Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 - May 12, 1978) was one of the most important second-generation American Modernist poets. He was co-founder of the Objectivist group of poets along with George Oppen. The Objectivists consisted of the younger poets of the early twentieth century, who had been deeply influenced by the works of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and sought to carry on the project Pound and Eliot had begun. Zukofsky is generally seen as the leader of the Objectivist movement, and he articulated its aims: honesty in intention, and clarity in form. Zukofsky sought to "clarify" poetic form by subtracting all its unnecessary elements, and his poetry is remarkably spare and fragmentary, but at times profoundly incisive.
For most of his life Zukofsky was virtually unrecognized, even though he was highly regarded by William Carlos Williams, Pound, and other major poets of the day; it would not be until the most recent developments in contemporary poetry that a Zukofsky revival would commence. Today, Zukofsky is seen as a crucially important poet, a major transitional figure from early high Modernism to the styles of contemporary poetry. He has influenced such notable poets as Robert Creeley and the New York School, and as time goes on his importance in the eyes of many critics has only grown.
Zukofsky was born in New York to Lithuanian Jewish parents and grew up speaking Yiddish. As a child, Zukofsky frequented Yiddish theaters in the Bowery, where he saw many works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He also read both Longfellow's Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in that language. Zukofsky's first real contact with the English language would not be until he started school, but he was a quick learner and by the age of 11 had read all of Shakespeare's works in the original.
He went on to study English at Columbia University. He graduated with a Master's degree in 1924. He began writing at the university, joining the college literary society as well as publishing poems in student magazines. While studying at Columbia, Zukofsky was recruited by Whittaker Chambers to take a leadership position in the Communist Party, and he considered doing so. He refused, reputedly after studying Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Marxist ideology in mind. Moreover, he sensed that his non-political avant-garde work would never find favor in Communist circles. This, combined with his sense of the importance of his private, domestic life, caused him to distance himself from the Communist Party by the early 1930s.
Zukofsky considered Ezra Pound to be the most important living poet, and in 1927 he sent his poem The to the older man. The poem, most of which is addressed to the poet's mother, was a kind of parody of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In contrast to Eliot's pessimistic view of the modern world, The suggests a bright future for Western culture based in Zukofsky's belief in the energy of the new immigrants to the U.S. and the socialist experiment then occurring in Russia.
Pound was impressed by The and promoted Zukofsky's work, putting him in contact with other like-minded poets, including William Carlos Williams. The two poets influenced each other's work significantly, and Williams regularly sent his new work to Zukofsky for editing and improvement. Zukofsky was one of the founders, along with Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen, of the Objectivist group of poets and of To Publishers, later the Objectivist Press. Thanks to Pound's insistence, he was able to edit an Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he both coined the term and defined the two main characteristics of Objectivist poetry as sincerity and clarity. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Kenneth Rexroth.
Zukofsky's major work was the long poem, A, which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life. The poem was written in 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day and the figure of the poet's father is a major theme. The first 11 sections contain much that is overtly political but interweaves this matter with formal concerns and models that range from the medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach. Section 12, which is longer than the first 11 sections combined, introduces materials from the poet's family life. The rest of A interweaves the political, historical and personal in more or less equal measure. The extensive use of music in this work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife Celia, a professional musician. Their son Paul Zukofsky became a noted violinist and conductor.
In tandem with "A," Zukofsky continued writing shorter poems throughout his life. Many of these shared the political and formal concerns of the longer poem, but they also include more personal lyrics, including a series of Valentines addressed to Celia. The first collection of these shorter poems into book form was 55 Poems (1941). He continued to write and publish shorter poems and these were eventually collected in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971).
Zukofsky also wrote critical essays, many of which were collected in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968) and the book-length study Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) which was accompanied by a second volume containing a setting by Celia of Pericles. His prose fiction includes Ferdinand (1968) and Little: For Careenagers (1970). He also wrote a play Arise, Arise (1962/1973) and, in 1969, an extraordinary set of translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate in English the sound rather than the sense of the originals.
Having suffered critical neglect for most of his career, Zukofsky, along with the other Objectivists, was rediscovered by the Black Mountain and Beat poets in the 1960s and 1970s. The poet and editor Cid Corman was largely responsible, publishing Zukofsky's work and critical comments on it, first in his magazine Origin and also through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In the 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the Language poets, particularly in their foregrounding of the formal aspects of writing. The complete A was at the printers when the poet died in 1978. His Complete Short Poetry appeared in 1991.
Currently the Zukofsky revival continues unabated. In 2000, Wesleyan University Press, honoring Zukofsky's birth in 1904, began publishing The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky. Editions of A continue to be published and sell quickly; the Chicago Review (Winter 2004-2005) devoted an issue to Zukofsky; his correspondence with William Carlos Williams was published in 2003. Additionally, there are hundreds of critical studies and dissertations appearing world-wide along with the perennial conferences devoted to his work, including the recent centennial remembrance at Columbia University, as interest in his work continues to grow.
All links retrieved July 26, 2018.
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