Monday, July 5, 2010

Zukofsky, Fully Baked

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. 

                                Buoy--no, how 
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,

Shoal? accost--cost
Cost accounting. 
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
A dialogue

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.     


Kirby Olson said...

It's hard for me to understand this poetry because he doesn't seem to have any morals at all. He knocks up the nice lady from Wisconsin and dumps her.

The poetics is intact, I guess, but what if it isn't attached to any moral vision of life, or to one that is simply materialistic? Isn't that why these poets are such positivists in terms of their subject matter, and why they scrape off any semblance of the eternal?

Maybe Marfan's had something to do with it, but I think Louis Zukofsky was just out for himself, like his son. The opportunism that you name does probably belong in this equation.

Many secular humanistic moralists decry the witch hunts and endlessly drag them out in order to spoil the morality of the Pilgrims and the others who founded this country.

But if you think about where secular humanism began: with the Committees of Public Safety in the French Revolution, and with the tumbril, you have an amazing upping of the ante that eventuates in the wholesale slaughters of Stalin and Pot and so on. Where is Zukofsky on these issues?

He finds it pragmatic to say nothing since everyone around him believes in the left?

I don't find anything that is ultimately TRUE in the objectivists or their ilk. Their writing scrapes out values, and subscribes to a very simple church of things, with no other ideas.

Is there anything TRUE in what they are writing? I think it's icky.

Marianne Moore thought it was icky, too. But she didn't know the half of it. WCW going through people like they were inflatable dolls. Zukofsky, too. And Cummings.

All that denial of truth and beauty is icky, so it can't be poetry.

Kirby Olson said...

There's a cavity in your head, all right.

Curtis Faville said...

Actually, several cavities. The oral cavity. The nasal cavity. The ear cavities. The brain cavity--but it's full of brain at the moment. No teeth cavities at the moment, as far as I know (dental check-up on the 29th, the day before my 63rd birthday).

Not sure when you're really reacting to an explicit criticism, Kirby, or just exercising an expedient opportunity to make a conservative point. How is it that you can appreciate Moore, and not see the values in other poets of talent and merit.

LZ may have been Left in the 1920's and 1930's, but I don't know about his politics after that. I imply in my post that his later philosophical outlook changed--I think that's defensible. Moore politics may actually have become much more conservative in later life. Do we know what her beliefs were in, say, 1925? How did she feel about the poor? About mercenary capital? Did she have to work for a living?

Let's not put our poets into political jail cells.

J said...

A moralist usually outnauseates the amoralist (e.g Kurrby O).

The vast majority of poetry's bor-reeng, Sir F-ville. That's my beef with 'it. Even when jazzy, not ...jazz. And like WCW, LZ seems to lack Pound's ...wit. At least with metrical-Miltonic sort, it at least sounds important

Kirby Olson said...

She wrote a letter to communist Kenneth Burke in 1933 in response to a question as to why she wasn't with the communists. She said it wasn't sound.

She was proven correct, in retrospect.

We are presently weathering another round of communist and crypto-communist assaults on sound doctrine, with the very president a member of a liberation theology choych.

Communists are at least as bad as Nazis whom they resemble in every particular: one-party states, driving out all opposition, killing poets, etc.

Why should we brook them?

Moore lived with her mother who was a cagey real estate investor, and she herself had jobs -- first at the Carlisle Indian Institute, later as a librarian in NYC.

She also worked full-time for about eight years as the top editor for the DIAL (she got a good salary for the time).

Her poems didn't make a mint: she would get about a hundred and twenty dollars for a poem in the New Yorker in the 1960s. There were about 25 poems in total in the New Yorker.

If you do the math, that's about 4 grand.

Her brother (a naval pastor) sometimes sent her money. Her friend Bryher sent her money. She did appearances, and continued to teach well into her 70s.

She also wrote reviews for a number of publications.

In a letter to Bryher in 1934, she calls Roosevelt, "our Hitler."

Roosevelt did some good things among which he saved the US in WWII. But he also nominated a lot of secular humanists to the US Supreme Court which meant that the wall between church and state got much stronger, and a one-party state of secular humanists emerged.

William O. Douglas, Harry Blackmon, and others, said we couldn't even say our prayers in schools any more. So the secularists won.

But what have we now got? Really bad poets like Zukofsky and Pound arguing that their politics are salvific, when of course they were anything but.

I'm not saying the wording wasn't beautiful, but what about the content? You tend to ignore content. I don't know how or why you do that, Curtis.

I think this is part of why the poetry of Zukofsky isn't really catching on, or that the poetry of Pound isn't popular, or that WCW's poetry isn't considered that good.

To the extent that there IS content, it's appalling rather than appealing.

Did you sing the Stars-Spangled Banner with the rest of the country last night before the Fireworks?

Curtis Faville said...


I think I sang it silently, in my heart, in grief over the sins of my country--and in honor of the young men and women who have given their lives, voluntarily, in the service of corrupt expediency and pointless conflict.

The true patriots do not wish to die for their country, but to live for it. The true patriots do not encourage their youth to die pointlessly and miserably, "nation-building"--stalemated in a badland of centuries-long-war of attrition.

The conflation of disparate individual artists and writers into a convenient political characterization is just sloppy thinking, and I'll have nothing to say about that. Zukofsky and Pound. Hard to imagine two more different people, in every single respect.

Curtis Faville said...

Also, Kirby, I guess I'm particularly astonished that you seem to think that I'm neither aware of, nor sensitive to, the content in Zukofsky's work.

Could you make the claim--anywhere in my post--that I thought Zukofsky's work was a sort of propaganda for Leftist views, or that if it were (more likely) it's unleavened by any irony? Actually the whole point of the second part of my post was to suggest that to see LZ's work in terms of his early politics was a mistake--a mistake that I was at some pains to clarify (or so I thought). But you didn't pick up on any of that.

You say--

"Really bad poets like Zukofsky and Pound arguing that their politics are salvific, when of course they were anything but.

I'm not saying the wording wasn't beautiful, but what about the content? You tend to ignore content. I don't know how or why you do that, Curtis.

I think this is part of why the poetry of Zukofsky isn't really catching on, or that the poetry of Pound isn't popular, or that WCW's poetry isn't considered that good.

To the extent that there IS content, it's appalling rather than appealing."

Obviously, I disagree about Zukofsky's importance and value. The collected All is among the handful of absolutely indispensible books of poetry of the last 200+ years. And my critical standards allow me to privilege his work, right alongside Moore's, despite the differences in their politics. Yet I hardly consider myself an inclusivist.

The next time you think to accuse me of "ignoring content"--consider more carefully. I read Moore as an aristocrat of humanistic values. You apparently see just the opposite.

Give people a little credit, or admit at the outset that discussions about poetry are, for you, simply the pretext for pressing your agenda.

Kirby Olson said...

Well, you said that he pulls back from the left agenda. To what? What does he offer as his view of the world?

Moore is of course a creationist, not by any stretch a humanist. She is celebrating God's creationism.

The scientists probably get everything wrong simply because their viewpoint is so logical. Getting everything in the right order, sequencing, etc. Creation grew by intuitive leaps, the way a canvas grows.

I love this bit from the Psalms:

Psalm 104:26: "There goes ... that Leviathan, which you (God) made for the sport of it."

Scientists are such a bore. It's a lot cooler to think of the skunk as something that used to spray perfume, but since the fall goes around stinking up the place like a secularizing communist on a moral tirade.

J said...

that's what's great about Poetics (or poetasters in Kurby's sense) they can celebrate something like marxism, or the Design argument--whether monotheistic, or hindoo eastern sort-- w/o generally considering the logical implications of that something (tho' a few do, as with Rev. Blake's Tyger ditty).

Then, the party at ...the poets and thespians' pad quite outdoes the one with plato and euclid

J said...

What happened to other comments, Sir F?

Deleted by orders of Kurby's Foxnews/GOP/xtian cronies perhaps.

Curtis Faville said...

I rejected your comment on the Weird (Mis-) Conceptions blog post, because it was rude name-calling. This is the first comment I've ever rejected. I like argument, but name-calling--especially via anonymous online avatars--really grates on me.

Want to put someone down? Fine, but do it with sense, not playground antics. J, the welcome-mat is always out for you here, so don't take this the wrong way.

J said...

That's not it. There were like seven or so comments on this thread that disappeared.

That said, Im not the one who continually resorts to Ad Hominem style attacks. That's KO's M.O. (as with his comments here). Note that KO doesn't really ever say anything even slightly profound, except something like "X lacks sound morals, is a commie-pinko, a catholic-woggie, colored," etc. 'Scuzi for objecting to the Pat Robertson school of poetics.

Kirby Olson said...

It's libelous of course to say that I pick on "colored" people, and of course J can't prove it.

J is so icky -- he hides behind his consonant, and throws out slurs and lies like some poisonous toad.

I am against the communists. But I love people of color if they have their heads on straight: people like Condi Rice, and Thomas Sowell, and George Schuyler, and many others!

It's not the format in which someone appears, but their content that matters to me. This is what ML King said, too.

Forget about the format, and think instead about their dream, or their characterological content.

J's character is particularly rotten: zero ethics, and mostly, libelous name-calling. He can't get beyond that. He's like a jingoistical bag of cereal with a few jingles and lots of high fructose corny syrup.

I'd hide behind a consonant, too, if that's all I had listed as ingredients.

It's sad to me that Zukofsky was playing for the wrong team. He was clearly a very very talented writer. At this remove, however, we can only see that the writers such as Pound and Zukofsky were part and parcel of the same ideology of government control.

Whether it was found in Mussolini or in Stalin doesn't matter, ultimately, as they were both one-party states, with single-minded icky dictators at their helm.

Maybe Pound thought that Mussolini was Jefferson (according to one critic, that was the case!), and maybe Zukofsky and others thought that Stalinism would lead to equality.

The qualitative delusion of either of these modernisms is still Delusional.

Better to think back to Madison, to Locke, to Luther, and to Augustine, and to allow for wider parameters and less chronocentricity.

"Every human has the right to seek his identity w/o fear of intimidation. That is part of Christ's message. We have committed ourselves to the belief that the people of Vietnam will have this privilege."

Spartanburg South Carolina Herald Journal, December 24, 1966 -- General Westmoreland, 1966, page A1.

Curtis Faville said...


You're right on the edge, here, Kirb. Name-calling isn't okay, and the same criteria applies to both of you. Argue the issues. Don't call people toads and jingoistical bags of cereal or I'll moderate it out.

I feel that I should have the facility to edit posts by deleting certain parts, the way executives "line out" parts of legislation that they don't like. But I can't. I want to keep everything in, but I can't tolerate vendettas with expletives and name-calling.

Interestingly, the Stalin argument benefits from hindsight. In the 1920's, the Soviet Union was actually quite a lively place, culturally and artistically. Information and reports of Stalin's severe policies was not well disseminated outside of Russia. It was still possible for idealistic socialists to believe, well into the 1930's, that the Soviet model still deserved to be tested; though what that "testing" consisted of--in the minds of most Western Communists (and "fellow travelers") --was 9/10's fantasy, based on what we later learned was actually happening under Stalin's repressive regime. The great tragedy of the McCarthy Era was that most of these people would never have supported what was going on in Stalinist Russia, but were all painted with a single brush after the war, and made to take responsibility for things that they clearly would not have condoned.

What would have happened, for instance, to Senator Byrd, had we persecuted people associated with or belonging to the KKK, with the same zeal we persecuted one-time pinkos.

An interesting read: Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station, which documents the era in question.

Anonymous said...


as them Founding Fathers ALL

"All Men are created equal:
as long as they are White-Rich-Christian Men...

especially no women allowed

just LOOK at what is

Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, etc...


that slogan should be changed to:

Fuck for a Buck

J said...

You're a feeble-minded, irrational, little sunday schooler, KO, not even capable of understanding the cheesy beats you worshipped until like yr "born-again-ness" a few years ago. In the wrong bidness.

Step in a ring, Kurbster. Mano- a mano. POP. (I'm about 190 lbs, bench 400 lbs, and fightin' record 'bout 20-1 wouldn't care to have seen the last punk who f-ed wit' em. Heh heh)

(post this, Sir F. Duels like traditional poetic material, anyway--tho' KO's incapable of anything resembling Honor or Valor for that matter, like most in the Lit-Biz)

Curtis Faville said...

Okay, J and Kirby: The comment box is closed to further swipes. Take it offline.

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, I think you are right that no one saw the Stalinism thing coming in the 1920s. Well, some did, but the left thought they had figured it all out, and would make a brave new world long before 1984. So until about 1933 I'd give poets a pass.

After that, no.

I don't know Zucchini's timeline very well -- if I were to see an essay clearly distancing himself from socialism that appeared after about 1935, in which he said something about how one-party states are bound to lead to a dictatorship of the sullen maniacs who put more stock in bench-pressing than in what's wrong and right, and in principles, then I'd give Z. a fuller reading.

As it is, I can't really countenance either Z. or EP., for more or less the same reasons. Somehow I think that poets who get the big picture wrong are even ickier than normal people who do this.

(A stupid carpenter you'd think would fall for anything, but in atual fact they are generally much more likely to smell the coffee.)

One of the reasons I like Dorn is that (I don't think he's a very very very good poet, but more like a keen varmint, who wrote) he saw in the midst of the 60s what was likely to be wrong.

For some reason this only appears in his very last verses, just as Warhol's truest canvasses he kept hidden (now on display at the Brooklyn Museum -- in which he reveals his love of Christ).

Fair enough with regard to J. the cereal box that isn't.

IUf zucchini had some more positive assessment of his Judaic roots, even, I'd go for that big time. I think in some places you see this big time in Reznikoff, which makes me like him rather much.

J said...

The writer-as-victim meme while perhaps relevant at times was trite and pretty much useless like '46-'48, say after Major Zhukov and his zombies rolled through east germany. As Camus, that somewhat talented scribe realized. As with any writer, Zuk.'s merit (if there is some) does not hinge on his ethnicity, whatsoever

Besides, many nazis were "misschlings". Stalinists killed a few million german and ukrainian kulaks; the nazis offed jews and poles (nearly as many catholic poles died as jews) and slavs (that's not in any way to approve of a Kurby-like red baiting)

Kirby Olson said...

Gosh, I am encouraged to read a book or two.

But the writer uses the F word as a superlative. Then he uses the F word twice, to add emphasis.

Is that the result of all the reading? I doubt if Zucchinikoff or Reznikoff would use the F word, even among close friends.


At any rate, I don't know about Zuke's changeover to capitalist realism, but have read some Reznikoff. I like his pums.

Especially the pro-Judaic ones.

Does Zuke have any of those?

You notice with the modernists that there are many sides to some of them. But critics tend to want to hide some of their sides and are quite actively shoehorning some poets into their favorite paradigms in order to get an endorsement for some hobbyhorse viewpoint.

But I doubt if any of them had to use the F word as an intensifier of any kind in order to advance their interests. And since then we've had HIGHER ED to help us with this scourge of incivility and to teach us new adjectives, and new intensifiers. Mostly the rhetoric books teach us not to use those very often if at all.

I doubt if EB White would counsel the use of two F-words.

Is there a single such use of that term in any of Reznikoff's published writings? zucchini-man's?

I'm certain that Marianne Moore would not have had recourse to such a term. Stalin probably talked like that, as did Hitler (equivalent terms, at least).

Maybe even Roosevelt.

But poets don't talk like that!

J said...

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.

do classicists write in fragments, sans verse, meter, rhyme, or even obvious thematic content? Ich denke nicht. And really, Zuk's abstractions do seem rather raw and materialist (tho...dialectical..not sure). Just sequences of random images, somewhat chaotically occurring. Nearly nihilist, I'd wager--sort of bad Gershwin. Another reason to oppose the poesy bidness (as if reasonable humans needed more reasons). The problem being...finitetude, in a sense. And didn't even Pound proclaim poetry...dead? (echoed by that philosophaster Adorno a few decades later).

who knows, really. It's like reading Kerouac describe jazz par-tay. His writing moves a bit at times. But Charlie Parker it wasn't (or Trane, Miles, Bill Evans, Brubeck, Mulligan, et al). Lit.s a scene thing, really.

Curtis Faville said...

To take a responsible position about Zukofsky's place in the pantheon, I think you'd have to have read most of All, and a good part of A, in addition to dipping into Bottom--in order to make any kind of informed estimate.

Zukofsky is "difficult"--by most accounts, and I'd never feel comfortable using any of your adjectives--"raw" "random" "nihilist" "chaotic"--in a description of LZ's work. He's extraordinarily intelligent, ordered, coherent, and often dry. The complaint often made of him is that he's a bit too tight, perhaps even anal. But "random"? Never.

I like your quasi-Beat abbreviational patter, but it's not completely suited to every subject. You have a tendency to oversimplify and summarize a little haphazardly which isn't particularly useful in critical discussion. But I'm always happy to have you post.

J said...

Having read a few of Pound's Cantos, one offers some insta-assessments. Does one have to read all of 'em to make a pronouncement? And have mastered classical greek as well? I don't think so--there's some agency issue involved, but we don't have to BE a Pound or Eliot to discuss their work, do we? Nyet.

Same for Zuk. Ive read quite a few, at least online (more than what you have here). Z's elegy, or is it eulogy on...VI Lenin is interesting. Powerful, even. But hardly historically accurate (no mention that Lenin himself started the Cheka, banned voting/parliament, purges etc.). Yet..that's what Poets do (or did). They write stirring odes , w/o little concern for truth (whether historical, logical, or scientific). A good alto sax player at least doesn't tell fibs.

Unknown said...

Anent the unfibbing alto player: one is reminded, perhaps, of the Malayan violinist LZ remarked, whose bowing motion was so expressive it resembled the mechanism of an ice cream scooper. A quasi-paradox: too faithful (or "true") a rendition may result in an untruth; all the stirring (as it were) difficulties whisked away, so that one is left to take one's seat, as LZ almost puts it, on something like the buttocks of the heart.

No doubt the good musicians, of whatever instrument, abide with the contradiction, or quasi-tautology: where no possibility of lying inheres, truth has no reason to speak. "To be moved comes of want, tho want be complete / as understanding." U.s.w.

(With apologies to PZ for -- necessarily -- clumsy paraprhase.)