Finding His Voice LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: SELECTED POEMS edited by Charles Bernstein. The Library of America, 2006 Review by Bob Perelman
LOUIS ZUKOFSKY WAS ONE of the most accomplished American modernist poets, but a quarter century after his death it's still not an ironclad certainty that he won't be confused with a very different kind of American poetCharles Bukowski- or that his name won't be misspelled "Zukovsky" in anthologies or critical articles. So it's a sign of poetic justice that the canonicallyminded Library of America has published Zukofsky 's Selected Poems in an attractive little hardback of 175 pages. Contemporary poet Charles Bernstein uses these pages skillfully to present a compact but diverse selection of Zukofsky's writing, and he supplies a cogent introduction to both the biography and the poetics. Zukofsky himself insisted that, often, poets' works comprised a single long poem, and that there was no interesting distinction to be drawn between the writing and the life: "The words are my life" was his emphatic summary. Yet the usefulness of Selected Poems is not that it provides a single, concentrated sense of Zukofsky's poetry, but precisely the opposite, that it offers glimpses of a remarkably multifarious body of work. While Zukofsky described his poetics as "An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music," this collection should draw our attention not to the integral but to how wide a range there is between those limits.
There's Zukofsky the epic poet, whose long poem "A" (the quotes are part of the title) belongs in the company of Ezra Pound's Cantos, William Carlos Williams' Paterson, Hart Crane's The Bridge, and H.D.'s Helen in Egypt. There's Zukofsky the lyric poet, writer of exquisitely delicate miniatures; Zukofsky the fanatical game-player, who wrote a number of the most intricately-patterned works in the language; Zukofsky the poet of class-struggle; Zukofsky the Jewish cultural provocateur; Zukofsky the family sentimentalist; Zukofsky the cultural dandy. All of these modes have distinct tones. While Zukofsky was remarkably attentive to the sound and placement of each syllable he wrote, he never lavished that care on the creation of a characteristic personal style- he never, as they say, found his voice. Instead, he used writing with emphatic variousness: to speak of his father, "The miracle of his first job / On the lower East Side"; to wax lyrical, "River that must turn full after I stop dying / Song, my song, raise grief to music"; to anatomize English into an approximation of Catullus's Latin,
"Mool 'tis homos, 'Naso '?' queer take 'im mool 'is ho most he / descended"; to leave discursive syntax behind and to sing, "tongues commonly inaccurate talk viable / one to one, ear to / eye loving song greater than / anything."
Zukofsky was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 to Yiddish-speaking parents, attended Columbia, became an ardent student of modernist poetry, and soon got in …