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'Vessels of Light'

January 10, 2008 By:
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Louis Zukofsky has been called the most influential poet you've never heard of. Much like his fellow Objectivist, Charles Reznikoff, whom I wrote about several weeks ago, he toiled in almost complete obscurity, unknown to readers and critics alike, though during his lifetime, he and his work were beloved by many other poets.

These days, however, he's been getting some of the recognition that has been his due. Over the course of the last year, an issue of the Chicago Review was devoted to a discussion of his poetry and criticism, with a famous photo of his angular face gracing the cover. And in an edition of The American Poetry Review that appeared shortly after, Robert Hass wrote a strong, lovely appraisal of the man and his work.

Now, the Library of America has devoted a volume in its American Poets Project to Zukofsky. Selected Poems has been edited by Charles Bernstein, who himself has written more than 20 books of verse and three volumes of essays, and has been a professor at the University of Pennsylvania for many years. In his introduction, Bernstein calls Zukofsky "the most formally radical poet to emerge among the second-wave modernists who composed in the wake of such first-generation innovators as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein."

Music of His Words

Zukofsky was born in Manhattan in 1904 of Lithuanian immigrant parents; his first language, as might be expected, was Yiddish. While his parents were Orthodox Jews, he rebelled at an early age against any form of religion.

As a young man, he frequented the Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and was an avid reader, especially of world literature's major poetic works that had been translated into Yiddish. He was not exposed to English until he began attending public school, but he was a quick learner, and it has been said that he read all of Shakespeare by the time he was 11.

He attended Columbia University, where he majored in English, and earned a master's degree there as well in 1924. He began writing verse while still in college, and one of his early poems was accepted by the illustrious Poetry magazine.

Zukofsky considered Ezra Pound to be the most important poet of his time and, in 1927, he sent the older man a copy of the poem titled "Poem Beginning 'The.' " The work is addressed to Zukofsky's mother and parodies Eliot's Waste Land. But where the Eliot poem takes a pessimistic view of modern society and man's ability to cope within it, Zukofsky's work considers the future as bright with promise. The poet's optimism was said to be a product of his belief, at the time, in the Soviet socialist system.

Zukofsky coined the term "Objectivist" to describe the verse that he, Reznikoff and George Oppen created. Although Pound tried to promote Zukofsky's career -- and the objectivist credo -- it wasn't until the poet was championed in the 1950s by the Black Mountain poets and the Beats that his reputation rose a bit.

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

As Bernstein also points out, often Zukofsky's poems don't have speakers; they are simply what they are, things constructed to be placed out into the world, handmade objects in the William Carlos Williams mode. "The title of one of Zukofsky's collections of short poems, I's (pronounced eyes), is his now-classic formulation for the I that becomes an other. The I in the eye, and the eye in I (aye aye; the ayes have it). In Zukofsky's lyric, the personally expressive poem is not replaced by the poem as thing seen (recall Pound's injunction to use no word that does not contribute to the sense of a thing seen). For Zukofsky, it's all about toggling: between I and I, it and we, eye and you, seen and unseen, present and absent, here and there: a re-doubling-as-re-doubting of the senses. 'See sun, and think shadow' (#21, Anew)."

It is best to start with Zukofsky slowly, to take him in small doses. He is not like Reznikoff, who uses bare, unadorned words to create the hard details that he then slowly stacks up, line by line, to form a picture of reality. Zukofsky is more interested in how words rub up against one another to make sounds that suggest images and ideas. Consider this section taken from "Barely and Widely":

they say--

love
in these words--

of Paul

'barely
twelve'
and of me
'widely
published
throughout
a long
career'
So unknown
Celia
you are the peer-
ess of this
song
making the news notes
sing
as there
our music is called--
smiling
'Make sure
call your next book--
Barely and
widely'
dear.

An even more concise expression of Zukofsky's use of language comes in "Head Lines":

A San Francisco chronicle.
The voice of the West.

Paternity: 2 men say
They want boy.

'I'm the father,'
Both men say.

Krushchev
won't debate
satellites.

Zukofsky is neither an easy poet nor one you can warm up to immediately. But greater familiarity with what he does -- more and more readings of his shorter poems -- helps to crack the seeming code, and then you can begin to hear this special music, and possibly tackle some of the longer works.

As Bernstein puts it, it's not a matter of what a poems says, but a matter of what it is. Even better, he says, it is not a matter of what it is, but of what it does. "Words are things too, and in Zukofsky's poetry they have a heft, a stuffness, a thickness that we count on and which counts on us. These poems are not well-wrought urns but crystalline vessels of light; when we hold them in our hands we see our hands."

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