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Poet of the Month: Louis Zukofsky

posted: 1.19.10 by archived

As Guy Davenport once put it, Louis Zukofsky, our January poet of the month, is a “poet’s poet’s poet.” Though he stands as a central figure in the development of modern poetry, he hasn’t achieved the widespread recognition of Eliot or Pound or many of the other Modernists, though poets and graduate students may know and appreciate his work.

Born on January 23, 1904, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Russian immigrants, Zukofsky’s first exposure to English literature was in Yiddish translation. He attended Columbia University where he worked on student literary publications and, in 1924, received a master’s degree in English. A devotee of Ezra Pound, he corresponded with the poet who was impressed by Zukofsky’s early work. In fact, it was through Pound that Zukofsky got his first big break into the poetry world: Pound convinced the editor of Poetry to let Zukofsky guest-edit an issue.

In editing the issue of Poetry, as well as a subsequent anthology, Zukofsky was credited with creating the Objectivist movement. (The Objectivism of second-generation Modernists, not the Objectivism of Ayn Rand.) More a sympathetic cast of mind than a defined school of poetry,  Objectivism sought to treat the poem as an object, breaking up the normal patterns of speech by conscious fragmentation. Much in the mold of Ezra Pound, Objectivists were also concerned with incorporating history into their works. Thus it’s not surprising that Zukofsky’s own poetry is often obscure, intellectual, and rife with allusions.

Zukofsky published forty-nine books in his literary career—ranging from fiction to poetry to criticism—but undoubtedly his major accomplishment was his 800-page poem “A,” an eclectic mix of personal reflection and historical allusion. He worked on this epic project throughout his life.

“A is Zukofsky’s masterwork but was only published in full and made widely available in 1979, a year after his death. It includes twenty-four sections—one for each hour of the day—and is what poet and critic Dan Chaisson called “a mélange of styles and forms, from Poundian free verse to Italian canzoni.”

Chaisson writes of the all-encompassing nature of A: “Zukofsky’s life was unusually directed toward the poem that was unusually open to absorbing it; you cannot talk about Zukofsky the man without talking about the poem that collected, to an extent few writers have ever attempted, the history of one person’s perception of experience, from Bach to Watts, from Spinoza to Kennedy.”

We’d love to offer you a sample of Zukofsky’s work here on our blog, but the strict copyright interpretation of Zukofsky’s son makes that impossible. We encourage you to take a trip to your local library to check out his poetry in book form, or browse the many online sources.

Poets.org has a biography with a link on the Objectivists. The Poetry Foundation’s Web site includes a lengthy bio and bibliography along with a number of links to audio recordings on Zukofsky.

The Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo offers links to a large number of critical and academic resources, and Z-Site is a thorough companion to Zukofsky’s work…in case you should find any of it confusing. For those dying for more, Mark Scroggins has written the authoritative Zukofsky biography.

Happy Birthday, Louis Zukofsky!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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