From Poetics & Polemics: Louis Zukofsky, a Reminiscence

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 11:00 AM

For the Louis Zukofsky Centennial Celebration, Columbia University, 2004

Louis Zukofsky wasn’t as old as my father – or my mother for all of that -- but he was the first poet of their generation who offered friendship and a particular model of what it meant to be a poet against the odds and with a persistence approaching the heroic. If Pound was, as Louie and he had it in various letters, “papa” to Louie’s “sonny,” Zukofsky wasn’t that for me or for the poets close to me (Antin, Kelly, Schwerner, Economou, Blackburn) who enjoyed his company back in the early sixties. He was however a remarkable and delightfully graceful poet and a link to a time before ours and to other (older) poets of that time still largely out of reach. That interested me a lot as I tried to imagine the pathways of poetry and what came before us or what was likely to follow. I knew him to be older than me but I had little use for a hierarchical or reverential view based on age or gifts or anything else for that matter. I thought we were a generation that believed in an equalizing of all such relationships, though I may shortly have been proved wrong in that assumption.

My initial contact with Louie was in June of 1959. I had sent him a copy of my first little magazine – Poems from the Floating World – and he had responded (as was his custom) with a brief and courteous note, handwritten on a postcard and starting off “Dear Sir.” George Economou thinks it was Paul Blackburn who brought a few of us to the Zukofskys’ Brooklyn Heights apartment on Willow Street, probably not long after. I knew of him of course as one of the lost “Objectivists” and a collaborator in that sense with the generation before his, most specifically with Pound and Williams. The first edition of “A” 1-12 had come out from Cid Corman’s Origin Press in 1959 and was a featured book when a number of us opened a short-lived East Village bookstore, The Blue Yak, in 1960 or 1961. A year or two later, Economou and Robert Kelly published I's (Pronounced Eyes) [a.k.a. Ryokan’s Scroll] under their Trobar imprint, and by then Louie was, in some sense, part of our circle or network or cabal, or at least we thought he was. Diane Rothenberg and I saw him and Celia at their place (I can’t remember if at ours), at some readings and other public events (one of his in Brooklyn at which he introduced me to Marianne Moore), at an occasional concert of Paul Zukofsky’s, and at at least one glorious excursion out of town. From Louie’s side it seemed clear that he welcomed the attentions shown him by younger poets, earlier contact with Duncan and Creeley being cited as events of particular importance.

For me the Pound connection at that point (it would be different for me a few years later) mattered less than it did for some of the others, since I saw my main derivations from other aspects of the international avant-garde. It’s also likely that the interaction with Zukofsky was one of the circumstances that allowed me to expand my poetics to include and draw from the American line of vorticists and “Objectivists,” though I may not be the best judge of how that came about. I knew that Louie had his long essay on Apollinaire but it was also clear to me that his focus – like so many at that time – was on American [Poundian] modernism as the dominant center of poetic interest.

By autumn of 1961 I had taken on a teaching position at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, where I was a one-person English or Literature Department, though I was able to hire parttime assistance from people like Antin, Diane Wakoski, Jackson Mac Low, and Frank Kuenstler. I was also given a small budget to set up a poetry reading series, for which I had a vast ambition but not much money to support it. My memory fails me here and I can remember only two of those who read in the series during its first and only year of operation: Paul Blackburn and Zukofsky. (Charles Olson also accepted – or seemed to – but finally backed off.) At Louie’s reading, as I led him to the reader’s podium, we managed to spill a pitcher of water between us, which allowed me to make some inane apology and Louie (who was being a little nervous otherwise) to shrug it off with a pun about making a splash, or words to that effect. The reading went off very well, though, and it’s his voice from that evening that mostly sticks with me in memory: a very musical voice with a very refined overlay on what was otherwise a very healthy New York accent – nothing of Pound’s or Yeats’s oldfangled bardic raptures but a gently anachronistic cadence that bested both of those, at least to my New Yorker’s ear. And then, when the reading was over, we took a cab downtown, where someone was hosting a party for Louie, and the cab driver, who overheard us talking about it, allowed that he was a great fan of Zukofsky’s and joined us for the celebration. (That – for me at least – was the beginning of “the sixties,” as we soon came to know and love them.) At the party itself I remember Louie, clearly pumped up by the event, interrogating a number of listeners still new to his work, about the structure of “A”-7, which he had read that evening, and delighted (I think) that no one had heard it as a sequence of seven sonnets, though in the written text the form was evident. (“As I love:/ My poetics,” I thought out loud, in a phrase of his that I even then remembered.)

We were most of us barely in our thirties then – or even our mid twenties – and Louie was getting on to sixty, so there was room enough to be reverential, if you chose to do that. Nor was he young-looking for his age – a thin body and a kind of grey frailty that he exaggerated by the way he would protect himself against the elements – a shawl wrapped around himself when he felt a lack of warmth in their Seventh Avenue apartment. He smoked a lot and drank a lot of coffee, but so did we, so all that came out even. I don’t think there were any physical problems at the time, though those who knew him better spoke affectionately about his hypochondria and let it go at that.

There was some concern about Louie’s health when a number of us decided – in the spring of ’64 it must have been – that we would go for a couple of days to the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) Fair in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and would ask the Zukofskys to join us. It was, I believe, at the height of our friendship, and Louie and Celia were eager to be a part of the expedition. The other couples, since we were definitely into couples, were Paul and Sarah Blackburn, Armand and Dolores Schwerner, and George Economou and Rochelle Owens. We stayed at a hotel an easy distance from the fair, and found lots of time for talk – mostly swapping stories and once (I remember) getting into a discussion about e.e. cummings, among other key poets, in which Louie and I were cummings’ big defenders. On our second afternoon, as a break from the fair, we went over to the house or farm of someone whom one of us knew, where most of the time was spent batting a baseball around. (George Economou reminds me that he always carried a ball and bat in his car.) At one point, Louie and Celia were standing with Sarah Blackburn in what passed for the outfield and weren’t paying much attention to what was going on, when someone fungoed a hard line drive and struck Sarah on the back [on the head, someone else corrects me], knocking her down. When we came rushing up, she was still on the ground, and Louie said (jestingly of course): “You almost hit the poet.”

I think, although his timing here was somewhat off, that this was Louie’s self-mocking (ironic) reference to his position in the little world around him – like Williams asking “Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?” There was a kind of wistfulness in all of that – a regret, let’s say, about the lack of recognition in the larger world, that some of us were seeking to redress. For me it added to the fondness that I felt for him, though I would take our friendship (over all and looking back at it) as rather shallow in affect – not in any invidious sense, you understand, but never really reaching to the depths. On the level of ideas, my own poetics were shared more easily with poets closer to my age, those who engaged with me in what David Antin would later call “tuning,” talking to each other, seeking, plotting, looking back at him and others of his age for clues to our own futures. In retrospect now – and approaching the age at which he died – I have a sense of lost opportunities and obvious omissions, along with which, a blanking out of memory or else a memory of things that weren’t said, of absences perhaps, perhaps evasions.

Louie, by his own witness, wasn’t one to talk about himself or about his works, and though he wrote at length about poetry (in very specific ways) I remember him pushing me, at the time I was assembling Technicians of the Sacred, to play down the “commentaries”, which I was making an intrinsic part of the mix. That he had been involved with politics (Marxist, even Communist) in the preceding decades is clear from his published correspondence, but (unlike my experience with Oppen, say) I don’t recall it coming into conversation. I also don’t remember, though it would have been a shared area of our experience, that there was any talk about our both having had Yiddish as our primary early childhood language. In retrospect it seems like something we would have gone into or that we would have exchanged some talk in that language, which Louie appears to have known better than I did, but if we did I have no memory of it. I was still, at our time of greatest contact, some years away from Poland/1931 and A Big Jewish Book, both of which were for me experiments – real experiments – in writing (or constructing or assembling) “an ancestral poetry.” It was in that way a little like my meeting with Paul Celan – also in the 1960s – in which, as I’ve described it elsewhere, we spent several hours in a café near the Ecole Normale in Paris (where Celan taught), talking in a mix of hesitant German (mine) and hesitant English (his), and only at the end acknowledging that other language, common to us both, which we could have spoken, and yet didn’t. (A few years later I would have pressed Louie on that and related matters – particularly when I was assembling A Big Jewish Book – but by then he was out of New York and we had very little contact.)

We did talk some about Pound, however, and the question of antisemitism was clearly a part of that. There was no real defense of Pound – nor did I have any reason to expect one – beyond some observations – quite understandable on Louie’s part – that Pound was less vehemently anti-semitic than some of the other American modernists. At the time I hadn’t seen transcripts of Pound’s World War Two broadcasts – and Louie probably hadn’t either – nor was I aware of the depth of their relationship or their curious dance of the non-intelligence in social and political matters, anti-semitism no small part of it. When I finally read their letters, a decade or so after Louie’s death, I felt a pang of regret, of sympathy too, for Louie caught up in the other’s madness (mishigass, I meant to say) and feeling forced to account for the cardboard Jews of Pound’s [banal] imagination. At the same time I tried to think myself into Louie’s place – and (with more difficulty) into Pound’s – and got no further than the pain of it, and stopped.

Theirs was a strange relationship all in all and very different from how the other “Objectivists” related to Pound (or failed to). For it seems to me that it’s in the letters – the correspondence – far more than in the poetry, that Louie takes on the master’s voice: the pseudo-folksiness, the free orthography, the portmanteaus and punnings, even the mock yiddish accents of Pound’s Der Yiddisher Charleston Band parody and Louie’s occasional declarations of his own “anti-semitism” (possibly ironic, possibly not). In the course of the letters, Louie argues (from a Marxist and Communist perspective) against Pound’s fascism and his embrace of Major [Clifford] Douglas’s social credit theories, but with the anti-semitism he seems more often than not to play along with the joke or to deflect Pound’s absolutism with regard to Jews – all Jews. The most egregious example of the latter is the commission that Pound gives him (circa 1936), to get a reading from his father Pinchos on whether prohibitions on usury in Leviticus 25 apply equally to Jews and Gentiles – “whether the jew IF he enters a community of nations proposes to treat the goyim as his own law tells him to treat his own people.” It is a curious mission, this, from poppa to poppa, a curious notion that the older Jew, as informant, will speak in this regard for all Jews (much as the American Indian informant is sometimes thought to speak for all Indians). The result, to say the least, is ambiguous, another well lost cause.

If Pound was the master here – the FATHER -- Louie was in many ways his equal and in some ways (dare I say it?) his supeior. Where it came to Louie’s “music,” say – a tempting but elusive word applied to poetry – it wasn’t that he was better than Pound (that would be a spurious distinction) but that he was more radical in certain ways, more removed from the Victorian lyric voice qua music, as Williams was also, and Olson later – all of them operating like Pound on strategies of long poem composition, though nowhere more musically conceived or constructed/composed than by Zukofsky, “specifically,” as he said of himself, ‘a writer of music.” (I would refer here to Cage’s contention that poetry, if it isn’t music as such, is most readily defined by the formal and rhythmic elements it shares with music – all of which, like other Cage “definitions,” seems fairly obvious but no less true.)

On still another level of language – both its sound and meaning – there was in Louie’s work (at least as I heard it) an idiom of New York and of a portion of the early twentieth-century immigrant world that created a demand for a new or altered dynamic in poetry (in Louie’s case the sound of Yiddish pulsing beneath the surface of “Poem beginning ‘The’” – and elsewhere – as a deliberately inserted presence). This was an opening of language that Williams would specifically have encouraged, Pound less so, and that someone like Eliot would have (and did) hold up to scorn – a fancy British overlay obscuring his own Missouri base. None of this of course is absolute, and much of it may be open to question, but it was something that seemed fresh to me when I first read and heard Zukofsky, and even more so now.

What also seemed fresh – and the degree of its freshness only became clear to me later – was the entry into Louie’s mix (his grand collage of cultures, times, and places) of the deep tradition of Jewish lore and mysticism – even against its dismissal or erasure by his masters. Here was something different from Reznikoff’s judaica and from that of many far lesser poets, something that set him apart also from the other big writers of his time, both Jew and Gentile. I can’t say that it was a direct influence on my own work – much less on that of Meltzer or Tarn or Hirschman or others: Robert Kelly, who was so good at it, and Robert Duncan, who knew “that lute of Zukofsky” and its airs as well as anyone. What Zukofsky gave us, then, wasn’t so much ethnic writing in the ordinary sense (though Louie, like others of us, could do that too) as an addition to an ethnopoetics on a grand scale, diving into the poetic and near-poetic past with the charge to make-it-new (“contemporaneous in the mind”) and to carry it freshly into the present. In doing so, he found a place for himself (and for all of us), where he could hunker down and leave his masters well behind.

What we have in common, I would suggest, is a matter of source that needn’t comment on itself as source.

[Published originally in Jacket 30 [2006] & scheduled for republication next month in Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press Modern & Contemporary Poetics series). The best biographical source is Mark Scroggins's The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007).]

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