Friday, September 21, 2007
Louis Zukofksy, to you. The guest editor of Poetry 35:7. The ringleader, as it were, of the Objectivism, having reluctantly coined the term at Harriet Monroe’s insistence that the issue have a title.
Comparisons to Pound are easy, Pound himself being an inveterate ringleader. Zukofsky had sent his a copy of his first mature poem, “Poem beginning ‘The’,” to Pound, and Pound started directing people to Zukofsky & Zukofsky to people. Pound’s and Zukofsky’s poetry comes in similar formats, a collection of shorter pieces, Personae and All, and a book-length serial poem, Cantos and A. (Zukofsky’s situation is more complicated, with some other volumes of poetry, such as 80 Flowers.) Both wrote extensive critical works. & if you want something sensational, there is the fact the extended relation between Pound and Zukofksy is complicated by & complicates our understanding of Pound’s anti-semitism & Zukofsky’s Jewishness.
I must confess to not having read as much of Zukofksy as I should. I plan on reading A, but I don’t yet own a copy of it. I have read much of the shorter poems, & I find something in them off-putting. The poems display a high level of accomplishment, of craftsmanship with words, and a strong sense of the individual poem as an integral whole, but they feel arch, cold. I am not drawn to them enough to appreciate what they are doing, because they, as is typical of Modernist poetry (if not most poetry), take a good deal of work to appreciate and thus require a certain level of motivation to get into them.
The allusiveness in Zukofsky’s poem puts me off. Of course allusiveness is a Modernist commonplace. (If there were more of a Zukofsky industry, producing comprehensive glosses of all his work, it would make things easier for me. Though the Z-site is very good & a shining example of the good things the Internet can do.) But something about his particular brand of allusion leaves me cold. & if I knew more about poetry, I could describe it better. There is an insistence in the allusion, a sense of constant pressure towards what is not there in the poem. As trying to make the missing parts are importantly present in the poem. Putting the matter in an overly dramatical way, I could say that the poem is composed in equal parts of what is there & what is not there. If I’m correct that the poems are doing this, then they are doing something very interesting. I will keep reading them to figure it out, if only to learn more about what poetry can do.
Some concrete examples after the jump.
(Keep in mind my lack of HTML skills make a hash of the formatting. The poems don’t look like this on the page.)
From 29 Songs:
in that this happening
is not unkind
it put to
shame every kindness
minds, mouths, their words
people, put sorrow
before sorrow it came
and before every kindness
happening for every sorrow
before every kindness;
Z-site informs us that this poem is in response to Pound sending Zukofsky a check for shipfare to get to Europe, though Zukofsky didn’t spend the money that way. It also reminds us that Bunting translated the poem into Latin.
& speaking of Latin, there’s this from Anew:
Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish
And admit it’s over,
The sun shone on you those days
When your girl had you
When you gave it to her like nobody else ever will.
Everywhere together then, always at it
And you like it and she can’t say she didn’t.
Yes, those days glowed.
Now she doesn’t want it: why should you, washed out
Want to. Don’t trail her,
Don’t eat yourself up alive,
Show some spunk, stand up and take it.
So long, girl. Catullus can take it.
He won’t bother you, he won’t be bothered:
But you’ll be, nights.
What will you have to live for?
Whom will you see?
Who’ll say you’re pretty?
Who’ll give it to you now?
Whose name will you have?
Kiss what guy? bite whose lips?
Come on, Catullus, you can take it.
And also from Anew, this ekphrasis of the memorial statue for Henry Adams’s wife:
To be moved comes of want, tho want be complete
as understanding. Cast, the statue rests, stopped:
a bronze—not “Grief”—the drapery should take in
body and head. The working eyes discarded.
Characterless lips, straight nose, sight, form no clue
(are none too great sculpture) to portrait or you.
at the seat of government, but a cab’s jaunt
from the evergreens raised about the statue,
people count, climb the steps of the Capitol.
Shrubs, close to hands, that age at the visitor’s
curved bench derive no clue from its smooth stone or
its simplicity or animal foot ends.
Nor shows the headstone back of the figure’s seat
more than a blank emblem of two wreaths entwined,
bare in Eighteen Ninety Two, of our country.
Dark forearm not draped, hand modeled to the chin:
a lady of Nineteen Forty One met by
chance, asked where you could be found, took us three here,
left quickly, said, “The two of them lie there”
(I am one alive while two see here with me)
under the circle of purposeful gravel
feet must skirt or cross to come near the figure
over the gravel as on other plot, in
“the cemetery known as Rock Creek”: the name
gravel, those under: “One’s instinct abhors time.”
I think “allusion” may be the wrong word. Zukofsky’s practicing concision. All of the Objectivists could be said to follow Pound’s “dichten = condensare” principle. Zukofsky condenses, winnows down, quite a bit, but in a way that seems to signal what has been left out, tries to keep it there on the page, as an absence. This example, also from Anew, might demonstrate:
A madrigal for 3 voices
Hail the tree’s meadow
Where the watch
Fees no property
Where bread crumbs strike
Red raked leaves
Pigeons redden shadows
Under red feet
When pigeons greet
In the valley
of the city--
Not a chimney’s
made of putty
And the lampposts
no property of
[again the layout is all wrong, but you get the gist (remember, it’s about “gists & piths”!)]
Modernist concision is one of things missing from amateur poetry. I read quite a lot of it, being an amateur poet. And at the open mike, in the photocopied chapbook, the unled writing group, you’ll normally see a range of styles—favoring the confessional, the Beat-esque, the Whitmanite sprawl, lyric nature poetry, flarf or at least found poetry, hip-hop influenced spoken word, maybe some haiku—but very little that I could really call concise that isn’t in a regular form that demands it.
I think that’s why langpo seemed to come off as so snobbish. All of the being against National Poetry Month as such, the school of quietude, and so on was supposed to be directed against a boring, self-aggrandizing, and self-perpetuating establishment. But it also comes off, perhaps intentionally, as being the typical avant-garde scorn for popular modes of art. And I wonder whether people sense this and push back.
Wouldn’t quietudinous “professional” poets have the same objection to the amateur lack of concision? (Isn’t that what makes this poetry “amateur” in the first place?) Or are you saying that from a Langpo perspective a lot of mainstream poetry seems amateurish too, in its lack of modernist concision?
Isn’t all good poetry more about what’s suggested than what’s explicitly stated? It seems that the original post hasn’t gotten quite to the heart of what might be offputting about LZ.
This is a tangential point, but the word “amateur” is peculiar in this discussion, considering how the Objectivists themselves were amateurs (e.g. self-published, working day jobs, etc.).
Well, I can see why amateur is a bad word—there are poets, like Ron Silliman, who as far as I know are working day jobs etc. who I certainly would not call amateur poets. Perhaps “unserious”? But that’s too insulting. “Outsider” isn’t quite accurate. “Hobbyist”? “Relatively unskilled?”
Responding to Jonathan Mayhew, I don’t think that it’s merely lack of concision that defines what I’m talking about. Whitman wasn’t concise, Ginsberg wasn’t concise, hip-hop and spoken word isn’t concise, but that doesn’t make that kind of thing necessarily “amateur”. What I was trying to say is that when some random person puts pen to paper outside an academic context and starts writing poetry, they imitate all sorts of models on the way to, perhaps, developing their own style, which style still is shaped by them—I gave a list of the ones that I commonly see in my comment above. So why don’t more of them imitate modernist concision? Lack of skill can’t be the problem; it can’t be because it’s more difficult to write an unskilled concise poem than a unskilled non-concise poem. I’m wondering whether its lack of popular appeal is more due to popular taste—people like poems that try to engage them, etc.—or whether it’s more due to part of the avant-garde mystique being a rejection of popular culture that than goes both ways.
I think I know what you’re talking about. It’s interesting when there’s a thing, & you know what it is, but you can’t find a name for it. I think there are a number of things like this in our lives. It seems to me a kind of philosophical issue.
Yes, it’s frustrating. I can envision the kind of person that I’m thinking of, including myself of course in that group—someone who’s come to writing poetry not through an academic route, but through just having started to write, and who has never put in sufficient time to make that the overriding focus of their life-effort. To use Silliman as an example again, I’d guess that when someone not connected to his work asks what he does, he’d answer “I’m a poet”, or if he didn’t, no one would argue with the description. The people I’m talking about might say that they were poets, but in the same sense as they might talk about serious hobbies. (No insult is intended to anyone reading this who is in this situation and really does think of themselves as a poet first and foremost.) They generally think of poetry as much more than a hobby, but in terms of how much actual work they get to put in, the situations are similar.
But they’re not really outsider artists in the classic sense, because some of them have MFAs, and perhaps make some amount of money workshopping or from local poetry contests. By the time this kind of person gets an MFA, however, I think that their style tends to be already formed; at least I haven’t yet met one who emerged with a lot of modernist or langpo influence.
So the question for me is, why is this source of influence missing for this kind of person? I realize that this might not have much to do with Zukofsky, but your discussion of concision brought it to mind. I don’t know whether the question is important in any intrinsic sense, but I do think it would have something to do with what kinds of poetry the public supports; most poetry audiences seem to me to be largely composed of this kind of person. (Although I’ve argued with Luther Blissett about that as well.)
I thought that the principle of concision was pretty well ensonced in MFA programs and even some “amateur” writers’ groups--people who “workshop” each others’ poems on line, for example. In fact, I think a certain modernist ethos underlies even the most basic idea of writing poetry beyond the totally unschooled amateur. Show don’t tell, use concrete images, avoid clichés, don’t break a prose paragraph into lines of verse and call it a poem, in poetry each word counts… etc… The fact that amateur poets haven’t quite gotten there yet doesn’t mean that they haven’t been exposed to these ideas. Even my undergraduate students who aren’t poets know that poetry is supposed to be more concise that prose. Some people are just lousy poets.
Or maybe I’m wrong and just haven’t had enough exposure to the world of amateurs.
Well… I think that kind of advice is pretty often rejected, actually. The image of someone sitting down with Ginsberg and telling him that Howl would be much better if he just didn’t repeat himself so much comes to mind, with maybe a careful line through every “I’m with you in Rockland” but the first. Or someone telling Ashbery that he was really writing prose. Sure, there are people who think that crossing out every “the” in your poem is an easy way to help you improve it, but most people just aren’t working towards that kind of stripped-down model. I see people who are taking MFAs who clearly have been given a lot of that kind of advice, but they still don’t seem to be working towards specifically modernist concision—mostly, their poems seem to me to become a kind of uncomfortable hybrid between some sprawling style and the words that their teachers have chipped away.
But yeah, some people are lousy poets, if you want to put it that way. The world that I’m talking about pretty much has to include them, because there isn’t any other place for them to go. I do think that your idea of a modernist ethos underlying even the most basic idea of writing poetry of any kind—and implictly being an easy check on which poetry is lousy—is just wrong, though.
I guess I don’t know then what those people would think of as bad poetry then. What are their implicit criteria? I know everyone doesn’t sit down with The ABC of Reading, but still…
Jonathan, there are all sorts of good, major poets who don’t fit into that model. It’s not like there is a single set of criteria that will fit every poetic goal. I would say that the most overriding goal is to develop one’s own style. But of course there are influences, and for many of them, what you call the principle of concision simply doesn’t work. Is a flarfist going to make every word count, and avoid cliche? Is someone doing spoken word going to avoid repetition? Is someone who wants to write like Mary Oliver going to listen to “don’t break a prose paragraph into lines of verse and call it a poem”?
A belated response to the original post on Zukofsky and allusion. As the one primarily responsible for the annotations on the Z-site, I would say that all those notes, whatever their interest, do not help much with the question of how to read LZ’s poetry. Allusion is not of great importance in his work, in the manner it often is in say Eliot and Pound where quotation or allusion often expect ironic contextualization or otherwise carry a certain polemical intent. For LZ, found texts are primarily materials to be worked with on the principle that all composition is essentially rewriting or the reworking of prior texts. A good deal of commentary on LZ gets off track by assuming quotation or allusion is used for the purposes of authorization, whereas actually he is more interested in verbal resonances or textures. He takes very seriously the idea that a poem not be reducible to paraphrasable meaning, but instead is a proportional and irreducible construct of sound, image and sense. This makes perhaps exorbitant demands on the reader to trust the verbal complex—it’s all there in the intricacies of the words on the page, albeit, as language, potentially resonating infinitely through the world body of texts. The wide-spread idea that LZ is “hermetic” or obscure is, as he often insisted, greatly exaggerated because of habitual reading expectations. The sense that LZ’s work is cold is common and not to be dismissed out of hand, but I would suggest that in part this is due to his rigorous insistence on the poem as a language object and distrust of the “predatory” temptation to project emotion or subjectivity with which the reader is meant to identify. Of course for many this is what poetry is all about, vicarious subjectivity. For LZ the reader brings to the text all the subjectivity necessary without the poet imposing themselves in that manner on them. When H.D.’s early Imagist poems were first published, they were widely read as the extreme in coldness and impersonality, although now they tend to be read as barely restrained volcanoes of emotionality.
I was interested to see that you felt the shorter poems off-putting and cold. I’ve found great tenderness in the collected shorter poems volume-- They sit alongside Reznikoff’s short poems in my mind-- a life long record of Experience that always brings me nearer to the particularities of my own.