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

(Part II)

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            The ending of Zukofsky’s own long poem A  (which consists of a somewhat heterodox masque recited to 239 pages of Handel’s Pièces pour le Clavecin, hand-copied by the poet’s wife Celia) has a speaker intone the prolegomenon, “And it is possible in imagination to divorce speech of all graphic elements, to let it become a movement of sounds.” “The ghost of Mallarmé nods agreement from the azure,” writes Guy Davenport in his Geography of the Imagination, citing this. And well he might, for no more appropriate sponsor might be found to bless so unprosopoetic an enterprise as that proposed in this preamble to Zukofsky’s lengthy peroration set to music than the Symboliste whose verse, even more than Baudelaire’s or Rimbaud’s, amortizes sense to a residuum of sonorities barely appurtenanced to the ultimates it self-consciously litanizes. Le son was for these poets, determined to be the uncensorable fount of all that might importune an unstopped ear (such as Mauberley’s), the unwobbling pivot hoisting the Sirens’ song into audibility. Speech purely energized as “a movement of sounds” would successfully reconvert “eyes” back into “I’s,” those uncommodified recensions of self that once gave succor to foundling melos in times less distracted by kitsch than post-Whitmanian America, caught in the toils of a capitalist purgatory and a workers’ hell. The Symbolists—Rimbaud perhaps excepted—had not had to contend with Marx and the vision his statistician’s eyechart brought into focus.
     Mallarmé, for one, had kept himself free of embroilments at the behest of the embattled: no Paris communard, he. His verse taunted the abyss with reconnoiterings of its hitherto repressed sublimities, not in order to resurrect the Mont Blanc-mange once favored by certain bas-Parnassiens, but rather to “sound” the vacancies adumbrated by Poe, but left more or less unplumbed by later laureates of the immaterial. Far from wanting to join Mallarmé chasing the aleatory into the wild blue yonder, Zukofsky could note the predilection marked by this French poet’s trademark, l’azur, with a brief homage, wryly attenuated:


                        as ever

                        adz aver

As always, Zukofsky is never so aerodynamically aligned with the Averroesian “‘R”’s lurking in things as when he is adzing away at his favorite sawhorse, the letter A, with its dovetailing struts and soup-to-nuts adherencies locked like paradigms en abîme. (Memo to poststructuralists: En abîme can also point away from the Derridean chasm, as in the French expression un abîme de science, a man of immense learning. Worn on this, as on innumerable other occasions, this Zukofskian shoe fits.) What might Mallarmé have said if he could have seen his trumpeting of the Absolute reduced to an encoding of lexical enzymes no more prolusive than the veiny distensions that carry nutriment to a leaf. And uncannily similar, when you come to think of it, to the force lines proceeding in a Cooper’s adz from handle to arched blades (all sceptics regarding this being referred to the nearest good encyclopedia).
      Had Mallarmé actually foreseen such prodigies from the land of Poe (and Disney), might it have resulted in Babbage-like visions of computer punch cards, stacked like dominos reaching to the Empyrean and programmed to fall forward at a touch of the poet? Would he, a dyed-in-the-wool reductio ad absurdist to the end, have envied the ease with which, so few years later, a Zukofsky could thaw and resolve his beloved azur into a brace of slant rhymes efflorescing into crystals on the very Page that he, most recondite of Symbolistes, held sacred?  (Memo to <the few remaining> Lévi-Straussians: Some table manners have no origins, just as certain Oedipal a-sphinxiations (read: traumas) can be parsed in unclubbed feet, as viz. “Poem beginning ‘The,’” the masterpiece that first brought him to the attention of Ezra Pound:

1     The

2      Voice of Jesus I.  Rush singing

3       in the wilderness

4       A boy’s best friend is his mother,

5       It’s your mother all the time.

6       Residue of Oedipus-faced wrecks

7       Creating out of the dead,---

8       From the candle flames of the souls of dead mothers

9       Vide the legend of thin Christ sending her

        out of the temple,---

und so weiter.) Recollect now that all of this inspired mumbledy-peg is subsumable under the aegis of PERI POIETIKES: On the Making (of Poems). And further recollect that all such folderol of subsumption is itself a spinoff of the Blakean marriage of the prepositional On and the conjugational Making of Poems.
     Prepositions hold the coats of nouns so they can do battle with the verbs that commit them to actions that prudence might dictate they avoid. Unless of course the noun in question is itself a verb mutated into a substantive, like making. Then, mere action (an isolated event) gives way to process (a grand receptacle into whose gaping aperture a whole universe of events can be dragged), and it becomes possible to imagine a lost Mallarmean score for Aeolian harp and voice within its boundless purview being magically reconstituted in a few fibrils of sound laid on as Wagnerian motifs in a lambent swell of coercive content—


                                    as ever

                                    adz aver

—much as Pound managed to capture in a net of 15 lines and rescue from obliterating sea-wrack an Atlantis of longing still clinging to the Sapphic fragment

                                    Blandula …………

                                    Tenella …………..

                                    Vagula ……………,

amid whose seductive liquidities may be found the following allusion to the variegated yonders of a blue yet unspoke:

                                                                                                         Will           Will not our cult be founded on the waves,

          Clear sapphire, cobalt, cyanine,

          On triune azures, the impalpable

          Mirrors unstill of the eternal change?

Over a quarter century ago, in a book titled The Pound Era (1972), Hugh Kenner marked the stages of this and similar salvage operations performed by the author of Personae, pointing out along the way how the rationale underlying them was informed by Symbolist practice of the sort distinguishing a Mallarmé and a Valéry from lesser visionaries of the time. Based on the musical principle (capitalized on by impressionists like Debussy) that an extrapolation of the upper harmonics of a chord could create in a listener a phantom impression of its lower harmonics as well (and vice versa), this way of organizing emotional loci classici around a receding edge of palpabilities and redolences was carried over by early Imagists like T. E. Hulme into the realm of poetic experimentation as well. There it reigned for a brief time like chung, the Chinese ideogram for Kung Fu T’su’s uwobbling pivot, guarantying an unlimited profusion of hard, indissoluble images whose flame burned brighter than metaphor and whose rights of eminent domain with regard to the fount of Arethusa were thought to be held in virtual perpetuity.
     Or so believed the chosen few, which mostly meant Pound and the scattered remnants of the revisionary company that included among its elite corps of revolutionary crop dusters Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot. They all went their separate ways after the “war to end wars,” mourning in the absence of the loud sucking sound made once by the Great Vortex in that flyspan of promise and celebrity it enjoyed in 1914-15, a waning of youth, along with a waxing of enthusiasm for sub-artistic barbarities and Jazz Age diversions. Well, among those no longer faithful to the cause, at any rate.
      Enter Louis Zukofsky—or rather cue the Objectivists, whose American run would outlast that of any comparable artistic movement in 20th Century Europe, not excluding the surrealists—from about 1922, to well into the 1970’s, and even beyond. Their movement’s frequently mentioned, but little discussed Anthology, with its usual, famous for being famous suspects—Oppen and Niedecker, Reznickoff and Rakosi (but most singularly excepting W. C. Williams)—all duly rounded up, appeared in 1932; but its fanfare exceeded its sales by several orders of magnitude. And that pretty much describes how the careers of its contributors fared over the years: a steady trickle of slim volumes, punctuated by systolic and diastolic blips on the Big Board, and accompanying slippages from the radar screen—the whole affair having, depressingly, the tenor of chords of oblivion being muffledly resolved. Zukofsky’s career, especially. Gradually the obscurity he learned to work in hardened to resentful gloom, and from the ‘50’s on, a stoicism burnished with single-mindedness, unswerving devotion to family, and an almost fanatical obsession with the poetic craft that served to isolate him from less fastidious contemporaries. He continued to write English as a scrupulous translator of its upper and lower harmonics that no one but he could accurately hear—for him, the layered sonorities that were at once English’s buried treasure and distinguishing hallmark.
     For once, an American poet’s having spoken a language other than English—in Zukofsky’s case, Yiddish—for the first 12 years of his life made it possible for the idiomatic and cadential talents of a Walt Whitman to merge with the eastern European provincializing catholicity of a Joseph Conrad on the unlikeliest meeting ground of all: the Jewish soul of a Bach-suffused, but inordinately frustrated, musical genius. (Bach in Zukofsky: a creek always ready at a moment’s notice to flashflood into a river of onrushing song.) The end product was a verse capable of producing sounds never before heard on these or any other shores; but rather more disquietingly, it proved a fusion plagued by fissions all too prone to assume critical mass. Some he had managed to keep under control; others would burst the seams of what already seemed to many an unconscionable breach of faith with poetic tradition. 


Originality in poetry may in revolutionary times proceed by leaps and bounds, but unless the bounds rein in the leaps, only boundless leaping reigns. Which, needless to say, benefits neither poetry nor the role ideally assumed by originality in the arts, a wild card as difficult to play as that of non-heretical reformer within the Church of Rome.
     When a poet carries originality to an extreme of conventional adaptation—which is to say, when he becomes more determined to extend the ringing of changes upon ornamentals and accidentals in Western poetry beyond even the Outer Hebrides of obscurantist renascencing reached by an Ezra Pound—then it should surprise no one to find epithets such as “unconscionable” being lobbed about by those unable to keep the flights of leapers like Zukofsky within acceptable bounds. In much the way his tilt with cellular Communism in the 1930’s inclined him toward a quixotic Marxism restrained from Bolshevist folly by a Panzaic pluralism of uncommon senses, his jousts with Pound would keep his literary ties old but his vision of America unerringly young, even while he engaged in contretemps with the elder poet over such matters as Cavalcanti’s real slant on “the nature of commodity.” In “A” –9, Zukofsky’s translation of “Donna mi prega” sounds like Marx but sings like no economist has since St. Thomas created the dismal science by dropping all economic pursuits after peaking poetically with his disquisition, contra usuram, on the Just Price. (Celia Zukofsky in conversation with Carroll F. Terrell, on the subject of philosophers her husband read and was influenced by:

         C:   Aristotle, he was very fond of Aristotle and Plato. Then Aquinas.

         T:    Pound didn’t think very highly of Aquinas.

         C:    Well, Louie did. That’s one of their literary differences.)

Zukofsky’s “Donna mi prega” sets out less particularly than Pound’s “A lady asks me / I speak in season / She seeks reason for an affect . . . ,” preferring to sound a philosophical note rather than one perfunctorily anecdotal:

                       An impulse to action sings of a semblance

                       Of things related as equated values,

                       The measure all use is time congealed labor

                       In which abstraction things keep no resemblance

                       To goods created; integrated all hues

                       Hide their natural use to one or one’s neighbor. . . .

And so on, in splendid fettle, for another gross of lines in which not the slightest touch of grossness may be sensed, Zukofsky’s version of the most celebrated source-text Pound ever translated (only half of “A” –9 is a reworking of the Cavalcantian centerpiece of “Canto XXXVI”; the rest is taken up with Zukofsky’s sounding of different depths by skin-diving in darks where gold was likely to gather about itself pertinent glooms) coalesces at its own pace into an ormulu of exactitudes keyed to both the Tuscan poet’s uniquely musical convolutions and the commodification of labor inspiriting the devil’s dance of modern times—not uncoincidentally, in precisely the manner foreseen by Marx in his Capital.  
     In fact, it reads much more like one of the early Italianate poems of Pound, translated into language fitfully acceptable to 1930’s readers of the Communist journal New Masses, than it does a rendering into contemporary idiom of the Cavalcanti canzone itself. Still, the shift in viewpoint Zukofsky effected from the world of the Marxian Other to the other-worldly lens grinding of Spinoza, and from socialist moralism to the ethical shores of light associated with amatory philosophies of the Middle Ages, can be attributed to blistering from excessive exposure to solar Pound only in part. Isolation within the cocoon of an increasingly arcane craft deprived him of both active membership in the Objectivist fold and the sense that, though laboring in elitist vineyards, he shared in the conditions keeping down the American working class.
     Nor, to return to an earlier stage of the argument, were the Objectivists easily cued, or cowed. Mavericks all, they shared few of Zukofsky’s pet, and often Poundian concerns, beyond a Depression-bred belief in the triumphability of Lenin’s blueprint for Russia on American shores, and a chicken wire-and-lath clubhouse affability with the aims and procedures of W. C. Williams—when the on again-off again OB/GYN from Rutherford, New Jersey had his act together and wasn’t off on some toot somewhere, one of those sabbaticals from reality he was given to taking, as in the (to put the best face on it) “idiosyncratic” In the American Grain. George Oppen, Zukosfsky’s long-time feuding partner, for one, took a dim view of the pantywaist romanticizings of the “A”-obsessed, bottomed-out Shakespeare from Brooklyn, and an even dimmer one of the old lore hawked by that guild of aging lore-yers Zukofsky seemed drawn to, like the then increasingly fascistic Pound, who, besides having little to say to the only genuine realists on the American poetry scene, the Objectivists, seemed positively opposed to the social program most of them were laboring to put in place. Though grateful for Pound’s encomium on his work—that of “a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books”—Oppen tended to look upon his encouragement of his fellow Objectivists from abroad as a form of grandstanding that was, at best, politically motivated. He was, among other things, unable to ignore or explain away Pound’s having abandoned the United States to its local enemies and their foreign partners in trade, not the least virulent of which was his “Jeffersonian” idol, Mussolini. Certainly by 1930 there could be no question that the highest-profile American modernists appeared to have lost their bearings, not to mention their moorings, amid the distinctly American pilings so lovingly catalogued by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass.
     As had also Zukofsky’s other mentor and dark familiar, Henry Adams, himself the subject of a major excursus on literature and exile written by Zukofsky in 1924, when he was only 20 years old. To cite a poem of Oppen’s in juxtaposition to the attitudinal dislocations of Zukofsky’s poet of the Education (1918) is like dousing candles lit to the Virgin in a hushed cathedral with barbecue lighter, courtesy of the Dynamo. At the onset of his piece on Adams, Zukofsky promised to illustrate “two actuating forces in his nature.” He identified “poetic intellect as its undertow, and detached mind the strong surface current in the contrary direction.” Among the many admirable qualities he found particularly noteworthy in the author of the Education was the genius of a poet able to meld into scrutinizable wholes wildly centrifugal histories—of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison; of Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815; of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; of the life of his friend George Cabot Lodge; and finally, with perhaps the greatest insight, if the least love, of himself. Rather than reduce it to an aristocratic and remaindered decorum having fiercely withstood the vicissitudes of speculative fever and civil war, Zukofsky—against the odds—read Adams’s achievement as that of a poster child for an age in which nature, in the historian’s own words, “had educated herself to a singular sympathy for death.”
     Oppen, to seize upon another contrarian, also swam against the current, though in much different waters than had the Harvard Brahmin whose father had served as U. S. Ambassador to Great Britain during the tumultuous—and politically duplicitous—years of the War Between the States. Even more than Zukofsky’s, his background and heritage were defiantly Jewish and unapologetically Marxist: the world, its devil and its flesh might all be capitalist and gentile, but the never-weakening spirit-in-opposition, however besieged by harassment and oppression, was, beyond all opprobrium, Semitic. And so the perceptions of that spirit, ever new-minted from each period’s coinage of grief, were, for poets like Oppen and Reznickoff at least, struck from precious metals salvaged from slagheaps of unrefined misery and suffering. Such suffering seemed not unlike the drunken man’s in “Night Scene,” where strangers are mistaken for parents seeing him off before his tour of oblivion’s not to be missed sights:

          The drunken man

           On an old pier

           In the Hudson River,


           Tightening his throat, thrust his chin

           Forward and the light

           Caught his raised face,

           His eyes still blind with drink . . .


           Said, to my wife,

           And to me---

           He must have been saying




           Good bye Momma,

           Good bye Poppa


           On an old pier.

How easy to miss the idiosyncrasies abounding in such scrapings of inelegance destined at best for the trousseau of Memory in her arranged conjugalities with the Zeus of swooping trysts and never less than fateful couplings. A W. C. Williams would have hardened this inebriate into an intaglio shorn of all sentiment not germane to his manifesting enough of the Voici factor ideally latent in every image’s Voilà!—by which is meant that point of indistinguishability where curd and whey meet and are underscored by the textures of their own similarity:

                                    STAYING HERE in the country

                                                on an old farm

                                                            we eat our breakfasts

                                    on a balcony under an elm.

                                                The shrubs below us

                                                            are neglected.  And

                                    there, penned in,

                                                or he would eat the garden,

                                                            lives a goose who

                                    tilts his head


                                                            and looks up at us,

                                    a very quiet old fellow

                                                who writes no poems.

                                                            Fine mornings we sit there

                                    while birds

                                                come and go. . . .

The Oppen poem hinges on the isolating italics of “Again---“ and its capacity for swallowing up what occurs on either side of it into a beckoning vortex of repetitions and enervations: what the drunk’s drinking both emanates from and seeks to avoid at any cost. On the other hand, the Williams fragment from Journey to Love’s “Daphne and Virginia” cannot not accord the voracious yet taciturn goose in this frame his separate laurel as Most Limnable Image-Geneator within the broader emotional scene the poet is at pains to lock into. The much-touted triadic stanza of Williams’s last stroke-filled years does not determine here the goose’s eidolon so much as highlight the fowl’s already shapely presence. Having escaped a slew of dinners he is a fit drainer of any slough of despond diverted to the proceedings by the poet. But he is front and center, not centerable as a front for feelings like unto the eidolon’s capacity for summoning forth analogies of themselves. The Oppen poem is about the plangencies of grief unalloyed by change or temperament; the Williams poem is about the business of thematizing self-evading instances the poet is lucky enough to lure into his depth of field and contain there imagistically. The one hobbles on a clubfoot of artificially discovered pain, the other opens out onto a vista of eternizing conceits framed equally by a rapacious sensibility and a Jamesian determination to be an observer on whom nothing—not even a goose penned in by poemless authorship—is lost.
     Zukofsky’s metier is in essence as distant from both these practices as a neurologist’s is from a rheumatologist’s. This may sound strange but its obliquities are worth the parsing. The latter sort of practitioner presides over a relatively mappable demesne of joints, and as one might expect, he affects lordship over the mysterious Middle Earth of articulations that make up their range of motion. Because joints are the parts of the body that facilitate motion, the dysfunctional face they present is one of stiffness, immobility, pain. Rather than garnering notice for smooth operation, they attract most attention when hurtfully startled into inflammation and pathology. Not so for neurologists, who bag the malfunctioning bird from another—its blind—side. If rheumatologists seek the company of orthopedists and bone doctors of this sort or that, neurologists tend to court the more quantumized dispensers of medical supposition and pharmacology. With their gaze riveted on the disruptions to which the body’s network of web sites is prone, they ply an undersea kingdom of sheaths, pulses and reflexes, all suspended from a thread as elusive as a mesonic felon in a crowd of sympathetic particles.
     What has all this to do with how Zukofsky differs from his Objectivist contemporaries? Just this: the subletter of those museless haunts of Brooklyn once tenanted by Whitman conceived of language as an articulational network within which all words could be viewed as essentially “foreign” terms and therefore rife with adherences that placed the lexical on an unfathomable par with the cellular realm of centrospheres and centrosomes. Indifferent to the joints and cartileges of conventional arche-beams and arche-motes (the superficies playing between the “I’s (pronounced eyes)” and “After I’s” of poetry), Zukofsky was from the beginning overwhelmed by the nerves and nerve casings of language at levels even more lowly and intrinsic than either the morphemic or the phonemic. Out of that conscription of letters from which his universe assumes its shape, everything begins with “A” for Aleph-Alpha, the endlessly pulsing Omega towards which all bendings of light and human refraction gravitate. The only endings in his ecosystem of sounds and soundings are nerve-endings, at whose extremities incomings from the ecosystem’s signal loop can be sensed by a poet who works hard to attune himself to their vibrations. After a time one learns to divest oneself of the Aristotelian expectation of beginnings followed by middles followed by ends and to accept the fact of there being only beginnings, endlessly pulsing along pathways stirringly alive with encrypted impulses and stimuli, each outfitted with the means to effect its translation into sounds, that when suitably grammatized, supervene magically as poems.
     Sometimes the signal loop sends on a lengthy and involved brief of concupiscence; at other times one care barely discern the gists for the piths, as in the coupling of onsets energizing the 26 lines of “Que J’ay Dit Devant.” Part I splits differences without ever really stipulating a deal to be formalized:

                        Day that passes,

                        Day that stays,

                        Day that passes

                        Other days’


                        Crow’s-foot sieges,

                        Tears, bare way,

                        A god’s aegis, --

                        Catspaw spray.

All ways of alluding—via alternate routes of designation, some forking, some relatively straight—to tears, blossoms of sorrow, eye-juice. As I (pronounced eye) said before (Que j’ay dit devant): There’s gold veining those hills of regret, of transitory loss, of perduring grief. The eyes have it, secreting rivulets of salt-wash that deepen crow’s-feet, suggest with each descending ovule fertilized by rue a shield of godly provenance, or an airy lightness to watery ruffles beat, in patches of thinning wind about the edges of an unsqually calm. And could any pair of sounds sound more like something briefly indecipherable said through tears than “bare way”? The voice catching at glottal straws has seldom been accorded such generic, yet riskily moving, “onomatopoeia by other means.” What American poet—with the fitful exception, perhaps, of Emily Dickinson—has offered up for our elucidation, with an incisiveness and brio comparable to Zukofsky’s, so many “signatures of things” of the sort that figure in the boast made by Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus about having been put here on the planet specifically to read them?
     Nor has speculation as to their provenance been halted when the provocation in question is thought to “lie too deep for tears.” Willy nilly, and as a consequence, such depths have given rise, since at least the Songs & Sonets of Donne (1597), to like bouts of reading—if only of those portents their mirror-like convexities can be imagined sending into regressus ad infinitum, like so many Parmigianinos careening through wilds of self-portraiture. Their watery association with pangs of the heart feeds readily into that salty redoubt (once popularly epitomized as “run silent, run deep”) which leads to oceanic immersions, and ultimately to cimetières marins, though not always in a straight line.
     Zukofsky was just the man to make hay out from such fortuitously shining suns.  It coincided with his call on Objectivism in ‘’’Recencies’ of Poetry” (1932) to recognize that “Poems are only acts upon particulars”—that is, strings of things laid out in “gists and piths,” to cite Pound’s phrase, out beyond Whitman’s catalogues toward the logosphere of etonyms and pure syllabic resonance. But it is Zukofsky’s almost unworldly grasp of syllabics as nodes of radiance so intense they crystallize, as though bent on colloidal apotheosis, into images that makes the poems in All appear like manna dropped from poets’ heaven. How much Trecento beauty—and fiddle—are alembicated into these few lines from I’s (pronounced eyes), and all with nary a hint of the unearthly being unearthed by a trouvère of great gifts:

                                                Or again—

                        As where cheek touches forehead,

                                                                        of face

                                                My father’s boot

                                                by a lute

                                                            with eight courses—

                                                            I have rhymed



                        To her face. Love delights, the book of praises. 

What empowers such verse? It is the timbral broaching of tonality at first blush, of concentration ignited, suffused with giddy exaltation at being plucked nimbly out of reverence, bound for glory in the ear. What enables it? Its power to convey, beyond all late Baroque and other bungholes, the economy of grandeur as a thing of words no less easeful with time and its hidden springs than a fine watch. If the result is less than Poundian it totals up to rather more than Pound—if you credit the exceeding of beauty mongering for its own sake, what the expatriate hellion from Hailey could never bring himself to lay aside, with a still laudable cachet. Allow that Frost’s poetry partakes of the dramatic, Eliot’s of the agonic, Stevens’s of the festive, and Williams’s of the dance of hand-eye coordination choreographed on a Pollock-like canvas of words, then it must as surely be granted that the poetry of Zukofsky purchases its elegance of means at the cost of involvement with the world of affairs (human and between men and fauna, rather than just flora). It was this same world, that of relations between relations, which the Marx of that same Capital the alembicator of All once had a go at translating into verse made a point of designating not objective but materialistic. Indeed, he tired of Marxism, of the narrowness of its vision, because if life was not a meeting of minds, it was for him, as well as for everyone else, nothing at all. Either that, or a cockpit tailor-made for the contusions of class or those grudge matches of History impresarioed by Hegel (with halls rented by Bakunin and Sorel), which, if Zukofsky had lived to think about it, was not all that distinguishable from the Verso Paperback of today.
     Just as Frost, in his biographer Lawrance Thompson’s words, took “his inspiration from the Sermones of Horace . . . [and sung} New Hampshire by praising it for having nothing to sell—just ‘one each of everything as in a showcase,’” Zukofsky, most light-fingered of pickpoets, sang his Brooklyn to within a cobbler’s inch of an Objectivist’s singularity, in full possession of Horatian grace, but with an overplus of Jonsonian elegiac lissomeness as well. If he stole anything, it was a march on the modernists’ program to force the reform of the poetic line by cutting off its header quality shared with the topic sentence reduced to running clausal interference. Where an Edwin Arlington Robinson could write in his 1925 sonnet “The Sheaves,”

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,

Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;

And as by some vast magic undivined

The world was turning slowly into gold. . . ;

—and Frost in a poem as brief as the four lines of “Bravado” could unravel its Gordian knot of prose into conversational leadstrings aflame with the spangles of loosed drama:

            Have I not walked without an upward look

            Of caution under stars that very well

            Might not have missed me when they shot and fell?

            It was a risk I had to take—and took

—Zukofsky, in poems such as “1959 Valentine,” breaks the line down further into smithereens of sense whose sounds reverberate like loose change on a new church’s collection plate:

                                    The more that—

                                                who?  the world

                                    seeks me so

                                                to speak


                                    the more

                                                will I



     An incredible amount of concision has entered that process by which Zukofsky’s earliest gleanings from the tree of verse have ripened into these brief, but in no way tenuous, prunings from the Tree of Life. Who but he, and he in this particular and peculiar incarnation dredged for embodiment by the confluence of Valentine sentiments within the heart of a middle-aged poet (in February 1959 Zukofsky was going on 55)? “. .  . the world / seeks me so / to speak” leaves nothing to chance but the effusions of paranomasia circling about the formula “so to speak,” which add corruscations to the context without needlessly stranding his reader in the glare of the gratuitous. “The world seeks me as a manner of (its) speaking” vies with a generous handful of alternate readings of what Zukofsky’s pinwheeling performative may be interpreted as saying. Of course the declaration of love reduced beyond words to a distillate of understanding is this poet’s particular specialty, a Grand Tour de force conducted over a lifetime of country matters with his wife and constant companion, Celia. No known poet could actualize a poem with the great good taste or reserves of anabolic “boplicity” (the term is from jazz, and it designates that quality of improvisational composure attributable to a bop instrumentalist when he or she is “in the groove” and notes played—and underplayed—fall into place as if bidden) as could Zukofsky when he’d imbibed a measure from the appropriate spring. (A propos of nothing, one further loopiness encountered in writing about Louis Zukofsky: either as subject he encourages the stockpiling of “epitheticals” beginning with the letter “a,” or it only appears that he does. One way or the other, the risky pretentiousness attending the use of “Arethusan” in the preceding sentence seems—in terms of style at least—less tacky a device for preempting the charge of pretentious riskiness in this connection than any other one could dream up. Just why this might be so the reader must be left to ponder. . . )
     Which brings us (by a route—and on this it is possible that opinions might differ—insufficiently circuitous) back somewhere near to where we started in this Zukofskian ramble in quest of just what it is that All is all of—if such a Kapellmeister of poetic precisions could ever have anything as unchoreographed as a ramble associated with him. First, we need to remain true to Zukofsky’s own sense of the poem as “a context associated with musical shape.” Second, we cannot afford to ignore what Zukofsky chose to highlight in his introduction to the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry from 1931, that aligned poetry with the “desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.” And finally, there can be no circumventing of one cardinal fact about this most extraordinary poet: while he would not have turned his nose up at literary fame, he never sought celebrity or courted even the most benign notoriety for himself or his work. It was his both his fortune and misfortune to have been linked indissolubly, and from very early on, with the fortunes and misfortunes of his mentor Ezra Pound. Hence fame did not so much elude him as become less and less a possibility as efforts made by friends and students on his behalf were increasingly blindsided by events and the rise and fall of some very unpredictable stars in the American literary heavens.
     The all-in-All  then is both an inclusivity and an exclusivity, a summa and a uniquely partitive 20th Century gestalt along distinctly American lines. Its pair of volumes contain neither outtakes from “A” nor doubletakes on matters thought unworthy of notice by more noticed but less worthy poets than Louis Zukofsky. They constitute an intimate journal of things registered on the most sensitively calibrated sensibility in modern letters, bar none. Some poets breathe so rarified an air that they require the cultivation of a special taste to make their ambrosial droppings seem to those not inclined to go along with transubstantiation not the droppings they actually are but the ambrosia they would have themselves be. Not Zukofsky. In him we have more than just that denatured freak of literary experimentation, read by few and loved by less, a “poet’s poet.” These poems, with the exception of “Poem beginning ‘The’” and some of the pieces in Barely and widely (1956-58), though not major, are anything but minor. Nutritively, they occupy a middle position between a clear and universally acknowledged influence on the poetry of his time and an energizing obliquity who managed to inspire from afar numerous younger poets, even though many of them never read anything by him. As Robert Creeley put it, “It is [Zukofsky’s] belief that that a poet writes one poem all his life, a continuing song, so that no division of its own existence can be thought of as being more or less than its sum. This is to say, it all is.” His verse will always be, in his own telling phrase, “Wut wuz in the air”: which is to affirm, once and for all, a voice fashioned out of love that never once simpered, but rather rose songfully and proportionately, over the modicums and makeweights of a not a few “low, dishonest decades.”  Not with loudness, but with ardor; and not with arrogance either, but out of fealty to the ear and the comeliness of its assuagings. Only that.



     Jorge Luis Borges might well have been right to insist that we create our own predecessors rather than the other way round. That being so, one might also consider this: If Walt Whitman is the father of us all, then without question Louis Zukofsky is the father of the all in all of us—the All in all (and all in All), as it were—without which we would be as tinkling cymbals, the prey, as for so many in the Europe of the 1930’s, of grand designs and even grander designers. The original version of All in two volumes, though in no way matching the weightlifter’s grip on the non pareil shown in “A,” brought its author out of vaunting obscurity into that light of day his poetry had so long stood in for the limited but discerning body of readers which only began swelling to crowd proportions just before his death. The new wood that Pound credited Whitman with having broken (and himself with having readied for carving) found in Zukofsky a sublime wielder not of an axe or chisel, but of an instantly recognizable awl from whose sharp tip marks indelible flowed with a pointedness to which air and light clung as friend and helpmate. That awl is what we honor in that Zukofsky who minored in the discipline that would underwrite the sublime outpouring of “A,”  the heftiest and most prodigious mowings Whitman’s Leaves has generated thus far. Since the degrees of lineage separating Zukofsky from subsequent generations of American poets who continue to lumber in his wake have shrunk from the nominal six to somewhat less than that number due to the pervasive, if largely unacknowledged, influence of his style, the wood Pound spoke of has wound up being displayed in shapes and in venues which he could scarcely have imagined when the Cantos were on track for being rounded off and squared away. The engineer who laid down the most durable rail between the there of then and the here of now is undoubtedly the master bricoleur and tangent pianist of Time, who saw Pound coming and seconded his revolution without putting harm in his own way or letting others drive him from the decency on which his craft, nourished over years in which both it and he were shunted aside and ignored, so richly devolved.

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