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Louis Zukofsky

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Bob Perelman

Zukofsky at 100: Zukofsky as a Body of Work

This piece was originally a talk at the “Zukofsky at 100” at Columbia in September, 2004. It echoes /”A”/- 1, minimally, by mentioning a cultural venue at the beginning.
It is about 7 printed pages long.

1. The session title, “Zukofsky at One Hundred,” suggests a crucially ambiguous vantage.

2. Louis Zukofsky, person, would have been 100 this year.

3. But Zukofsky, the body of work, is of indeterminate age.

4. Is a body of work born when the first attested or accepted work appears? If so, then we should start counting with the earliest work, “I Sent Thee Late,” the 1922 poem that appears in /”A”/-18, and we should be celebrating “Zukofsky at 82.”

5. It feels harshly ironic to make the birth year of “Zukofsky the body of work” coincide with the year that “Zukofsky the person” died, but that is the year the body of work could be considered complete.

6. So if we count from the date of the last work, /80 Flowers/ and the publication of the completed /”A”/ then it should be “Zukofsky at 26.”

7. While 26 is poetically significant in the Anglo-American alphabet, 100 is the most august, barely reachable of the human-sized numbers.

8. For modernists seeking mastery, 100 beckoned.

9. In “An Instant Answer or A Hundred Prominent Men” [/Useful Knowledge/] Stein repeats “and one” 100 times.

9a. Of course, Stein can always be being sarcastic: it isn’t A Hundred Prominent Women after all.

10. For much of the time Pound was writing them, 100 was the magic number for /The Cantos/ given that that was the number of cantos in Dante’s /Comedia/.

11. In our day, there’s Bruce Andrews’ /I Don’t Have Any Paper, So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)/ and his /Lip Service/ each with 100 sections.

12. Zukofsky was drawn to 100 as well: both /”A”/-22 and -23 contain 1,000 lines.

13. (1,000 is the epic version of 100.)

14. There’s also the progression of his last planned projects: at the beginning of his 8th decade he begins /80 Flowers/ with /Gamut: 90 Trees/ planned for the decade after that. Isn’t 100 the teleological goal there?

15. (At this point, it’s hard to resist Ron Silliman’s prediction for the next project: /101 Dalmations/.).

16. Why am I so drawn to that joke?

17. Is it because Zukofsky now stands for avant-garde mastery and completion and that that oxymoron is particularly distorting when applied to Zukofsky?

18. In resisting the equation Zukofsky = 100 I also am resisting the equation Zukofsky = 1.

19. Also the equation Zukofsky = music.

20. This in the face of the fact that it is hard to miss the ubiquitous instructions to construe his work into a unified totality.

21. I.e., “Each writer writes one long work whose beat he cannot be entirely aware of.”

22. I.e., the last words of /”A”/-24, the tiny coda written by Louis to Celia’s /LZ Masque/; “the gift / she hears / the work / in its recurrence.”

23. I.e. this from the /Autobiography/: “The form of the poem is organic — that is, involved in history and a life that has found by contrast to history something like perfection in the music of J. S. Bach.”

24. Celia’s basic gesture in /”A”/-24, composing Louis’s poetry, drama, fiction and criticism into cadenced musical voices, insists on this analogy and grants Louis’s words, originally written in various genres and various historical circumstances, the retrospective perfection of music.

25. That’s ‘music’ in the Paterian, Poundian sense: poetic ‘music.’

26. My scare quotes around music makes it plain that I am an apostate from this grand synesthesic synthesis.

27. I am acting as the tritone, the augmented fourth, C/F#, /diabolus in musica/ as the medievals had it, and will try to make audible my perception of the value of the dissonance I hear in Zukofsky.

28. While this dissonance does not accord at all with the emphatic simplicity of his pronouncements of poetics, nevertheless it continues — in my ear at least — to resound in the deadpan slippages, extravagant layerings and uncoded leaps of much of his writing practice.

29. Zukofsky’s critical practice is an instrument designed to suppress such extravagance.

30. In /A Test of Poetry/, the Milton of /Samson Agonistes/ does get a low mark for his “inability to leave words alone”; he is “infatuated with sound, thunder, and fury, and is ‘building’ a verse paragraph”; LZ puts scare quotes around building, implying that such yielding to infatuation results in mere imaginary work on an imaginary building.

31. But as any reader of Zukofsky knows, he himself is infatuated with sound and with building verbal contraptions that had never been imagined before:

32. O dear cool you couldn’t a virile — you couldn’t a parent he —

salvé! take weight bone ah Jupiter act it open,

Janus, door! when Balbo thickened — serviced his benignant

ol’ him — home say days hipped seized say next tenure heat —

how come fare runt hearsways ‘n how the door serve very malignantly

posthumously poor wrecked torn father’s young married son — eh. [C, 67]

33. Of course, such un/Test/able extravagance does not resound everywhere in Zukofsky’s work; a considerable portion is as verbally neat as /A Test/ suggests is proper:

34. The miracle of his first job

On the lower East Side:

Six years night watchman

In a men’s shop

Where by day he pressed pants

Every crease a blade

The irons weighed

At least twenty pounds

But moved both of them

Six days a week

From six in the morning

To nine, sometimes eleven at night

Or midnight;

Except Fridays

When he left, enough time before sunset

Margolis begrudged.

His own business

My father told Margolis

Is to keep the Sabbath. [A, 152]

35. These passages from /”A”/-12 and /Catullus/ were chosen at random.

36. Nevertheless it strikes me as an instructive coincidence that both involve fathers and that their respective styles match the degree of seriousness with which paternity is addressed.

37. The second passage is pious, taut with restraint.

38. The passage from in /Catullus/ is rife with vaguely anti-paternal, comic-phallic noises: “O dear cool you couldn’t a virile,” “couldn’t a parent,” “weight bone ah Jupiter,” “ol’ him,” “posthumously poor wrecked torn father’s young married son — eh.”

39. But to simply split Zukofsky along a paternal axis of obedience and rebellion isn’t sufficient.

40. Zukofsky’s impiety is sly, a Talmudic impishness more profound than disobedience, an ecstacy of syntactic teleporting to no world that anyone lives in yet.

41. However, Zukofsky did in fact live in the historical world, inextricably as one might say.

42. In trying to establish a place for his writing in that world he continually did two things:

43. in his critical work he would insist vigorously on an extreme decorum of style;

44. while in his poetry he would display his powers, of construction and construal,

45. displays that were neither decorous nor indecorous: the categories don’t apply.

46. /A Test/ is a line on the C.V. Zukofsky submitted for some imagined position of permanent authority. For an unrecognized poet aspiring to be a major modernist there was a defined set of tasks, a sequence of labors that would authenticate the laborer as a true Hercules.

47. What did proto-Hercules have to do to become Poet Hercules?

48. In Milton’s time the schedule of tasks for a major-poet-in-training was Virgilian:
49. first, eclogues,

50. then georgics,

51. and finally an epic.

52. In the 1930s when Zukofsky was marshaling his own forces Pound was the model and the requirements had changed. Now it was:

53. notable editorial intervention,

54. a collection of short poems,

55. an epic,

56. and a codified statement of poetics.

57. Pound remained the model of the poet for Zukofsky.

58. /Prepositions/ was on Zukofsky’s desk when he died, open to his essay on Pound.

59. When /Catullus/ was published, Zukofsky wrote Pound, asking what he thought: “I understand Mary de R[achewiltz]. has been receiving my Catullus translations in /Origin/ — sometimes wonder what “/you/” might think of ’em if you <can> read ’em> <“Don’t matter what anyone else thinks — even the praise. Still obstinate you see” [PZ, p. 218].

60. Thus Zukofsky’s 1, his life, adds up to more than 1.

61. Zukofsky carries Pound on his back, like Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy.

62. Except there’s no Roman Empire as a fated destination.

63. Zukofsky also carries Bach: “The form of the poem is organic — that is, involved in history and a life that has found by contrast to history something like perfection in the music of J. S. Bach.”

64. And not to forget Williams.

65. “5, Song of Degrees” begins, “William / Carlos / Williams / alive!” and ends with Billy the Kid

66. . . . torn,


so quickly

it sounds






as with

a lien


the sky

that becomes

low now


water —

called also —

softly —

a kill

67. The lines just before this are

68. the

same word


may have,

to touch

two faces —

the heart

sees into —

of one


69. It’s not just that Zukofsky’s 1 always sounds with 2 faces, though it does.

70. It’s that Zukofsky’s celebration of the poetically perfected life — “William / Carlos / Williams / alive!” — also contains the countervailing gesture: “a kill.”

71. A little symbolic mathematics: if the authorized perfected life-works — Catullus, Bach, Pound, Williams — are 100 and the individual aspiring life — Louis Zukofsky — is 1, then the result should be that the poetry produced by said Louis Zukofsky will also be perfected, since 100 divided by or multiplied by 1 = 100.

72. But clearly that’s not the case.

73. /Gai Valeri Veronensis Catulli/ when divided or multiplied into English by Louis (and Celia) Zukofsky does not equal the purportedly perfect original.

74. Purportedly perfected forms, when divided or multipled by Zukofsky, produce irrational numbers.

75. As he writes in /A Test/: “/The Sonnet Form/ is /not/ a matter of 14 lines, set rhyme scheme, 10 syllables to a line, alternating ascending accents, as the rhetoric books have it. /Sonnet/ . . . implies the form of the short tune, to which certain Italian poets–Dante, Cavalcanti, and others–wrote words; . . . . Dissociated from music, the /sonnet/ became merely the poor versification of amateurs, without emotion or sense of the relation of the parts of a composition to the whole” [67].

76. This statement comes from a poet who had written this a few years earlier:

77. Clavicembalo — Nine less two, Seven

Were the diggers, seven sang, danced, the paces

Seven, Seven Saviours went to heaven —

Their tongues, hands, feet, eyes, ears and hearts, each face as

Of a Sea looking Outward (Rose the Glass

Broken), Each a reflection of the other.

Just for the fun of it. And ’t came to pass

(/Open, O fierce flaming pit!/)

three said: Bother,

Brother, we want a meal, different techniques.”

Two ways, my two voices. . . Offal and what

The imagination. . . And the seven came

To horses seven (of wood — who will? — kissed their stomachs)

Bent knees as these rose around them— trot — trot —

Spoke: words, words, we are words, horses, manes, words.[A, 42]

78. Now, clearly, this would not fit very happily to any Dantescan or Cavalcantian “short tune.”

79. A crucial component of its deviation from ‘musicality’ is its use of the conventional sonnet form.

80. Its relation to that form is not parodic, but para-poetic.

81. This 7^th sonnet that concludes /”A”/-7 insists on the traditional rhyming quatrains: Seven, paces, heaven, face as; Glass, other, pass, Bother (with the truer rhyme Brother emjambed to begin the next line).

82. But onto this armature, Zukofsky casts a remarkably diverse concatenation of verbal matter, social tone, and allusion to things inside and outside of /”A.”/

83. What are some of the techniques employed by Zukofsky in this sonnet?

84. It starts with the last word of a sentence, Clavicembalo.

84a. It is an extremely odd sentence, by the way. It’s far from easy to tell where it begins, but my opinion is that it starts four lines back: “A sign creaked — LAUNDRY TO-LET — (creaked — wind — ) — SUN — / (Nights?) the sun’s, bro’, no months’ rent in arrear — / Bum pump a-dum, no one’s cut out, pump a- / Ricky, bro’, Shimaunu-Sān, yours is the / Clavicembalo.”

85. Zukofsky mixes tonal registers: the language of mathematics (“Nine less two”) with the singsong of a fairy tale (“Seven were the diggers . . . the paces Seven, Seven Saviours went to heaven”).

86. He uses typography (clearly not a ‘musical’ device!): capitalization to mythify and personify in a comic manner: “a Sea looking Outward (Rose the Glass / Broken)” By the way, in those last two words, the glass doesn’t break until the line breaks. That’s not a linebreak not easy to conceive within the universe of Poundian/Zukofskyan ‘music’. There’s the dramatic use of white space and italics, parentheses too, for the reference to /”A”/-1, “Open, O fierce flaming pit!”

87. “Pit” there encompasses the Christian Hell of the /St. Matthew Passion/, a Hell Zukofsky doesn’t believe in, sung to music he does believe in; the pit where the orchestra is playing, and the pit that the miners are locked out of.

88. There’s the use of extra-poetic speech: “Bother, / Brother, we want a meal, different techniques.” The voices of the unemployed are clear here, but Zukofsky folds his own poetic and social concerns into the words that fit between the quotation marks. It’s hardly likely that a person who said “Brother, we want a meal” would begin with “Bother, brother.” Nor is it likely that the person asking for a meal also asked for “different techniques.” But Zukofsky at this time believed, along with Pound and many others, that to supply different writing techniques was at least as valuable as supplying physical necessities.

89. There’s the use of phrase fragments to suggest fleeting half-formed thoughts of great intensity: “(of wood — who will — kissed their stomachs).”

90. That last phrase especially is striking. “Kissed” sounds out a completed action, but it doesn’t sound out the agent or the object. Kissing a stomach is, at least usually, a highly erotic act. So who kissed which stomachs? Did Zukofsky kiss — at least in the written world of these three words — the stomachs of the horses, the diggers, the sawhorses?

91. Whichever it is, and it might be all three, there is great power of suggestion in the phrase, which is emphatically “not” clear or exact in the way that /A Test/ demands.

92. My polemic here is not against Zukofsky’s use of musical structures as analogies to instigate his writing, it is against the ahistorical and really terribly vague use of music as a description of a poem. It is an impoverished sense of music, which, after all, has as tumultuous a history as poetry. Schoenberg had been writing 12-tone music for decades before Pound wrote /ABC/; the riots over Stravinsky’s harsh polyrhythms were old news; Antheil’s airplane engines had already roared.

93. Think of how we feel when “poetry” is used in such tepid, generalizing way: the poetry of Robert Ryman’s white canvases, the poetry of Alex Rodriguez’s swing, the poetry of Spring.

94. But this fulmination feels a bit quixotic when common sense obtrudes the fact that music is widely used in poetics to point to a quality that is exciting and beautiful, “those wonderful sounds good poetry makes.”

95. Perhaps my final negotiating stance should be this: not to proscribe music or to proscribe the use of 1 or of 100 but rather urge that the lower limit of Zukofsky’s famous integral be kept in mind.

96. If a poetic integral is an integral process, then the poetics that Zukofsky affirms will indeed touch on music while also being speech. It will exist between 1, the life, and 100, the completed work.

97. Why is it good to focus on only the upper, or for that matter only on the lower limit?

98. Instead, I propose a toast to the uncompletable gamut.

99. Bottoms up!

To Zukofsky at 100.

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