Academic journal article Chicago Review

Louis Zukofsky and the Avant-Garde Textbook

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Louis Zukofsky and the Avant-Garde Textbook

Article excerpt

"What we need is a literary scholarship, which will weigh Theocritus and Yeats with one balance," because "all ages are contemporaneous." From The Spirit of Romance (1910), this is one of Ezra Pound's earliest calls for a universalizing transhistorical formalism in literary evaluation. It is an injunction that, decades later, both Pound's ABC of Reading and Louis Zukofsky's much less-discussed A Test of Poetry fulfill. These two texts are commonly linked. Triangulating them with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry, the single most influential poetry textbook of the twentieth century, as I shall occasionally do here, is a bit less common, but provides an additional context for thinking about A Test of Poetry: its genesis, its distribution, its reception, its formal features. To invoke Understanding Poetry also helps highlight, by contrast, the features of what otherwise sounds like an oxymoron, the avant-garde textbook. This admittedly small subgenre embodies the tension within avant-garde poetics between didacticism and coterie self-preservation and aesthetic autonomy. In so doing, it provides insight into one aspect of the American poetic avant-garde's commerce with the very academy it typically has derided as its invidious Other.

The publication dates of Pound's, Zukofsky's, and Brooks and Warren's texts are deceptive, and revealing of Zukofsky's somewhat inauspicious entry into the anthology market. ABC of Reading was first published in 1934; Understanding Poetry in 1938 and then reissued in 1950 and twice thereafter; and A Test of Poetry--apparently the most belated of the three--in 1948. But Zukofsky had actually completed the book years before its publication, and possibly even earlier than the consensus among Zukofsky scholars suggests. That consensus, resting partly on Celia Zukofsky's bibliography of her husband's work, has Zukofsky working on the book in the years between 1935 and 1940. But Lorine Niedecker wrote to Jonathan Williams in 1964 that "I know the germ of it was in his mind when I saw him in New York in 1933 and had been before he knew me." Indeed, it's not impossible that Zukofsky started thinking about a corrective text like Test as early as 1930, when he first found himself positioned outside institutional parameters for literary evaluation, and--most relevantly for my argument here--outside textbook orthodoxy. As he wrote to Pound in March of that year, "I flunked the N.Y. exam. for license to teach Eng. in the H.S. because on a question dealing with Am. poetry since 1910 I showed my preference for your work as against the 'major efforts' of the current handbooks. The examiner noted 'minor poets treated at too great length, major ones slighted.'"

Despite (or perhaps because of) Zukofsky's skepticism about "the current handbooks," Test may also have its origins in institutional contexts and in response to institutional imperatives. Zukotsky used "How to Read," in which Pound theorizes the method of evaluation-by-juxtaposition that became central to ABC of Reading and Test, as a first-year text at the University of Wisconsin in 1930-31. As Mark Scroggins recounts in his biography of the poet, a few years later, at Columbia Teachers College in summer 1934, Zukofsky worked "on an education project whose goal was to gauge adults' learning capacities." This project required that Zukofsky, as experimental subject, respond to three juxtaposed sets of literary examples, some of them poetry. Zukofsky was convinced he could produce more effective tests or examinations himself, and thus may have already been in the process of gathering exhibits when he received the newly published ABC of Reading. Although his embryonic textbook is surely somewhat shaped by Pound's model, it seems likely that, as Scroggins suggests, "Zukofsky inherited [his] 'blind' method of presenting material to students from the protocols of the Teachers College test series."

In any case, Zukofsky mentions the book's completion in two letters. …

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