When we speak of a writer's immortality, what we usually mean is his/her longevity, extending beyond the boundaries of mortality. If your work lives, then it achieves a kind of timelessness which transcends the ephemeral preoccupations of a given age--it speaks to universal human concerns, to other readers or listeners in other situations or regimes.
But it is also possible to conceive of this immortality as having a temporal interchangeability. By that I mean that a great mind can occur at any time, under any circumstances. We often think that genius shows itself under propitious conditions, that performance is a result of the interaction of character and setting (environment and/or culture), which would support the notion of the uniqueness of the condition or instance. Extending that idea, one might say that a facility for poetic composition, like an ability in mathematics or musical performance or fighting with swords, is transferable to other times, other milieus.
It is sometimes said that Eliot, or Auden, or Hecht might have been excellent poets in the 17th or 18th Centuries, an assessment with which I tend to agree. That is not only an acknowledgment of the kind of poetry these poets write, or of the facility with which they produce it. It is like saying that the skill--the mental aptitude and predisposition--is not necessarily linked to a certain life, or a certain time. It's probably an idle question: What kind of literary person would Samuel Johnson be like, had he been born in 1900 instead of 1709? Of course, he wouldn't have been Samuel Johnson, but another person. But in what sense is the given mind a specific instance of an ability? Would a "modern" Johnson have been a grammarian? A poet? An essayist? A sort of Alexander Woollcott? Or a Harold Bloom?
What I'm suggesting here is a contrary view of the historical perspective regarding the development of political and economic forces, leading to the concept of an historical dialectic of aesthetic form. Zukofsky began as a kind of doctrinaire Communist, like many of his generation, and then underwent a kind of elaboration, not away necessarily from the principles contained in Leftist dogma, but incorporating that set of ideological principles in an increasingly complex view of life and the world. Would he have become (remained) harder Left, had there not been the severe reactions against socialism which occurred in the second half of the 20th Century? Or--more to the point--can we imagine a 19th Century Zukofsky, or a 15th Century Zukofsky? Is there a specific value we can assign to individual aptitude that has a universal applicability? The accident of having been born in a certain time creates a riddle which is unsolvable. Because we can't know how history might treated a certain individual with a given set of aptitudes.
At least in this sense, though, it seems to me that Zukofsky's political persuasions, as distinguished from his approach to composition, have an opportunistic quality--in other words, the economic and philosophical world into which LZ was born, in which he grew up, is in some sense an accident, while his poetic aptitude is a constant, a given ability. In other words, LZ could probably have been a gifted poet in other circumstances. Can we imagine a Zukofsky writing like the Marvell, or the Pope, or the Chaucer? Or the Zukofsky writing like a Shakespeare, or a Jonson? A and the.
Any or All. Zukofsky wrote a whole book--Bottom: On Shakespeare--to try to convince us of a preference for the clear physical eye over the erring brain.
Ultimately, Zukofsky's defining moment as a thinker puts him beyond dialectical materialism--an eventuality that would seem to support an analysis of him as a kind of classicist. He invokes Shakespeare's vision of love (and perception)--which puts him on the side of science, but not 19th Century science. 20th Century science supports general relativity, genetic variation, psychological and moral relativism, cosmological fatalism (entropy, the big bang), etc. Progress as an ethical basis for economic development is discredited.
Yet there are those who still believe in the concept of progress in the arts. We're making progress by sweeping away prejudice and ignorance. If this is so, then our artists must benefit from the new freedoms from prior limitation, and the improved vantage they have of the past. But a classical view of the interchangeability of genius, and the relativity of viewpoint, suggests that art doesn't necessarily get better, it just progressively runs out of alternatives. Or, our sense of the possible range of formal alternatives must be continually expanded to accommodate our hunger for the new.
Is it not a question: what
Is this freighter carrying?--
Did smoke blow?--That whistle?--
Of course, commerce will not complete
Anything, yet the harbor traffic is busy,
there shall be a complete fragment
Nothing, look! that gull
Streak the water!
Getting nearer are we,
Hear? count the dissonances,
These early LZ poems are like teasing arguments with necessity, with the prevailing materialistic ideologies of the time. Can we balance the books of poetic justice under a capitalist regime? Is an irregular scheme an incomplete fragment of a larger harmony? Does our labor make us whole, or bereft?
Gleams, a green lamp
In the fog:
Murmur, in almost
Siren and signal
Siren to signal.
Parts the shore from the fog,
Rise there, tower on tower,
Signs of stray light
And of power.
Siren to signal
Siren to signal.
Hour-gongs and the green
Of the lamp.
Plash. Night. Plash. Sky.
Watching the harbor, again, a perfect demonstration of the graphic semblance of commerce, exchange, through the locks of time and permission, the law(s) of intervals, color coded with the semiotics of opportunity. The evidences of "stray" power, of the inefficiency of masses moving through light towards destinations, in the grand accounting of the universal particles.
As we penetrate to the further limits of the microscopic, we seem no closer to a simple explanation of the interaction of bodies, than we do at the macroscopic. The earth is a speck. Meanwhile, what is the price of bread? Whistle a ditty on the way to the corner store. Footsteps echoing on the pavement between canyons of steel and rock. A gull's white shit streaks the fire-escape. There's a cavity in my head. The continent shifts a centimeter towards the East. The old poet moves to a new apartment 14 times. An orient eye has pried thee loose of care.