movies offered significant new possibilities for expression. In Zukofsky’s assessment Charlie Chaplin, for example, had achieved in film a new “perspicuity of style,” managing to “rais[e] American acting to a world position” comparable to “the histrionic poetry of the Japanese Noh” (“Modern Times” 57).[10] Working in “celluloid,” which “permitted him only movement and silence,” Chaplin achieved “a composition of action on the screen” so that “[d]rama was brought into the actual air” (57). His movies arose in a period that saw the important development of “a cinematic technique of handling material objects” (57). Working in a genre and mode adapted to registering “objects in action,” Chaplin developed “devices and ‘types’ [which] live with material thoughtfulness and thus historical meaning” (57, 59).

In Zukofsky’s reading, the acceleration that seemed to Pound to provoke a “grimace” is captured on film as kinesis, “visual rhythm” and “choreography” (58). As James Agee writes in his classic essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” the heyday of the silent screen comedy (about 1912 to 1930) saw the development of a new language, an immensely rich physical and gestural vocabulary. For many like Agee the coming of sound in the thirties was a kind of “tragedy” (14).

Modern Times poster

The reason for this distress was not simply, as popular histories of Hollywood often observe, that certain screen stars didn’t have the sorts of voices that would allow them to make the transition to dialogue successfully. The more profound issue was the demise of an elaborate film grammar keyed to the primacy of image and movement. Chaplin was one of the few artists able to resist this trend, at least for a time. Modern Times (1936), the film which serves as the particular impetus for Zukofsky’s comments on Chaplin and cinema, is an anachronism, resisting technological change (the coming of dialogue) even as it demonstrates the capacity for the silent language of screen comedy to engage a mechanized and accelerated modernity.[11]

The film deploys the highly evolved language of silent cinema in order to undertake a brilliant “physical” satire on the machine age and the factory system. In the “material thoughtfulness” of Modern Times, a movie charged with “historical meaning,” Zukofsky found something close to what he himself was trying to achieve in poetry. In his poems of the thirties, under pressure of the historical events of the day, Zukofsky sought to move high modernist form “into the open air.”

As Modern Times begins, before we have been shown any credits or titles, a giant clock-face fills the screen. Chaplin signals from the start that his film will register not just “the times” but also modern time itself, the temporal pressure of an accelerated world. When the credits do roll (over the clock-face, which still occupies the background), the character Chaplin plays is identified only as “a factory worker.” A mock-heroic title appears: “‘Modern Times.’ A story of industry, of individual enterprise and humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” This grand tone is immediately undercut, as it were, by Chaplin’s now-famous montage: a herd of close-pressed and jostling sheep on the run dissolving to a rushing crowd of city-dwellers exiting the subway. The sequence proceeds breathlessly as a squat modern factory looms across the street from the subway exit, its chimneys puffing smoke. Chaplin cuts to an interior shot of people moving at a run inside the factory, large turbines occupying the foreground. A sign reads “Electro Steel Corp.” Huge switches are thrown in what appears to be a central control room. At the center of this ballet mécanique is “the President,” who swallows pills delivered by his bustling secretary and monitors factory operations on a large videoscreen.[12] In one of the film’s sparing uses of dialogue, the President speaks into a microphone wired to the control room to give the command: “Speed her up.”

As the machinery accelerates, a title reads “nuts coming through loose on bench 5.” The next shot introduces Charlie, one among a row of men working the line on what we know must be “bench 5.” The nuts flow by in inexorable pairs, and Charlie, with a wrench in each hand, is tasked with giving each pair a quick tightening turn. Plagued by a succession of distractions and bodily rebellions, he is unable to keep the pace demanded of him. Attacked by a violent itch under his arm, he falls behind. The foreman yells at him to get back up to speed. Charlie defends himself, but cannot resist an arm-flinging exculpatory gesture that puts him further behind, sending him sliding into the next man’s station as he strives to keep up with the endlessly flowing series of nuts. An insect lands on his nose and must be waved off. Again and again, he catches up through valiant effort only to fall behind once more. Finally, his wrench becomes stuck on a recalcitrant pair of nuts and his thumb is pounded with a mallet by the large man at the next station. The line must be shut down as he recovers. Charlie himself, it is clear, is the real “loose nut,” an unconscious rebel against the Fordist principles of hyper-rationalization and scientific management governing work on the assembly line. At those moments when the line shuts down  — moments of relief for Charlie and intolerable expense for management  — Charlie is caught in the grip of a kind of mechanical seizure. Still under the spell of his assigned task, he obsessively “tightens” air with his wrenches until he is able to discharge the nervous impulse with a wild twist of his body and a sharp kick  — as if the machine had implanted a logic, a program, that must be violently exorcised.

Modern Times poster 2

As André Bazin has argued, such mechanical repetition is for Charlie a kind of sin against his true nature. For Bazin, the essence of Chaplin’s screen character is a refusal to think about any time other than the “actual moment” of the present, accompanied by a resultant dependence on “sheer improvisation” (148). Whenever Charlie violates this rule (e.g. by even trying to work on an assembly line) he gets in trouble. As Bazin points out: “Since for him things have no future in the sense of being planned to serve an end, when Charlie is involved with an object for some time he quickly contracts a sort of mechanical cramp, a surface condition in which the original reason for what he is doing is forgotten” (150). This “mechanical cramp,” we have already seen, is Charlie’s response to working on the assembly line. The factory system reduces people to the condition of things, while conversely endowing machinery with attributes of “intelligence.” As Charles Babbage, one of the designers of the system, wrote (in reference to his design for an Analytical Engline) in 1838: “[I]n substituting mechanism for the performance of operations hitherto executed by intellectual labor, . . . the analogy between these acts and the operations of the mind almost forced upon me the figurative employment of the same terms” (qtd. in Schaffer 207). Two of the most important attributes of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, attributes which propelled it toward a kind of machine intelligence, were its capacities for memory and anticipation (Schaffer 207). In Bazin’s reading, then, Charlie would not qualify as an intelligent machine. Oblivious of both past and future, he possesses neither memory nor anticipation, but compensates for this lack with a remarkable power of improvisation.

In Modern Times, machines seem determined to deprive Charlie of the opportunity to act unpredictably, to obey his own impulses. As Charlie continues to work the line, the company president listens to a pre-recorded sales talk for the Billoughs Feeding Machine (the “talk” is in the form of a phonograph record from the Sales Talk Transcription Company): “Don’t stop for lunch. Be ahead of your competitor. The Billoughs Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.” As the machine’s inventor and two lab-coated assistants stand by in silence, the record continues its spiel, lovingly describing the machine’s “beautiful aerodynamic streamlined body” and “its smoothness of action made silent by our electro-porous metal ball-bearings.” The machine itself — a sort of high table on wheels, with built-in automatic utensils — is both functional and an objet d’art consistent with the “streamlined” aesthetic of the thirties, its own “beautiful” but also “aerodynamic” body granted a kind of “smoothness” and perfection that the awkwardly needy body of the worker can never attain. The spiel continues with a comically hyperbolic and fetishistic account of the modernity and efficiency of the machine’s “action.” Its features include: an “automaton soup plate” with “compressed air blower, no breath necessary, no energy required to cool the soup”; a “revolving plate with automatic food pusher”; a “counter-shaft, double-knee action cornfeeder with synchromesh transmission, which enables you to shift from high to low gear with the tip of the tongue”; and lastly, a “hydro-compressed sterilized mouthwiper” whose “factors of control assure against spots on the shirtfront.”

As the sales talk concludes, the lunch break arrives. Selected for a demonstration run, Charlie is strapped into the feeding machine, his head locked in place and his arms confined at his side. He looks anxious and disoriented, but the machine operates smoothly at first. The soup plate rises from the “table” surface, tilts, and pours soup into Charlie’s mouth. The entire eating surface rotates and the automatic food-pusher shoves forward small, square morsels of some unidentifiable food. Charlie dutifully and quickly chews these morsels in time to receive the next portion from the plate, which rotates at a fixed interval not subject to his control. The mouth-wiper, mounted on a swing-arm to his left, sweeps into place to dab daintily at Charlie’s mouth. Charlie views these ministrations with astonishment, watching each mechanism run through its motion in wide-eyed wonder. The corn-feeder presents a piece of corn-on-the-cob affixed to an automatic rotor which turns the cob slowly, moving concurrently side-to-side like a typewriter as Charlie nibbles the corn.

In this way, one feeding cycle is completed without incident, but inevitably things begin to go wrong. The soundtrack crackles with the sound of electrical short-circuiting; the rotor begins to spin faster and faster as Charlie gamely tries to keep nibbling at the gyrating ear of corn. Soon the rotor is spinning wildly and caroming from side to side  — all possibility of eating vanishes as Charlie comes under full assault. The smocked mechanics try to fix the machine with Charlie still strapped in place, each unsuccessful repair resulting in a renewed attack. In exquisite contrast to the by-now demonically accelerated corn-feeder, the mouth-wiper continues periodically to dab gently at Charlie’s mouth. More repairs having been completed, the feeding sequence is re-started. This time the soup bowl rises and dumps its contents down Charlie’s shirtfront, an event the mouthwiper’s “factors of control” are powerless to prevent, though it still continues its gentle dabbing. Another bowlful catches him square in the face. In the course of the still on-going repairs, two steel nuts are deposited on the automatic plate and fed to Charlie by the food-pusher. By this point Charlie is struggling desperately, but he is unable to escape his restraints. Dessert arrives: a pie in the face. With the execution of this “fine cliché” from the “immense vocabulary of [such] clichés” making up the silent film language, the sequence is nearly at an end. The “gag” or “routine” having been “milked” (that is, developed and varied over time), there remains only for it to be “topped” with a final gesture.[13] This gesture arrives as the mouth-wiper, heretofore Charlie’s only friend, commences a murderous flailing, administering repeated blows to Charlie’s face. The restraints are released; Charlie collapses to the floor. The President of Electro Steel, impervious to Charlie’s condition, delivers his verdict: “It’s no good  — it isn’t practical.”

Even after such an assault, Charlie hasn’t quite learned all the factory system has to teach him. He returns to the line, and “time marches on” into the late afternoon. Once again the President delivers an order to the control room: “Section 5: Give her the limit.” The assembly line speeds up and the movie, which began at breakneck speed, now reaches peak acceleration. This time a single, fatal sneeze  — one more involuntary bodily revolt  — throws Charlie irremediably off-pace. Trying desperately to keep up, he hurls his body on the line itself. A title reads: “He’s crazy!” He lies stretched at full-length on the assembly line, still tightening nuts and oblivious to the danger he is in, while a fellow worker grips his leg. Finally, the worker loses his grip and Charlie is conveyed into the factory’s mechanical innards. Faery-like music tinkles on the soundtrack as a gigantic, surrealistic assembly of whirling gears appears on the screen. Miraculously unharmed, Charlie is threaded through the labyrinthine mechanism, still tightening nuts wherever he finds them. Eventually, the motion of the machinery is reversed and Charlie emerges unscathed from his point of entrance.

Charlie’s fantastic descent into this imagination of The Machine exaggerates, parodies and subverts the kinds of human transformations demanded by the factory system. As Antonio Gramsci came to understand during this same period, the organization of the Fordist factory system constituted “the biggest collective effort to date to create, with unprecedented speed, and with a consciousness of purpose unmatched in history, a new type of worker and a new man” (qtd. in Harvey 126). The new model of work instituted under this system was “inseparable from a specific mode of living and of thinking and feeling life” (qtd. in Harvey 126). After his bout with the feeding machine and his immersion in the mechanism of the assembly line, Charlie does indeed emerge with a new understanding, an understanding which he expresses in his characteristic physical, gestural language. Refusing to go back to work, he executes a dance that is both playful and violent. Rejecting the rationalized movements imposed by work in the factory  — along with its demands for a particular kind of “new man”  — Charlie is liberated, his body entirely loosed from the system’s “factors of control” as he traipses and minces around the factory floor. As part of his dance, he applies his wrenches to the nipples and noses of his fellow workers, and squirts their faces with oil from a large oil-can, having grasped that under the logic of the factory regime people are machines. Finding his way to the control room, he flips levers and spins dials with no regard for practical consequence. His actions wreak havoc, destroying the machines around him, but Charlie is concerned only with his improvisation on the repertoire of motion this machinery offers to the choreography of his dance. Where the Fordist system had sought to install him as one of the machine’s many parts, Charlie instead aestheticizes the factory itself, treating it as a grand stage set for his burlesque of its meanings and purposes.


The body of a factory worker literally devoured by machinery and in turn forced by an automaton to ingest machined steel “parts” as food. No more explicit metaphors for the transformation of the human into the mechanical  — the construction of a cyborg  — can be imagined. Yet as Zukofsky writes: “A half-baked idea like humanity has become mechanized by civilization does not animate a face-wiper” (“MT” 59). Chaplin avoids mere propagandistic statement through the liveliness of the visual and physical language he deploys on the screen  — in a word, through montage. The “sportsmanship of the montage,” as Zukofsky would have it, is “the cinematic equivalent of material thoughtfulness” (60). Chaplin marshals cinematic resources in Modern Times in the service of a total effect, to make possible a “multitude” of “material as well as fantastic things”: “the screen action holding together in the timing, the sound devices, and the light. The elements of opposition in these cinematic effects and their emotional absorption into relations of the story further the historical validity of the screen by inventing out of the actual world of the spectator” (61). It was this ability to “invent out of the actual world,” to bring the drama “into the actual air,” to register “the historic dimension of events actually happening,” that Zukofsky admired most in Chaplin’s art. The significance of Chaplin/Zukofsky’s “sportsmanship” of the montage “reduces itself to the fact that nothing is fair on the screen unless shown in relation (or a strained relation) that has the amplitude of insight impelled by the physical, to be found in actual events themselves” (61). Chaplin’s comedy, and critique, is successful because he captures (and even exaggerates) in his “insight impelled by the physical” the energy, density, speed, and “thoughtfulness” of the physical world. “Material thoughtfulness” is not just thoughtful attention bestowed on the material world; it in some respect already inheres in the relations of physical objects, in the embodiment of knowledge. In Whitehead’s terms, “the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa” so that “the things experienced and the cognisant subject enter into the common world on equal terms.”

Intensely physical, fiercely accelerated, Chaplin’s film language captures the energies spewed forth, and the dilemmas posed by this “common world”  — and by the mechanical-industrial landscape in particular. In similar fashion, Zukofsky’s poetry of the thirties sought to respond to the demands of an age. Like Chaplin, Zukofsky employed a battery of technical devices and procedures toward this end.

From 1928 to 1930, Zukofsky composed the seventh movement of “A”, which took the form of a dense and involved (nearly involute) sonnet sequence. This movement was the tightly wrapped culmination of all that “A” had undertaken so far, in the two years Zukofsky had been working on the poem. It is also the first of what became a constellation of major poems from the thirties — ”A”-7, First Half of “A”-9, “Mantis” and “Mantis,” An Interpretation — all of which involved taking particularly elaborate and demanding traditional forms (sonnet sequence, canzone, sestina) and putting them to new uses.[14] In the process, Zukofsky intensified the technical demands imposed by these forms, overlaying additional requirements of his own until the forms were warped, and “modernized,” almost beyond recognition.[15] These poetic forms, which might be called piezo-aesthetic, were the result of Zukofsky’s experiments in the thirties with word-machines particularly geared to register the exigencies of “insight impelled by the physical.”[16] In a letter to Pound, Zukofsky described “A”-7 as unlike previous sonnet sequences, which were moved by “concepts,” rather than by “a subjeck [sic] matter like two or three balls juggled in the air at once” (12 Dec. 1930, P/Z 80). The emphasis on “subject matter,” rather than the more gaseous “concept,” reflects Zukofsky’s desire to “get it down,” to make thought, expression and art as “tangible” as possible, even when they are at their most complex and intellective. Zukofsky’s art in “A”-7 handles the word as a discrete unit, like a ball to be juggled  — but just as the juggler depends on a strict pattern of movement to keep each ball in its proper trajectory relative to all the other balls, Zukofsky deploys a rigorous ordering in order to explore the possible (and permutative) relations among his words.[17]

In “A”-7, Zukofsky “animates” a thirties street scene, turning wooden saw-horses into real horses through the imaginative whirling of a wild poetic dance:[18]

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”

As it runs its course, the poem executes six more “sonnets” characterized, like this first one, by gnarled syntax and rapid shifts of focus. The elaborate wordplay and dense linguistic matrix of this poem has been well-described by others.[19] My interest here is in the way this poem’s juggling of words and/as “objects in action”  — saw-horses, eyes, legs, lanterns, manholes, birds, etc.  — takes poetic form “to the streets” to see exactly what it can do, to see what happens when it is confronted with a scene of “material thoughtfulness.”

In “Mantis” (composed in 1934), Zukofsky continues the sort of formal investigation begun in “A”-7, constructing another complicated word machine designed to test the capacity of a complex and condensed form to record the significance of a physical scene/event (in this case an incident on the subway) and all the associations to which it gives rise.[20] The most prominent technical demand exacted by “Mantis”, a sestina, is the repetition of its six end words, which recur throughout the poem “in a constantly shifting order which follows a fixed pattern.”[21] In the “constantly shifting” sestina form, especially as practiced by Zukofsky, these end words are “in motion (transformation), which then forces the poem as a whole to be ‘moving.’” (Taggart 247). As Zukofsky’s open-form companion poem, “Mantis,” An Interpretation, makes clear, the sestina has been chosen not as a simple exercise in poetic form but because the situation demands it: “Again: as an experiment, the sestina would be wicker-work — / As a force, one would lie to one’s feelings not to use it” (69). Like Chaplin’s spasms of “mechanical repetition,” the poem’s recurrences will be only a compulsion, a kind of nervous tic, unless Zukofsky can makes its “force” palpable. The scene that impels the poem’s “subject matter” — Zukofsky’s physical encounter with a mantis in the subway — has put into motion “Six thoughts’ reflection (pulse’s witness) of what was happening / All immediate, not moved by any transition” (“Interpretation” 67). It is this experience, of the scene and its multiple associations, that the sestina form is suited to capture, with its ability to embody “The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts” (“Interpretation” 68).

This sort of capacity to give form to a tangled movement of events and impressions was what Zukofsky had admired in Chaplin’s montage. The alchemy of “movement and silence” in films like Chaplin’s was particularly suited to the accelerations of urban existence, with its sudden collisions and unanticipated conjunctions. To describe these movies in their day seemed to require metaphors drawn from the technological surround, as when Agee writes of the mix of terror and pleasure in their combining of “the jabbering frequency of a machine gun with the delirious momentum of a roller coaster” (4). A silent comedy moved at a pace “faster and fizzier than life,” and might at times build to “a majestic trajectory of pure anarchic motion” (Agee 4). As we have seen, Zukofsky was drawn to what this sort of speed permitted in terms of “choreography,” the dance of objects and events. Zukofsky’s “Mantis” confronts, albeit in a more gaseous/intellective state, a similar violence of motion, seeking to record “the simultaneous,/ The diaphanous, historical / In one head” (73), just as Chaplin’s montage evokes “the historic dimension of events actually happening.”

Where Chaplin’s Modern Times opens with its montage of hurrying masses exiting the subway, Zukofsky’s “cinematic technique” in “Mantis” takes us down into the depths of the subway itself and makes us witness to an unlikely encounter:

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”

The poem’s exclamatory opening (“Mantis!”) conveys at the most literal level a simple surprise at encountering this insect in the subway, amid the bustle of people on the move in the city. The encounter itself, its way of happening, is of the first importance, since Zukofsky is adamant that the mantis is “a fact” and “not a symbol” (“Interpretation” 70). Zukofsky’s “Interpretation” quotes the presumable first draft of the poem, lines in which the incident is set down in simplest terms: “The mantis opened its body / It had been lost in the subway / It steadied itself in the drafts / It looked up — / Begging eyes — ” (“Interpretation” 67). The mantis (perhaps especially its “begging eyes”) reminds Zukofsky of “the growing oppression of the poor” (69), which is “the most pertinent subject of our day” (70). This linkage of the mantis and “the poor” is the central conjunction setting in play the twisting of “thoughts’ torsion” (68) that is the action of the poem. Zukofsky’s poem sets out to capture the “fact” of the physical encounter with the mantis, but also “all the other facts the mantis sets going about it” (70).

The figure of the mantis, then, serves to constellate a diverse set of “facts” and associations. Zukofsky’s play of thought and fact ranges through biology, entomology, myth (specifically, Melanesian and Provencal), technology, and economics (to chart only some of the relevant frames of reference). In emotional terms, the poem runs from initial surprise to fear for the plight of the mantis, and on to hope for “a new world” that the mantis might call forth. The closing tercet invokes a utopian vision:

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”

But the real force of the poem lies in the energy of motion by which it works up to this conclusion, and the remarkable capacity for “simultaneity” it displays in the process.[22] My reading here will chart three overlapping concerns: 1) Zukofsky’s use of “cinematic technique” to capture the experience in its simultaneity; 2) the poem’s urban context, the way it arises from the mechanical-industrial landscape; and 3) the poem as it occurs at a particular juncture in the development of Zukofsky’s “Objectivist” poetics.

One of the properties making cinematic form adept at capturing modern experience is the “discrete” nature of the film “shot,” and the corresponding capacity of montage to render multiple scenes/events, or multiple perspectives on some single event, in rapid succession, “not moved by any transition” (as Zukofsky wrote of the simultaneity of his experience with the mantis), except the rapid cut of the eye from one datum to the next. For many observers and practitioners of the new art form, this discreteness was “the basic property of the film” (Pudovkin 189-90). Pudovkin, another of the directors discussed in Zukofsky’s essay on cinema, began his own 1929 essay on “Film Technique” with the following observation:

A cinematograph film . . . is always divided into a great number of separate pieces (more correctly, it is built out of these pieces). The sum of the shooting script is divided into sequences, each sequence into scenes, and, finally the scenes themselves are constructed from a whole series of pieces (script scenes) shot from various angles. (189)

As the essay proceeds, Pudovkin emphasizes again and again that “the director organizes each separate incident, analyzing it, disintegrating it into elements, and simultaneously thinking of the connection of these elements in editing” (200). In similar fashion, Zukofsky puts an extreme emphasis on the individual word/frame as a unit of composition, and especially on the sestina’s “repeated end words / Of the lines’ winding around themselves” (“Interpretation” 69), while also remaining devoted to the construction of a “scene” from a “whole series of pieces,” shot, as it were, “from various angles.” This sort of “disintegrating into elements” is in fact a new mode of perception enabled, or demanded, by technological as well as aesthetic developments.

One might, in fact, say that the modern scene is “cinematic” before it is ever filmed. Benjamin, concurring with Pudovkin on fragmentation and multiplicity as essential elements of cinema, writes of how the camera breaks the scene up into “a sequence of positional views” (228), transforming the screen actor’s work into “a series of mountable” episodes” (230). This quality of disintegration is comparable to modern experience itself, with the cinema being “the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life that modern man has to face” (250). The “shock effects” of cinema provide a sort of therapeutic “adjustment” to these surrounding dangers, and cinema itself “corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus  — changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen” (250).

Beginning with its setting in the subway  — one of the twentieth century’s great technological feats of organized motion  — Zukofsky’s “Mantis” registers a crowded, hurried, confusing modernity, in the uncertain “drafts” of which the “lost” mantis seeks to somehow “steady” itself. The “montage” of Zukofsky’s poem “juggles” an instant of time, which is disintegrated by rapid cuts, sudden shifts of vision, and reconstructed into a new arrangement of matter and thought, thinking matter. The poem’s six end words  — leaves, poor, it, you, lost, stone  — embody the primary “elements” of which the scene is built, and their “winding” sets in motion the sestina’s obsessive and exhaustive handling of subject matter.[23] This primary word-set (with each word carrying an important cluster of associations) will rearrange itself into every possible permutation of word-order before the poem is over, both dis/integrating the scene and providing the material for a recombinant and cyclical re/integration that constitutes the poem’s (continual) movement.

The “poor,” as we have seen, are “the most pertinent subject” of the poem’s historical moment; “it” and “you” are pronounal suggestions of possibilities of address, registers of the poem’s shifting stances; “lost” evokes the state of danger and uncertainty the poem would like to resolve; “stone” calls up the crushing weight of surrounding circumstance, the unnatural habitat so unforgiving for the fragile mantis, and perhaps for the urban populace as well. “Leaves” is a mediating term  — its association with “newspapers” suggests (like “stone,” and “lost”) mass production and the uncertain “drafts” of modernity, but also books of poems and the natural world, the mantis’s two “intended” habitats. Unlike Oppen’s serial form (a mode Zukofsky employs elsewhere), with its gaps between poem-units, the emphasis here is on the gaps/cuts between word-units.[24] The poem’s propulsive movement continually shears the connections between a word and its surroundings, thrusting it into new contexts, altering its meanings and associations. These cuts between words point, in a way that cinematic montage usually does not, to the gaps between units, and thus to the demand that the reader inhabit those gaps, making performative and semantic connections between one word and the next.

In Zukofsky’s “movie” it is ultimately the words that are moving, transforming themselves and the poem in the process, but throughout this transformation the poem retains its allegiance to actual events.

In this almost brutally modern scene, the actual twisting of diverse thoughts is tied, in Zukofsky’s materialist epistemology, to “nerves, glandular facilities, electrical cranial charges” (“Interpretation” 71).

The rhythm of one pair of lines is keyed to “the even rhythm of riding under — / ground, and the sudden jolt” (71), which are “also / of these nerves, glandular facilities, brain’s charges” (71). Zukofsky’s invocation of the biological and material stratum of the scene points to more than just an exercise in mimetic rhythms; it is a thoroughgoing acknowledgment that “thoughts” arise, in however mysterious a fashion, from bodily processes, and that the rhythm of thought itself might be tied to bodily, proprioceptive experiences (like riding the subway). The penultimate strophe, leading into the vision/revolution of the poem’s conclusion, brings the technological and organic dimensions of the experience to a cybernetic fusion in a new figuration of the mantis:

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”

The mantis as “android,” still a “beggar” but now “loving,” is called to “dive to the poor” for a kind of (sexual) communion that might give birth to new energies and hopes. It must somehow “graze,” or feed, off “stone,” but this grazing will also be a light touching or passing over like that of “machined wheels.” Touch of motion, motion of touch are called to spark a productive friction. The ambiguity of the descriptor “green,” which might refer to mantis or wheels or both, speaks to the interpenetration of natural and technological realms (echoing the similarly odd usage to be found in Zukofsky’s short poem beginning: “Cars once steel and green, now old” CSP 31). In trying to draw sustenance from a world of stone and steel the mantis, “old as the globe, the moon” (ancient both as insect and as myth), must in a sense evolve, adapt to modern modalities. As “android” (literally, like man), the mantis mirrors our own human entrapment in a modernity for which we can never be fully prepared (adapted), demonstrating “lost”-ness to be a situation that is economic, political and technological as well as emotional.


When Charlie in Modern Times is rescued from his descent into the machinery, threaded back through its wheels and gears to return to his starting point, the effect is achieved by running the film backwards. At this moment there is a visible identity, however fleeting, between the technologies of cinema and those of the factory system. At this instant of Brechtian estrangement the film surrenders its critical vantage and reveals its own implication in the world of commerce, industry and technology.[25] Similarly, Zukofsky’s “Mantis” foregrounds its own mechanisms, and in the process registers its own struggle toward being (a process significantly extended by Zukofsky’s “Interpretation”).[26] The poem’s cyclical form mimics, to a certain extent, the capitalist circuit captured in one knotty sequence: “No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone, / Banks” (66). Here, Zukofsky presents a condensed version of a cycle rendered more expansively in the “Interpretation”: “Rags make paper, / paper makes money, money makes / banks, banks make loans, loans make / poverty, poverty makes rags” (71). Just as Oppen’s Discrete Series comments on the modern condition of “mathematical projection” by staging its own (formal) battle between the “empirical” world and the “demonic universe” of mathematics, Zukofsky takes his “formalist” aesthetic “into the open air” to see what “facts” it can handle.

Where Oppen’s “lunch counter” poem stages an encounter with “Big-Business,” and implies by the gaps and absences inherent in its own form some of the things that power “hides if it can,” Zukofsky’s “Mantis” makes a similar attempt to open out from a record of physical encounter to an engagement with the organizing logics “behind the scene.” One of the things Zukofsky’s word-machine is designed to do is to make possible the staging of this engagement as a physical event, a juggling of subject matter that will bring political and ideological questions into the (tangible) realm of the aesthetic. In his preface to An “Objectivists” Anthology, Zukofsky’s call for an engagement with “historic and contemporary particulars” was followed by his observation that “The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference” (“‘Recencies’ in Poetry” 16). Zukofsky tries here, as he did most ambitiously in his major poems of the thirties, to fuse the projects of aesthetic and political “revolution,” to yoke the whirling energies of the word to visions of an economic and political turn. In the middle and late thirties, when Zukofsky undertook his next experiments with dense, impacted and rule-governed forms, his political zeal was apparently intact, but he had turned to textual “matter” for his poetic materials, no longer grounding his poems in actual events/scenes drawn from his own encounters with the topographical modernity of urban life in thirties New York.

For Zukofsky, as we have seen, art should be tangible, “intending a solid object.” But “Objectivist” interest in “historic and contemporary particulars” also engenders a desire for increased historical perspective, for an intellective understanding of the trajectories of events/objects. This desire ultimately drew Zukofsky to theoretico-descriptive accounts such as that undertaken by Marx in Capital. The form of First Half of “A”-9, a mathematically-intensified canzone inspired by Marx’s writings on commodity fetishism, is the result of Zukofsky’s attempt to dramatize such a discourse, to render it tangible.[27] Heeding in their own way Pound’s dictum to “Go in fear of abstractions,” the “Objectivists” restore the process of abstraction itself (ab = away from + trahere = to pull) to its physical ground. As we typically understand it, to consider something abstractly means to look at it “theoretically,” or “without reference to a particular object.” But the “Objectivists,” in their desire to think with the things as they exist,” make us feel the physical tug of our intellective pulling away from concrete experience. As registered in Zukofsky’s difficult “formulaic” poems, this pull has seemed to some to make for “strained versifying” (Mottram 98), but as we have seen from his definition of montage, Zukofsky himself felt that faithfulness to “actual events” often meant recording “strained relation[s].” To “strain” is to stretch or force beyond an appropriate point or limit  — a good description of Zukofsky’s approach to formal procedures in the poems under discussion. In “Mantis”, Zukofsky treats the sestina not as a passively received inheritance from poetic tradition but as an occasion for the active pushing of limits and the investigation of form as method. Bringing formal and methodological demands and political urgency into such close, if “strained,” relation, Zukofsky fashioned a poetry that has provoked strongly conflicting assessments.[28] But such assessments  — of not just particular poems but entire poetic modes  — are in fact demanded by the insistence on “testing” in the poetry itself.

In his later poetry, Zukofsky’s conviction in “A”-7 that “Words / Will do it” gains ascendancy over the complementary devotion to “detailed recording of actual things in relation” (“MT” 60).[29] But in “Mantis” as “movie” Zukofsky demonstrates equal commitment to words and things (not just words as things), presenting us with a “sequence of terror” (as Zukofsky himself described Chaplin’s bout with the feeding machine in Modern Times 59) that is also a kind of intellectual, social, and poetic slapstick in which one is “yoke[d] . . . to the world of facts” and required “to keep apace” (64). The resulting strain produces a terrible comedy of words, objects, and thoughts turning in “the historic dimension of events actually happening” (59), at a time when the most inexorable “fact” of all is that of the poverty and oppression of great masses of people.


[1] Niedecker cut up Zukofsky's letters in order to be able to arrange passages for her own uses. Consequently, the archive consists of undated fragments rather than whole letters.

[2] This manuscript was not published until 1974, when it was printed by New Directions.

[3] See Zukofsky's "Sincerity and Objectification" essay, which prefaced the "Objectivist" number of poetry: "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody" (273).

[4] For Zukofsky's claim not to have read Whitehead see Weaver (54). I am more interested in establishing a broader intellectual context for the term than in pursuing the issue of "direct" influence.

[5] Compare, for example, Zukofsky's suggestion that the poem should have no "predatory intent" toward the objects with which it is concerned ("'Recencies'" 18).

[6] In the same vein, Williams responds to other Zukofsky manuscripts by applauding, in one case, "the thing that this poem is," and by generally emphasizing the importance of "objective clarities of image" (SL 102).

[7] As a prototype of these statements on "Objectivist" poetics, compare Pound's "Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective," which first appeared in Poetry in 1913 in a piece entitled "A Few Don'ts," later reprinted as part of the longer essay, "A Retrospect."

[8] See letter 21 Mar. 1933, HRC, folder 1.

[9] There are, however, clear affinities between the collage techniques of Pound's ideogrammic method (which I discuss in more detail in Chapter Three) and cinematic montage. Indeed, in comparing his own long poem "A" to Pound's The Cantos Zukofsky wrote: "We both partake of the cinematic principle, you to a greater and more progressive degree, tho' it wd. be pretty hard to distinguish in either case where montage leaves off & narration begins & vice versa" (letter to Pound, 7 Dec. 1931, P/Z 112). One might argue, however, that cinematic and Poundian techniques were parallel developments, each arising in their own (similar) ways from the condition of modernity.

[10] The comparison to the Japanese Noh is, of course, a Poundian observation. In 1917 Pound had published versions of Noh plays extracted from Ernest Fenollosa's notebooks under the title Noh, or, Accomplishment.

[11] In actuality, the film is a hybrid, resisting the use of dialogue but making limited and strategic use of sound technology.

[12] See Williams's "George Antheil and the Cantilène critics" for a response to the April 1927 Carnegie Hall performance of Antheil's modernistic "Ballet Mécanique," which incorporated urban noises into its music. Comically absurd at the time, Chaplin's videoscreen turns out, of course, to be an accurate anticipation of surveillance techniques now common in the workplace.

[13] I take the terminology of "milking" and "topping" from Agee, who gives the following example of the latter: "In a simple example of topping, an incredible number of tall men get, one by one, out of a small closed auto. After as many have clambered out as the joke will bear, one more steps out: a midget. That tops the gag. Then the auto collapses. That tops the topper" (11).

[14] "A"-8 is another of Zukofsky's major thirties poems, but I omit it from this list because of its expansive rather than compacted approach to form. However, the two formulaic "ballades" included in this movement might be treated as separate and integral works in Zukofsky's compressed mode, in which case they would clearly belong in the constellation under discussion here.

[15] For an account of the additional "mathematical" requirements imposed on "A"-9 see the materials provided by Zukofsky in the mimeographed publication First Half of "A"-9 (1940). For a more widely available and extensive discussion of mathematical form in both "A"-8 and "A"-9, see the appendix in Ahearn, "Mathematical Configurations in "A".

[16] In using the term piezo-aesthetic I am making an analogy to piezoelectric crystals, which are capable of generating electric current when subjected to mechanical stress.

[17] Discussing "A" as a whole (which at the time consisted of the first seven movements, and a projected plan for the remaining 17), Zukofsky wrote to Pound that it "has to be read as a pattern" (12 Dec. 1930, P/Z 82).

[18] As Barry Ahearn points out, the "guiding premise" of both "A"-7 and "A"-9 is "animation of the inanimate" (101). A similar premise is at work in "Mantis".

[19] See, for example, Ahearn's introduction to "A", as well as Hatlen's "Art and/as Labor," Kenner's "Two Pieces on "A"," and Quartermain's "Louis Zukofsky — Re: Location."

[20] For both "Mantis" and "Mantis, An Interpretation," I have chosen to depart from academic convention by underlining the titles even though these are short works. I do so in order to preserve the iconic value of Zukofsky's own use of quotation marks in the title (as in his long work "A"), as well as to acknowledge that these are highly wrought works deserving of "major" consideration. For insightful readings of "Mantis", see Conte, Davidson, and Taggart.

[21] See Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (764).

[22] On "simultanism" see Ahearn (27).

[23] On the "obsessive" nature of the sestina form, see Karl Shapiro's observation:

The sestina seems not necessarily to be a mere curious exercise or virtuoso showpiece, but at least ideally to be a form designed to encourage and express a meditation or reverie upon certain thoughts or images. If such an obsessive vision or reverie-like impulse does not in fact exist or come onto existence as the poem is written, the six key words will seem unmotivated and the whole poem will turn out to be an academic exercise. The sestina would seem to involve one's deepest love and conviction, involve his deepest impressions as these take on a rather obsessive quality. (qtd. in Taggart 248)

[24] I argue in Chapter Three that Zukofsky deploys a serial or nodal form in An "Objectivists" Anthology. Conte usefully discusses how Zukofsky's shorter poem's enact a "finite serial form" similar to Oppen's.

[25] For an account of Hollywood-as-factory-system see Schatz's The Genius of the System (1988).

[26] In Michael Davidson's reading, Zukofsky's "Interpretation" is an essential complement to the original poem, serving to "dismantle the totalizing gesture implied by the form and manifested in its utopian apostrophe" (525-7). I agree with the thrust of Davidson's argument, which is that Zukofsky's aesthetic is "dereifying" in its effect, but I would emphasize that Zukofsky's "warping" of the sestina already works to undermine "totalizing gesture[s]."

[27] In addition to the conventional requirements of the canzone, the appearance of n and r sounds is governed by a mathematical formula.

[28] Eric Mottram, for example, identifies Zukofsky's "strained versifying" as a "kind of dandyism" ill-equipped to engage with social and political realities (98). On the other hand, Michael Davidson praises the "dismantling" and "dereifying" effects of Zukofsky's formal strategies (as already mentioned in the note above), finding that Mottram's account "fails to historicize the oppositional meaning of Zukofsky's formalism with respect to competing theories of politically committed art during this period" (523). Further, according to Davidson: "Zukofsky used formalism not to aestheticize social tensions but to return a degree of use-value to a poetry increasingly instrumentalized by social agendas. Rather than solve the problem as Oppen did — by giving up poetry altogether — Zukofsky sought to provide an immanent critique within the terms of modernism itself" (523). My reading is close to Davidson's, but I would emphasize again that Zukofsky's critique of "modernism itself" includes critique and "testing" of his own practices. I would argue that this self-testing, which specifically encodes the possibility of "failure" into the poetry itself, is one sign of the emergent postmodernism of the "Objectivists." This distinction between modernist and postmodernist strategies seems to me more useful than the distinction made by Conte, who sees as "distinctly postmodern" Zukofsky's "refutation of the modernist rejection of predetermined forms" (189). The difficulty here is that Zukofsky's interest in the "predetermined forms" of the sestina and the canzone clearly derives from Pound's own "modernist" interest. However, as I have tried to indicate, a meaningful distinction does begin to emerge when one looks at the specific uses and applications to which these forms are put. Conte's discussion of "procedural forms" is quite useful in undertaking such an examination.

[29] Many critics have favored Zukofsky's late work precisely for this devotion to the "word as such" (to draw terms from Perloff's reading of Oppen, discussed earlier). See, for example, Peter Quartermain's Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe (1992) and Alison Rieke's The Senses of Nonsense (1992).

July 2006  |  Jacket 30  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400 book reviews |