Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 - May 12, 1978) was an American poet. As a founder, and the primary theorist, of the Objectivist group of poets, he was an important influence on subsequent generations of poets in America and abroad.
Zukofsky was born in the lower east side of New York City to Lithuanian Jewish parents, father Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and mother Chana (1862–1927), both religiously orthodox, a tradition against which Zukofsky reacted early. Pinchos had 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.
The only child in the family born in America, Louis Zukofsky grew up speaking Yiddish and frequented Yiddish theatres in the Bowery district of Manhattan, where he saw works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in Yiddish, too. His first real contact with English was when he started school, but he had read all of Shakespeare's works in English by the age of 11.
Although Zukofsky’s family was poor, and though he could have gone to the City College of New York for free, his parents sent him to the expensive Columbia University where he studied philosophy and English; some of his classmates were to become important figures of culture, namely Mark Van Doren, John Dewey, John Erskine and Lionel Trilling. Zukofsky graduated with a Master's degree in 1924.
Zukofsky's M.A. thesis was the earliest version of his long essay "Henry Adams: A criticism in autobiography." Zukofsky's fascination with Adams 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 collaging of quotation lies at the heart of his writing.
Zukofsky began writing poetry at university and joined the college literary society, as well as publishing poems in student magazines like The Morningside (now Columbia Review). Am early poem was published in Poetry but never reprinted by Zukofsky. He considered Ezra Pound the most important living poet of his youth. In 1927, he sent his poem "Poem beginning 'The'" to him. Addressed mostly to the poet's mother, the poem was in part a parody of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In contrast to Eliot's pessimistic view of the modern world, "The" suggests a bright future for Western culture, based in Zukofsky's belief in the energy the new immigrants brought to the United States and in the October Revolution.
Pound was impressed by the poem and published it a year later in the journal Exile. Zukofsky further impressed Pound by writing the earliest analyses of Pound’s Cantos in 1929, when they were still unfinished. Pound then persuaded Harriet Monroe, Chicago heiress and founder of Poetry, to allow Zukofsky to edit a special issue for her in February of 1931.
In 1934, Zukofsky got a research job with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), a position he held until 1942, working on a history of American handicrafts. In 1933, he met Celia Thaew who he married six years later. The Zukofskys had one child, Paul (born in 1943), who went on to become a prominent violinist and conductor. In 1943, Zukofsky left the WPA to work as a substitute public school teacher and a technical writer. In 1947, he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he taught until his retirement in 1966.
In 1972, the Zukofskys moved to Port Jefferson, on Long Island, where he died there on May 12, 1978.
The difficulty of Zukofsky's later poetry alienated many critics and even some of his former friends. Zukofsky quarrelled bitterly with George Oppen after Oppen accused Zukofsky of using obscurity as a tactic. But the 1960s and 1970s also brought Zukofsky a degree of public recognition that he had never before received. The influential scholar Hugh Kenner became a close friend of Zukofsky and an advocate of his work. Such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley testified to Zukofsky's importance as the creator of daring experimental writing.
In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist. While studying at Columbia, his friend, Whittaker Chambers, sponsored him for membership in the Communist Party, though it is unclear whether he actually joined. While he associated with Party members and published in Party-associated magazines, his poetry, which while strongly political was resolutely avant-garde and difficult, found little favor in Party circles. Though Zukofsky considered himself a Marxist at least through the end of the 1930s, the focus of his work after 1940 turned from the political to the domestic. Much later, he would claim that reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally turned him away from Marx.
In his lifetime Zukofsky published 49 books, including poetry, short fiction, and critical essays.
- Main article: Objectivist poets
Ezra Pound was impressed by Zukofsky's Poem beginning "The" and promoted his work, putting him in contact with other like-minded poets, including William Carlos Williams. Zukofsky and Williams influenced each other's work significantly, and Williams regularly sent his new work to Zukofsky for editing and improvement. Zukofsky was a founder of the Objectivist group of poets and of To Publishers (later The Objectivist Press), along with Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. Thanks to Pound's insistence, Zukofsky was able to edit an Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he coined the very term and defined the 2 main characteristics of Objectivist poetry: sincerity and objectification. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth.
Zukofsky's major work was the long poem "A" - he never referred to it without the quotation marks - which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life, albeit with a hiatus between 1940 and 1948. The poem was divided into 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day. Sections 1-11 contain a lot of overtly political passages but interweave them with formal concerns and models that range from medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach.
Especially the sections of "A" written shortly before World War II are political: Section 10 for example, published in 1940, is an intense and horrifying response to the fall of France.
The tone of the poem changes for good with Section 12, which is longer than the preceding 11 sections combined. Zukofsky introduces material from his family life and celebrates his love for his wife, Celia, and his son, Paul. From here on "A" interweaves the political, historical and personal in more or less equal measure. The extensive use of music in this work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife and son, both professional musicians. "A" grew frequently difficult and even eccentric (section 16 is only 4 words long). The complete poem, 826 pages long, beginning with the word "A" and ending with "Zion", was published in 1978.
The problem of assimilationEdit
A theme that was especially close to Zukofsky's own heart as the child of immigrants, was the problem of assimilation, both cultural and poetical. In his poem Poem beginning "The", Zukofsky refers to the Yiddish-American poet Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden). The poem raises the problem of the educated, socialist and atheist poet losing connection with his religious familial culture.
This theme also appears in the poet's poignant address to his mother in the 5th movement of the poem Autobiography:
If horses but could sing Bach, mother, – / Remember how I wished it once – / Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare.
The final lines of Autobiography express Zukofsky's fear of permanent alienation from his upbringing and tradition as a bitter triumph of successful assimilation: "Keine Kadish wird man sagen". The lines are a variation on lines from Heinrich Heine’s poem Gedächtnisfeier (Memorial): "Keine Messe wird man singen, / Keinen Kadosch wird man sagen, / Nichts gesagt und nichts gesungen / Wird an meinen Sterbetagen". ("No Mass will anyone sing / Neither Kaddish will anyone say, / Nothing will be said and nothing sung / On my dying day")
In tandem with "A", Zukofsky continued writing shorter poems throughout his life. Many of these shared the political and formal concerns of the longer poem, but they also include more personal lyrics, including a series of Valentines addressed to Celia. The earliest book publication of these shorter poems was 55 Poems (1941). Zukofsky continued to write and publish shorter poems which were eventually collected in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971).
Zukofsky also wrote critical essays, many of which were collected in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968) and the book-length study Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) which was accompanied by a 2nd volume containing a setting by Celia Zukofsky of Shakespeare's play Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
His prose fiction includes Ferdinand (1968) and the novel Little: For Careenagers (1970) about a youthful violin child prodigy modelled on his son. He also wrote a play Arise, Arise (1962/1973) and, in 1969, an extraordinary set of homophonic translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate the sound rather than the sense of the originals in English. For Zukofsky, translation provided occasion not for modest apprenticeship but rather for a technical tour de force.
This virtuosity, inventiveness, and humor are all in full dazzle with "A Foin Lass Bodders Me," his translation of Guido Cavalcanti's "Donna Me Prega," a 13th-century canzone which Ezra Pound had translated several times. Pound had muted the poem's intricate rhyme scheme, reasoning that English was rhyme-poor next to Italian, and that lines "with the natural swing of words spoken" in the latter would sound stilted and artificial in the former. Zukofsky's solution was to substitute a Brooklyn vernacular for standard English, and transform a philosophical lyric into a dramatic monologue. In this way he managed to preserve every aspect of the poem's technical intricacy, down to the leap-frogging internal rhymes; what might otherwise have seemed an excess of artifice is resolved within the boozy virtuosity of the poem's swaggering speaker.</ref>
Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948) was a teaching anthology with critical commentary, after the manner of Pound's ABC of Reading.
Critical reputation Edit
Despite the attention Objectivism received as a major poetic movement of the 1930s, Zukofsky’s own work never achieved much recognition outside literary circles since his poetry was seen as obscure, too experimental, and dryly intellectual.
Zukofsky, along with the other Objectivists, was rediscovered by the Black Mountain and Beat poets in the 1960s and 1970s. Largely responsible was poet and editor Cid Corman, who published Zukofsky's work and critical comments on it in his magazine Origin and through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In the 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the Language poets, particularly in their formalism.
In the 21st century the Zukofsky revival continues unabated. In 2000 Wesleyan University Press, honoring Zukofsky's birth in 1904, began publishing The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky. Editions of "A" continue to be published and sell quickly; the Chicago Review (Winter 2004/5) devoted an issue to Zukofsky; his correspondence with William Carlos Williams was published in 2003. In 2007, Shoemaker & Hoard published Mark Scroggins' The Poem of a Life: A biography of Louis Zukofsky, a full-length analysis of the poet's career derived from extensive archival research and interviews with Zukofsky's friends, acquaintances, and family members.
Zukofsky won National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1967 and 1968 amd a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1976,
He received an honorary doctorate from Bard College in 1977.
- First Half of "A" 9. New York: privately published, 1940.
- 55 Poems. Prairie City, IL: Press of J. A. Decker, 1941.
- Anew: Poems. Prairie City, IL: Press of James A. Decker, 1946. w
- Some Time: Short Poems. Stuttgart, Germany: J. Williams, 1956. w
- Barely and Widely. New York: privately published by C. Zukofsky, 1958; Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorn Press, 1962.
- "A" 1-12 (with essay by Zukofsky & note by William Carlos Williams). Ashland, MA: Origin Press, 1959.
- 2nd edition (with note by Robert Creeley). Cape, 1966; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
- 16 Once Published (selected by Celia Zukofsky from 55 Poems, Anew, Some Time, & Barely and Widely).
- I's (Pronounced Eyes). New York: Trobar, 1963.
- Found Objects, 1962-1926. Georgetown, KY: H.B. Chapin, 1964.
- After I's. Pittsburgh, PA: Boxwood Press / Mother Press, 1964.
- Iyyob. London: Turret Books, 1965.
- I Sent Thee Late (poetry), [Cambridge, MA: LHS, 1965.
- Finally a Valentine: A poem. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Piccolo Press, 1965.
- All: The collected short poems, 1923-1958. New York: Norton, 1965.
- All: The collected short poems, 1956-1964. New York: Norton, 1966.
- "A" 14. London: Turret Books. 1967.
- "A" 13-21 (excerpts first published serially in Poetry Magazine). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
- Autobiography (poems set to music by Celia Zukofsky). New York: Grossman, 1970.
- Initial. New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1970.
- All: The collected short poems, 1923-1964 (contains All: The collected short poems, 1923-1958 and All: The Collected short poems, 1956-1964). New York: Norton, 1971.
- "A" 24. New York: Grossman, 1972.
- "A" 22 & 23. New York: Grossman, 1975.
- A. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
- 80 Flowers. Lunenberg, VT: Stinehour Press, 1978.
- Complete Short Poetry, (with foreword by Robert Creeley). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
- Selected Poems (edited by Charles Bernstein). New York: Library of the Americas, 2006.
- Anew: Complete shorter poetry. New York: New Directions, 2011.
- Arise, Arise (first published in Kulture, 1962; first produced Off-Broadway at Cinematheque Theatre, August, 1965). New York: Grossman, 1973.
- Little: A fragment for careenagers. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1967;
- expanded as Little: For careenagers. New York: Grossman, 1970.
- It Was. Boston: Origin Press, 1961.
- Ferdinand: Including "It Was". New York: Grossman, 1968.
- The Gas Age. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Ultima Thule Book, 1969.
- Collected Fiction (with foreword by Gilbert Sorrentino & afterword by Paul Zukofsky). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
- The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire = Le Style Apollinaire (with René Taupin, Sasha Watson, Jean Daive & Serge Gavronsky). Oglethorpe, GA: Oglethorpe University Press, 1934; Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8195-6620-9 w
- A Test of Poetry (criticism). New York: Objectivist Press, 1948; New York: Jargon / Corinth Books, 1964.
- 5 Statements for Poetry,. San Francisco, 1958.
- It Was,. Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959.
- Bottom: On Shakespeare (with Celia Zukofsky)). (2 volumes; Volume 2 is wife's musical setting of Shakespeare's Pericles).Austin, TX: Ark Press / Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, 1963. w
- I Sent Thee Late (1965)
- Iyyob (1965)
- Little: An Unearthing. Cambridge, MA, 1965.
- Ferdinand, Including "It Was" (1968)
- Prepositions: The collected critical essays. London: Rapp & Carroll, 1967; New York: Horizon Press, 1968;
- revised & expanded, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981.
- Upper Limit Music: The writings of Louis Zukosky, (edited by Mark Scroggins). Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
- The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press / University Press of New England, 2000-
- Volume I: A Test of Poetry (with foreword by Robert Creeley). 2000.
- Volume II: Prepositions: The collected critical essays (with foreword by Charles Bernstein; additional prose edited & introduced by Mark Scroggins). 2000.
- Volume III & IV: Bottom: On Shakespeare (with Celia Thaew Zukofsky). 2003.
- Volume V: Le Style Apollinaire = The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire (edited with introduction by Serge Gavronsky; foreword by Jean Daive). 2004.
- Volume VI: A Useful Art: Essays and radio scripts on American design (edited with introduction by Kenneth Sherwood; afterword by John Taggart). 2003.
- (Translator with C. Zukofsky) Catullus Fragmenta, music by son, Paul Zukofsky, Turret Books, 1968.
- (Translator with C. Zukofsky) Catullus, Grossman, 1969.
- An "Objectivists" Anthology. Le Beausset, France, & New York: To Publishers, 1932. w
- Test of Poetry (1948/1964)
- Pound—Zukofsky: Selected letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn). New York: New Directions, 1987; London: Faber, 1987. w
- Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
- The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. w
Audio / videoEdit
- The Poet's Poet: Louis Zukofsky reads from his uncompromising works (cassette). North Hollywood, CA: Center for Cassette Studies, 1971. w
- Louis Zukofsky: Second edition (outtakes from the NET film series USA: Poetry). San Francisco: The Poetry Center (American Poetry Archive(, 1978. w
- Bob Perelman, The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.
- Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, University of Alabama Press, 1998.
- Scroggins, Mark (editor). Upper Limit Music: The writing of Louis Zukofsky, University of Alabama Press, 1997.
- Scroggins, Mark. The Poem of a Life: A biography of Louis Zukofsky, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.
- Louis Zukofsky Papers in the university archives of Kansas State University.
- Louis Zukofsky 1904-1978 at the Poetry Foundation.
- from 55 poems
- Louis Zukofsky at the Electronic Poetry Center.
- Louis Zukofsky at PoemHunter (6 poems).
- Audio / video
- Louis Zukofsky profile at the Academy of American Poets
- Louis Zukofsky in the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Louis Zukofsky at NNDB.
- Louis Zukofsky: An Introduction.
- Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) at Modern American Poetry.
- A Test of Poetry reviewed by Lorine Niedecker
- Introduction to Louis Zukofsky: Selected poems by Charles Bernstein
- Louis Zukofsky: Selected poems, American Poets Project.
- Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky
- "Feature: Zukofsky" Webmag Jacket Magazine (#30: July 2006), devotes a prominent section to Zukofsky
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