All There Needs to Be Said
- The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky by Mark Scroggins
Shoemaker and Hoard, 555 pp, $30.00, December 2007, ISBN 978 1 59376 158 5
Born on the Lower East Side in 1904 to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, Louis Zukofsky spent his entire life in New York City, reading and writing and doing as little else as possible. He was abstemious, hypochondriac, a chain-smoker; he cared little for food, took almost no exercise and insisted that the windows of his apartment be shut tight at all times: he was very susceptible to draughts. At 35 he married a Jewish pianist and composer called Celia Thaew, whom he had met six years before while supervising a Work Projects Administration programme. She had had a copy of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain at the corner of her desk, which she had bought so she’d have something to read on the long subway ride to and from work. The couple had a son, Paul, in 1943, a musical prodigy and now a well-known violinist and conductor.
Over the course of his long writing life Zukofsky produced several volumes of lyric poetry, a good deal of it splendidly musical, spare and challenging. It’s hard to determine what any given poem is about, however; Zukofsky’s work is resistant to that sort of reading, and he held that the meaning was embedded in the sound. Kenneth Rexroth, reviewing Some Time in 1956, wrote that the poems were ‘exercises in absolute clarification, crystal cabinets full of air and angels’. Here, in the first half of a poem for the two-year-old Paul, Zukofsky seems to have had Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’ in mind:
Is your content
My sight or hold
Or your small air
That lights and trysts?
Red alder berry
Will singly break;
But you – how slight – do:
So that even
A lover exists.
As well as shorter lyrics Zukofsky wrote an 800-page poem entitled A. He also wrote book-length studies of Apollinaire and Shakespeare, the latter including Celia’s 232-page musical setting of Pericles. The first 450 pages or so of the Shakespeare book consist almost exclusively of quotations, from the plays themselves and from the writings of scores of philosophers, physicists, painters, poets, religious figures, you name it, based loosely on Zukofsky’s notion that ‘Love is to reason as the eyes are to the mind.’ There was a teaching anthology in 1948, A Test of Poetry, very close in format to Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, which placed poems from different eras side by side and evaluated them by measuring ‘sight, sound and intellection’. Any poem can only be improved by reading it, as is also true of Pound’s book. He also wrote critical essays and a book’s worth of fiction that is slight and mannered, but playful, charming, and at moments brilliant. With Celia he produced a translation of Catullus in 1961 which ‘follows the sound rhythm and syntax of his Latin – tries, as is said, to breathe the “literal” meaning with him’. It fails to do this, but is nevertheless Zukofsky’s greatest achievement and, intermittently, one of the most idiosyncratic and memorable translations in English. Here’s a patch:
What demented malice, my silly Ravidus,
Eggs your pricked conceit into my iambics?
What god not too benign that you invoked would
care dream your parrot’s skit of ire and ruckus?
And it wants to purr in the public vulva?
What wish to live it up, be noticed – apt as
air is, squandering in my love’s amorous
vice longer than you wished it, marred but poignant.
Catullus’ carnality makes a good foil for the severe, involuted and cerebral quality of much of Zukofsky’s own poetry.
Zukofsky, like Charles Olson and Jeremy Prynne, is a monstre sacré: his reputation precludes any serious discussion of individual pieces of work. The project is the thing, not a particular piece of writing. How we feel about Zukofsky is affected by how we feel about difficulty, a quality greatly valued by what was once called the avant-garde. Zukofsky is difficult, usually if not always. Another problem in assessing his achievement is that his major work, A, is an unholy mess, an extraordinarily complex, often brilliant and heroic mess, but a mess.
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[*] Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukovsky (1993).