[Editor’s Note: Vance Maverick says that he’s a “software developer and occasional blog commenter who lives in San Francisco.” But I have other ideas. I prefer to think of him riding the range, hat pulled low to keep the setting sun out of his eyes. Regardless, he was kind enough to provide us with an entry for This Day in History. Thanks, Vance.]

On this day in 1978, Louis Zukofsky, one of the most important of the “second generation” of American modernist poets, died in Port Jefferson, Long Island. He was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on January 23 or so, 1904 (the date is uncertain), and spent most of his career in New York.

After public schools, including Stuyvesant High, he entered Columbia in 1920, alongside the likes of Lionel Trilling and Mortimer Adler. The professor who influenced him most there was Mark Van Doren (who, writing later on “Jewish Students I Have Known,” called him “a subtle poet” with an “inarticulate soul”). His closest friendship was with Whittaker Chambers. It was supposedly Zukofsky who urged Chambers to read the Communist Manifesto, but he never joined the party himself. He earned an MA in 1924, with a thesis on Henry Adams.

Setting out as a poet, he lived by miscellaneous jobs (bookstores, substitute teaching), until finding work with the WPA in the 1930s. He married Celia Thaew, and they had one son, Paul, a violin prodigy (and later a prominent new-music performer). He did technical writing during the war, then finally found a stable position at Brooklyn Polytechnic, where he taught from 1947 to 1965.

Why celebrate him on an American history blog? It’s not just that he’s important in literary history (or that this happens to be my favorite blog). I think he belongs here because he was dealt a cultural “hand” like many others, but played it in an utterly distinctive way, using it to push the modernist project further than anyone.

Our natural condition, as Americans, is rootlessness — immigration, internal migration, the “melting pot”. Of course there are wide differences in circumstance — Zukofsky, child of immigrants, speaking Yiddish before English, attending a university where he could not teach, must have felt a wide distance from the elite American culture of a Henry Adams. But not far beneath the confidence of that elite, at least in the arts, was a painful insecurity with respect to the mother cultures of Europe. The immediate exemplars, for a poet of the day, were Pound and Eliot, who both tried to reckon with the “mind of Europe” by moving there, and becoming it. There’s a touch of overcompensation in their labors — “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, for example, is magnificent but protests too much. Zukofksy too wrote an intensely bookish poetry focused on the classics, but with a detachment, with no rhetoric to persuade you he is of the same club as the masters, and with an omnivorous eye and ear for the modern world, especially his own New York. (For a light example, take one of his renderings of Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega”, preserving all its intricate structure, into Brooklynese, as “A Foin Lass Bodders Me”.) Also unlike his forebears, he embraced polysemy of the word, even to the point of indeterminacy in the text — he once wrote a note on the word “bay” in a poem, enumerating every sense of the word attested in the language and accepting them all. The younger poet Robert Duncan put it most concisely, noting on reading Zukofsky in the ’30s “a kind of self-consciousness in which not the poet but the act of writing was this ‘self’.”

Zukofsky’s first major poem was “Poem beginning ‘The'” (1927), which is among other things a takeoff on “The Waste Land”. He submitted it to Pound ‘s magazine The Exile; Pound accepted it, and became a sort of mentor to Zukofsky in the 1930s. Pound’s antisemitism, sometimes open, complicated the relationship, but he endorsed Zukofsky in a dedication (with Basil Bunting) as a “struggler in the desert”, and persuaded Harriet Monroe to let him edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry.

As editor, Zukofsky marshalled a brigade of obscure poets (notably George Oppen), under the banner of an enigmatic manifesto proclaiming them “Objectivists”. Nothing to do with Ayn Rand: rather, in the most condensed formulation,

An objective–rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective–nature as creator–desire for what is objectively perfect,
Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

The movement vanished almost as soon as it was born. From here on, Zukofsky focused his own poetic objective on the composition of a long poem, “A”. He worked on it until the 1960s, when he finished “A”-23, and his wife Celia capped the book with “A”-24, a vast collage of extracts from earlier parts of “A” and other texts (set in parallel with Handel keyboard pieces as accompaniment). The material of “A”, historical, contemporary, and highly personal, is as various as its styles: from a Williamsesque free verse to extreme formalism (the tightly rhymed “canzoni” of “A”-9), occasionally minimalism (“A”-16 is four words long) and in the later parts, an increasingly condensed form based on a regular number of words per line.

In his Long Island retirement, he worked steadily on his last major work, 80 Flowers, in which each poem is five lines of five words on one flower each, ravishingly beautiful and practically opaque. Meanwhile, his reputation grew. He encouraged and corresponded with younger poets, such as Robert Creeley. The University of California Press brought out “A” complete, in 1979 (he was able to see the proofs before he died). His poetry is well-established now in academic study, and he has been an inspiration to new generations of poets, notably the “Language” tendency arising in the 1970s.

For a taste of his poetry, here’s the ending of “A”-11. It’s a dedication of his life’s work, his “song”, to his wife and son; at the end, the song itself begins to speak, telling them:

Honor

His voice in me, the river’s turn that finds the
Grace in you, four notes first too full for talk, leaf
Lighting stem, stems bound to the branch that binds the

Tree, and then as from the same root we talk, leaf
After leaf of your mind’s music, page, walk leaf
Over leaf of his thought, sounding
His happiness: soung sounding
The grace that comes from knowing
Things, her love our own showing
Her love in all her honor.

My main source is Mark Scroggins’s fine new biography The Poem of a Life. For criticism, a good starting point is the Zukofsky special in Jacket 30 (July 2006). (This is drawn from the proceedings of a centennial conference at Columbia.) See also Ron Silliman’s blog, passim. And most of all, see the books. I swear by “A” and the Complete Short Poetry, but the best place to start is probably the recent Selected Poems edited by Charles Bernstein.

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