Hugh Kenner said it was the most hermetic poem in the English language. Robert Creeley called it “art . . . without equal.” My friend Jared White, a poet and a bookseller, calls it the Book Group Killer. James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions Press, called it “a great poem really rolling in all its power and splendor of language”—and yet he declined to publish it. I’m talking, of course, about “A,” Louis Zukofsky’s erstwhile pillar of American Modernist poetry, in and out of print for years but recently reissued by New Directions. The NDP edition is a paperback original with a fine and thorough introduction by the Zukofsky scholar Barry Ahearn. It is the first edition of the full poem to be published by a non-university press (the two previous editions were from the University of California Press in 1978 and Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993) and has a yellowed white cover that seems to say, “This is how discolored with age this book would be if we had published it when we should have.” It is not a handsome look, but it does neatly sum up the problem of approaching “A,” and perhaps Zukofsky in general: how to foment the re-discovery of something that never quite had a proper heyday in the first place?
Neither Zukofsky nor “A” has any real claim on the public imagination. Even among poets he doesn’t seem to be much read, discussed, or taught, except by a handful of deeply entrenched partisans. I started to investigate whether—and why—this might be the case, but then I realized that I was squandering a huge opportunity. The question of whether Zukofsky is truly neglected (and of whether said neglect has been just) is far less interesting than the simple fact that one can approach Zukofsky with a readerly freshness—an innocence, if you will—that is perilously hard to come by for such art without equal. This is in starkest contrast to Pound’s Cantos, which has never fully emerged from its author’s divisive personal reputation (and probably never will). “A” is perhaps the last major work of American Modernism to feel like uncharted territory.
“A” is a book-length poem divided into 24 sections, one for each hour in the day. Begun in 1927 and completed in 1974, “A” is self-consciously the major work of its author’s life, but it also seeks to present that life in something like real time. In a 1930 letter to Pound, Zukofsky explains that “A” will attempt “the objective evaluation of my own experience, an indigenous emotion controlling a versification which would (possibly) by my own and a natural ability (or perverseness) for wrenching English so that (again, possibly) it might attain a diction of distinction not you, or [T.S.] Eliot, or Bill [Carlos Williams] or anyone before me.” This is Zukofsky’s way of saying that he feels comfortable writing about himself. (In today’s world Zukofsky might have been a world-class blogger or Twitterer. On the other hand, “A” is 826 pages long—so maybe not.)
The earliest sections of “A” are very much enamored of Objectivism, the literary “movement” Zukofsky invented at the urging of Poetry magazine’s Harriet Monroe. It adhered strongly to Pound’s dictum that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol,” and it became the theory through which most scholars have looked in on Zukofsky’s poetry. But what lends distinction to what might otherwise seem like Pound-apprentice work is Zukofsky’s insistence on the primacy of the personal. “A”-1, for example, opens with “A / Round of fiddles playing Bach” because Zukofsky is attending a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion:
Composed seventeen twenty-nine,
Rendered at Carnegie Hall,
Thursday evening, the fifth of April.
From Carnegie Hall it’s a short trip down to the Lower East Side, where Zukofsky—the child of Orthodox Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe—grew up, and where the multitude of languages and nationalities and politics inspired him to try and draw “the song out of the voices,” as he puts it in the concluding line of “A”-2. Music, it quickly becomes clear, is the art Zukofsky admires most. He takes seriously Walter Pater’s assertion that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” but his view of the problem is technical rather than metaphorical. In “A”-6, he asks, “Can / The design / Of the fugue / Be transferred / To poetry?”, and though he’s clearly posing the question to himself, he is not asking it rhetorically. “A” itself is his answer.
In her book The Senses of Nonsense, Alison Rieke writes that Zukofsky arranged words “as if they were musical notes that have been sounded previous to his own use.” Ahearn elaborates:
If we find ourselves lost in segments of “A” where meaning utterly escapes us, the fault lies not with the poem, but with our constrained definition of meaning. When we attend to the poem’s sounds, another dimension of the poem flowers.”
This in turn reminded me of a piece of advice I once got from Paul Violi, my teacher when I was an MFA student at the New School, and one of the smartest readers of poetry I have ever known. (He died earlier this year, and is never more sorely missed than when I’m working on things like this and cannot appeal to him for aid.) I had e-mailed Paul because I was struggling with the Cantos, finding Pound to be at certain times riveting in a way I’d hardly experienced before, and at other times exasperatingly obtuse or else just boring. Paul’s suggestion was to “[t]ake on the passages as if you were a musician playing a piece for the first time—you wouldn't expect to master it at first sight, right?”
This is wonderful advice for reading poetry of any kind, and greatly enhanced my theretofore fitful experience with the Cantos. It also didn’t hurt that in another e-mail, Paul validated my frustrations with Pound and shared some of his own. He bemoaned Pound's “impatience with the world” and said the poet was often “in too much of a rush, his mind leaping way ahead of his readers, a genius tripping over his own feet.”
The Cantos, for all of their moments of brilliance (and there are many), are nonetheless read primarily for their value as part of Pound’s case history. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the lunatic is the man who lives in a small world but thinks it is a large one.” If I can modify Chesterton slightly—Pound believed that the world was exactly the size of his fury with it, and therefore enormous. Zukofsky, in many ways Pound’s antithesis, knew that the world was large just because it was. His 24-section poem finds vastness in each hour of the day, but he also knows that his life’s work ultimately represents one single rotation of a planet so small in the universe it might as well not even exist.
This dual consciousness of the infinite and the infinitesimal both humbled and freed Zukofsky. A passage in “A”-13 seems to underscore Zukofsky’s own awareness of the fact:
I won’t say that “the world”
Grows more attaching—
The universe simply does;
The luxury, the magnificent waste
Of thought fed, fed, consecrated
Impingements on things, boundlessly
Elsewhere in “A”-13 and “A”-14 we find Zukofsky attempting to reproduce in English the flow of a certain kind of Japanese calligraphy. Pound has a cameo as a clue in the Times crossword puzzle. There’s some relineated Milton. “A”-16 consists of four words (“An / inequality / wind flower”) arranged on a single page. Then things start to get really weird. “A”-17 through “A”-23 contain a coronal, a play, and plenty of Hugh Kenner’s vaunted hermeticism. Ahearn’s and Rieke’s and Violi’s words of wisdom notwithstanding, I struggled with the later sections of “A.” Reading them felt as if the Hubble telescope of poetry was transmitting images of the cosmic soup that birthed the Language galaxy. If that sounds interesting to you, then run, don’t walk. Otherwise, take your time.
The final movement of the poem, “A”-24, takes up over a quarter of the book’s total page count and is—appropriately, perhaps inevitably—a musical score. But it’s not by Zukofsky. His wife, Celia, working in secret, chose passages from all across Zukofsky’s prodigious catalog of writings (poetry, prose, criticism, plays) and set her selections to music by Handel. She called the arrangement L.Z. Masque, and gave it to her husband as a gift in 1968. He liked it so much that he decided to make it the capstone of his life’s work.
It should go without saying that “A”-24 returned me once again to Paul Violi’s advice to approach a poem as a piece of music. What I found, though, is that the value of the metaphor was compromised by my attempt to literalize it. (This is not Paul’s fault, of course. Metaphors are agents of imagination; if they could be translated into nonmetaphorical terms, we wouldn’t need them in the first place.) Imagining myself as a musician hard at work on my craft lent dignity to the struggle to master difficult poetry, which in turn encouraged perseverance in the enterprise. Being confronted with an actual musical score, however, just reminded me that I can’t read music or play an instrument. I also have to admit that I wondered whether there ever existed a reader so dutiful that she would sight-read 200-plus pages of Handel even if she could. But perhaps I was missing the point. Celia Zukofsky, after all, had no expectation that her L.Z. Masque might be included in “A.” She was an accomplished musician who often set pieces of her husband’s work to music and performed them. There is little reason to think that Zukofsky lost sight of this when he added the Masque to “A.” Indeed, he probably regarded “A”-24 as the closest he could get to realizing the condition of music in poetry: the essential condition of music is the fact that it must be performed. As Ahearn notes, “‘A’ commences at a performance, but it ends as a performance,” one that is also a collaboration: not just between the Zukofskys and a two-centuries-dead composer, but also with anybody else who might decide someday to perform it again, anew.
At the Zukofsky page at the University of Pennsylvania's PennSound Archive, you can hear two performances of “A”-24, from June and November 1978. (The performances commemorate, respectively, Zukofsky’s death in May at age 74, and the publication of the University of California Press edition of “A”.) Bob Perelman plays the score on the piano while Lyn Hejinian and “an ensemble of Bay Area poets” talk over each other as the voices of Thought, Drama, Story, and Poem (a headnote emphasizes that “the words are NEVER SUNG to the music”). If you want to know how these voices relate to the characters (Cousin, Nurse, Father, and so on) or exactly what happens over the course of the piece’s two acts, you’ll have to ask Lyn Hejinian. The ensemble’s barroom exuberance is a welcome counterweight to the cryptic tumult of the text, but that in itself wasn’t enough to keep me listening for 77 minutes. It seems I’m just not that into “A”-24—indeed, I could do without at least a third of what’s in “A”—and I’m okay with that. “A” by turns yielded delight and frustration, edification and confusion, pleasure and boredom. Other readers will have those same responses but match them to different sections than I did. I’m sure something I glossed over (or that glazed my eyes over) strikes someone else as the glorious best that “A” has to offer. So be it. An 826-page poem is not a Facebook post, to be “liked” or else ignored. I feel free to say that I prefer “A”-13 to, say, “A”-20 in the same way I feel free to say that I prefer Brooklyn to Miami, or Hong Kong to Macau. “A” is like a big, strange country that for a long time was hard to get a visa to visit. That it is suddenly more accessible is cause for celebration in and of itself, irrespective of whether you ever decide to make the trip. For whatever it’s worth to you, I’m glad I went.