This Old Poem #115:
Louis Zukofsky’s With A Valentine
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/4/06
Louis Zukofsky is 1 of those poets that found a sort of refuge in trying to define black as white, & declaring the rest of the poetry world crazy for not seeing his way as the true way- that is experimental, or minimalist poetry called Objectivist. No, he did not go to the Zen extremes of Gary Snyder, nor did he wholly disintegrate into formlessness like the worst of the Languagists, but his poetry, as it is, is very meager- save for his book-length monstrosity A- which has some good sections in its 1st couple dozen pages, then goes about 750 pages too long, descending into lined musical ditties and just ridiculously bad writing. That book, alone, seemed to be confirmation that poetry had lost its way by mid-20th Century. It wasn’t simply Ezra Pound & the Modernists.
For example, here is a much hailed poem of LZ’s:
At least e.e. cummings had great music in his verse and William Carlos Williams retained narrative. This lacks both, + its last 3 ‘stanzas’ just go off into a non-sequitur. Another variant on the Valentine’s series went this way:
The more that
who? the world
so to speak
This is a greeting card, literally. I’ve seen such with the little pull thing, where the rabbit hides its eyes & can then jump out at the card’s reader. Sweet. But poetry it ain’t! Even worse is that LZ preceded Frank O’Hara in the drive to the most banal titles in poetry history. Whereas FO had dozens of poems titled Poem, LZ beat him to the punch with many poems called Untitled, such as:
Drive, fast kisses,
no need to see
hands or eyelashes
a mouth at her ear
trees or leaves
night or the days.
Really romantic, eh? Betty Browning, eat your heart out! Another gem:
Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purpose
When thought shows it to be deep or dark?
See sun, and think shadow.
This actually might make for good ad copy for some commercial product, but it’s puerile philosophy & not even a passable haiku.
I think it’s time for the online bio:
Louis Zukofsky was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1904. Zukofsky’s parents, Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and Chana Pruss Zukofsky (ca. 1862-1927), were Orthodox Jews from the part of Russia which is now Lithuania; Pinchos 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.
Zukofsky, the only one of his parent’s children to be born in the New World, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, in the midst of a Yiddish-speaking community. The Jewish immigrant culture of turn-of-the-century New York was by no means either anti-intellectual or parochial, and for a boy as intelligent and curious as Zukofsky it afforded a wealth of cultural opportunities. Although he could have gone to City College for free, his parents sacrificed to send him to Columbia, where he studied philosophy and English, was a member of the student literary society, and saw his poems published in the student literary magazines. Zukofsky’s classmates at Columbia included many names that would become well known in later years, among them educators Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer J. Adler, literary critic Lionel Trilling, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and theater critic John Gassner. One of Zukofsky’s closest friends in his first years at Columbia was Whittaker Chambers.
Zukofsky’s own writings of his Columbia period are not particularly political: they show a very sensitive and very young man struggling to find his voice in poetry, with some success. One poem at least achieved publication in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (Chicago) in 1924 (though Zukofsky would never reprint it). He left Columbia with his Master’s degree in English in 1924. Just as Pound decided that Yeats was the only living poet who mattered, the young Zukofsky had by the latter part of the Twenties clearly singled out Ezra Pound as his most important contemporary.
Pound got him a job editing an edition of Poetry titled Objectivists 1931, the first appearance of what would later come to be seen as the Objectivist movement, a group of poets that included Zukofsky himself, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and one of Zukofsky's greatest influences, the New York poet Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976). That was followed in 1932 by An Objectivists Anthology, edited by Zukofsky and published by To, Publishers, a loose consortium of Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Oppen, the whole underwritten by Oppen, the only member of the group with any financial resources to speak of.
A is something of an anomaly among modern American long poems in that it is actually finished, and part of that accomplishment is due to the fact that Zukofsky, at the very outset of his project, had decided that this would be a long poem of 24 sections. Unlike Pound in The Cantos, Williams in Paterson, and Olson in The Maximus Poems, Zukofsky projected a clear--if flexible--armature for his long poem, and stuck to it. It was not until 1965, when the first volume of ALL was published by W.W. Norton, that Zukofsky saw his poems printed by a major publisher. He died in 1978.
Well, there was a reason for his obscurity- it was deserved. Of course, almost any artist that stakes out a lonely branch, no matter how barren & ill, gets some admirers who mistake obstinacy for vision, weirdness for talent. So it should not surprise that this gem, another Valentine, was hailed:
With a Valentine
(the 12 February)
(The 14 February)
In her care --
Care his error
In her care
In a sense, this is almost hip hop rap, which is not a compliment, only an acknowledgement. Is there any depth? It has music, but it’s almost nursery rhymish. This sort of work does not benefit from the repetition, yet LZ never understood the thin line between crap & greatness, at times. Let’s snip away:
With a Valentine
(the 12 February)
Boy, that was a tough bit of editing, eh? Is this profound? No. But how much of old WCW is? He, at least, knew not to become to aggravating to his reader. Perhaps LZ did, too? After all, we were never treated to B, C, or D.
Final Score: (1-100):
Zukofsky’s With A Valentine:
TOP’s With A Valentine: 40
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