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All Ears Hear Here

"A" . By Louis Zukofsky. 826 pp. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

There seems to me a very simple human longing, that life mean something, that there be a world contingent —as Louis Zukofsky might say—with that sadly meager human fact, I'm alive! Yet world itself comes from a root (weorld ) whose own meaning might well recall to us that a human life is , in fact, the world, and the only one we will ever have. There is no longer an explicit order, secular or divine, which can encode us, so to speak, discover for us a collective significance of cohering and relieving order—unless one feels factually secure in the chaos of life styles , the persistent destructiveness of seemingly endless wars, the dereliction of any political responsibility, the outrage of business , the utter disjunct of literal place and person .

So it is that the heroic imagination of our time has been, of necessity, the responsibility of our artists, just that no other human conduct seemed to care that much—as long as one's own piece of the action was acknowledged and given sufficient reward. Presidents and plumbers alike only work here and, thanks to unions and parties, are amply paid no matter what works or doesn't. Yet who among them would so risk his life, as Pound, right or wrong; as William Carlos Williams, shaken by one stroke after another, yet insistently maintaining that life is a wonder; as Charles Olson, dying, continuing to claim that the "fundament," that very human thing we are, is

New York Times Book Review , May 20, 1979.


forever as real as the "firmament," all those stars overhead, which so invite us.

Louis Zukofsky's life work is "A" —not the , mind you, but a , for as he said, "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a  . . ." The good life is one thing, then, and a life quite another. The contents page of this extremely useful edition notes that the first section of the poem (there are 24 in all, which number echoes for me significantly the human measure of a day) was written in 1928, when the poet was 24 years old. The last writing is dated 1974 ("A" 23), so that one has the range of 46 years—without question a life's commitment, in all possible respects, to what does come and go, of a day, and what does stay put—as value, as measure, as possibility.

Unlike Pound's Cantos (whose time of composition might be seen as parallel), Zukofsky's work is grounded in a triad , a life lived with two intensively significant other people, his wife, Celia, and his son, Paul. They are presences in the poem as much as the poet's own. So there is a clear domestic locus, and the fact of these three is humanly vulnerable always, yet tenaciously coherent in that they are a human relationship, a seemingly timeless pattern of organic order: becoming, being, and ending. There is also the world, of course, and all that it proposes and/or constitutes. And the art of poetry, as he said:

the whole art of poetry which "is nothing else but the completed action of writing words to be set to music"—music being the one art that more than the others aims in its reach to speak to all men.

Zukofsky's art , in this work, is without equal. No poet of our time can so sound the resources of language, so actuate words to become all that they might be thought otherwise to engender. So that Bach be—

       unhurt and

Or Marx discover himself compacted with Cavalcanti ("A" 9) in the demanding measure of a sestina, wherein 54 of the 154 sounds possible in the strophe must rhyme:

An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values . . .


An eye to action sees love bear the semblance
Of things, related is equated,—values . . .

Or, magnificently, in the close of the poem's "single voice" ("A" 23):

Of Nought—light, leaf, grief—
lend grace wife and her

son keep to life's end
serein (horse) a full lawn.

But how begin to suggest all that is heard here—all ears hear here , one's tempted to say. For, led by Bach ("A/Round of fiddles playing Bach . . .") into this complexly various dance, there follow all this life's responses to all: " . . . mathémata / swank for things / learned ('like' caged / 'silence' which pulses)— / yet in each / case what happens . . . ." So come Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, J.Q. and H. Adams, Swift, among many signifying others—as Whitman or Plautus, whose vernacular power in Latin is matched only by Catullus. (Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translation of Catullus is, in fact, a formidable transliteration of this poet's sounds —Plautus' Rudens , in Zukofsky's translation, is "A" 21.) Then there are those, as Pound and Williams, who shared in the commitment. "A" 17, "A CORONAL / for Floss" (which begins with a quotation from Williams' poem of that title) is a chronological anthology of testament to the life Zukofsky found in Williams (whose own response may be felt in the fact that he gave Zukofsky the responsibility of editing and also ordering the poems collected in The Wedge [1944], which is dedicated "To L.Z.").

The close of the poem is a melding, "a five-part score—music, thought, drama, story, poem" (as its title says, "L.Z. Masque") in which his wife, Celia, composed "four voices" of his writings following the "one-voice" of Handel's "Harpsichord Pieces" in the order noted (from Prepositions , his collected essays, "Arise, Arise," a play, "It was," a story, and "A" itself)—to effect a polyphony of senses, simultaneously, where all had begun and now ends. In that shifting, reiterating order, no one is now dominant—or rather, all is now one . And who had been speaking to us is forever now this mingling, recollective harmony. Because—as Zukofsky once wrote in the wish to define his own commitment to this art, "For My Son When He Can Read"—the poet's "major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men. . . ." Pray, friends, that we can hear.


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