Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Pleasure of Reading Zukofsky

At the beginning of the summer, I bought several new books from Amazon with the intention of getting to them all. So far I've done a fairly descent job, but one book has been sitting on my nightstand ever since I opened it: The Complete Short Poetry of Louis Zukofsky (which is ironically the book I was most excited about).

I have not purposefully been trying to snub Mr. Zukofsky. I have opened it several times and read several poems, but each time, I've ended up more and more confused about exactly what I was reading. I turned to Robert Creeley's introduction to try to gain some insight, and I found it somewhat helpful. Creeley advised keeping Zukofsky's own definition of poetry in mind, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art." I tried to read it aloud as Creeley also suggests, and I did find pleasure in the sight and sound and the obscurely juxtaposed lines of thought, but I was still not convinced that I had cracked Zukofsky.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago, Silliman posted an interesting link to an article called Betting on Poetry by Joel Jensen about the difficulty of reading Zukofsky "cold." I could definitely sympathize with his trouble, and some of the comments to the blog were helpful, but it still didn't help me read Zukofsky.

Then again, a few days ago, Silliman posted another link to a very clearly articulated article called Louis Zukofsky Selected poems by Mike Bengal, which I highly recommend. In it, he suggests that a comment by T.E. Hulme is extremely helpful for reading Zukofsky:

"language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language... Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas (Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism”)."

Bengal connects this to Zukofsky by claiming that:

"Zukofsky’s work preeminently reflects an awareness of the socially-constructed nature or “communal” aspect of language. He allows it to take center stage, rather than trying to make it bend to his will. He “struggles” with it, in the sense that he disbelieves in language as direct representation, but is nonetheless concerned with what and how it might signify in other ways, and how it relates to the realities of the material world."

He then goes on to develop several examples of Zukofsky exposing the inadequacy of language to communicate ideas other than the communal ideas in the readers' minds and how Zukofsky treats language as an object (hence, Creeley's emphasis on sight and sound in the poems). I won't recount all the details, but I will suggest that you take a look for yourself.

After reading it, I returned to Zukofsky fresh and began reading his 43 section poem "Anew," and I found that Bengal's suggestions had radically altered my persepective. I could see how Zukofsky exposes language. For example, the first section in the poem goes:

I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves - four -
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.

Clearly, the poem has a lyricalness, and a visualness, and interesting juxtaposition, but considering Bengal's idea of Zukofsky exposing the inadequacy of language, the poem reaches a new level of insight and genius.

Automatically, a reader might envision four cabins in a field, with jars in the windows, beside a river, and yes, those images are there, but if you consider the actual images and relations of the words as they appear, the poem becomes ridiculous. "Four cabins in the hay," for instance, is not four cabins in field (which the mind automatically might make it), but more literally, it could be four cabins (like toys) in a pile of hay. Also, the "blue sealed glasses" literally are sealed with blue, and the "window-sash" becomes not wood but fabric. Furthermore, they are in the yard on the "bay" about which Zukofsky claims in his following note:

"[bay] should convey something of all the meanings of the word 'bay': red-brown, the laurel, the laurel wreath, a bay horse, a deep bark or cry, a window-bay, a large space in a barn for storage as of hay or fodder, the state of being kept at a standstill, but more specifically two meanings that seemed to include all the others, they are, an arm of the sea, and a recess of low land between hills."

The more literally we take Zukofsky's words, the more inadequate they become for expressing any particular idea but only as much as the reader can formulate. This, I considered to be my first real encounter with Zukofsky.

I went on to read the rest of the sections, and I found that they are all radically different exposures of language. The pleasure, it seems to me now, of reading Zukofsky is the pleasure of reading the words themselves together as they appear in their odd constructions and keeping up with his own cunning exposures of language.

1 comment:

belgianwaffle said...


I am interested in your reading of LZ & would like to exchange a few ideas - my own Blog seems to share some of your preoccupations.

I don't see an e-mail contact. If you would like to contact me try:

or look at the Blog

In the spirit of language as a "communal thing" -

best wishes