Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Zukofsky Presentation

Tomorrow, I will present a brief historical & poetic review of Louis Zukofsky & the "Objectivist" movement; specifically, mapping out the Pound:Zukofsky::Imagism:"Objectivist" lineage. The below content contains no "real" critical analysis, but does provide some interesting background information & aesthetic commentary based on direct engagement with Zukofsky's work. PS: This thing is most likely riddled with grammatical hiccups, as it is only a script for myself.

Foundations & Concepts of Zukofsky’s “Objectivist” Movement

Since, we will be discussing Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” in class today, and on a broader scale, following a particular poetic lineage throughout the course of the semester, I thought I would present one of Pound’s protégés and the poetic movements that his “apprentice” acted as a figurehead for.

In late 1930, Ezra Pound solicited the young poet Louis Zukofsky to guest edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine. Zukofsky’s editorial duties for Poetry represent a high-water mark for the rather odd friendship between himself and Pound; rather odd, because Zukofsky, a first-generation New York Jew, most certainly was aware of Pound’s highly vocal anti-Semitic stance. As early as his 1914 poem “Salutation the Third,” Pound wrote: “Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery,/ Let us SPIT upon those who fawn on the JEWS for their money” (qtd in Nelson 203). The volatile rhetoric only became more radical during WWII when Pound hosted radio broadcasts for Italy’s fascist regime. Slurs such as: “The danger to the United States as a system of government is NOT from Japan, but from Jewry,” and praised “the Hilter program” because, in his belief it helped to “Breed GOOD, and preserve the race…conserve the BEST of the race” (qtd in Nelson 203). Considering Pound’s reprehensible comments, Zukofsky’s relationship with him is all the more puzzling. What was it, then, that brought these two seemingly disparate men together? Although such a coupling is no doubt complex, the simple answer is poetry and a like-minded aesthetics.

Although Pound navigated a wide range of aesthetic and stylistic modes, history, rightly or wrongly, considers him to be the father of the Imagist movement. In his essay “A Retrospect,” Pound outlines the basic principles of imagism. They are:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective. 2. To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation. [and] 3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, no in the sequence of the metronome. (Pound)

Furthermore, he goes on to state that an image is “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and that through proper presentation of that image we are provided with a “sense of sudden liberation…from time…and space…as the result of long contemplation” (Pound). He then proceeds to list specific “Dos and Don’ts” for Imagist poetry, culminating in a particular use of rhythm, symbol, technique, and form. Perhaps the two most recognized poems stemming from this movement are Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which reads:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

And, of course, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

besides the white

This program, as it was articulated by Pound, ultimately acted as the impetus for Zukofsky’s friendship with the anti-Semitic poet and, most importantly, the foundation for his own “Objectivist” poetic movement (other first-wave “Objectivists” include George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting). In one of his two essays outlining the “Objectivist” project in Poetry’s February 1931 issue, Zukofsky places Pound’s Cantos first on a “list of works absolutely necessary to students of poetry” (Prepositions 189), in addition to quoting Pound at length. As a matter of reference, other poets that Zukofsky mentions as forerunners to the “Objectivist” movement are William Carlos Williams, and to a lesser extent, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, and Wallace Stevens.

But what is the “Objectivist” project and how do the poets therein differ from the preceding Imagist movement? To quote Zukofsky from his essay “An Objective” (which is a synthesis of his ideas presented in “Sincerity and Objectification"), the poet writes:

In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness. (Prepositions 12)

The concept of sincerity, or producing “word combinations” that accurately reflect the “sound or structure, melody or form” of a particular object is of the utmost importance to Zukofsky. Furthermore, such “word combinations” should be derived from the object itself, wherein “shapes suggest themselves” and not be imposed upon by the subject, or viewer. While most would consider the notion of a purely objective response a utopian vision, it is evident that Zukofsky seeks to mitigate, as much as possible, subjectivist intervention. But such a stance differs only slightly, if at all, from the Imagism. The difference may be found in the “Objectivist” belief that: “Each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree” and the poem itself is an occurrence of “objectification” in-&-of-itself, whereas Imagist conceived of the poem as a conduit for the object; in other words, Imagists wrote of the object and “Objectivists” wrote the object. Not coincidentally, most of the writers associated with the movement were self-identifying material-realists influenced by the writings of Marx; some of the “Objectivists,” George Oppen in particular, were long-time members of the Communist party.

With regard to the techniques employed by “Objectivists,” particularly Zukofsky, there are several notable traits. As previously mentioned, musicality, or writing directed “along a line of specific melody” plays a crucial role. Robert Creeley once wrote that Zukosfky’s poetry “is always a premise of sounds” and his “abiding purchase on the text is to sound—much as if one were trying to enter the physical place of language…trying to inhabit the gestures, pace, and density of those words” (xii). Take, for instance, Zukofsky’s translation of the poem Catullus that he wrote in conjunction with his wife Celia. As Charles Bernstein notes: “[Zukofsky] saw translation not as a means of assimilating a foreign poem into a fluent English but rather as a means to bring into English ‘unexplored poetic forms’” (xii). As such, instead of creating a literal translation from the Latin, he writes a homophonic translation. As a matter of example, compare section 70 in the original Latin (which I will not read because I cannot read Latin properly; but take note of the word combinations and the manner in which they re-appear within Zukofsky’s translation):

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

Now, compare the above to Zukofsky’s translation based upon the original's auditory aspects:

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
Whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
In wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water. (Short Poems 305)

We can further compare the previous versions to A.J. Robinson’s more “traditional” translation:

My woman says to me that there is none
With whom she'd rather spend her days than I,
Should even Jove himself ask her to wed.
So she says, but women often lie,
What a woman says to a desirous lover,
This he ought to write in the wind and rapid water.

Another aspect of “Objectivists” poetics is that of concision. Zukofsky writes: “Certainly the more precise the writing, the purer the poetry…precision of style, we should do well to cultivate” (Prepositions 15). While, again, this may appear to be similar to the Imagist dictum that one should use “no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Pound), an “Objectivist” poetics implements a then radical system of liberal elisions that aid in the development of a hyper-concision. Zukofsky’s poem “29 Songs” utilizes this technique throughout. In movement 7, he writes:

Who endure days like this
with the room’s inference
foghorns’ tuned discs amiss
dropped our wrists would be
seconds impatience’ stem
gestures’ graft arms difference
eyes’ blue iris splicing them (Short Poems 44)

Much of the normative grammar and syntax that would make this selection more immediately comprehensible has been excised from the text. While a methodical reading, couple with a series of logical deductions can tease out a content-driven “meaning” of the poem (“the room’s inference"), the economy of language serves to highlight the aforementioned musicality of the piece. But to search for a particular “meaning” through deductive reasoning or researching source material is perhaps beside the point. As Bernstein claims: “the objective of such critical interpretation is to be subsumed within the poem’s affective elusiveness. Deciphering the codes may supplement the experience but it cannot explain it. Explanation is besides the point, besides the poem. Zukofsky’s poems play to the ear; the truth of the work is in the music, not the underlying webs that produce it” (xiii).

Another guiding principle of the “Objectivists” was their belief that “inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars” immediately effected the poem; and the poem-object itself “necessarily deal[s] with a world outside of it[self].” Such an approach operates in contradistinction to the interpretative strategies of New Criticism, and seeks to orient the poem within a robust historical context similar to the Adornian concept of the constellation which “illuminates the specific side of the object” through “the history locked in the object…delivered by a knowledge mindful of the historic positional value of the object in relation to other objects” (Adorno 162-3).

Finally, an “Objectivist” poetics tends to focus on the serial works and the manner in which an idea can be expressed through a continuous extension of itself as it proceeds through a variety of modulations and an “ordering of syllables, words, phrases, and lines, in which the articulation of a particular ordering defines the aesthetic of the poem” (Bernstein x). If one examines Zukofsky’s oeuvre holistically, one will notice that nearly every composition of his 55 year career as a publishing poet, the pinnacle being his posthumously published epic entitled “A,” was constructed in this manner.

The work of Zukofsky and his “Objectivist” companions cannot be understated. He acted as mentor to future greats such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, and to a much lesser extent Charles Olson. Many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets who came to prominence during the late-60s and early-70s, such as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, are quite vocal about their indebtedness to him, not to mention many of the avant-garde and experimental writers of today.

Zukofsky once wrote: “The best way to find out about poetry is to read the poems. That way the reader becomes something of a poet himself: not because he ‘contributes’ to the poetry, but because he finds himself subject of its energy” (Prepositions 23). Therefore, I will end with the final three poems published during Zukofsky's lifetime; they conclude his 80 Flowers manuscript, which contained, as Robert Creeley states, “poems…so quiet, yet dense, with concentration, so echoing of all, himself included, where form follows and leads…as eight lines, five words in each count…as syllable, translates, transforms, flowers to flowers, in time as “thyme”:


Of thousands grown climb head-on-head
A “X” unknown stand indued
No glue kiss’d peon knee
freesia’s iris grass-tropical true scourage
bees earthflight magnetic north 4-native
dial-canter excellence scent one-thousandth-in
one-night lady’s-eardrops-fuchsia seaborne northeast unnailed
papyrus-bath-nut trailing arbutus fringed-gentian hydrangea


Children nurs’d woods tilled rock
Red totem dances blacks drink
Under eyes threshold index thunder
Yaupon flower-scurried buds eyes glance
Magnified throb aye lex foam’t
Horse a full bolus leaf-wave-edged
Evergreen prove if berries hardy-bred
‘junivals’ gulp’m tiger-numb current-red


With prayer-plant eyes annually winter-leggy
zinnia miracles itself perennial return
blest interim strength lengthening coreopsis’-summers
actual some time whereso near
zebra-fragrant sharpened wave currents tide
new moon to full sunrise
sunset enable ships seaworth slow-rounds
rosette lancers speared-yucca’s white night

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1973.

Bernstein, Charles. Forward. Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. By Louis Zukofsky. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Creeley, Robert. Foreword. Complete Short Poetry. By Louis Zukofksy. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Negenborn, Rudy. Catallus: Catallus Translations. 1995. 02 Mar. 2008.

Nelson, Cary, ed. Anothology of Modern American Poetry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1935.

Zukofksy, Louis. Complete Short Poetry. Balitmore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Works Consulted

Du Plessis, Rachel Blau and Peter Quartermain, eds. Introduction. The Objectivist Nexus. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. 1-24

Alteri, Charles. “The Objectivist Tradition.” The Objectivist Nexus. Eds. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. 25-36.

Hatlen, Burton. “A Poetics of Marginality and Resistance: The Objectivist Poets in Context.” The Objectivist Nexus. Eds. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. 37-55.

1 comment:

simon said...

on the same day
"poetry don't work on whores"
dick liddel noted