Louis Zukofsky

By Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Louis Zukofsky


Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


The small and quirky group of writings that comprises Louis Zukofsky's fiction is undoubtedly destined to be read as an appendage to the main corpus of a major twentieth-century American poet. Zukofsky always saw himself as a poet first, despite experimenting extensively in other modes of writing, which he did not conceive as fundamentally distinct from his poetry. He tried his hand at most of the major traditional genres: a lifetime's collection of shorter poems, All; a modernist epic, "A"; a play, Arise, arise; a volume of translations, Catullus; an autobiography; one novel, Little; one novella, Ferdinand, plus three shorter fictions; an introductory textbook on poetry, A Test of Poetry; a collection of critical essays, Prepositions; and finally an uncategorizable tome, Bottom: On Shakespeare--a body of work steadily constructed over the course of fifty-five years. Self-consciously situating himself as heir of high modernist avantgardism, Zukofsky in his work displays a remarkable and frequently bewildering range of experimentation and represents one of the major bridges between the traditions of innovative writing in the two halves of the century. Within the immensity and complexity of this writing, the fiction appears on the whole a rather modest and relatively conservative segment. Nonetheless, Zukofsky's fictions not only manifest many of his characteristic concerns, but several of them are distinctly unique and distinguished contributions to poets' prose.

Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Yiddish-speaking parents who had immigrated from what is now Lithuania. A precocious student, Zukofsky attended Columbia University, where he became active in the literary scene and earned an M.A. with a thesis on Henry Adams. Already at age twenty-two Zukofsky had written his first major poem, "Poem beginning `The'," a sophisticated critical response to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land that rejected the letter's pessimism. Zukofsky sent this poem as his calling card to Ezra Pound, who immediately recognized its achievement and published it in his journal Exile, initiating a long, if sometimes stormy friendship carried out mostly via correspondence. Through Pound's instigation, Zukofsky guest edited a controversial issue of Poetry in 1931 that launched the short-lived objectivists movement. By this time, Zukofsky had already written several movements of his poetic magnum opus, "A," on which he would work intermittently until its completion in 1974. Throughout the 1930s, Zukofsky was involved in literary activities in and around New York City and published poetry and criticism in many of the important little magazines of the day, but mostly remained aloof from specific groups or movements. Aside from his friendships with Pound and Basil Bunting, both of whom he saw only rarely, his most important literary connection was with William Carlos Williams. Zukofsky often served as an editor and poetic reviser for Williams, who acknowledged the debt by dedicating The Wedge (1944) to the younger poet, while years later Zukofsky would celebrate their friendship in "A"-17. From 1935 to 1942, Zukofsky was employed by the Works Progress Administration, most notably on the Index of American Design, a large compilation on American handicrafts and designs. In 1939, after a lengthy courtship, Zukofsky married the musician and composer Celia Thaew, and in 1943 their only child, Paul, was born.

Prior to World War II, Zukofsky, like most intellectuals with his working-class Jewish background, was strongly attracted to Marxism while at the same time digesting and deploying a wide range of avant-garde techniques with impressive sophistication. The war would mark a significant shift in Zukofsky's perspective, not a break with what went before, but nonetheless a decisive change of emphasis. The revolutionary hopes that seemed to underpin much of his earlier thinking gave way to a more philosophically resigned stance. …

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