Louis Zukofsky

 Zukofsky feature: Return to the Contents list 

Tim Woods

Zukofsky at Columbia

This piece is 3200 words or about 6 printed pages long.

Celebrating the poetic achievement of Louis Zukofsky on the centenary of his birth, people are all familiar with the well-established Objectivist poet’s oeuvre – the epic poem ‘A’, the no less epic poem 80 Flowers, the prolific short poems collected in All, the prose work Bottom: On Shakespeare, and the vast array of other lesser prose and poetic writings. Zukofsky’s intricate poetics of the preponderance of the object over the predatory imposition of the subject, of elaborate conjunctions of word, sound and music, of intimate love and deep-rooted ethical care, are, I suspect, among the principal reasons why many of us attend to Zukofsky’s work. A great deal of critical investigation has rightly been invested in extricating the characteristic properties of Objectivist poetics in contradistinction to those of Imagism, or indeed, Symbolism, and other modernist and avant-garde poetic practices as well. Many very persuasive accounts of Zukofsky’s poetics have involved comparisons with poets like William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Allen Ginsberg, A.R. Ammons, and the ‘Language’ Poets; and still other accounts have compared Zukofsky’s aesthetic, linguistic and philosophical practices with those of Adorno, Levinas, Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Derrida and others.

Yet, where, we might ask, was Zukofsky’s poetic activity born? Amongst all these sophisticated literary and theoretical comparisons and genealogical trajectories, how did Zukofsky’s poetic practice begin? What was he writing and where was he publishing before ‘A’: 1-7 saw the light of day in 1927? And when we do look at these beginnings, are we able to learn anything about the trajectory of this poet, or Objectivist poetics more generally?

Celia Zukofsky said in an interview with Carroll Terrell that Louis Zukofsky entered Columbia University in 1919: he was just not quite 16.[1] He graduated in 3½ years when he was approaching his 20th birthday, remained to get his MA, and graduated in the class of 1923. He had a tortured and tense relationship with Columbia, as the reference to the University in Section iii,’A’-13 testifies:

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 student body with which Zukofsky mixed, was composed of similarly bright, intellectually astute and ravenous young men. Raised in immigrant homes and sprung from the busy hatcheries of the New York public school system, many of these students were prodigies of erudition, some skipping a year or two of school, and then winning city-wide scholarships. They ranged easily across whole areas of knowledge, and this “phoenix-like proletariat” presented a collective vision of invincible seriousness, both moral and intellectual. Zukofsky rubbed shoulders with people who were to become leaders in their fields – Meyer Schapiro, later Professor of Fine Art at Yale; Samuel Theodor (Ted) Hecht (one of his poems in All is dedicated to “My friend STH”), later actor; Clifton Fadiman, later well-known writer, critic, editor, and moderator of the top-10 radio hit “Information Please” from 1938 to 1952; Lionel Trilling, later Columbia University literary critic and legendary intellectual; Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher and professor at various universities; and John Gassner, later Sterling Professor of Drama at Yale. Yet one of his closest Columbia friends at this time was Whittaker Chambers, who registered at Columbia in 1920, and it is this friendship upon which I want to focus. In his infamous book Witness (published in 1952), Chambers describes his early period at Columbia and offers a story very similar to the one probably experienced by Zukofsky:

At Columbia, like all freshmen, I was at once assigned a faculty adviser. In my case, he was Mark Van Doren, then a young instructor in the English department. Like all really first-rate teachers, Mark Van Doren’s personal influence on his students was great – in my case, powerful and long-lasting. We quickly passed to a first-name basis and developed a friendship of respect and common interests, which, no doubt, was stronger on my side than on his. … All problems of writing, but especially of poetry, touched him profoundly, and he brought to them incisive judgment, humor and exceptional common sense. … Mark Van Doren (and certain of my fellow students) first developed in me the belief that writing poetry is not, as my mother and many other people supposed, a somewhat disreputable pursuit, but a way of life – one of the highest to which a man can be called.[3]

Now Chambers clearly felt called, and the young intellectually-gifted instructor Van Doren encouraged this calling and became a close mentor to Chambers during his period at Columbia. Mark Van Doren developed as a great figure of literature at Columbia in the early half of the C20th, who obviously deepened both Chambers’ and Zukofsky’s love of poetry and with whom both formed a life-long friendship. Another influential tutor was John Erskine, the founder of the daring new Columbia College course called General Honours, which established what is generally agreed to have become the Great Books movement in American higher education (if “movement” will serve as a general term). Van Doren joined the Columbia faculty after earning his PhD here in 1920, and was among the original band of young scholars who taught Erskine’s General Honours course, the Great Books approach later lampooned in Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning The”.

A passage in Zukofsky’s Autobiography summarizes this early period:

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”

During this time in Columbia, Zukofsky published several poems in The Morningside, a defunct poetry magazine for undergraduates revived and sponsored by John Erskine in 1920. Zukofsky’s poems published in The Morningside amount to some 11 poems:

These pieces are what are usually called “juvenilia”, that epithet kindly given to their youthful works that poets later eschew in their poetic maturity. When asked when Louis started writing poetry, Celia Zukofsky replied:

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 pieces in The Morningside demonstrate a young man struggling to find his poetic voice, espousing a form of lyric romanticism that showed signs of a modernist consciousness much like a butterfly emerging from its constrictive chrysalis. Tending somewhat towards the romantic in rhetoric at times, many of the poems are speculations about youth’s potential. The poem entitled “Youth”, invokes a figure standing astride mountains at dawn and pouring sunshine from a marble vase, reminiscent of the Romantic artist figured by Caspar David Friedrich in his picture Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c.1818), albeit Zukofsky’s figure is more dynamic and active rather than pensively posed in passive solitude as Friedrich has it. In Zukofsky’s poem “Youth’s Ballad of Singleness”, the figure of the youth occurs standing on the fragile edge of the future, pregnant with promise, although strongly aware of its precarious and volatile prospect. This poem is about situating oneself – striking one’s identity in a world of uncertainty, flux and indeterminacy. Elsewhere, in “Spare Us Of Dying Beauty”, despite the somewhat overblown rhetoric in his description of “Youth … A son-god in a temple of decay”, the poem presents more than a Yeatsian lament on mortality and celebrates the potential of youth to activate change. Youth is a coiled spring, eager to leap into action, although not unaware of the more subtle realisation of the complex of difficulties that ruffle the apparently smooth surface of life, as we can see in another poem entitled “Moments”.

Despite their indication of a consciousness wracked by a glimpse into modern existence, an existence that clearly ruffles the feathers of a dying pastoralism, these poems nevertheless are so controlled, restrained and reigned in, that it is difficult to see any of the features that were to later mark Objectivist interests. Yet if we turn to that sequence of poems by Dunn Wyth (Louis Zukofsky’s pseudonym) entitled The First Seasons, also written during the years at Columbia, we can begin to see the signs of an embryonic Objectivist poetics. As Celia notes, the typescript of these poems resides in the Zukofsky Collection in the Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, and they show Zukofsky’s characteristic of being a stickler for detail (with various hand marks to the typescripts, tidying up the punctuation and the layout). The typescript is 68 pages long, dated January 23, 1942, clearly indicating that none were written after 1926. The sequence comprises the following organisation:

The First Book: pp.1-34
    Comprises 34 poems numbered consecutively in Roman numerals
    The title page includes the following inscription: “The First Seasons
     (including The First Book) was written by me ca. 1920-1924 and is
     not to be published, as the pseudonym intended then; (pronounce ‘done with’).”
The First Seasons: pp.35-68
      Comprises 28 poems numbered consecutively in Roman numerals
            “Spring” pp.35-43
            “Summer” pp.44-56
            “Fall” pp.57-68

We can already see indications of the linguistic jokes that Zukofsky routinely played, in that author’s pseudonym, Dunn Wyth. But what really begins to stand out here is a spare, more minimal style, so characteristic of “A”: 1-7. The sequence moves through different forms, almost as if Zukofsky were consciously undertaking a poetic apprenticeship: there are tightly controlled sparse verses, sonnets, odes, and lyrics. Yet the most conspicuous difference to the poems he published in The Morningside and Varsity, is that Zukofsky now begins to use the page and the line as a means of thought, rather than mere carriers of words. Metre loses its grip as the sole motor for the line – more weight is given to the pulse of the word or phrase as a unit of thought. So, for example, poem number XXIV from The First Seasons reads:

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

Clearly ringing with overt echoes of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, the poem touches on those same themes of mutability and mortality that preoccupy some of the “juvenilia” in The Morningside; yet the shape of this poem is tighter, more concise, less prone to ornate language, and already moving towards those principal tenets of Imagism so clearly articulated by people like T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, of economy, precision, concision, concrete imagery; the absence of pretension, abstraction, and didacticism; “the right word in the right place”, and a minimum of “rhetoric”. Furthermore, one also sees a poetry seeking to push towards a focus on the luminous detail that allows for a re-perception of the here-and-now, that familiar world from which we are estranged, as Objectivist poets and others like Olson would later argue. Hence, poem number XXVI reads:

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”

Or consider poem number XVI:

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”

Perhaps this latter poem gestures to the summer days spent with Chambers, Schapiro, Fadiman, Zolinsky and others on a tent holiday, pitched in the dunes at Atlantic Beach on Long Island in 1924; but both poems are redolent of the sharp eye for detail, that sincerity and objectification of perception, that structures early movements like “A”-4 or “A”-5. For all Zukofsky’s eagerness to be ‘done with’ these poems, we actually see a more mature and confident poetic voice emerge, more in control of free verse, more interested in capturing other people’s words and voices (for example, the common voice on the street), than being driven by rhetorical, obviously “poetic” phrases.

When Chambers became Associate Editor of The Morningside in 1921, inheriting the position from Charlie Wagner, a campus prize-winning poet, he immediately sought a major alteration in the publishing strategy. Among enfants terribles, Chambers was perhaps one of the most terrible. 1922 was something of a literary annus mirabilis, seeing the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in The Dial, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. During the years of his Associate Editorship of The Morningside (later taken on by Meyer Schapiro), Chambers aimed to make a big splash in the 1922 issue, to exhibit “more cynicism and get away from the more lyrical characters in the magazine”. Thus was born the “profanist” issue of The Morningside. The issue came out in October 1922, with a lead playlet entitled “A Play for Puppets”, written by one John Kelly (Whittaker Chambers’ pseudonym). Read today, the four pages might be regarded as mildly ribald; yet it was regarded as wildly sacrilegious by the university authorities, and there was uproar: University officials, both the Dean and the President, sought to expel Chambers and prevent any further such material being published in the magazine, and the subsequent furore was picked up in The New York Times and the Tribune.[6] Eventually, the following January 1923, after months of agonising, Chambers left Columbia voluntarily. Following his own graduation, Zukofsky carried out various odd jobs in 1923-1924, working for the National Industrial Conference Board (a job secured through a Columbia friend, Irving Kaplan, a statistician on Wall Street); part-time job at Nedicks, as a soda jerk; part-time job at a local post office, and although not a religious Jew, he quit the job when he was required to work on Yom Kippur. Zukofsky’s friendship with Chambers persisted through the 1920s; and in 1927, Chambers worked for Zukofsky’s brother, Morris, who owned a Greenwich Village bookstore. Louis and Whittaker were indifferent booksellers and didn’t really help sufficiently run the place. Later, Chambers, always interested in writing poetry, eventually found his way into Zukofsky’s Objectivists Anthology. Louis Zukofsky also published Chambers’ poem “October 21st, 1926”, in his famous guest-edited “Objectivist” issue of Poetry (vol.37, no.5, Feb. 1931), at once both a eulogy to his suicide brother Richard, and a statement of his faith in communism. Zukofsky composed his own elegy to Richard in “A”-3 (written in 1928), focussed on “Ricky”. However, the two men split for political reasons in the 1930s, and despite an FBI investigation during the Chambers-Hiss affair, nothing more came of the friendship during the 1930s when Chambers became more thoroughly involved in communism.


Despite Celia trying to play down Chambers’ influence in later years, it is clear, I think, that Chambers was a large influence in Zukofsky’s early life. Many speak of Zukofsky’s aesthetic debt to Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Stevens, Williams – the influences of avant-garde modernism, and tangible ones that I would not wish to deny. But clearly there are debts to the New York Jewish modernism of the 1910s and 1920s as well, and surely the influence of Chambers who published Zukofsky’s early work in The Morningside. And it is my contention that the streaks of cynicism, the growing left-wing political consciousness, the iconoclastic and tortured ideas that marked Chambers’ thought and writing at this time – a man who was clearly something of a dynamic intellectual powerhouse in the early 1920s at Columbia – touched and shaped Zukofsky’s early writing. I am not trying to offer these poems as some great “lost” archive that unlocks all sorts of doors hitherto blocking Zukofsky scholarship. Rather they are curios, poems that allow us to see the nascent Objectivist poetics emerging in the cauldron of intellectual ferment during his student days at Columbia and shortly afterwards in the late 1920s. While Zukofsky clearly does strike up a close chord with Pound and Williams in the 1930s, he always maintained that he had arrived at his Objectivist aesthetic independently of Pound’s Imagist influence. And looking at these early poems from the 1920s, and noting their characteristics, we can see that Zukofsky gets his influence from people like Chambers, well before Pound arrives on the scene.

Notes

[1]. Carroll Terrell, “Louis Zukofsky: An Eccentric Profile”, in Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet, ed. Carroll Terrell (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1979), 31-74; 48.

[2]. Louis Zukofsky, “A” (1978; Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p.292. Zukofsky wrote 41 pages of undated notes in preparation for writing “A” -13, which are held in the Louis Zukofsky Manuscript Collection in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) at the University of Texas, Austin. Among these are the following source notes for this passage: “Columbia Univ 1754-1954: Charter of George II, the Rev. Sam. Johnson launched King’s College with 8 portals in the English Charity School set among the gravestones of Trinity Church etc. moved into the old Deaf and Dumb Institution, Madison Ave. and 49st (Expanded there to six bldgs. 1887) To the Heights 1897, the library on ground formerly occupied by Bloomingdales Insane Asylum.” The “A”-13 Notes in this collection are recorded in Marcella Booth, A Catalogue of the Louis Zukofsky Manuscript Collection (Austin, TX: HRHRC, 1975), p.58, Booth Catalogue No. C13a.

[3]. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1952), 164-5.

[4]. Carroll Terrell, “Louis Zukofsky: An Eccentric Profile”, 47.

[5]. It appears from Booth’s Catalogue, that these lines were first published as “I Sent Thee Late” as a separate pamphlet publication, in June 1965, at Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA (Booth, A Catalogue of the Louis Zukofsky Manuscript Collection, p.27, Booth Catalogue No. A20). This was subsequently published as a separate poem under the title “I Sent Thee Late”, in Louis Zukofsky: The Complete Short Poetry, with a foreword by Robert Creeley (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p.3. So it is clear that Zukofsky did subsequently feel that there was some merit in these early poems, despite being “done with” them.

[6]. Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997), 31. This biography has offered a good deal of the factual information regarding Chambers for this article.

Tim Woods
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

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