The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
by Mark Scroggins
Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World
This splendid biography of poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) performs three important functions: It acts as a memorial, an introduction and a prod.
First, memorial: The Poem of a Life tells us about Louis -- pronounced Lewee -- Zukofsky's childhood in New York (Yiddish-speaking family, pants-presser father), his years at Columbia (where his classmates included Whittaker Chambers, Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer Adler) and his various jobs (substitute teacher, technical writer, professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic). From an early age, though, Zukofsky also wrote poetry and hardly into his 20s produced the playful and melodious "Poem beginning 'The.' " A loose parody-homage-extension of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," it shows the flair for puns and wordplay that marks much of its author's later work: "The/Voice of Jesus I. Rush singing/in the wilderness...For the Pater that was Greece/The siesta that was Rome." Before long, Zukofsky was corresponding with the great teacher of the modernists, Ezra Pound, who helped him publish his early poems and told him to look up William Carlos Williams.
From the 1930s until about 1960, Zukofsky had virtually no audience outside of little magazines and chapbooks. This was not because of artistic purity or conviction: No trade publisher wanted to bring out his books. (Little wonder: Two months after publication, Barely and widely had sold only 26 copies.) After all, Zukofsky was in many ways the last of the real modernists, ambitious on a grand scale, producing appealing but still demanding short work, while giving his greatest efforts to a mammoth 24-section epic titled "A." Though full of verbal music, his poetry demanded attention, was neither personal nor accessible, invited -- or required -- multiple readings to fathom its sense.
Nonetheless, by the late 1950s and early '60s Zukofsky found himself looked to as a model by some of the more experimental branches of American poetry: the Black Mountain school, headed by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the San Francisco poets (Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer), and even the Beats (Allen Ginsberg). By the '70s, the critic Guy Davenport, was calling the author of "A" the greatest living American poet. Such acclaim arrived just in time: Zukofsky died suddenly in 1978 from complications following a perforated duodenal ulcer. The cause of death, remarked composer John Cage, was precisely the same as that which carried off James Joyce.
Mark Scroggins, who teaches at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, relates Zukofsky's life with speed, clarity and zest. But his book is also intended as an introduction to the poet, and so concentrates as much on the work as on its creator. "Interchapters," for instance, address major themes or look into the influence on Zukofsky of, say, Spinoza and Bach.
Scroggins's approach to interpretation is scholarly yet down to earth, full of good sense and useful information. The first section of "A," he tells us, "presents the dilemma of the poet's task in an unsettled time -- how to navigate between the demands of an unjust, capitalistic society and the otherworldly perfection offered by art, represented here by Bach's St. Matthew Passion." In section 8, he points out, a description of the artistic imagination mirrors Marx's account of the labor process in Capital:
What distinguishes any worker from the best of the bees
Is that the worker builds a cell in his head before he constructs
it in wax.
The labor process ends in the creation of a thing,
Which when the process began
Already lived as the worker's image.
Zukofsky frequently employs such "quotations," since he valued recurrence, repetition and allusion as a basic structural principle of art. But he also believed that "only objectified emotion endures." Shortly after his marriage, he drafted a poem of "pure erotic abandon":
Drive, fast kisses,
no need to see
hands or eyelashes
a mouth at her ear
trees or leaves
night or the days.
A dazzling verbal engineer, Zukofsky twice replicated in "A" the pervasive rhyme sounds of Guido Calvalcanti's famously intricate love poem "Donna mi priegha." (Zukofsky's actual words reflect on the Marxist theory of value and Spinoza's understanding of love.) This ideal of translating the aural structure of a poem eventually led to the poet's notorious versions of Catullus. In these Zukofsky actually emulates the original Latin sounds in his English words but also keeps close to their meaning. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of Catullus viii, Zukofsky in roman and Catullus in italics:
Miss her, Catullus? don't be so inept to rail
Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
at what you see perish when perished is the case.
Et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
Zukofsky's collaborator on this translation, as for much of his work, was his wife, Celia, a talented musician and composer. Her "L.Z. Masque" forms the last section of "A," and her score for a kind of opera of Shakespeare's Pericles makes up the second volume of "Bottom: on Shakespeare," that densely written, quotation-filled personal encyclopedia devoted to the proportion "love: reason :: eyes: mind."
The Poem of a Life sports a striking cover photograph of its subject -- by that versatile and much-regretted man of letters Jonathan Williams (see p. 4 of this issue for a tribute to him) -- and shows the thin poet tightly buttoned up, all wool coat, thick glasses and cap. In truth, he looks a bit formidable, which seems appropriate, for not everyone will be drawn to the verbal music and allusive intricacies of Louis Zukofsky. But Mark Scroggins certainly makes us understand that the author of "A" is a major poet, and he prods us into wanting to read him. After all, the test of poetry, said Zukofsky, "is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art."
Michael Dirda is an award-winning book critic for the Washington Post.