Thursday, January 28, 2010

Early Zukofsky: The Assignment

Scroggins: pp 48-155, 175-198
Bernstein's intro to the Selected Louis Zukofsky
"A Statement for Poetry"

"The Mantis"

From the Selected:

"not much more than being"
"snows' night's wind on the windows rattling"

It may be easiest to use the comment feature for discussion...


  1. Wow, first commenter! Guess that means I can talk about whatever?

    I've been thinking about something that I came across in the Scroggins reading for this week. On page 150, Scroggins writes, "Zukofsky himself found it increasingly difficult to write 'the poems everybody can understand.'" I find it interesting that he was actually trying to write something that would be accessible to everybody - it's a very Wordsworthian thing to do. If I remember correctly, it was the point of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads to be the poetry of the common man, written in the language of the common man, to speak to him on a level he could understand. But when you read the poems included in LB, they're beautiful, complex, and written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) - not exactly how you expect a common man (person?) to speak. Skip ahead a hundred or so years to Zukofsky's writing - are these the poems that everyone can understand? Sometimes I feel like this might be true, but other times, they feel so crafted and intricate that I barely understand them - and I'm not everybody. I'm a graduate student studying poetry, supposedly able to understand more about poetry than the "common man" (sometimes I wonder if that's actually true...). Reading a poem like "Mantis" doesn't seem too complicated, though the allusions to folklore about mantises escaped me on a first reading (thankfully Scroggins explains the poem).

    But what if you gave Zukofsky's "The" to the janitor in the hall at BSU? She is one of the laborers for whom Zukofsky is supposed to be writing, correct? What would she make of it? Would "The" mean anything to the lady who cleans toilets and mops linoleum? This is a question that has come up in some of the graduate workshops I've been in, and I'm still not sure of the answer (I believe the example used previously was a gardener, and not a janitor). Maybe there are some poetry-loving janitors out there in the world, but I don't think that anyone actually writes poetry with that janitor in mind as an audience.

    It occurs to me that I've rambled off topic a bit, and I realize that Scroggins says Zukofsky found it difficult to write the poetry meant for everybody. It just seems strange to me that poets like Zukofsky, and Wordsworth before him, poets who are well-educated and are gifted writers would think that they have an obligation (maybe that's the wrong word?) to write for a "lesser" audience (I'm going to get crap for denoting levels of audiences, I know). Like Scroggins says, Zukofsky's poems are "too much concerned with [their] own technique, [their] own formation of words to be set to music, to serve as the lyric for any song the average member of the proletarian masses might want to sing" (151). Zukofsky can't escape being a poet long enough to write for the masses.

    Any thoughts? :)

  2. Think the idea of audience and understanding is good. think it's an interesting note you end on, that he can't escape being a poet long enough to write for the masses. I felt to a large extent that, esp. through Scroggins' explanations, he was writing for them, but not really to them.

    I’m really interested in this idea of the poem as an object that is perfect. It seems strange to have that drastic opinion and then follow it by writing a 800 page poem. On some level it seems very immature, the reality of 800 pages of poetry makes it seem unrealistic to approach it and have a complete perfect piece.

    I think that his idea of talking about the poem as an idle metaphor in itself is also a pretty simple and elegant way to view a poem. I think the idea of particulars is spot on.
    The idea that poetry is “to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention” seems wrong. He has a very real taste for music—it is in his poems and in his relationships, however, there is no sound apart from the author’s voice. To approach music is a merging of multiple things that crescendo into some sort of event. I don’t think that is poetry—but it makes sense in the idea of what he has done with his workings. I think emphasis must go on the “state” that he is talking about. Not that poetry is attempting to imitate music, but rather that it, like music, must become an extension of the particular and if Sincerity and Objectivity are both inherent in the poem than it approaches the state where the self or reader doesn’t react negatively.

    I really like the idea of poetry as a sort of mathematical limit or equation. Seems like esp. from the perspective of Zukofsky you could create the equation which would show a perfect poem by emphasizing the analysis on each individual word or object and their relationship through abstracted terms.

    Scroggins book is pretty tasteful. It's well written, which for a book that is a biography about a poem should be an absolute necessary, but I think could be overlooked. Kind of a fun opportunity.

  3. Jason-

    I'm hoping we will talk about this as a class, so I wont go into too much detail here, but I wanted to respond to your thoughts on the perfect poem.

    I believe you are responding to the opening of Z's "An Objective," where he talks about the "Desire for what is objectively perfect." I don't think he is talking about the objectively perfect poem in terms of a flawless piece, rather the way a poems "brings the rays from an object into focus." In this way, I believe Z is talking about the poem as an object which is therefore perfect because of it's objectness. I am not sure if I am getting this right, his description of objectivity seems to rely on "you'll know it when you see it" which makes it hard to pin down what he means.

  4. Kate: in a way, accessibility seemed to cease to be his concern, especially considering his de-emphasis on direct representative communication in his poetics—he really considered sonic qualities equally representative. If accessibility continued to be a major priority, it seemed as though he had a novel idea of what people could access, and maybe in that sense, Zukofsky always was accessible. Perhaps any reader CAN access these qualities, but doesn’t know how to articulate it. Circling around to music (Zukfosky’s main metaphor for poetry in his poetics), I recall one of my music teachers saying we already know all these chords and notes, but we just don’t know how to describe them. We intuitively know what a suspended chord sounds like, but the vocabulary isn’t necessarily there to define it. Perhaps the problem is with the reader’s opinion on what “understanding” a poem might mean in itself. Perhaps a janitor can read a Zukofksy piece and gather all its communicative elements sonically (one of Zukofksy’s three main objects of poetry).

    In “A Statement for Poetry,” Zukofsky cites a mathematician and a scientist essentially lauding poetry’s strict ability to be communicative, especially on an intuitive level. He describes listening to Homer as still a worthy poetic experience that’s more intuitively representative. Somehow poetry is more exact—but this goes beyond basic, articulate representation. Insomuch as Zukofsky’s concern with these more expressive and intuitive elements of poetry, perhaps his poetry is even more successfully accessible. It’s as accessible as orchestral music or listening to foreign language poetry (he argues that this should be successful, if the poetry is successful), which seems to be the height of technically inaccessible.

    Now I cannot help but think of a post-structuralist approach to poetry, which in turn seems tied to expressionist visual art. I mean to say that an expressionist painter is only concerned with representing an object in a meaningful fashion (insomuch as we know what the object might be), not so much reproducing it. He is concerned with the experience of the object. It’s representational on a gut level, which may mean its more precisely representational. To go one step further in the art world, abstract expressionism does the same sort of thing. It’s communicative without representation, much the way Zukofsky would describe music as communicative art. Language though, would imply some kind of basic communication. His “speech” and of the spectrum versus music.

    (continued in new post-I'm apparently too long)

  5. (continued from previous post)

    My question, I suppose, is where does language begin? In the dictionary on my shelf (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition), all definitions of language circle back to communication, not some kind of representation. However, reading language—reading what might be non-representational poetry—is difficult because you cannot separate the words as signifiers. If they become separated, are we still dealing with language? Maybe so, but he roundabout compares listening to beautiful poetry in a foreign language as a similar communicative experience to listening to music. He describes the means of poetry as words, but if words carry not signified object, are they still words? He describes words purely for their technical makeup, but “Words grow out of the affects of” sensory intake or intellectual concepts—their role as signifier is intrinsic to their existence. This is the root of the building blocks of poetry, which seems to imply a flaw regarding his description of a non-Greek speaker listening to Homer. In fact, is that poetry? Note that to the listener, the words (while still made up of “syllables, in turn made up by phones that are denoted by letters”) don’t have the same roots someone without a knowledge of greek. In this case, they’re pure sonics, and for the purpose of the listener do not grow out of representing something else.

    In turn, I wonder about his objects of poetry. What must be there in order for poetry to exist. To shift gears a little bit (although I could talk about “B. Sound” all day long), the “Interplay of concepts” object harkens immediately to the contemporary conceptualist writers. I am going to (for the sake of a premise) say that conceptualist writing exists more for its intellectual questions and ability to be purely historical for its concepts (ha!) rather than its actual lines of language (hence Notes on Conceptualisms’ point that conceptualism’s goal is to fail as a poem—paraphrasing here—because its goal is to gesture outside of itself as an object). If that’s the case, for all intents and purposes, perhaps Image and Sound don’t even exist in this version of poetry. Or if it does (which it does technically, I guess—it has to), it doesn’t matter. Before I posit my own opinion: would Zukofsky even consider Conceptualists poets?

    They seem to shy away from the pure expressive communicative elements, which seem to be Zukofksy’s main concern. The poem needs to be perfect as an object, in its own right. Conceptualism’s goal is expressly to go beyond the object. Its object is intrinsically flawed in that it doesn’t exist without its concept in a meaningful way.

  6. Charles: OK, so I'm not sure I understood everything, but let me try to wrap my mind around this.

    What I'm drawn to in your reply is this idea of language - what is language, and how does poetic language function, can language exist at the level of the word-as-representational-unit. I think your dictionary's definition is correct, so far as communication is necessary for language to be language - what is the point of having language if not to communicate? Each combination of sounds (usually) forms a word, which means something to the person who hears it - all the letters we're taught combine to form words we can read. Each word is significant on its own and has a representational value all its own (thus the success of dictionaries). Words, when separated, can be language. It happens all the time in poetry - you have single words occupying their own lines, and they're supposed to mean something. If they don't mean something separated from other words, then you really have to question the purpose of a lot of poetry produced in the last century or so. I guess I keep thinking about Egyptian hieroglyphs and the way so much can be embodied in one picture - not just a phonetic sound, but entire sentences and stories in one symbol. English isn't quite as representational as that, but it's the same idea to a lesser extent.

    But then comes the difficulty of different languages - the sounds that form Greek words (to continue with your Homer analogy) are completely alien to someone who does not know what the sounds mean, like so many of us American poetry students. In a way, listening to poetry read in another language, or trying to sound out the foreign words for yourself is like listening to music (then you can go on to foreign music, which probably just complicates the matter more). You have no idea what the sounds represent, so instead you concentrate on the way the sounds work together - probably the purest form of Zukofsky's speech-music integral. When the language is completely unknowable, the reader has to rely entirely on sound.

    Zukofsky takes it a step farther, though - I'm thinking of Catullus, and his "translations." I know we're not reading this until later, but it's quite significant to the language discussion. Most of us in this class don't speak Latin, so we can't know, right off, if Zukofsky is translating the poems of Catullus accurately. He plays on that ignorance of Latin that so many people have and reproduces the sounds of Latin in English, turning sense (in another language) into almost-nonsense (in English). At this point the reader still has to rely on sound, even though there are recognizable words that mean things in the reader's experience, because the words together don't actually mean anything. Each word might mean something in itself, but the difficulty of language is that we expect words to function with one another when they are placed together. To search for meaning in the Catullus translations is to miss the point of the poems. It's entirely sonic. I guess what I mean here is, what happens when even the words with which we are familiar cease to mean anything to us? Do they still have representational value? I think they do. And I think this because of Zukofsky's later poetry like 80 Flowers and especially "Gamut." I'm remembering Janet's explication of "Gamut" and it's myriad meanings.

    (Too long...continued...)

  7. (...continued from above)

    Representation/communication through the sonic happens in 80 Flowers as well as Catullus, though not because of translation. Words as units take on more significance because as lines they often defy sense. It's Zukofsky's "Interplay of Concepts" taken to an extreme. We have to start with the word as the basic unit of language in 80 Flowers because there's very little in the poems that we can understand, rationally, in larger units.

    Does this answer any of the things you brought up, Charles? I'm not really sure. I guess I tend to agree with Zukofsky, as much as I understand him, anyway, when he privileges music and sound over communication, which is weird for me, because I tend to write things that communicate, more than they sound good.

  8. Conceptualism (as per Note on Conceptualisms) produces pieces of poetry that strive after what Zukofsky says is the final end of a poetry object: the "rested totality." That conceptual poems are trying to acheive something outside of the poem doesn't change the fact that they are operating as a whole and total object.


  9. Two impulses arose while reading your comment, Charles:

    One, assuming a sort of chronology, was to mention that the poets that Zukofsky admired (Pound, Williams, Shakespeare, etc.) were coming from a very different direction than conceptual poetry: the poetry, the images and symbols, their sound and order, were the things to be delighted in, and often at a disparaging of any "program" to be followed. Zukofsky himself disliked abstraction, which is about the only thing that exists as an end for conceptual poetry.

    The second, which I think is more interesting, is to take a look at Zukofsky's notion that poets, artists, and philosophers did not work in a sucession but were speaking and working through a (Spinozain) universal, finite forms of the infinite principle that is nature (actively and passively). Conceptual poetry happens at a latter date, but has been spoken of extensively before hand.

  10. Genna--

    You may be right in that he is talking about the individual specifics in what he is looking to be objectively perfect. Makes sense when thinking the poem has inherently Sincerity and objectivity.
    He spends a moment talking about the inherent objectivity in a word tho which makes me think that the objectivity of a poem is a real thing—definable and necessary.
    His thoughts on objectness and objectivity in general remind me of a fractal image. Seems that if we see a poem as something that can be objective, same goes for a word, title, ad infinitum.
    So I agree with your assessment, it is hard to judge something by the “you’ll know” idea, as if that was even possible. I wonder if he saw it in his own work, since he was capable of seeing it other places. I think that power to visualize what encompasses good poetry would be a huge burden for anyone.

  11. Charles: I thought that this question of where the concept of “language” ends in addressing non-representational poetry (words separated from the things they stand for) was particularly interesting, partly because I’m not sure if words in a given language, addressed to one knowledgeable in that language, can ever be fully removed from their representational meanings. You make a good point about Zukofsky’s assertion, that one “who does not know Greek can listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer.” This kind of listening experience is “communicative” only in the broadest sense, and even then what a piece can be said to communicate is subjective at best. I immediately think of the Polish composer Penderecki –one of his famous pieces was originally titled simply 8’26’’ because of its duration, and in listening to it one understands a definite emotional charge, which is the extent of the music’s communicative force. However, when he retitled the work “Threnody to the Victims at Hiroshima,” many new connections could be formed between the music and what was then established as its concept. The point here is that this piece could have been named anything: “The Invasion of the City of Granada by the Moors in the Year of Our Lord Seven Hundred and Thirteen.” “Bosco Goes to the Park.” “The Road Warrior.” The music itself contains little of what an audience needs in order to understand it—we get an emotion in the broadest of terms, but that’s it. How we then approach and try to understand the non-representational elements of that music is dictated by its title, its one representational element.
    Considering the fact, though, that the definitions of language “circle back to communication,” I guess we should also define what it means to “communicate” something. Is communication of an emotional tone enough to qualify as a process of language? I would say yes, and I think that’s what Zukofsky is getting at in A Statement for Poetry when he says that “pure music may be literary in a communicative sense.” Even when we’re listening to Homer in Greek and we have no idea what he’s saying, there are still aspects of the work we can identify with and attempt to analyze (I’m going to complicate my argument here and say that much, if not all, of this understanding is dependent on actually hearing the poetry, not just seeing it on the page, but I think this is something we can delve further into in class). If this kind of writing falls under the (admittedly large) umbrella definition of language, I think the next step of qualifying it as poetry, or at least as “poetic” in some sense, is unavoidable. Can we dismiss a non-representational work as not poetry, despite its emotionally communicative aspect? Does a work need that representational anchor in order for us to call it a poem?

  12. Jonathan: The fact that Conceptual poems are trying to achieve something outside the object completely DOES change whether they are working in the totality of the object. The object itself is almost immaterial in most conceptual writing. The most extreme (and probably most effective) act of conceptual poetry is likely Christian Bok’s project injecting himself with an organism coded with a poem in its DNA.

    Does it matter what the poem actually is or says? No. What matters is the historicity of the poem—the poem’s conceptual significance. How can that be a perfect object as Zukofsky describes it if the object itself is immaterial? Even if the object were somehow perfect and finite, this perfection wouldn’t matter. Similarly looking at Goldsmith’s Day, where he simply copied text from the New York Times. Does that artifact actually matter? No. What matters are the implications of the action of the poem. The actual poem itself in Bok’s bloodstream doesn’t matter. It matters that it is in his bloodstream. The poem doesn’t matter as an object, simply what it more broadly represents or implies; the object is incidental. This is anything by the rested totality that Zukofsky implies.

    In regards to chronology, I mean to say that Zukofsky set forth certain premises of what poetry is and what it might contain. What if we apply them to Conceptualism?

    Also, I would assert the chronology might not matter or even back up the application of Zukofsky’s poetics on contemporary works, considering the intense influence his and Pound’s poetics have on the contemporary poetry world. We can’t assume that just because we’re not in direct contact with them, they don’t completely influence the shape of contemporary poetry. Pound and Zukofsky are still poets that many contemporary writers look up to—imagistic is still a word used to describe certain poems. Also, we’re not very far removed from Zukofsky himself. Consider that he died in 1978. Even consider that Oppen died in 84. That’s a few years after the crowd of contemporary writers that one could consider very young were born. Consider also of the pervasive and intense influence of the language poets (even being co-opted into the academic establishment), who are disciples of the objectivists. Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Rae Armantrout were even briefly contemporaries with Zukofksy and cohorts when they started publishing in the 1970s.

    Also notable, there is a legitimate argument that some of Zukofsky’s later work may fall under the definitions of conceptual poetry, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

  13. If you're interested, the Penderecki is at ("Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima").

  14. I'm interested in addressing the idea of sonics here as they seem to be such an organic component to Zukofsky's work, especially with pieces like the afore mentioned '80 flowers' and 'Catullus.' In 'A Statement for Poetry' Zukofsky's final thoughts strike the most resounding chord with me when he says "[The poet] looks, so to speak, into his ear as he does at the same time into his heart and intellect." I can't help but imagine him as a young child reading Shakespeare in Yiddish, knowing the work for the first time in a language other than what the original was written in. Of course a child doesn't think of this, but what a strange sensation it must have been to read it later in English, knowing how the Yiddish words previously functioned, and suddenly becoming aware of an entirely new layer of sounds. Yes, the translations would have preserved teh plots and intentions of Shakespears, but the simple experience of reconceptualising the linguistics of , say, Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be…” surely are momentously imprinting. Like the example of Homer’s poetry being sung aloud to an audience of non-Greek speakers, yes, the symbolism of the words is gone, yet the dynamics of the sounds, of the poet’s voice provides the musicality which enraptures the listener. The feeling of the poetry must be as successful as the symbolic chain of meaning forged by the words. Zukofsky concludes 'A Statement' by saying that a person must experience poetry by reading it, and in this way, "the reader becomes something of the poet himself: not because he 'contributes' to the poetry, but because he finds himself subject to its energy." To me this makes a whole lot of sense, especially when considering listening to 'The Illiad' or something in the native Greek. I can barely figure out what's happening when it's been translated to English so the idea of experiencing it in Greek is happily limited to my submersion into the tones and melodies of the language. In this way I feel like I'd be listening to an instrumental variation of the poem, not the poem itself, adn it is because of this reaction that, for me, Zukofsky's ideas on sonics move out of the realm of poetry and more toward that musical limit.

  15. Charles: Forgive me if this doesn't make sense. I'm sure it does, but I'm open to the possible alternative.

    In conceptual poetry, the individual parts do not matter, infact disappear, for the sake of the transmission of the concept: tease a part out from a conceptual poem, and you'll have something purely incidental.The word chosen has no "sincerety"; it was not chosen for thebeauty of its image, sound, or thought in referance to something, but as a meer casulty of the poem's overriding concept and its final intent of transmission. If the concept can be arrived at without the poem ever being read, all the better, but the poem operates as a single whole even if the matter that makes up the poem is never seen.

  16. The object as a tangible thing or passive substance of a subject's focus is different from Zukofsky's search for "rested totality" in the "objectivist" poem. While the tangible material, or even the literal substance of a conceptual poem is not of importance, because the conceptual poem's maximum effectiveness is acheived through a total transmission of the concept, conceptual poetry's end is an "objectivism", a final and complete expression.


    An Objective: (Optics)-- The Lens bringing the rays from an ojbect to a focus. That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry) -- Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

  17. “Certainly the more precise the writing, the purer the poetry—“ Zukofsky from “AN OBJECTIVE”

    Zukofsky, when editing his issue of POETRY created the Objectivisits, claiming two main elements of good poetry: Sincerity & Obectivisim.

    Having read his essays & Scroggins Bio—

    How does Zukofsky define Sincerity? How are we defining Sincerity? How do we perceive sincerity in the context of “Mantis”?

    “If sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if ther is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or from… Shapes suggest themesleves, and the mind senses and receives awareness” ~Zukofsky from AN OBJECTIVE

    Objectivism: form as a sense of unity, an impression of “rested totality”—what does this mean? Have we found this within the set of poems we’ve seen from Zukofsky so far?

    “An objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.”

    from A

    “The melody, the rest are accessory—
    …my one voice; my other…
    An objective—rays of the object brough to a focus,
    An objective—nature as creator—desire for what is objectively perfect,
    Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars”

    from AN OBJECTIVE—SEE pp 15-16

    “A poem. A poem as object…”A poem. This object in process—The poem as a job—A classic…A poem: a context associated with ‘musical’ shape… --things, human beings as things…”

    Polictical life—his experience as both a Jew, and a poor man, shaped Zukofsky as a man, & influenced his poetics. Social context—how politics purvey in the poetry… life/poetry relationships…

    With Zukofsky, as we’ve learned, music is essential-- he related it to for, music building the shape the poem takes, relating it mathmatically… these were essential to what made the poem an “object”, and thus a poetics of objectivism.

    “the order of his syllables will define his awareness of order” ~ Zukofsky POETRY

    SOUND EXERCISE: Homophonic Translation:

    Discuss Nonsense/Sound Sense, the meaning of sounds—“Crickets” re: chirping, and “

    Zukofsky, from POETRY: “Felt deeply, poems like all things have the possibilities of elements whose isotopes are yet to be found. Light has traveled and so looked forward.”

    “how much what is sounded by words has to do with what is seen by them—and how much what is at once sounded and seen by them crosscuts an interplay among themselves—…time, and what is seen in time (as held by a song), and an action whose words are actors or, if you will, mimes composing steps as of a dance that at proper instants calls in the vocal cords to transform it into plain speech”


    “the sound and pitch emphasis of a word are never apart from its meaning”

    “The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention.”


    “Thus poetry may be defined as an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit. Poetry is derived obviously from everyday existence (real or ideal)”

    “Condensed speech is most of the method of poetry…The rest is ease, pause, grace… it exists independently of the reader’s preferences for one kind of ‘subject’ or another”

    “He looks, so to speak, into his ear as he does at the same time into his heart and intellect.”

  18. (That was our lesson plan!... posted, as required...)

  19. Thank you, Amber (and Genna and Katherine)!