By Robert Leiter
Poetry Foundation Media Services
Louis Zukofsky has been called the most influential poet you've never heard of. Much like his fellow Objectivist, Charles Reznikoff, 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. 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. Now, the Library of America has devoted a volume in its American Poets Project to Zukofsky. Selected Poems has been edited by Charles Bernstein. 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."
Zukofsky considered 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.
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). '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:
in these words--
and of me
you are the peer-
ess of this
making the news notes
our music is called--
call your next book--
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."
Robert Leiter is the literary editor of the Jewish Exponent, a weekly paper in Philadelphia, and has written for The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, and other national publications.
© 2008 by Robert Leiter. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.