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Louis Zukofsky:All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923–1958
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Louis Zukofsky:
The Collected Short Poems, 1923–1958

In his preface to A Test of Poetry (1948) Louis Zukofsky notes at the outset, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art." In his long poem "A " he qualifies its occasion as "Out of deep need  . . ." Then, continuing:

Who had better sing and tell stories
Before all will be abstracted.
So goes: first, shape
The creation—
A mist from the earth,
The whole face of the ground:
Then rhythm
And breathed breath of life;
Then style
That from the eye its function takes—
"Taste" we say—a living soul.
First, glyph; then syllabary,
Then letters. Ratio after
Eyes, tale in sound. First, dance. Then
Voice. First, body—to be seen and to pulse
Happening together.
("A " 12)

It is a sense that proposes poetry to be evidence as to its own activity, apart from any other sense of description or of a conve-

Agenda , Summer 1966.


nience to some elsewise considered reality of things. More, it is a belief, deeply committed, that what is said says 'what-is-said'—a complexity of no simple order. For example, the first poem in All notes by the fact of its activity that any said thing exists in its saying and cannot be less than said—each time it is. It is interesting that this poem is called "Poem beginning 'The'"—which article is itself a determined emphasis upon what is defined in speech. In this case, a method as well takes form in this poem, as William Carlos Williams points out in his essay "Zukofsky," included in "A."[*] It is based, I feel, upon the premise that all that is, as whatever has spoken it, may occur as it is, each time it is spoken. In other words, there is nothing which anything so existent is 'about,' that will go away in time, so as to embarrass the actuality of such existence. Zukofsky makes a lovely note of time in the 28th of 29 Songs, which is pertinent to all such facts of factness: " . . . And for years it was four o'clock,—not time which would have broken the hour and placed a statue of David in history, but an ornamental herb of that name,—with flowers that grow in Peru of a great variety of color. So that for years it was four o'clock and the same as bloom from 4 P.M. till the next morning."

There is one poem which I would feel very useful for many senses of Zukofsky's poems, both in that character with which I have been concerned and also, very much, in the full complexity of their involvement with the man who is writing them. The poem is "Mantis" and there is a note as to its date of writing, November 4, 1934. At a time when so much concern has come to center on assumptions of form, and remembering also that Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity , for one such instance, was published in the early thirties—this poem makes clear a context of possibility and response itself a manifest of the poem's writing. The ostensible form of the poem is a sestina, and in "'Mantis,' An Interpretation"—a close response to the poem's writing and concerns which follows in the next—Zukofsky says:

The sestina, then, the repeated end words
Of the lines' winding around themselves,
Since continuous in the Head, whatever has been read,
                                           whatever is heard,
                                              whatever is seen


Perhaps goes back cropping up again with
Inevitable recurrence again in the blood
Where the spaces of verse are not visual
But a movement,
With vision in the lines merely a movement . . .

One feels in fact inevitably
About the coincidence of the mantis lost in the subway,
About the growing oppression of the poor—
Which is the situation most pertinent to us—
With the fact of the sestina:
Which together fatally now crop up again
To twist themselves anew
To record not a sestina, post Dante,
Nor even a mantis.

What I am most intent to point out here is that Zukofsky feels form as an intimate presence, whether or not that form be the use or issue of other feelings in other times, or the immediate apprehension of a way felt in the moment of its occurrence. The distinction is, then, against what appropriates the outline sans an experience of its intimate qualities—as Zukofsky notes in this same section:

What is most significant
Perhaps is that C—and S—and X—of the 19th century
Used the "form"—not the form but a Victorian
Stuffing like upholstery
For parlor polish,
And our time takes count against them
For their blindness and their (unintended?) cruel smugness.

Again: as an experiment, the sestina would be wickerwork—
As a force, one would lie to one's feelings not to use it.

There is no reason I would credit to prevent a man's walking down a road another has made use of—unless the road, by such use, has become a 'road,' an habituated and unfelt occasion. But as "force" its possibility is timeless.

Given the briefness of these notes, I am embarrassed to deal with all that in this poem excites and informs me. It is a peculiar virtue of Zukofsky's work that it offers an extraordinary handbook for the writing of poems. His particular sensitivity to the qualities of poetry as "sight, sound, and intellection" marks the significance of his relation to Ezra Pound, who dedicated Guide to Kulchur "To Louis


Zukofsky and Basil Bunting, strugglers in the desert." It is Bunting who says that his own first experience of poetry as an unequivocal possibility for himself came with the recognition that the order and movement of sound in a poem might itself create a coherence of the emotions underlying. In this respect, the following note by Zukofsky merits much thought:

How much what is sounded by words has to do with what is seen by them, and how much what is at once sounded and seen by them crosscuts an interplay among themselves—will naturally sustain the scientific definition of poetry we are looking for. To endure it would be compelled to integrate these functions: time, and what is seen in time (as held by a song), and an action whose words are actors or, if you will, mimes composing steps as of a dance that at proper instants calls in the vocal cords to transform it into plain speech.

("Poetry," in "A" [Origin Press edition, 1959])

The brilliance, then, of these poems is their grace in such a recognition, that they can move so articulately in all the variables of a life. I can make no selection because, as their author has said, one writes one poem all one's life, and there can be no significant division. But as one moment, this may stand as token of all:

To reach that age,
             a tide
And full
             for a time
                             be young.
(36, Anew )


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