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Mark Scroggins

Louis Zukofsky was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1904.

Zukofsky’s parents, Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and Chana Pruss Zukofsky (ca. 1862-1927), were

Orthodox Jews from the part of Russia which is now Lithuania; Pinchos immigrated to the

United States in 1898, working as a pants-presser and night watchman in New York’s

garment district until he could send for his wife and children in 1903. These immigrant

parents are important presences in Zukofsky’s work: the figure of his mother is central to

his early "Poem beginning ‘The’" (1926), and he mourns her 1927 death in the

play Arise, arise (1936), various early sections of "A", and as

late as 1945’s "A Song for the Year’s End." Pinchos Zukofsky’s Orthodox faith

was a tradition against which his son reacted early, but the figure of Zukofsky’s

father would come to play an important role in the conception of the poet’s task he

developed in the process of composing his long poem "A".

Zukofsky, the only one of his parent’s children to be born in the New World, grew up in

a Yiddish-speaking household, in the midst of a Yiddish-speaking community. In his Autobiography,

he is careful to distinguish between his "first exposure to letters"–the

"Yiddish theaters, most memorably the Thalia on the Bowery," to which his

brother Morris took him, where "[b]y the age of nine [he] had seen a good deal of

Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed–all in Yiddish"–and his

"first exposure to English," "to be exact, P.S. 7 on Christie and Hester

Streets." As Zukofsky points out, he first read both Longfellow’s Hiawatha and

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in Yiddish. By eleven, Zukofsky had read all of

Shakespeare (in English), a feat forecasting the wholesale consumption of texts that would

mark his intellectual history, and forecasting as well his lifelong fascination with the

poet who, on the Bowery as well as in the Raj, represented the apex of English letters.

The Jewish immigrant culture of turn-of-the-century New York was by no means either

anti-intellectual or parochial, and for a boy as intelligent and curious as Zukofsky it

afforded a wealth of cultural opportunities. Although he could have gone to City College

for free, his parents sacrificed to send him to Columbia, where he studied philosophy and

English, was a member of the student literary society, and saw his poems published in the

student literary magazines. Zukofsky’s classmates at Columbia included many names

that would become well known in later years, among them educators Clifton Fadiman and

Mortimer J. Adler, literary critic Lionel Trilling, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and

theater critic John Gassner. One of Zukofsky’s closest friends in his first years at

Columbia was Whittaker Chambers. During this period of his life the future accuser of

Alger Hiss and author of Witness (perhaps the most famous anti-communist document

of the century) had become a member of the Communist Party, and could introduce the young

Zukofsky both to radical modernist literature and to Party circles. In 1922, Chambers was

expelled from Columbia for publishing an "atheistic" play in a student magazine,

though he would remain an associate of Zukofsky’s: in 1931 he appears among the poets

of Zukofsky’s new movement, the "Objectivists." Zukofsky’s own writings of

his Columbia period are not particularly political: they show a very sensitive and very

young man struggling to find his voice in poetry, with some success. One poem at least

achieved publication in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (Chicago) in 1924 (though Zukofsky

would never reprint it).

By the time he left Columbia with his master’s degree in English in 1924, Zukofsky had

studied with some of Columbia’s most prominent scholars, including the poet Mark Van

Doren, the philosopher John Dewey, and the novelist John Erskine, whose "Great

Books" approach to literature Zukofsky would lampoon in "Poem beginning

‘The.’" He had also written, as his M. A. thesis, the earliest version of his long

essay "Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography." Zukofsky’s fascination with

Adams, scion of perhaps the first family of Anglo-Saxon Boston, a self-proclaimed decadent

representative of a heroic tradition, and like his contemporary Henry James a culture-hero

for American modernism, was to persist through much of his career. Adams’s late and rather

recondite ideas about the progression of "phases" in history would greatly

influence Zukofsky, and the form of his Adams essay, the vast majority of which is

quotation from Adams’s works, looks forward to Zukofsky’s mature compositional methods in

both criticism and poetry, where the magpie-like collaging of quotation lies at the heart

of his writing.

Just as Pound, even before he introduced himself to London literary circles, had firmly

decided that Yeats was the only living poet who mattered, the young Zukofsky had by the

latter part of the Twenties clearly singled out Ezra Pound as his most important

contemporary. Zukofsky first brought himself to Pound’s attention in 1927 by sending the

older poet his astonishingly precocious "Poem beginning ‘The,’" which Pound

published in 1928 in his short-lived periodical The Exile. "’The,’" in

large part a response to T.S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land, rather caustically

castigates the widespread modernist pessimism regarding what seemed the post-Great War

disintegration of Western Culture. The poem looks forward to a new hopeful future both in

literature, as stimulated by the "first generation… infusion" of new blood

into the American body politic, and in politics itself, as demonstrated by the brave new

experiment being carried forth in Soviet Russia, the homeland of the mother to which much

of Zukofsky’s poem is addressed. Pound was appropriately impressed, both by "Poem

beginning ‘The’" and by Zukofsky’s critical sense, which he demonstrated in his 1929

essay on The Cantos (one of the very first analyses of Pound’s

work-in-progress)–so impressed, in fact, that he persuaded the Chicago heiress and poetic

impresario Harriet Monroe to allow Zukofsky to edit the February 1931 issue of her

magazine Poetry, a journal for which Pound had long served as formal or informal

overseas editor.

That issue, entitled "’Objectivists’ 1931," was the first appearance of what

would later come to be seen as the "Objectivist" movement, a group of poets that

included Zukofsky himself, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and one of Zukofsky’s greatest

influences, the New York poet Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976); the Poetry issue also

included a number of writers whose associations with the movement ranged from commitment

(William Carlos Williams) to bemused bewilderment (Kenneth Rexroth), among them John

Wheelwright, Harry Roskolenkier, and Whittaker Chambers. In order to provide the Poetry

issue with a manifesto of poetics, Zukofsky adapted an already-drafted essay on his friend

Reznikoff, stressing the elaborate theoretical apparatus he had erected to discuss

Reznikoff’s poetry. The resulting document, "Sincerity and Objectification: With

Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff," is more important as a

description of how Zukofsky conceived of his own work than as a manifesto of an emergent

movement, but it remains, in the truncated form in which it is published in Prepositions,

a crucial text for understanding his poetics. Zukofsky was at some pains to insist that

there never existed anything that could be called "Objectivism," and he would

later repeatedly insist that the whole trappings of a poetic "school" had been

arrived at on Monroe’s insistence that his issue be structured around a

"movement." Objectivist doctrine, however, was clearly not just an ad hoc

construction for Zukofsy, and there is some tenuous evidence that he regarded the

movement–at least for a short time–as something more than an ex post facto umbrella

under which to gather a number of more-or-less like-minded writers.

Among those writers was the great American modernist William Carlos Williams, an old

school friend of Pound’s. Early in their correspondence Pound had urged Zukofsky to

look up Williams, who lived in New Jersey and was a frequent visitor to New York. Zukofsky

and Williams struck up an immediate friendship, documented in the hundreds of letters they

exchanged over the decades before Williams’s death in 1963. Each poet was deeply

influenced by the other. From Williams, Zukofsky learned the virtues of keen observation

of the everyday; from Zukofsky, Williams learned to shape his often amorphous verse into

more sharply chiselled measures. Williams in fact submitted much of his work to Zukofsky

for revision and blue-pencilling, and Zukofsky’s editing largely shaped the works

published as The Descent of Winter (1928) and The Wedge (1943).

The "’Objectivists’ 1931" issue of Poetry was followed in 1932 by An

"Objectivists" Anthology, edited by Zukofsky and published by To,

Publishers, a loose consortium of Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Oppen, the whole underwritten

by Oppen, the only member of the group with any financial resources to speak of. While the

number of poets in the Anthology was considerably diminished from the Poetry

issue, there was little indication of any single aesthetic position shared among them.

Zukofsky himself was at the time writing (along with a number of short poems) both the

prose work Thanks to the Dictionary, a long short story of sorts that through its

largely aleatorical compositional method hearkens forward to the works of John Cage and

Jackson Mac Low, and a critical study, The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire: The

bulk of this work, like the Henry Adams essay, consists of arranged and juxtaposed

quotations from its subject’s writings. This latter work was published in Paris in 1934 as

Le Style Apollinaire in a translation by the French critic Ren? Taupin, but with

both Taupin and Zukofsky listed as authors; most of the copes of the edition (save for the

six copies Taupin brought back with him to the United States) were almost

immediately destroyed in a warehouse fire, and it remains one of the rarest documents of

American modernism.

This "collaboration" with Taupin, author of the groundbreaking study L’Influence

du symbolisme fran?aise sur la po?sie am?ricaine de 1910 ? 1920, and a friend of

Zukofsky’s, was something of a ruse designed to help Taupin, a reluctant writer, along the

tenure track of his academic position; he, in turn, funneled part of his salary to

Zukofsky during the time of the book’s writing. It was one of a number of exigencies to

which Zukofsky was forced in order to support himself in the lean Depression years. He

translated a popular biography of Albert Einstein; taught for an academic year at the

University of Wisconsin, Madison (1930-31); drew a stipend as the editor of To, Publishers

for about a year; and from 1935 until the spring of 1942, worked, as did so many other

writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day, for the Works Progress Administration.

This work was not merely clock-punching for Zukofsky, though it did occupy time that he no

doubt would have preferred to devote to poetry. From 1936 to 1940, Zukofsky wrote essays

and radio scripts on various aspects of American craft and design for the Index of

American Design, a large-scale project that aimed to record and catalogue the entire

range of American handicrafts and design from colonial times through the end of the

nineteenth century. He assiduously researched these pieces, in the process gaining an

intimate knowledge of the history of American kitchenware, tinsmithing, friendship quilts,

and other forms of material culture. This work strengthened his appreciation for the

individual craftsman, and cemented his own ideology of the poet as craftsman, rather than

expressive vessel. The essays and scripts themselves, far more wide-ranging in content

than their ostensible subjects might indicate, are documents of cultural criticism very

much in the tradition of Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres or Williams

Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain.

The 1930s were a busy and important decade for Zukofsky, both personally and

artistically. The "’Objectivists’ 1931" Poetry and An

"Objectivists" Anthology had made important connections for him, alerting

both prominent and emerging poets to his existence and bringing down upon him the scorn of

such readers and reviewers as Morris Schappes and Yvor Winters. Pound’s continuing

interest in his proper education brought him as a visitor to the "Ezuversity" at

Rapallo in 1933, where he met Basil Bunting (1900-1985), a Northumbrian poet included both

in the Poetry issue and in An "Objectivists" Anthology. While

Bunting’s and Zukofsky’s aesthetics and mental processes ultimately diverged–Bunting

would fault Zukofsky especially on what he saw as the abstraction of his critical

prose–there grew up between the two poets a lasting friendship and mutual respect. They

remained in close correspondence at least through 1964, and in the preface to his own

collected poems Bunting would acknowledge Zukofsky as one of the two living poets (the

other being Pound) who, "in his sterner, stonier way," had taught him something.

One inspired reader of the Poetry issue was Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), a young

poet from Wisconsin. She initiated a correspondence with Zukofsky that continued through

the forty years until her own death, and proved herself one of his earliest and most

intelligent readers. Her own poetry is at times heavily reminiscent of Zukofsky’s, but

readers have in recent years come to recognize her as a major talent, one developed and

shaped in large part by her personal association and intense correspondence with Zukofsky.

Zukofsky began the Thirties by publishing the first installments of his long poem "A";

much of "A"-1 through "A"-7, written between 1927 and 1930, had

appeared in various small magazines, but the collective publication of these

"movements" (as Zukofsky would call them) in An "Objectivists"

Anthology signalled that a major project was clearly underway. "A" is

something of an anomaly among modern American long poems in that it is actually finished,

and part of that accomplishment is due to the fact that Zukofsky, at the very outset of

his project, had decided that this would be a long poem of 24 sections. Zukofsky’s first

overall schema for "A", which specifies a 24-movement length to the poem,

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