By Louis Zukofsky, edited by Charles Bernstein
Library of America, 191 pages, $20.
* * *
Louis Zukofsky, born into a pious, Yiddish-speaking household on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1904, seems to have jumped fully formed into American poetry. In 1928, when he was 24, his mentor and intellectual sparring partner, Ezra Pound, published Zukofsky’s brilliant “Poem beginning ‘The.’” Through pastiche and parody, it is both an imitation of, and a frontal assault on, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Like Eliot’s poem it is a collage, made up of the scraps and rags of Western culture. Like Eliot’s poem it comes complete with footnotes that point up its highfalutin learning. But where Eliot’s most influential work bewails the decline of the European tradition, Zukofsky’s is strongly, even stridently optimistic:
By the wrack we shall sing our Sun-song
Under our feet will crawl
The shadows of dead worlds,
We shall open our arms wide,
Call out of pure might —
Sun, you great Sun our Comrade,
From eternity to eternity we remain true to you.
Zukofsky is tweaking the politically conservative, dismissively antisemitic Eliot in any number of ways here. The triumphant pantheism of this salute to the sun, hailed here as a comrade, contains more than a celebratory nod to the Bolsheviks. It is also lifted, with some changes, from a poem by a Yiddish poet (and translator of the Torah), Yehoash. Take that, T.S. Eliot! Western lit doesn’t only include apostate Jews, like Heinrich Heine; it includes Yiddish, too.
Eliot himself thought Zukofsky’s poetry was “highly intelligent and honourably Jewish,” by which he could only have meant “openly” so. Indeed, Zukofsky has been described as the most American of the Jewish poets and the most Jewish of the Americans. “Selected Poems,” which covers all the moods and moves of Zukofsky’s long career — he died in 1978 — bears witness to this. Even though he was clearly not a believer, Zukofsky was a markedly Jewish writer in all sorts of obvious ways. In the epic, 24-part collage poem (titled “A”) that occupied him for most of his adult life, he includes other translations from Yehoash, renderings of the Bible and long quotations from Martin Buber’s accounts of the Hasids. (To be fair, though, he also finds a place for almost everything else under the sun — from Arapahoe chants and books on physics to direct quotations from Baruch Spinoza, as well as a retelling of “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”) At the dead center of “A,” he writes a moving elegy for his father, Reb Pinchos, a devout pants presser.
But blatantly Jewish themes are the least of it. Zukofsky the poet makes the most sense if you see him as a Jew of his blessed and mightily conflicted generation. Immigrant kids in that time and place were poor but not necessarily deprived. Zukofsky himself claimed that by the time he was nine he had seen a good deal of William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Leo Tolstoy — all performed in Yiddish.
As with so many others, Zukofsky was nothing if not mobile. His parents scrimped to send him to Columbia University during the first wave of Jewish admissions after World War I. Once there, he made the most of it. He studied under Mark Van Doren and John Dewey, befriended then-Communist Whittaker Chambers and took his master’s degree (with a thesis on the ultimate WASP, Henry Adams) — all by the time he was 20. He drank in pragmatism and Marxism, ancient philosophy and modern science. He was, in short, typically hungry for culture, for modernity, for freedom.
But there was a cost to this hunger and this mobility, a cost that he clearly recorded in “Poem beginning ‘The’”:
Assimilation is not hard,
And once the Faith’s askew
I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.
I’ll read their Donne as mine,
And leopard in their spots
I’ll do what says their Coleridge
Twist red hot pokers into knots.
The villainy they teach me I will execute
And it shall go hard for them,
For I’ll better the instruction,
Having learned, so to speak, in their colleges.
The joke — and there is real wit here, although mordant — is that assimilation is hard. It is also never complete. The archaic construction “I’ll do what says their Coleridge” sounds a little Elizabethan but is really an atavistic Yiddishism. And even without the direct echoes of “The Merchant of Venice,” it should be impossible to miss the sheer aggression (“And it shall go hard for them”) of these lines. Such aggression, of course, is a trademark of Yiddish culture and of Jewish intellectuality generally. Think of the ferocity of Yiddish curses, or the extravagant ways the talmudic sages insult each other. Zukofsky, an heir to this ferocity and this extravagance, wanted in on the Western tradition but could not manage its genteel pretensions.
Zukofsky wrote that the “test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.” His own poetry, because of its often bone-cracking erudition, is, as Charles Bernstein notes in his excellent introduction to this volume, “ravishing, yet sometimes forbidding.” So, instead of trying to lead the reader through the daunting mass of Zukofsky’s source material, Bernstein emphasizes Zukofsky’s attention to sight and sound — that is, his fascination with linguistic and formal experiment.
Even if we let ourselves be led by our ears and our eyes, though, Zukofsky’s work is often very, very difficult. Such difficulty is one of the distinguishing traits of high modernism. There is not much Eliot in Zukofsky, to be sure, but there is a lot of Pound and a lot of James Joyce. This means that the sensuous brilliance of his poetic surface is matched by his complex and sometimes obscure games of reference and organization.
But even here, we should give due credit to Zukofsky’s Yiddishkeit. There may be, of course, a touch of the parvenu’s pushiness in Zukofsky’s deep and vigorous play, a desire to show that he can indeed better the instruction of his (goyish) instructors and twist red-hot pokers into even more complicated knots. But his work, with its emphasis on puns, on different shades of sound and sense, has something of rabbinic argument, of pilpul, to it. Zukofsky’s delight in sheer virtuosity and in naked displays of intelligence owes more than a little to this tradition.
Nevertheless, Zukofsky did not have to be forbidding to be ravishing. His work could be direct, domestic and political at the same time. Bernstein, for all his stress on Zukofsky’s formal intricacies and pyrotechnics, has been careful to show Zukofsky’s full range of emotions. This volume includes valentines to his wife and to his son, Paul, memorials to his parents, moments of real bitterness and, more often than not, expressions of real joy. At the beginning of his career, this joy could take shape in a very precise description, a real contentment with what merely is:
Not much more than being,
Thoughts of isolate, beautiful
Being at evening, to expect
at a river-front:
A shaft dims
With a turning wheel;
Men work on a jetty
By a broken wagon;
|The summer river—|
To be sure, the scene itself is not particularly beautiful. It is transfigured, despite the poet’s rather chaste expectation, by the mind’s pleasure in spicing plain sight with metaphor.
Alternatively, toward the end of his life Zukofsky gives voice to a joy in a loosely articulated string of nouns that come back, however indirectly, to name the poet’s love for his wife: “music, thought, drama, story, poem/parks’ sunburst—animals, grace notes—/z-sited path are but us.”
It has become something of a commonplace that literary modernism was riven by antisemitism, if not actually based on it. If that is the case, it goes a long way toward explaining the undeserved obscurity into which Zukofsky fell. For in Zukofsky, as in perhaps no other writer, Yiddish manners and mannerisms — and particularly leftist ones — came to complement the practices that defined modernism. Eliot was wrong about Jews but right about Zukofsky: He is honorably, because tonally, Jewish. He had to wait for the day when this tone would no longer constitute an embarrassment. As this selection so amply shows, Zukofsky is a beautiful, difficult and aggravating poet. He has also become an increasingly essential one.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.