Zukofsky at the outset.
It's interesting for that reason to take a close look at one of Louis Zukofsky's early poems--to explore who he was at the outset of his life as a poet and to get a glimpse of the relation of first generation modernist writing to second generation modernist writing to second generation modernist writing in a moment of transmission when the formal and artistic identities of the first generation were not set in the way that they are to us now. Another reason to be interested in this moment is, for want of a better term, political curiosity. Anyone who has read their way into the Pound-Zukofsky correspondence--which began in the late 1920's when Zukofsky was 23 and Pound 42 and continued through the years of the Great Depression--will have noticed that the two correspondents had in common an absolute assurance that they had a correct analysis of and remedy for the economic ills of those difficult years. Pound knew the remedy was Mussolini, and Zukofsky was pretty much persuaded that the remedy was Stalin, or the Marxism-Leninism that he imagined Josef Stalin to be bringing to fruition in the USSR.
It seems not unpredictable that a young Jewish poet, born of immigrant stock, raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, first among the tenements of the lower East Side of Manhattan, then in East Harlem, educated at Columbia, should be interested in social justice and, therefore, in New York, in the mid-nineteen-twenties, in Marxism and in the Communist Party. Readers of Zukofsky know that his long poem, or sequence of poems, A, is at the beginning full of politics and the political ideas of the early 1930's. A was also begun in apprenticeship to Ezra Pound's Cantos, and the Cantos had become in the early 1930's a didactic poem, or at least a poem of information, a georgic, and Zukofsky, in imitation of Pound, wrote the sort of poem in which Joseph Stalin, through the use of patchworks of quotation, became heir to the political thought of John Adams; his readers also know that Zukofsky and A had come to the end of something by the time of the Second World War, and that A in its second half, written between 1950 and 1968, had become quite a different poem.
A simple way to describe the beginning of A is to notice that its first subjects are music and justice. Or the conflict between them, or perhaps the idea that there ought to be no conflict, since each has as its aim a kind of perfection. This is a way of referring to a whole set of possibilities and difficulties Zukofsky was working out in the tug between content and form, between, patterns imposed and patterns given, or between some notion of the music of justice (which for Zukofsky meant Marx) and the justice of music (which meant Bach), whether they were, or could be the same thing, or whether one, as in, say Plato's Republic, might not naturally be in the service of the other. Were this so, Bach's music might be, in itself, a political idea, and the building of vast, intricate harmonic structures a political act. This was, quite directly, a continuation of questions and possibilities the first generation of modernists faced, standing at the turbid and exhilarating place where the streams of symbolist and aesthetic poetics met the poetics of realism and naturalism at the beginning of the twentieth century. As all commentators on the poem have observed, A ends as music, and in all of Zukofsky's late projects--a homophonic translation of Catullus, an obsessively punning and allusive nosegay of poems about herbs and flowers--"Thyme," for example, begins: "Takes time where wild the/thyme blows poor tom's a/cold relentless-vest muffler jacket coat"--a musical and echoic relation to language is predominant. If poetry is, as he wrote, early in A, "an integral/Lower limit speech/Upper limit music," Zukofsky ends his career near the upper limit and some distance from the explicit political commitments and preoccupations with which he began. Interesting, then, to take a look at his setting out.
"Memory of V.I. Ulianov"--the poem Pound printed in The Exile--is the first poem in the first section of All, the volume of collected short poems that Zukofsky published in 1965. According to his wife Celia, it was written in 1925, when Zukofsky was twenty-one years old. It is an elegy to, or an ode for, Lenin who died in January, 1924. And it is a place to begin observing the young Zukofsky because it is the place where he chose to mark his own beginning. He was living at home with his parents on East 111th when he wrote the poem. His best friend from college, Whittaker Chambers, who was to play a strange and dramatic role in the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950's, was already active in the Communist Party. Zukofsky had a job of some sort on Wall Street with the National Industrial Conference Board, doing what--a file clerk? a messenger? an editor?--Celia Zukofsky does not say. He must have taken the subway downtown. He had been writing poems since high school; he was reading widely in both English and Yiddish, just as he had moved between English and Yiddish in his growing up; and he was beginning to read the newest American poets, Pound certainly, and Williams, and ee cummings and T. S. Eliot. He had conceived "Poem Beginning 'The'" as a riposte to "The Wasteland," a satirical but also positive and Marxist rebuke to Eliot's despair.
"Memory of V.I. Ulianov," is the earlier poem. It begins with the following line:
This is Tennyson's word, a Victorian word, drenched in a particular idea of eloquence, and in idealism and, perhaps, sublimity. Perhaps it carries in it, as Tennyson sometimes does, a sort of sensuous Keatsian swoon. Tennyson came to own the word in 1847 when he wrote in The Princess a line that must have been in any undergraduate English major's ear in 1925:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms.
Though he may also have had in mind Poe's somewhat awkward use of the word in a stanza of "Ulalume" which seems only a step away from Lewis Carroll's "The Jabberwock":
It was night, in the lonesome October Of my most immemorial year: It was hard by the dim lake of Auber, In the misty mid region of Weir:-- It was down by the dank Tarn of Auber, In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
(One could be tempted into digression here by the combination of idealism, sublimity, and the sensuous swoon. Quick: what unites (1) the sublimity of Emily Dickinson, (2) the moral idealism of Tennyson, (3) the funerary architecture of Victorian cemeteries, and (4) the butchery at Gettysburg? "The moan of doves in immemorial elms" might do the trick.)
So the word locates our young author in one way. The fact that the word is a line locates him in another. It is surprising to recall just how new a medium free verse was in 1925. Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore were still young poets writing various forms of metrical verse in 1912. The youngest of the modernists, T. S. Eliot, had ventured the farthest the earliest. He was beginning to experiment with a loosely metrical verse, or tightly metrical verse with lines of irregular length and disconcerting rhymes, in the manner of French vers libre in about 1911. The others began to experiment with free verse mostly in 1913 and 1914 and it was in those years that the poems in the new manner were first published in magazines. Pound's imagist manifesto had appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry. Louis Zukofsky was nine years old. A dozen years later he is trying out the medium:
Immemorial, And after us Immemorial, O white O orbit-trembling, Star, thru all the leaves Of elm;--
This has to my ear nothing of Pound or Stevens or Moore or Eliot. The short line might belong to Williams or to Cummings. The diction might be the still-Victorian diction of very early Williams--which Zukofsky was not apt to have seen--and so might its way of hearing a basically iambic verse:
O white, O orbit-trembling star Thru all the leaves of elm
can be scanned as the tetrameter and trailing trimeter lines of a hymn stanza. They are broken across the genre of the skinny free verse poem with its base of dimeter lines:
And after us Of mist and form
And its emphatic tetrameters:
Yet sometimes in our flight alone Eclipsed the earth, for earth is power
Williams shared this style with some of the early poems of H.D. and Amy Lowell. It is the liltingly old-fashioned, falteringly new sound of the first decade of free verse. It does not yet have the kinetic energy and the genuinely new relation of syntax to line that Williams had come to in his Al Que Quiere of 1917 and had fully, dazzlingly achieved in the rhythms of Sour Grapes of 1921 and Spring and All of 1923.
In the next few lines, the second and third formal address to the star, the rhythm remains iambic, though the lines are broken in a way that mutes the metrical effect, and the diction and word order is complex:
Lighted-one, beyond the trunk tip Of the elm High, proportionately vast, Of mist and form;-- Star, of all live processes Continual it seems to us, Like elm leaves, Lighted in your glow;--
We are still in the territory of a fairly Victorian tonality, high-minded and aspiring, though to my ear (and not entirely to his, as we shall see) we are also in the territory of Williams's influence. In the phrase "of all live processes/Continual it seems to us," I think I hear the presence of a drier, more analytic diction of a kind that both Pound and Williams employed. This is not to say that Zukofsky was, at the age of 21, merely a copyist, so much as to observe that the young poet--much sooner than the literary critics of the era--had seen through to something of Williams's force. The influence is clear to a reader of All who comes to the poem immediately following this one in the book. It does not begin in the formal mode of elegy and does not, therefore, lend itself to conventions that call up so much of the history of poetry in its dictions and rhythms:
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;
This is entirely the idiom of Williams's descriptive and urban poems, and it even borrows, echoes in the loving and probably half-conscious mode of a young poet's appropriations, the most striking word in a poem of Williams's that Zukofsky has mentioned admiring--
The pure products of America go crazy-- mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of Jersey with its isolate lakes and valleys,
So, Zukofsky, in this poem, is writing in an idiom that touchingly straddles two eras, two dictions, two styles of feeling--and if we stand back from describing the brush-strokes to look at what is being delineated, there seems to be another set of homages or imitations in the genre of the poem and its content. Probably Keats's "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--" was not on Zukofsky's mind, but it is difficult to think that he was not rewriting Whitman's elegy for Lincoln by making his star the image of a great man fallen:
O powerful western fallen star! O shades of night--O moody tearful night! O great star disappeared!
This is section 2 of "When Lilac Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman returns to the image in section 8:
O western orb sailing the heavens, Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walked, As I walked in silence the transparent shadowy night, As I saw you had something to tell me as you bent to me night after night, As you droop'd from the sky low down as if at my side.
And he comes to it again at the end of the poem--
I cease from my song for thee, From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee, O comrade lustrous with silver face of light.
One could pause here over the development of the word "comrade" between 1866 and 1926. The closing lines of "Poem Beginning 'The'," the first poem in All, include these lines:
323 Sun, you great Sun, our Comrade, 324 From eternity to eternity we remain true to you
But there are other stars to consider. Williams's "At Dawn" is part of a nine poem sequence that either Pound or H.D. published in The Egoist in 1914, where Zukofsky may or may not have seen it:
The war of your great beauty is in all the skies, Yet these receive no hurt! I see your name Written upon their faces, Yet the bowl of stars will be refilled--and lit again, And their peace will live continuous. O marvelous! What new configurations will come next? I am bewildered with multiplicity.
This draws one to wonder about the distinction between "continuous" and "continual." The nuance dictionaries insist on for these synonyms is that "continuous" tends to mean "ceaselessly, without end," and "continual" means "repeated regularly and frequently, periodic." Were one to speculate, then, about the possibility that Zukofsky was revising Williams, it would be a revision away from open-endedness and toward periodicity--which does, certainly, reflect a divergence in their actual developments.
But, if Zukofsky had a Williams star in mind, it is far more likely that it is the one in "Hombre" from Al Que Quiere:
It's a strange courage you give me ancient star: Shine alone in the sunrise Toward which you lend no part!
This is a stranger poem in its attitude toward the high and the timeless than either Zukofsky's or Whitman's. This star does not traffic with the earth, a theme that stimulated Wallace Stevens in his "Nuances of a Theme by Williams":
1. Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze, that reflects neither my face nor any inner part of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing. 2. Lend no part to any humanity that suffuses you in its own light. Be not chimera of morning, Half-man, half-star. Be not an intelligence, Like a widow's bird Or an old horse.
It is not exactly derivation that I want to call attention to here, either from the Romantic genre of the poem addressed to an astral body, or from these particular poems. Whitman's great elegy is, of course, much more ambitious than Zukofsky's. That poem, in all its tenebrous and poignant intensity, belongs to another order of art, and it weaves together at least three sets of imagery--Lincoln as star, the heart-shap'd lilac leaves as nature and natural grief, and the song of the hermit thrush for the figure of poetry, for what Whitman calls "Death's outlet song of life." Zukofsky's poem, brief and focused, stays with the star, which gives the poem its quiet, intense verticality. There are the mediating elm leaves, and there is the speaker of the poem, who is plural, a "we." And there is the interesting fact that Zukofsky, like Whitman, imagines a star that, however far away, touches life. The political contexts of the poems make this so, whereas the power of the stars in Williams and Stevens is that they do not belong to the social world. They are the ideal absconded, and the proposition of the poems is that the imagination is better off for it. This was, not, probably, an idea in the range of the young man who wrote this poem. He did not live in the moment of a purely aesthetic rebellion, he was still moving toward his power, still in fact living in his parents' apartment, and had no need so fiercely to declare, as the older poets did, a poetic vocation separate from the duties of a pediatric practice or the law offices of an insurance company.
My hunch is that Zukofsky, with his head full of revolutionary idealism, full of the eloquence of English poetry, which was for him a second language, was mostly intent on taking up the new, jazzy instrumentation of the avant garde's free verse, and poured into it the diction of Tennyson and the imagery of Whitman more or less unconsciously. He was also memorializing a man of extraordinary brilliance, single-mindedness, and ruthlessness. Whether one ought to keep one's mind, for the moment, off the sailors in the Kronstadt Rebellion and the 8,000 or so Orthodox religious Lenin had executed--the Soviets, like the Romanovs before them, kept excellent, if selective, records; the victims in 1922 numbered 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks, and 447 nuns--is a subject we will postpone, to look at the poem itself and at what was given in the way of genre for this kind of poem.
Elegies begin with apostrophes, as odes do. The one kind of poem tries to fend off an annihilating grief, the other to get into right relation to a source of creative power. In both cases apostrophe tends to animate the physical world, as if grief or longing required a verbal ladder reaching from a merely natural to a psychic or spiritual space--perhaps as a way of catching the paradox through which death--as absence, or felt loss--or the presence of a power--felt as distance--intensifies life.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more, Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
"Lycidas" begins. Though it thinks about death, Zukofsky's poem does not seem animated by grief. It belongs much more to the ode than the elegy tradition. The short lines, the direct address to the star--three times it addresses the star at the beginning of the poem, as if the number were ritual and prescribed--have in them more of longing than sorrow. Returning to the opening lines, we begin to notice something else in them. They are like waves breaking; they have a temporal, rhythmic periodicity:
Immemorial, And after us Immemorial, O white O orbit-trembling Star,
"Immemorial" is the quality of a thing whose origin is lost to memory, which is a kind of immortality, backward if not forward. The poem bothers to say that the star is immemorial now, and that, after we have died, it will still be immemorial. Saying so introduces two ideas. One is that we are all going to die, that there's an "after us." The other is that the site of this information is consciousness, where personal and collective memory reside. It's in consciousness that the quality of perceiving a thing to be "immemorial" occurs, or doesn't. The exclamation toward something both pure and powerful breaks from this fact: "O white."
The next phrase conjures the welter of the world through which the star is seen:
thru all the leaves of elm;--
The punctuation that brings to a close this first small movement of the poem, we might stop to notice, is a semicolon-dash. It is a mark with what will become Zukofsky's characteristic fastidiousness. It is probably a cousin to the comma-dash of Williams, which the poems in Al Que Quiere are marked by in abundance--
Above shining trees,-- Against the yellow drawn shades,-- Quickening in it a spreading change,-- With metallic climbings,--
The comma-dash expresses a forward-looking rather than a retrospective pause, which is paradoxical, of course; it is a mark that says stop and go at the same time. In that way, it is typical of Williams's particular energy. The semicolon-dash asks the attention to stop completely and to cast itself forward. It's a mark, then, exactly appropriate to memorializing, to the vertical wonder in the poem and its forward dreaming.
The second invocation intensifies this effect by emphasizing the star's height and immensity:
Lighted-one, beyond the trunk-tip Of the elm High, proportionately vast, Of mist and form;--
"Beyond the trunk tip/Of the elm/High" is the kind of Miltonic inversion that both the aesthetic of the Lyrical Ballads and the imagist poem were supposed to have gotten rid of. The impulse to alter experience, or to render heightened experience by echoing the old Latinity of English poetry goes very deep, and here the postponement of the word "High" to the final position in the phrase and to the first position in a line (where it is rewarded by being capitalized) throws a much stronger stress on the central emotion of the poem. To my ear "proportionately" belongs to a dryer and more modern diction, even as it tries to conjure immensity. It has, as Zukofsky sometimes does, a certain mathematical precision--that is, the star is vast in proportion to its great height. The next phrase is more mysterious. How is the star "of mist" or "of form"? And what noun or verb does the prepositional phrase modify? It seems to attach directly to the star, and since stars are fires, it is an odd thing to say that one is made of mist. Perhaps Zukofsky was thinking here not about the star, or Lenin as the star, but the memory and legend and the ideal. The idea of form seems to be of an orienting figure's life and death as a polestar, which gives historical time a form. One thinks of "The Idea of Order at Key West" in which the lights on the boats in the harbor, mimicking constellations give the darkness of the night sky "ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds." The great man, as a way of organizing history, echoes Hegel and probably echoes the good king-bad king pedagogy at Stuyvesant High School.
The third invocation addresses the relation of the star to the lowly world. It contains, as we've seen, a more abstract and studiously philosophical diction:
Star, of all live processes Continual it seems to us, Like elm leaves Lighted in your glow;--
(I report that in the period when I was thinking about this poem a full lunar eclipse gave me an opportunity to go outside and observe whether leaves glow in starlight; it's my experience that they don't. This is a metaphorical glow.) The syntax here, as in the earlier expression "Of mist and form," doesn't really anchor the modifying phrase to anything. Also, "continual of" is not idiomatic English, so this phrasing is unhinged a little from strict referentiality. One is inclined to read it at once to mean (a) of all the live processes, you are the one that seems to us continuous, (b) you are the continuation of all live processes, and (c) you are of, descended from, created by, all live processes. And, the lines say, in this you are like the elm leaves. My guess is that the word "process" here comes from Alfred North Whitehead and his "process" philosophy. Several years after this poem was written, when Kenneth Rexroth met Zukofsky for the first time, he reports that they found they had a common enthusiasm for Whitehead. Whitehead had arrived at Harvard in 1924, the year before this poem was written. His Science and the Modern World, the first set of his Harvard lectures, was published in 1925, the year this poem was written. Process and Reality appeared in 1929. The phrase that Charles Olson liked to quote, "The process is itself the actuality," came from Adventures of Ideas, which was published in 1933. Whitehead's particular form of organicism has been useful to a number of American poets. For Zukofsky, if he did have it in mind, it must have rhymed with the dialectical materialism of Marx and also with the celebration of natural processes in Walt Whitman, who seems to me to be the presiding presence in the second half of the poem.
The three invocations are brought to grammatical completion with a main clause--a line of iambic pentameter broken across two lines, ending in a terminal rhyme:
We thrive in strange hegira Here below.
The most striking thing about it is the strangeness of the word "hegira." Nothing in the poem quite explicates its presence. Nor how it is connected to the pronoun, "we, which arrives with it to identify the locus of speech in the poem. Who is the "we"? What flight echoes the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622? The word "flight" appears twice in the poem--
Yet sometimes in our flight alone
And later the same sentence speaks of a "flight of stirrings." To get at its range of meaning, we probably need to look at the passage whole. It completes the first long sentence in the poem. It is also, for me, its most moving moment. It's when the young writer characterizes himself as he addresses his relationship to this luminous and distant ideal. It sets up--in reverse--a relationship not unlike the one in "A-1." There the young poet, on high, is sitting in the balcony at a concert, looking down onto the perfection of Bach. Between him and that perfection, rich people in the loges and the orchestra. They are the manifest injustice and vulgarity of an actual world. In this poem the distance between himself and the ideal is internal and the more poignant for that reason. In his isolation, in his sense of his still-undeclared powers, and in a more existentially vague--and therefore probably more psychologically accurate--metaphor for the mix of longing and futility with which he confronts his life--or with which "we" do--the poem comes, I think, to its initiating emotion:
Yet sometimes in our flights alone, We speak to you, When nothing that was ours seems spent And life consuming us seems permanent, And flight of stirring beating up the night And down and up; we do not sink with every wave.
You will notice once again the literary echoes. This time it's Wordsworth:
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature that is ours;
This, despite the verbal echo, says something different. "When nothing that was ours seems spent" means, I presume, when "we" have not spent the coin of ourselves, have not expressed ourselves in a world that merely consumes us. This makes the nature of that "we" clearer and more paradoxical, because it is a "we" that is alone; not just a self in isolation, but a self in isolation conscious of itself as belonging among other selves also in isolation; that "we" that is a sort of urban condition, and seems always to be so, most intensely, to the young.
The psychoanalytically inclined might well prick up their ears at the appearance of oral imagery in the poem at this point. The tall, distant and removed, but luminous star and the present orally devouring life, heavy with rhyme, look very much like a familial configuration, and they correspond to what we know about the young Zukofsky's life. But I find myself more interested in the last image. That "beating up" seems to give us--in a more casual English than the poem is written in--a "flight of stirrings" that is doing violence to the night, a sort of exhausted violence, in the heavy drag of the pentameter line. Then the enjambment asks us to re-examine which meaning of "beating" is most principally involved. "Flight of stirring" is, I think, the most original phrase in the poem. Presumably it reaches toward "the stirring of desire" or "a stirring performance," rather than "stirring a pot," though in a metaphorical sense "stirring the pot" is "a stirring of desire," just as a vivid artistic experience or the imagination of an idealized revolutionary hero is "stirring." This is what "hegira" must be--the flight, vaguely evocative and heroic, away from consuming life toward something else--some Medina of safety, perhaps, but also of usefulness, of heroic beginnings.
This "flight of stirrings" that beats up the night and--we see, after the enjambment--down the night and up is the route of escape. The rhythm and image almost mimic a moth beating about a streetlamp, "Beat" gives us the beat of wings, also the hunter's beating of the brush, but here the waves in the concluding clause seem to secure a first meaning--a sailboat tacking against the wind. Presumably with a star to navigate by. So the logic of the poem--however mixed the metaphors--is clear enough. We "thrive" in our flight, because we have a "you" to speak to, when the stirring in us of our unspent powers and the devouring world would drown us.
This brings us to the midpoint of the poem. Its second half is also 23 lines long, a symmetry which should surprise no reader of Zukofsky. The second half is made from six sentences--a suite of four couplets, followed by a four-line sentence, which is a declaration of arrival, followed by an eleven-line sentence, beginning with the twice-repeated word "irrevocable," a counterpoint to the twice-repeated "immemorial" with which the poem begins.
The four couplets mark a sudden shift in the music of the verse. The language is quaint, the rhythm hymn--or dirge-like:
Travels our consciousness Deep in its egress. Eclipsed the earth, for earth is power And we of earth. Eclipsed our death, for death is power And we of death. Single we are, tho others still may be with us And we for others.
I will not pause over the question of how to assess the almost comic desire for solemnity and grandeur in the writing. It was--what? 1912, when Ford Madox Ford gave Ezra Pound a dressing down for the antique diction in Canzoni. This was the period when Pound, having scarcely stopped writing his vigorously archaic verses, was declaring that "no good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliche, and not from real life." Pound was actually writing in a style that was more like sixty years old and he was about to turn to the interesting task of bringing into modern English an Anglo-Saxon poem that was 900 years old and a group of Chinese poems that were 1100 years old. I think it is not true that good poetry is never written in a twenty-year-old manner. The history of poetry is full of instances. Clearly, the news had not reached Zukofsky yet, or not reached as deep as his adolescent reading had. But the problem with Zukofsky's style here is not that it's a couple of decades out of date; it's that he's fallen in love with a sort of other-worldly diction that belongs to no date at all. William Carlos Williams read this poem and responded to it. It's an enormously sweet, respectful, frank response of an older poet to a very young one, and we will look at it later, but one of the things that Williams comments on is the rhythm of the poem. "It has a surging rhythm that in itself embodies all that it is necessary to say," he writes, perhaps diplomatically, "but it carries the words nevertheless and the theme helplessly with it. The word 'continual' at the end," he adds, "is fine."
My own response is that, at this point in the poem, I don't mind the awkwardness and artificiality of its intensity. It would be quite easy to lampoon "Single we are." It is a ridiculous phrase. But I am fascinated to watch Zukofsky think. What do the lines say? That the poet's consciousness travels--though it is of the earth and death and power; notice how he loves this use of an old-fashioned genitive; "we" are "of earth" as the star is "of mist"--deep in its flight, that odd word "egress," to obtain a rhyme with "consciousness," and perhaps to underline the connection between the two, consciousness being then an exit from the power of earth and death. The last couplet says something about the condition of that consciousness--that it is solitary, or single, though it may be with or for (in several senses) others. This idea seems to pick up on the paradoxical phrasing we noticed earlier, "our flight alone." This wants to worry, I think, a problem that several poets of this generation, conflicted between politics and poetry, would feel the need to address--"Obsessed, bewildered," George Oppen would write in one of the great poems of his maturity, "By the shipwreck/Of the singular/We have chosen the meaning/Of being numerous."
What is the destination of this "flight alone"? The next line answers that question in three, oddly stately anapests:
We have come to the sources of being, Inviolable, throngs everlasting, rising forever, Rush as of river courses, Change within change of forces.
If you think you are hearing the rhythm of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in those second two lines, you would not be wrong:
Plunged through the battery-smoke, Right through the line they broke.
Though neither of Tennyson's lines is as good as Zukofsky's, and this is not, in any case, the British Imperial Army; it is the army of the life force that consciousness has come to, the spring or source from which being flows, liquid, surging, inescapable. The phrasing echoes Whitman in so many places, it is hard to know what to quote by way of example. The absolute locus is probably the third section of "Song of Myself":
Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world. Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always Sex, Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
Or "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which makes the same figure from the river and the city throng:
"Flow on. River! Flow with the flood tide and ebb with the ebbtide!... Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!"
Or, deeper in Whitman's thought, nearer to his thought about death and regeneration, are these lines from section 38 of "Song of Myself":
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me. I troop forth replenish'd, with supreme power, one of an average, unending Procession, Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines, Our swift ordinances on their way over the whole earth, The blossoms we wear in our hats the growth of thousands of years.
I don't know how much Whitman the young Zukofsky had read. Hugh Seidman, in a charming memoir of the older Zukofsky, describes him at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute dismissing a class because he is so moved by a reading of Whitman's "Columbus," but that doesn't tell us what the younger Zukofsky read. This thought may not have come directly from Whitman--and there is no metaphor in Whitman exactly like this one: of flight to the source of being, to the place from which life flows forth "inviolable." The Whitman lines from section 38 are an almost intentionally sacrilegious conflation of the resurrection of Christ and the Christian resurrection of the dead, figured instead as a celebration of the generative power of life itself. There are no such echoes in Zukofsky, but one suspects he means for this materialist vision of the knowledge at which consciousness arrives to have a similarly rebellious force.
Having arrived at this place, and having arrived through consciousness, a consciousness which has in some sense "eclipsed" death and earth, the poem comes to its conclusion by addressing the star for a fourth time:
Irrevocable but safe we go, Irrevocable you, too, O star, we speaking to you, The shadow of the elm leaves faded, Only the trunk of elm now dark and high Unto your height: Now and again you fall, Blow dark and burn again, And we in turn Share now your fate Whose process is continual.
Technically, this is vers libre, that is, it is metrical, purely iambic (though the third line doesn't sound it), with irregular line lengths. The pattern goes like this:
Tetrameter Trimeter Trimeter Tetrameter Pentameter Dimeter Trimeter Dimeter Dimeter Tetrameter
4-3-3-4-5-2-3-2-2-4. A very orderly and musical sequence, emphasized by the full pause at the end of each line, even the unpunctuated ones.
Thematically, I suppose the first thing to notice is the phrase "we speaking to you" which reminds us that--whatever the star is--Lenin, or the memory of Lenin, or the orbit-trembling heights of any ideal that one might steer by--the relation of the speaker to it is speaking--having to speak as a way of not being alone. This is, of course, the condition of the starting-out poet. The next thing to notice is that the star's light--which was a little too bright for strictly astronomical credibility in the earlier lines--seems to have dimmed. Or, at least, it has dimmed in some way, so that the shadow of the elm leaves has faded and only the dark trunk of the elm reaches toward the star's height. The image isn't very exact, but one gets the impression that there is a distinct physical sensation that Zukofsky means to convey and make a metaphor of. It feels as if the mental or spiritual verticality ("beyond the trunk tip/Of the elm/High, proportionately vast") of the opening image has become, absent the light, a more physical and rooted but less magical thing: "Only the trunk of the elm now dark and high/Unto your height."
Perhaps a cloud has obscured the star. Or the line, "Now and again you fall," might be intended to refer to shooting stars, but it might also refer--"Blow dark and burn again,"--simply to the rising and setting of stars. It's quite possible that at this point Zukofsky wasn't particularly concerned to coordinate the image and the idea. It is only the title of the poem that suggests to us that the star is the memory of Lenin, and that its fading must, therefore, refer to Lenin's death. In the journey of the poem, its strange hegira, the poet has been given a vision of the inexhaustible sources of life. He knows that those sources are endlessly renewable. "Irrevocable but safe" is a version of this thought, combining a sense of fate and of protection. In the last five lines--trimeter, trimeter, dimeter, dimeter, tetrameter--the poet enacts a music that reconciles him to the hero's death and to his own:
Now and again you fall, Blow dark and burn again, And we in turn Share now your fate Whose process is continual.
So what can one say, on the evidence of this poem, about Zukofsky at the outset? For starters, that he was thinking about serious things, that he had an ear and constructive power, though perhaps not yet any deep originality, that he was literary to the depths of his being. The patterning of the poem, a first sentence of 23 lines, which brings it to its midpoint, followed by a resolution of 23 lines, some effort at symmetrical structure, and a prosodically deft and orderly conclusion, point to the later Zukofsky, but without knowledge of that later writer, I don't think the patterning impulse of the poem is one of the main impressions it creates. The content of the materials is too turbulent for that. Another distinct impression, perhaps my main impression, is the ardor of the poem, its central urgency. The emotional core of it has two poles, as the poem does; the sense of loneliness and below-ness and small-ness of the poem's speaker--which is partly the archetypal emotion of the tyro, the young man without card of entry and with a name to come--is one of them. The purity and intensity of the adoration for, longing toward, and gratitude to a high, unearthly ideal and mentor is the other. The motion between them in the poem is, surprisingly, perhaps sweetly, flight, but it is flight toward, a sort of thriving.
Finally, there is the sense of Zukofsky's intellectual furnishings--the implicit and explicit ideas in the poem that seem to organize the feeling. (I am not sure they ever do, entirely, in any poem.) This is a convergence of something like Whitman's transcendentalist, democratic, spiritualized materialism with, probably, Whitehead's organicism. This is a guess. I don't know how much of Whitehead Zukofsky knew. But the Whitehead who defined mathematics as "a study of types of order" would have been congenial to Zukofsky, and his Science and the Modern World with its notion of philosophy as an imaginative grasp on order in a world of incessant but rhythmical change seems to speak to something at the core of the poem. Both of these ideas are grafted, if they are, to Marxism--Zukofsky's study of Marx was mostly ahead of him--by the thinnest of devices--identifying the star with Lenin by titling the poem with his birth name. The ideas at the center of the poem--the "Travels our consciousness" passage and the "We have come to the sources of being" passage--are the ones that are least successfully embodied, most literary in their treatment; but granted that, the vision in those lines doesn't feel to me, as Pound said of literary and derivative writing, entirely "got from books, and not from real life." It doesn't feel--that source of being--like something he has seen, but it does feel like something he has imagined and felt.
The difficulty, as Wallace Stevens remarks about poetry in general, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," "is not about unreal things, since the imagination accepts them." The difficulty is a certain intellectual indistinctness built into the symbolist rhetoric. The idea seems to be that consciousness, driven by longing and despair, outside of nature, can, guided by the star of an ideal (relatively without content except for being high and vast and connected to all live processes), look back at nature, and, as consciousness, see into the source of being where perishing and becoming everlastingly occur, and is made safe by this vision, freed from fear of the knowledge of death. Put this way, it's also easier to see that the organization of the poem comes from the quasi-allegorical journey motif that characterizes Romantic odes. I think that structure underwrites the poem in a quite powerful way and gives it some of its force and that it works against the contrary impulse toward formal symmetry. Between the two informing impulses, the poem leaves a feeling that in its literary intensity, it has got to the other side of some great danger without having quite passed through it. This is, of course, to hold a very youthful poem to an extremely high standard. But another way to think about the poem is that--like Keats, like Pound--the "strange hegira" of the young poet in this poem has really to do with a powerful, idealizing literary ambition, an imagination of a self transformed by literary achievement. And so it's appropriate enough to hold the poem to its own high standard.
William Carlos Williams was in no such position when he received the poem from Zukofsky in the summer of 1928. His reply is dated July 18. The fields around Rutherford must have been full of chicory and Queen Anne's lace, rank with the smells of sumac and summer rain. "And isn't it a fine day!" his letter ends. This was Calvin Coolidge's America, Coolidge who ran the country on a firm platform of low income tax, low inheritance tax, and a strong military, but whom one could regard from here with a sort of longing (O white, O orbit-soothing) since he also, as Samuel Eliot Morrison remarked, "exalted inactivity to a fine art." It was sixteen years before the market crash. Herbert Hoover was campaigning against Al Smith, Herbert Hoover who had distinguished himself by organizing Red Cross relief for post-revolutionary Russia in the famine summer of 1922. Williams was 45 years old that summer, Zukofsky 24. "Certainly," he begins, "the 'Lenin' outdistances anything in the earlier book of poems as the effect of a 'thing' surpasses all thought about it." I have no idea what "earlier book" Williams is referring to. "This is the second poem of yours I like, the first being the long one." That would be "Poem Beginning 'The'." "In some ways this poem is your best work (that I have seen)." And then the remark I quoted earlier: "It has a surging rhythm that in itself embodies all that it is necessary to say, but it carries the words nevertheless and the theme helplessly with it." My guess is that this is, as I've said, both accurate and diplomatic. In the next paragraph Williams addresses the force of the poem and seems to be thinking out loud about his relation to this young poet. Zukofsky's relation to Williams is not hard to read. I've heard two of Zukofsky's contemporaries, Stanley Kunitz and George Oppen, speak about the intense sense of isolation young writers felt in the 1920's. The literary world seemed galaxies away. And, of course, in those years, the universities were no home to poetry, and even if they were, it's doubtful than any of these three would have had access to them. Stanley Kunitz, in about this year, was turned away from graduate work at Harvard by a department chairman who told him frankly that it would be inappropriate for a Jew to teach Paradise Lost to Christian students. Zukofsky would, two years later, get an instructorship at the University of Wisconsin, but in 1928, for Zukofsky, Williams was contact. Williams himself had had no such contact with literary elders in his 20's when he was an intern at a Manhattan hospital. Pound had been his lifeline to a literary world and Pound had, God knows, relished the role.
From here, from a culture in which 90% of poets make some part of their living criticizing the work of twenty-one-year-old poets, it is fascinating to watch Williams addressing this young man and thinking out loud:
It is this, the thing that this poem is, that makes you what you are today--I hope you're satisfied! No doubt it is the underlying theme to me of whatever feeling we have for each other. It seems to me surely the counterbass for everything else we may do. If there is not that under our feet (though I realize you are speaking of a star), then we cannot go on elaborating our stuff.
I'm not absolutely sure I understand this. I think Williams is saying in the first sentence, which seems massively tautological, that Zukofsky is making himself by making the poem and that the common recognition of this task is the basis of any relationship they are going to have. It is a roundabout way of saying to Zukofsky that he seems to be a real artist. Then Williams gets down to particulars. He is going to give the young man some criticism and then back off a bit and let his correspondent take it or leave it:
Sometimes though I don't like your language. It probably is me and not you who should be blamed for this. You are wrestling with the antagonist under newer rules. But I can't see "all live processes," "orbit-trembling," "our consciousness," "the sources of being"--what the hell? I'm not finding fault. I'm just trying to nail what troubles me. It may be that I am too literal in my search for objective clarities of image. It may be that you are completely right in forcing abstract conceptions into sound patterns. I dunno. Anyhow, there you are. I will say that in this case the abstract, philosophic-jargonist language is not an obstruction. It may be that when the force of the conception is sufficiently strong it can carry this sort of thing. If the force were weaker the whole poem would fall apart. Good, perhaps. Perhaps, by my picayune, imagistic mannerisms I hold together superficially what should by all means fall apart ...
Whatever effect this letter had, one does notice that phrase, "objective clarities of image." It was two years later in 1930 that Pound cooked up the idea of Zukofsky's assembling a group of new poets and, as he had done in London, identifying them as a movement as a way of elbowing into the literary world and making a splash. By October of 1930 he could report that Harriet Monroe had agreed, at his urging, to turn an issue of Poetry over to Zukofsky to edit, and the Objectivists came into being. I also notice that phrase, "forcing abstract conceptions into sound patterns." Certainly no poet cared more about formal discovery in his art than Williams, so it is interesting to see the fairly savage edge to that characterization. It is, forever, the charge the romantic artist whose model is pattern-as-discovery makes against the classical artist whose model is form-as-radiant-pattern. And if one were to have reservations about A, in fact about Zukofsky's oeuvre, this would likely be one of its themes. I know it is what has made me a less than enthusiastic student of some movements of A.
Finally, I want to take a moment to ask what sort of difference it makes that this poem wants to be about Lenin. The title is actually quite explicit. Not "In memory of," but "Memory of V. I. Ulianov." That is, we are to think of the memory of Lenin's life and deeds as having initiated the utterance of the poem. It's quite possible that the title was an afterthought, because there is, after all, nothing about the star, except possibly the phrase "orbit-trembling"--which might just as well mean "makes the orbits tremble," as a revolutionary does, as "trembles in its orbit" which from the terrestrial perspective is what a star does--that invites us to identify it with anyone in particular. Williams's take on this is amusing. Reaching for his customary solidities with the phrase "under our feet," he finds he has to correct himself: "I realize you are speaking of a star." It is not a star with much objective clarity about it. Nevertheless the title asks us to read the poem's particular exaltation of the star as praise for Lenin, and it has been the habit of most literary criticism written by people of progressive tendency to take admiration for Lenin or Stalin in the 1920's and 1930's as the sign of an appetite for social justice--for right intentions--and let it go at that. Don Byrd, for example, describes this poem by suggesting that it is a counterpoint to "Poem Beginning 'The'": "Against the multiple voices and the tentative musical organization of 'Poem Beginning "The",' he poses in the first of '29 Poems' the theoretical and practical clarity of Lenin." As we've seen, there's nothing in the poem to suggest that it refers to either, except for the fact that any reference to Lenin must refer to his clarity, his force of will, and his unwavering perseverance. The question is whether it also must refer to his ruthlessness.
One can document in A the occasions of which Lenin shows up as a font of wisdom. In "A-6":
The time was: 12 years after Ilytch's statement When the collectivists Raised the great metallurgical plants In Siberia, For a people's idea As well as their practice.
And in "A-8":
And he said: Der Lenin hat anders getan. Went to the apothecary, and he said: You like your business, yet it keeps you in Twenty-four of twenty-four hours a day. How would you like it if for the first time in twenty-four years You take a well-earned vacation For six months, While the shop continues as yours Managed by four qualified youngsters Each working six-hour daily shifts During that time? You say qualified, asked the apothecary? Alright. And he went and took a vacation Under the NEP And mind you there he was after only six weeks vacation Satisfied with his qualified helpers And content to work the six-hour shift himself, While his son grew up under the Second Five Year Plan. And one day when the youngster was already An engineer He said: papa, do you really think this Pharmacy is ours You know, it's really the state's. And both realized and had a good time over their combined situation.
This particular fairy-tale is a purely Poundian exemplum, like the stories about the triumphs of social credit in the Cantos. It would put one in mind of the English Communist shop steward played by Peter Sellers in the Boulting Brothers' comedy, I'm All Right, Jack, who, speaking of Russia, looks dreamily into the distance and sighs: "All them wheat-fields, and the ballet every night," and provoke a smile, if the issue of judgment were not so complicated and if the 45 million dead in the convulsions of the Russian Revolution and the Second World War did not interpose between us and this writing.
"A-6" also contains a statement of the poem's aesthetic commitment at that stage in its development. (It appears to have been written during Zukofsky's brief stay in the Berkeley hills in the early summer of 1930):
But when we push up the daisies, The melody! The rest is accessory: My one voice. My other: is An objective--rays of the object brought to a focus, An objective--nature as creator--desire For what is objectively perfect Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.
Even if the object brought into focus is accessory, still a clarity about particulars imposes a certain ethic on our appraisal of poetry.
And an appraisal of poetry that involves an appraisal of Lenin is not a simple matter. His "theoretical and practical clarity" is not in question, and the question of what part of the violence, terror, mass deportation, and mass murder that characterized the rule of the Soviet Union under Stalin belongs as well to Lenin is probably not answerable except in a hypothetical way. Even the question of how to assess the achievements of the 5 Year Plans which A-6 celebrates and set them against the crimes, the giant industrial complex at Kuznetsstroi in Western Siberia, say, set against the 5,000,000 people, small land-owners and their children, who disappeared during the same period, is difficult to answer. What one can look at is Lenin's actions; he thought of the revolution as a war. And, of course, he was right. A revolution, as Hannah Arendt has insisted, is a civil war. And the ethical bearings one brings to it might be that it is to be effected by whatever means necessary--or might not. Here, a passage in George Oppen's "Route" comes to mind. He is speaking about his experience as an infantryman in World War II.
Wars that are just? A simpler question: In the event, will you or will you not kill a German. Because, in the event, if you do not want to, you won't.
In the event, one will call for the extermination of the Romanov family, or one won't. Probably one should read Chekhov's "The Peasants" and take a leisurely walk through the obscene opulence of the Hermitage before weighing in on this question. And, for good measure, walk for a while in the great square outside the palace where Nicholas II turned his army loose on a peaceful demonstration of unarmed workers and their families in the winter of 1905. They killed and wounded up to five hundred men, women, and children. The snow in the square was red with their blood. And then consider this account in Helen Carrere d'Encausse's The Other Lenin:
Exiled in the depths of the Urals in Ekaterinburg, the czar and his family had since the Bolshevik seizure of power been subjected to countless privations and humiliations. Their supporters prepared plans of escape that were as absurd as they were ineffective, and constant rumors circulated, further worsening their conditions. Although Trotsky had expressed the wish that a trial like the one that Louis XVI went through during the French Revolution take place to decide the fate of "bloody Nicholas," Lenin had very early expressed his inclination toward summary justice. "Exterminate all the Romanovs, a good hundred of them." This was the proposal acted on on the night of July 16, 1918, when a detachment of Chekhists ... assassinated the members of the imperial family and the servants that remained with them. At almost the same moment, in conformity with the aim of general extermination of the Romanovs expressed by Lenin, all the other members of the family who were in Perm and Alapaevskk were massacred. None of those who were within reach of the Bolsheviks escaped death.
This leaves aside Lenin's orders for the extermination of the Orthodox clergy and the army he regretfully but ruthlessly turned on the mutineers at Kronstadt for ten days in March of 1921. It is perhaps tedious to re-argue these arguments fought out in the John Reed Club in New York and in leftwing taverns (were there still taverns?) in Chicago and San Francisco in those years. Throughout the winter of 1920-21 workers in Petrograd held countless meeting and strikes protesting the practical consequences of Lenin's theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They demanded free elections for all leadership positions on the factory floor, rather than appointment by the Communist Central Committee. The set of demands grew to include freedom of press and assembly, direct elections for all Soviets by secret ballot, prohibition of property searches, market freedom for peasant farmers, and freedom of labor for artisans not employing paid labor. Here is d'Encausee: "The revolutionary flame spread to the Kronstadt naval base, the pride of the regime, where the sailors proclaimed their solidarity with the strikers." When the army charged the island across the ice, the sailors manned battleships locked in the harbor ice. (See Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin, pp. 470-72.) "The Kremlin communists wrapped themselves in white sheets for camouflage and stormed the forts and ships under a raking fire. Where shells broke the ice hundreds were drowned. A few forts fell to the attackers on the morning of the 17th, and by March 18th, after cruel hand-to-hand combat, Kronstadt succumbed. Then a quiet massacre began." Some sailors fled across the ice to Finland. Somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 of the mutineers were killed. There was no question in Lenin's mind that he was preserving the revolution.
Zukofsky had no access to the information about the extermination of the Romanov family or the Orthodox clergy. He certainly did hear a version of the event at Kronstadt. It was the moment of egress from the Communist movement for many progressives in America. As if to stake out his position clearly, Kenneth Rexroth's first book, In What Hour of 1940, begins with a poem entitled "From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion." It too is an elegy. The opening lines read as follows:
Remember now there were others before this; Now when the unwanted hours rise up, And the sun rises red in unknown quarters, And the constellations change places, And cloudless thunder erases the furrows And moonlight stains and the stars grow hot ...
Another young man's poem of night and politics and consciousness and memory. I bring up the issue of Lenin not to rebuke Zukofsky or his poem, but to remind myself and other readers that we look back across the century to the politics of the modernists with knowledge that they didn't have and with the injunction to an adult clarity of mind that they passed on to us.
ROBERT HASS's books of poetry include Sun Under Wood: New Poems (1996), Human Wishes (1989), Praise (1979), and Field Guide (1973), which was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Younger Poets Series. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997 and is currently a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He lives in California and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
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|Title Annotation:||Louis Zukofsky's poetry|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2005|
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