Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

An Occluded Splendor 

All: The Collected Shorter Poems 1923-58; 1956-64 (1965;1966) by Louis Zukofsky

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[To the reader: This is to be about the early collection of Zukofsky’s shorter poems and not the splendid later edition, assembled by Paul Zukofsky and with a Foreword by Robert Creeley, that was published by Johns Hopkins University Press and appeared in 1991, 13 years after the poet’s death. The two-volume edition that will be the subject of discussion here does not contain the Catullus (1958-69), 80 Flowers (1974-78), or Gamut (1978). Unlike its author, this collection was very much of its time, as opposed to the later Complete Shorter Poetry, which is at once of no time and of all.

And a further, concluding note: Throughout the course of what follows certain liberties have been taken with typography and layout that might at first strike the alert as misprints or even solecisms. That an excursus on a subject as arcane as the verse of Louis Zukofsky might contain suspect fittings from the toolkit of contemporary American prose should surprise no one, given the fact that much of the poetry I discuss in the book (of which this essay will form a part) helped bring down the prescriptive grammatical cartel that governed American writing for generations and bequeathed to us such boilerplates as that favored by the Modern Language Association and other like-minded afflatuses of academic prose.
     For surely a good part of the legacy of a Zukofsky, an Olson, a Creeley or Duncan is tied up with his having rendered molten—and headily so—the rigidities of Victorian English grammar, syntax and punctuation. In the press of such circumstance, to insist that poetry isn’t prose is simply to beg a larger question whose framing is rhetorical only because its referential scope is so sprawling. For this reason, when parentheses on this page or that open on vistas measureless to mantic observabilities and close on prospects no less inimical to shutters, the Webmaster should not be held responsible. He’s just doing his thing, which happens coincidentally to be letting Zukofsky, and (to no small extent because of him) the rest of us, do ours.] 


Mention the name Louis Zukofsky and a number of things will likely come immediately to mind, if in no apparent order: violins; Shakespeare; Catullus (he translated all the existing poems by the scourge of Roman love and animosity); Brooklyn; Ezra Pound (though in this connection it is necessary to stress that, propaganda continuing to emanate from the Ezroid camp to the contrary notwithstanding, the present honoree was never one of il miglior fabbro’s house Jews). What is far less likely to jump up and make for the head of the line is that for many years together Louis Zukofsky’s dream was the dream of choice of lodge-members in the American Chapter of the Knights of Mallarmé. And persists continuingly in this, the anniversarial—because isonumerical--year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the target agenda of poets young enough to be his grandchildren’s grandchildren. Put in the conative idiom favored by the Master, the dream parses out to this: “[It] is possible in imagination to divorce speech of all graphic elements, to let it become a movement of sounds.” And, oh yes, not to be forgotten—a wife named Celia, a son named Paul (both famous in their own right), and legions of co-mariners in the ark of American letters, all for some reason reluctant to acknowledge their indebtedness to this protean yet homespun master—not the least of whom (all the diversionary neo-surrealist nonsense to the contrary notwithstanding) being the winningest among all current occupants of that roost from which the most highly prized poetic crowing originates, John Ashbery.
     Not that odysseys—in space or spaced-out—were inimical to the stay-at-home gypsy scholar whose homebound peregrinations we will here be examining in rather close detail. Nor, for that matter, time capsules, since Zukofsky produced enough material  purporting to ensnare the genome of American culture in the 20th Century all by himself. It’s just that for reasons too numerous, and unjust, to mention he has, since his death in 1978, slipped into something so near to an oblivion that the differences between it and what he disappeared into can barely be split. Most regrettable of all, his verse has not even qualified for inclusion in the most broadly circulated anthologies in what has increasingly become an age of anthologies. Which, in addition to being grossly unfair, is unaccountably odd, given Zukofsky’s love of the exiguous zoomed to satellite blow-up; of the fragment caught in mainframe dalliance with the doxy of gestalt; of serious entomology performed in the very belly of the flycatcher.
     For who among Shakespeare’s horde of idolaters could have imagined generating a glory of a book simply—or perhaps not so simply—by angelically Bottoming out where scholarly Indy 500’s, far from rushing in, have conspicuously feared to retread? Probably about as many as might have been able, around 1850, to envision a lengthy Elizabethan tragedy in American prose, utterly devoid of feminine presence (except for a tattooed savage who, though unconscious enough of his maleness, gets to share the bed—and embraces—of the narrator of this unlikely whale of a tale, and vice versa), and staged almost entirely on the high seas of a vengeful, one-legged fanatic’s monomania. And in that spirit tunefully standardized by the hit-song “They All Laughed,” no more need be said about the miracle of Zukofsky’s Bottom on Shakespeare, other than that it is there to be found and delighted in by those still able to warm to what in American culture’s surpassing scene at once encompasses and harmonizes with those modalities which The New Yorker’s then art critic, Harold Rosenberg, identified decades ago as energizing much late-blooming Modernist art: “the tradition of the new” and “the anxious object.”
     But it is important in all this to keep one thing plumb-line straight, because it is both to hand and needed in order to make proper sense of what to more than one generation of critics has appeared wacky, even demented about Zukofsky’s way with a poem. He was by his own admission less a new kind of poet (which, every which way but loose, he undoubtedly was) than an unprecedented exacerbation of the limits of musicianhood, if as remote from the fashionable mendacities of a Cage as it was possible for anyone to get. He was—to hazard a definitional salient—a melodist of things present, ever alert to the songs in which they are preserved. What most in the way of matter he made much of from Pound was engisted in a few selected piths concerning music and poetry that he garnered from that storehouse of gists and piths, the ABC of Reading (1934). First, the absolute observation that “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” (While Zukofsky took this critical aperçu of Pound’s to heart, he built the last several decades of his poetic career on the implications for writing on its author’s having failed to italicize the second “too far.”) But attention should also be paid to the pronunciamento that immediately follows it, stipulating that

 There are three kinds of melopoeia, that is, verse made to sing; to chant and intone; and to speak.

            The older one gets the more one believes in the first.

Put through Zukofsky’s inimitable prose slicer-and-dicer, this screed emerges as rather more scrutable, as indeed more circumspect, than the original:

How much what is sounded by words has to do with what is seen by them—and how much what is both sounded and seen by them crosscuts an interplay among themselves—will naturally sustain the scientific definition of poetry we are looking for. To endure it would be compelled to integrate these functions: time and what is seen in time (as held by a song), and an action whose words are actors or, if you will, mimes composing steps as of a dance that at proper instants calls in the vocal cords to transform it into plain speech.

Commenting on the poet’s oddly angled use of the term “scientific,” Hugh Kenner in his Foreword to the 1981 edition of Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky, observes:

Here [Zukofsky’s] use of the word “scientific” is as intent as his use of any other word. By “the scientific definition of poetry we are looking for” he does not mean something couched in a hieratic jargon, or something sufficiently arid to claim the assent of plain folk whose mentors taught them to distrust the passions. No, he is claiming that poetry and science are comparable human enterprises, since “the poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature. The fact that he persists with them confirms him.” . . .

One other “scientific definition of poetry” suggested by Zukofsky (from the same source) is, “nothing else but the completed action of writing words to be set to music’—music being the one art that more than the others aims in its reach to speak to all men.”
     That having been said, a work as monumental in its local trouvèrisme as Zukofsky’s “A”  should not be overlooked. For who, other than a polymath afflicted with alphabetitis, could turn to such bedazzling advantage the curse of a surname beginning with “Zu-“ so that it transformed itself (by lexicographic inversion) into a cryptomaniacal love affair with the letter “A”? Indeed, the piece of inspired American crankdom bearing that title, composed between 1928 and 1974 and with a range of artistic maneuver wholly without precedent in our literature or any other, remains to be marveled at as yet another creative megalith, having sprung up with nearly regularized abandon amid others no less unaccountable in this country’s art, like Easter Island sculptures. Or to zero in more precisely on what is primary, primordial and therefore arch-a-typical about “A,” like a literary hypostasis of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, which are so much a work of artfulness as opposed to one strictly of art that their designation is properly descriptive rather than titular. That they—and much of Zukofsky—manage to convey through the unalloyed Dasein of their craftsmanship an italicization of that quality which, in its opposition to the politically simplistic modernism of Pound and Eliot, and its reversion to garage sublimities of Tom Swift and the simplex Whitmanicus, could well justify an upgrading of F. O. Mathiessen’s famous sobriquet to “American Counter-Renaissance.” The brace of new elements masquerading as bric-a-brac in the following are almost too startling to be noticed without help, spacing and all:

Ears beringed with fuzz

                     owned a man’s sculpturing head

                              autumn’s regard

                                                       for weather like spring

                               holed shoes meeting pavement


                               If, when,

                                                         introduce these to

                               a fuzzed flower     Petal will

                               declare   as   of   carving    “bluish soles’

                               walk, head, ears’ hair: greeting”

This 20th part of All declares itself as sequentially independent of the poems that precede and follow it as it is of any other segment of Zukofsky’s polyphiloprogenitive efflux whose title (alluding playfully to his book’s contents as much as to the totalizing inclusiveness of those contents) adverts to that entirety whose sub-Olympian inadvertency the ancient Greeks embraced as to pan. Since All appropriately addresses its enclasping bookishness to everything under the sun, it must allow its opticon to pan across plenitudes (here massed for acknowledgement) of things traditionally overseen by Pan, at once the Faunus of flora and natural protector of fauna. What do we all know about Pan and how does the imaging faculty most frequently corral him? By seizing on his resemblance to that cosmic and omnivorous goat-man about whom much remains fuzzy, especially his ears, whose pointiness suggests archetypal frolicsomeness and concupiscence-on-the-hoof. And how do the piping objectifications of Pan’s imago normatively overcome the fuzziness (conceptually speaking) of this god’s naturalizing function? By insisting he remain an incarnation exercising a “sovereign ghost’s dominion over abstract disembodiments of nature.
     A Greek solution to a de-Hellenizing problem: If paideia is to be allowed to energize the engines of social cultivation, how is that energy to be kept free of involvement between waist and knee?
     Perhaps more is obscured by the academic dust such questions raise than is salutary for those who raise them. Elderly men’s ears, old-goatlike certainly, but hardly Pannish (or fauning) are also “beringed with fuzz.” What if—or to actualize an adduced possibility all the way over into “If, when,”—“these” (i.e. the first four lines’ “all of the above”) were “introduced to / a fuzzed flower”? What would/might happen, or “happen”? Of that flower “Petal will / declare   as   of   carving” (the additional spaces making of linear, that is to say, limited dimensionality a marmoreal pretext outered as if by carving) an anthropomorphizing of fuzzy ear-ring not just adorning (recall “a man’s sculpturing head” from the opening stanza) its locus in corpore, but “owning” it. And all this to be accredited to “autumn’s regard / for weather like spring,” allowing “holed shoes [to meet] pavement”—a contacting of sidewalk by pedestrian foot, which also (also!)—to scramble a metaphor—thumbs its nose at “shoelessness” and poverty. What could possibly be more Brooklynesque? Or worthy of memorialization in Brooklynese:

                        If, when,

                                    Introduce these to

                        A fuzzed flower

For a poet whose father was a prayaholic Jew (dubbed Reb Pincos) and whose first language until his teen years was, according to his wife Celia, Yiddish, not even the body language accompanying “If, when, . . .” without the linking conjunction is, properly speaking, English. Even “fuzzed,” as opposed to “fuzzy,” strikes the ear as not only overspecifically tweaked but as though turned on a lathe of abstracting foreignness so resistant to the chisels of ordinary Whitmanian speech that Zukofsky’s idiom could almost pass for Jonsonian eloquence scored for ballet by Stravinsky. However, the key analogies here, if any there be, come from jazz, with its fortuities of embellishment caught in an amber frieze of boxed-in rhythm—the American-century-unable-to-keep-its-feet-still’s 4/4. The hard-headedness that is a feature of the Objectivist weakness for knockdowns hawked by the ostensible sounds out in these lines, but so does something else—something in which the Reznikoffs, the Rakosis and the Oppens traffic but little, and it’s a fidelity to what Germans identify as the Innigskeit of the thing under scrutiny and not just its appearance or dispositive signature. Not only is lumping a Zukofsky in with the Objectivists an error of category and of tone, it is like confining an Eliot to the attic of les Symbolistes: in being consigned to a no man’s land into which the superfluous and the scattershot mutually bleed, the adduced affiliation (and whatever pertinence it might otherwise possess) is left to languish amid associations wrongfully conjured within a mistakenly seized sacred grove. Objectivism, apart from being a ship whose perceived sinking has seen more poets leaping from its decks even than the S. S. Imagiste, demotes language (under the watchful eye of cold fact and the even colder one charged with enforcing a ban on anything perceived as “emotional,” from lyric flim to elegiac flam) to less than equal partnership with the situational frame held between surveyors’ defining parentheticals. Its venturing capitalizations as much as present an ultimatum to whatever shares of reality it has chosen to broker: “Declare your value or risk sell-off at a discount. Like rotogravure, hardcore representation of ‘things as they are’ enthralls by carrying on a love affair with verisimilitude, a seemly bitch of lithe contour and shrinkwrapped depth of field. Poets, all propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, are mere middlemen—jobbers in fact—of that fact.”
     To all who would befuddle the matter in this wise, a Zukofsky can answer them only with such spring as may be seen to fantasticate in a tripping as light as All  #16’s:







                                    sleeper’s eyes







                                    whom . . . ?



                                    nowhere . . .


                                    where   eyes



                                    are crickets’


—which takes off from an Arnaut Daniel rendering of his beloved Ezra’s—but as a skylark leaves behind the weighty expanse of an aircraft carrier. Here’s a smidgeon from that Poundian pigeon:

                                    So clear the flare

                                    That first lit me

                                    To seize

                                    Her whom my soul believes;

                                    If cad


                                    Blabs, slanders my joy

                                    Counts little fee


                                    And their hates.

                                                I scorn their perk

                                                And preen, at ease. . . .

Zukofsky takes Pound’s Puckish impasto, and in putting Picasso-like reverse English on its pitching of sightlines, revamps its original cubism until sound no longer adulterates sense in a flurry of proffered dissimilitudes. The younger poet’s poem emerges as a homage tricked out in joy to a montage of superior talent; Pound’s double-take on Daniel, a different beast entirely, offers itself in tribute to the adaptor’s own talent in full strut—a talent adept at embalming a whole ars poetica in full stride. Pound’s pastiche, being intensely self-regarding, preens for perks; Zukofsky’s, cresting its river of praise, assumes nothing for itself and so honors its source without befouling its mouth with suggestions tantamount to "Look at this! Am I a great translator, or what?”
      Zukofsky’s worshipful view of Pound aside, how to explain the lissomeness with which the Brooklyn poet manages to overleap his master’s voice and gild with auric cusp a nimbus of purest “Alba” beyond all the fiddle so memorably anathematized by Marianne Moore in “Poetry.” His poem sings of waking before the crickets dare, of taking the dense facticity of their habitus as an occasion whose unlikely innards, illumination and joy, can bathe us in wonder:






its nodal points chiming suggestively, in a homologue of “Red at night, shepherd’s delight,” a keeper’s formula for workaday weathercasting. Objectivists might quail at such sentimentalizations of star-gazing, but the comfort factor in seeding gross inevitabilities with hands-on likelihood have attended staring upward at sundown for the lowdown on what to expect at sunup for millennia. Especially if you have sheep to answer for, you will want to keep a place reserved in your “Alba” for the registering of such hebdomadairéen recurrences, whether or not you like having your chimes rung by poets. Pound might have equalled Zukofsky’s grasp of such exactitudes had he been a less fitful prentice in the mysteries of translation and not opted to major in cheerleading and pastiche. As it is, the flaws winking at the brim of his distillations of rhymesters like Arnaut stint their vintage with cankers beyond those blighting grapes already soured by feelings lacing love-draughts decanted to maids by one known famously for warming only to men:

                   Bem vai d’ amor, qu’ elam baisa et m’ acola,

                   E nom frezis freitz ni gels ni buerna,

                   Nim fai dolor mals ni gota ni febres.

Or, in the less than scrupulous rendering of Pound from the Provençal,

                    Amor, if she but hold me in her embraces,

                    I shall not feel cold hail nor winter’s blowing

                    Nor break for all the pain in fever’s dazes.

Had Zukofsky attempted these lines his rendering would have caught not just the tics, twitches and general trouvèrie involved in sounding like this, but also the filaments of sound reticulating air, as the duck, needing to thrum like a dove, avoids staring at his own webbed feet. Risking the hard rain that falls on presumption, I submit that if Zukofsky had indeed tackled these lines, the result might not be very far from the following:

          Be it I’m viable for amours, that she not quail to buss or hug,

          I fear nor frosty friezes nor ices boiling cold

          Nor malicious dolors febrile chillblains bring and wring.

But of course the Zukofskyan product would have nailed Arnaut’s unfrank Frankishness with a de-blustering of tone that in all likelihood would have placed before us, having halved the syllables, the liquor of these warblings from Provence, in a shotglass, neat. For him, the sound approximation outweighed all other poetic considerations. Sound and number: inflection and tonality had to be buttressed by mathematics or there was in poetry no there there. Hugh Kenner, in an extended exfoliation of the splendors infolded in “A” –11” (1950)—one segment out of 24 in that masterwork—published the year the poet died, uncovered a Kabbalist’s trove of symmetries and harmonizations centering on the word/concept “honor” in lines 7-16:

This [passage] too ends with “honor.” Do all the stanzas? Yes, they do. Does “honor” launch all of them? Only one more, the next, the central one, which runs straight from  “honor” to “honor.”  What other symmetries do we approach? A succession of similar stanzas (the first alone is atypical). All are rhymed ABABBCCDDE. (Conspicuous rhyming is another mode of pairing.) All the rhymes are disyllabic. The lines ABABB have, without fail, 11 syllables each, as though to sign “A”-11 with a rigorous count. The lines CCDDE hover around 8 syllables, though no two stanzas are patterned quite identically: 87889; 87899; 77777; 87777. These are 10-line stanzas. The typical had six lines, rhymed ABBCCD, with the syllable pattern 12-8889.

Think that about covers it? That Zukofsky couldn’t possibly salt these 46 lines with further means and sections as golden as those just plotted? Think again: 

More symmetries? Yes, in the texture of the idiom. Not only do words pair and cluster, there are theme-words, constantly recurring. So we encounter “love” 8 times, “honor” 7, “song” 7 also, “light” (including”lights,” “delight,” and “lighting”) 6, “leaf” (only in the final stanza) 5, and “music” 3.  Love, honor, song, light, average out to 7 apiece, and may be “four notes too full for talk” that the final stanza specifies.

And so on; you get the idea. George Oppen (a fellow Objectivist with whom Zukofsky for years cultivated a delicate misunderstanding) would no doubt have thought this sort of thing shenanigans flirting far too unsmilingly with the anal compulsive; a regrettable hobby; a bust. “Where’s the tune?” he might have asked. “I hear nothing but melody.”


     Similar screws were put to Charlie Parker, whose chief accomplishment  (no controversy around “chief,” but much around “accomplishment”) in the 1940’s was to abolish the bar line in jazz solo improvisations—or rather to shift it from its normal function in counting beats to the wider-angled purpose of counting choruses. The ear is naturally attracted to tunes because their simple repetitiveness makes them easy to memorize. As for melody, think Richard Wagner, think the Ring of the Nibelungen, with its endlessly coursing Rhines of melodic invention teasing leitmotivs into braids of orchestration and voice, think saga and fatality. Melody lingers in the interstices of tunes where it dwindles into tags, snatches and riffs, out of which, metabolizing further, it re-emerges as enzymes of poesis able to facilitate the translation—Zukofsky’s own keywords suggest themselves here—of the “lower limits of speech” into the “upper limits of song.”
     But Zukofsky hardly needed lend-lease from Pound or anyone else to float the speculations that brought him from wanting to move his mentor’s medieval Provence to Brooklyn (paralleling the latter’s earlier efforts to transplant turn-of-the-century Philadelphia, where his father ran the U. S. Mint, to the turn-of-the-12th-Century south of France, where in his view Jews were on the verge of controlling the money supply) around to the more realizable desire to lift Whitman’s Brooklyn (and, he no doubt hoped, the rest of America) into the 20th Century without the nation incurring a hernia in the process. It was Zukofsky’s willingness to accept Pound’s historical, and poetic, blind alleys that in the end narrowed his own focus to the dimensions of a camera obscura into which none but a few would join him in peering. While he questioned the extent to which Pound would dissolve his own psycho-logistics in the stock of personae like Bertrans de Born, he nonetheless admired the elder poet’s skill in bringing those worm-eaten entities alive:

En Bertrans, as Pound’s measure reflects him, and as he reflects Pound, can bear but the relation of a veracious actor to his historic original, and act him, mask penetrated, per sonum—through sound. Only speech transforms whatever skeleton remains of the past and conveys judgment of it to the intelligence. Try as a poet may for objectivity, for the past to relive itself, not for his living the historical data, he can do only one of two things: get up a most brief catalog of antiquities (people become dates, epitaphs), or use this catalog and breathe upon it, so that it lives as his music. This latter action need not falsify the catalog.

Even Zukofsky’s prose (here excerpted from his 1929 essay on Pound in Prepositions: The Collected Essays of Louis Zukofsky [1967]) nearly everywhere out-resonates the loose canoneer of the early and middle Cantos. Where the younger writer elucidates, the older pontificates, and with a rhetoric—when not stiflingly doused with attar of Ez—weighted down with tendentious inversion and portentous hyperbole, as in this encomium on Guido Cavalcanti, whose poems he translated with more patience than they often deserved:

Than Guido Cavalcanti no psychologist of the emotions is more keen in his understanding, more precise in his expression; we have in him no rhetoric, but always a true description, whether it be of pain itself, or of the apathy that comes when the emotions and possibilities of emotion are exhausted, or of that stranger state when the feeling by its intensity surpasses our powers of bearing and we seem to stand aside and watch it surging across some thing or being with whom we are no longer identified.

     Admittedly, this is Pound circa 1910; but if the vocal limbs that leaped agilely from dictum to dictum in ABC of Reading had grown more supple over time, the conceptual torso from which those limbs projected remained as stiff and unyielding as ever. Zukofsky’s prose style, on the other hand, waxed formidably as its moonshine quotient waned. Here he is, fresh from a mutual admiration society visit to his oracle, Ez, in Rapallo in 1929, touting “An Objective” (1930, 1931):

The graceless error of writing down to those who consciously want a something else from poetry—not poetry—as some stay for their own vanity; to “sometimes” think that minds elaborately equipped with specific information, like science, must always confuse it with other specific information, like poetry. That may be the case with unfortunates. The point, however, would not be to proffer solemnly or whiningly confusions to the confused, but to indicate by energetic mental behavior how certain information may be useful to other information, and when the divisions which signalize them are necessary.

Prose like this, without intending to, makes “unfortunates” of us all. With an earnestness scarcely earned, its clauses stumble over one another and bounce haplessly out of harm’s way only by colliding with explicatives (“not poetry,” “like science”), rolling across their path like itinerant tumbleweed. The anything but reliable influence of Pound is discernible not so much in the vocabulary as in the obsession with making the scientific world safe for poetry rather than the other way around. As the tide of Ez-ery ebbed in Zukofsky’s personal as well as poetic affairs, his own prose style quickened and found its tongue, shorn of some of its earlier admitted, and unadmitted, impediments. Here he is in 1971, delivering a lecture on the oddly splendid, and even more oddly gripeless, career of fellow poet Wallace Stevens, who died shortly after the publication of his Collected Poems, in 1955:

     Along with all the elegance of intellect a grass roots or local, often barbaric voice in Stevens’s poems makes him in their pored-over image of American landscape the genius of its soil: at one  with the eccentric native genius of the Arkansaw in his poem “The Jack Rabbit.” Shunning doctrine, dogma, the shows that teach ignorance, it has somehow suffered the history of the Americas—the continuing portions of all history that whatever the scholarly gaps. Reading him I am led to hope that my own poems, tho different, sound that naïve and kind. If it’s Florida, if it’s the Caribbean, Uruguay, or wherever Stevens’s landscapes exist without imposed shouting and spouting: indigenous like Winslow Homer’s palm tree in a Florida wind, tho Stevens is never after describing a painting. In sound—words or waves—whatever takes place exists. As he said, along about the ‘50ies, poetry is the subject of the poem.

Zukofsky had been very much taken with some remarks made by Stevens to a New York Times reporter, just after his book appeared, on the subject of a life spent in insurance and poetry. On the dovetailing of surety claims and poetry, Stevens had confided:

I’m. . .not a poet part time, business man the rest. This is a fortunate thing, considering how inconsiderate the ravens are. I don’t divide my life, just go on living.

      Anyway, here I deal with surety claims—claims on surety bonds. Poetry and surety claims aren’t as unlikely a combination as they may seem. There is nothing perfunctory about them, for each case is different.

Zukofsky in his talk seized upon this occasion to touch upon Stevens’s “care for particulars” and his ability to compact, as in the lines with which “Connoisseur of Chaos” opens—

      A.     A violent order is disorder; and

      B.     A great disorder is an order. These

 Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

—a bateau ivre of revolutionary fervor into a rejoinder to skepticism that remains as compact a residuum of the poetic intellect as it is a calm one, and despite its brevity, its formulation stands largely incontestable. Such concentrations of mind and language as this one of Stevens’s no longer merely catch Zukofsky’s eye, they organize the very precincts of his vision, throwing into bold relief the late conjunctions of his verse. This (“#21”), from the early All, has its plangencies of order and nocturnal oneness with things—

              O sleep, the sky goes down behind the poplars,

              I scrape the gravel with my shoes and toe

              The ties:

              The milky moon is in the clearing,

              Only the power-plant hurries in winter.

—but “Peri Poietikes,” from the later All, pulverizes Objectivist schist to near-Joycean archival dust, flowering in age-retentive clouds:

                What about measure, I learnt:

                Look in your own ear and read.

                Nor wrest knowledge

                                        in no end of books.

                Pyrrhic nor Pirke do.

                Mind, don’t run to mind

                boys’ Greeks’ metres gnome,

                rummage in tee tomes, tee-tums,


                 Forget terms.

                 No count is sure,

                 more safe, more stressed,

                 more heard, or herds peace more

                 in a world where hearing

                 is a going out

                 or instance up or down;

                 from in, different instance out.

                 Trust: to lip words

                  briefs  what great    (?)   discourse   well.

No longer penning Ez-sponsored “Envois” to lost lore, Zukofsky in his last years was scudding fastidiously through sounds to find sense not available to sight. The injunction of Sir Philip Sidney’s muse to a poet shut up in his own stammer, “Fool, look in thy heart, and write,” mutates in Zukofsky’s evolutionary poetics into “Look into your own ear and read.” As with William Carlos Williams in his final years, concern with measure overrides all other compositional concerns. In Zukofsky’s case it also led to overturning the Montaignean desideratum of “wrest[ing] knowledge / in no end of books.” Grubbing for wisdom in either Pyrrhic or Pirke (a reference to the Hebrew Pirke avot, or “Sayings of the fathers”), he says, won’t turn up anything of use, any more than will “running to mind / boys’ Greeks’ metres gnome,” which involves “rummag[ing] in tee tomes, tee-tums, / tum-tees.” Such quixotic tilts with language have unseated more than one celebrated modern poet, as the Eliotic voice in the second of that author’s Four Quartets, “East Coker,” has so memorably lamented.
      This newer idiom, consummately crowned with a thorniness all its own, takes at its own word the radical distance it establishes (peri poietikes) between in-basket and out-basket, pollen and honey. The chronos inhering in the poetic may be time served, but its kairos (or duration sub specie aeternitatis) resides in the beeline the eye quite naturally makes for the defining site/sight/cite of the world’s red azalea-as-synagogue, synagogue-as-red-azalea:

                              I’s   (pronounced   eyes)

                                            Hi, Kuh,



                                            gold’n   bees

    are I’s







                                            Red azaleas


                                            make this



                                     Not the

                                             other way


      This is not a poetry that like so much so-called Objectivist verse beats about the bush of concentration barely keeping one step ahead of its own reductio ad absurdum. It is a poetry that treads blithely (but never mindlessly) its own measure of concision, wrapped in delight at having excised more filler than most other poets require to make it seem they’ve said anything at all. And how important it is—and not just to an unreconstructed devotee of Spinoza like Zukofsky—to insist that only the beauty of God’s provender can sanctify a house of worship, “Not the / other way / round.” Nor is the choice of flower fortuitous here. The azalea covers the rather wide Linnaean expanse between the rhododendron and the common American honeysuckle. It bridges a gap in sight and smell between the ubiquitous (recall the fury vented memorially by Quentin Compson at that damn honeysuckle in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) and the intensely local, the intense redness of this flowering shrub resembling when in its fullest bloom nothing so much as a saturnalia of stigmata. It is a democratic flower (it is nearly everywhere in Whitman’s America), and its popularity with pollen-carrying insects make any of its profusions a theme park for bees. Why bees? Because “those gold’n  bees / are I’s, / eyes, / skyscrapers,” which in Zukofsky’s machine-tooled word play signifies that gradations imposed on natural process and perception by metonymy (nature’s most promiscuous trope) can be telescoped (which can involve full extension, like a skyscraper, as well as full contraction, like “eyes” to “I’s,” without incurring a loss of meaning) by condensing a homonym to the pre-Big Bang dot of a universe-containing glyph which also incorporates the all-purpose activity designator “-ize.” And wherefore “Hi, Kuh”? Because, as P. Michael Campbell points out, citing an earlier commentary on the poem by one Alan Golding,

“Hi, Kuh” . . . is “not just a self-consciously bad pun” but also a reference (Kuh is German for cow) to a mass culture artifact: “You remember Elsie, Borden’s cow? Zukofsky asks in the [1969 L. S.] Dembo interview [in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature]. That’s what I meant, and I greeted her up on the sign there: “’Hi, Kuh. . . .’”

Get it? The provenance of particulars in any Zukofsky poem is essential to its Objectivist holoscene but it is not of the essence—which is to say, not worth gerrymandering an election of means in order to invest with meaning. Zukofsky’s reconstitution of the spot checks normally associated with poetic economy doesn’t end there, however. It digs even deeper into the orthographic loam of what is already a rich poetic idiom. “Gold’n” is contracted to an “e”-less spelling because “bees” has too many e’s for the “sight/cite-line” of the line in which the two words appear not to remain unbalanced. Letters are like stitches in knitting: if an extra one is picked up in a row, it has to be dropped somewhere else in the same row to keep the internal balance of spacing so crucial to the strength of a piece of textile. As in textiles, so in textum or literary text: integrity is strength of purpose penetrating to every nook and islet of the poet’s web of words. This is reaffirmed throughout the daisy chain of aperçus that make up “Peri Poietikes,” as it is in almost every piece of writing Zukofsky ever composed. (Yes, he could be comparably fastidious in prose as well.) In the almost as soon over as begun “Harbor,” for instance—

                                    The winds




—nestles an encapsulation of the geomorphology of harbors against a desire for cogent definition that itself mirrors what is out there ululating amid the breezes lapping leeward toward the place where land and water meet as fact. The scooping out of a harbor permits the winds to enact a participle (“agitating”), rather than an infinitive (“to agitate”). The point is, after all, the sheltering embrace of the waters declaring itself visibly in the form of a harbor. Nature, never ungrammatical, lays out its geomorphs in a syntax that is both clear and graphically dispositive. The point on which Zukofsky so briefly settles here reflects that fact to the extent that the laying out of his verse “shelters” (within the topological formatting, the convexities and concavities, of “Peri Poietikes”) an observation detached from that poem’s “land mass” as a harbor is detached from the continuity of coastline and ocean current. The formulation might be put as follows: “Harbor ІІ coastline ІІІ poem ІІ language.” Such an analogue, born like Aphrodite, from the foam of likeness churned to “finale of seem”—indeed, to metonymy self-incarnated as metaphor, emerging from the very froth of parthenogenitive imagination.
      This is Zukofsky’s way of giving birth to what his master, Ezra Pound, experienced sensibly as an immanence in his prisoner’s tent at Pisa, and which is rendered inimitably in that poet’s Canto LXXXI: the presence of the goddess herself:

                        Ed ascoltando al leggier mormorio

                                 there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent,

                        whether of spirit or hypostasis,

                                 but what the blindfold hides

                        or at carneval

                                                        nor any pair showed anger

                            Saw but the eyes and stance between the eyes,

                        colour, diastasis,

                                    careless or unaware it had not the

                            whole tent’s room

                        nor was place for the full Eιdως

                        interpass, penetrate

                            casting but shade beyond the other lights

                                    sky’s clear

                                    night’s sea

                                    green of the mountain pool

                                    shone from the unmasked eyes in half-mask’s space.

            Yet this, for all its diaphanous immanentizing, litters the mind’s studio with more chips (how splendid the marble being beside the point) than it has either room for or the inclination to house. Zukofsky was with Whitman in wanting the American paideuma to move on and go forward, leaving all such levitations of the High Table behind. In “Peri Poietikes” the poet accesses the ineffable not from a lofty perch but through the veil of his own temples, between which common mortalities seem and teem. “Tree—See?” the title of one its sub-poems shouts.

                                    --I see


                                                            your tree



                                                do you


—and is succeeded by the alter-ego of a doublet, “A Sea,” whose five words conjure the hypostases of Aphrodite from her own medium by way of homonymizing, harmonizing, simonizing process and quality until the thing seen waxes plummily as the thing sensed:







The paradigmatics may recall Dr. Seuss, but the manner of shaking the last congeries of myth from a horn unblown by any Triton is unmistakably Zukofsky’s. For him—and most unlike Pound—the magic’s in the words themselves, in the music they make in the course of emerging whole and matable from one another’s ribs. Claws  cloys  close: as signs a sequence of impingements strung together by alliteration, a Prufrockian fixation dismembered before the mind’s eye, with all the affective disjunctiveness one might expect from a clutch of wriggling phobias. In a handful of vocables Zukofsky gets in, under, and behind Pound’s fetishizing of endlessly permeating animisms from the book of Ovidian lèse-divinitées, like the one broached in the second of the Cantos, where Bacchus turns a boatload of kidnappers into a marine planter full of lynxes. In Zukofsky’s crisp imago there may be foam, but no gods from chthonic or lesser deeps. It breaks down, like any creative element, into its effervescent constituents, which here are words—alike in sound, in phonemic structure, in concupiscent formativeness as language. And just as claws, cloys and close keep tight company as morphologues, so do foam and its unstated complement form, which gambol in the same lexical waves that disgorge half-shells bearing goddesses from the Botticellian brine. Zukofsky may send much the same message as informs Pound’s valentines to the pagan ineffables that haunt his interminable poem, but he doesn’t telegraph his punches with needless feints, faints, or (intemperately gilding) faineances. Nor is there any reason to: his poem says all that it needs to, with a brio of concision that would shame a pensée mid-wived by Bashō. What we have in point of fact are seven words (counting the title, "A Sea"), read vertically, like a wisp of Chinese script returning to the maze of latencies from which it emerged—a maze ultimately indistinguishable from the labyrinthine mind of the poet, by way of whose womb its imprint traveled, in a form not unlike a sonogram, onto a page of All where all may read it. Abjuring the temptation to go for the easy memorability of a mantra for meditating transcendentally on the sea’s masterly mutabilities, Zukofsky excises the excess marble encumbering his aperçu and subcontracts it out, undraped and on deck for American duty, to a peri poietikēs rather more serviceable for such conscription than either Pound’s or the Objectivists’.

                                 Part II

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