Monday, February 1, 2010

Middle Zukofsky/Scroggins Visit Assignment

Read for next week's class:

L/Z Selected Poems
pp. 22-73, focusing on Anew 12, 20, 21, 22 and 4 Other Countries
pp. 90-116, ("A" 9-16) - focus on 9, 11, 12, but also read 15/16
pp. 152-154 "A Foin Lass Bodders"

238-52 (Analysis of "A" 9-12)
262-98 (bio 1952-60)
368-79 (Translation)

A reminder, the schedule for next week is different. We have a lecture at 3:40 in LA 208, then a break before reconvening at Papa Joe's, 6 p.m.

Definitely focus on the poetry so we can take advantage of Scroggins' expertise.


  1. In class last week, I was struck by how much the etymology of the words, or unknown definitions, added all of these layers & contexts to the poems. At one point, somebody (and sorry I don’t remember who) asked how far we should/could go with this. To that end I decided to do, not a close reading, but an excavation of one of the small poems from Anew. After the last discussion, I find myself reading Z’s poems & wondering how much my ignorance in etymology is affecting my reading, how much I’m losing from the poems, if something could be gained by spending some time with the OED.


    Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purpose
    when thought shows it to be deep or dark?

    See sun, and think shadow.

    At first, pre-excavation, I’d say that the poem is dealing with the dialectic—how one truth necessitates it’s opposite. Life requires death, as the Sun requires shadow.

    But as I begin my excavation, even beginning with the word “can” I find multiple meanings at work. According to the OED, can is also a noun for: a. Skill, knowledge. b. Power, ability. It’s also a verb having to do with preservation, usually food, but apparently also film. Both of these, I think, have relevance within the poem. The idea of what the sun is capable of, it’s power, what it does—both warms, provides light, but also allows things to grow & live.

    The word “mote” has 8 separate entries in the OED, each one containing multiple variations & modified definitions. I had originally read “mote” as in the water surrounding a castle, but the OED, in it’s first entry tells me: 1. a. A particle of dust, esp. one of the innumerable minute specks seen floating in a beam of light; (contextually) an irritating particle in the eye or throat.
    And then: The movement of a celestial object across the sky. And also a verb: 1. To find fault. 2. Of the sun: to light up specks of dust in the atmosphere.

  2. This word suddenly opens up this very compact poem into a world of possibilities. The fact that the word mote is naturally tied to the sun, the cosmos, with dust & light. Not only that, but it’s wracked with negative connotations. When leading into sunlight, it’s interesting because we’re already tuned into the fact that something isn’t quite right about this “sun” business. By the end of the poem we get: See sun, think shadow. So in its attempt to light the sky, it instead makes us aware of shadow & thus fails?

    That’s interesting considering one definition of defeat: 4. Law. The action of rendering null and void. Can the dust particles or whatever prevent the light from being of any value?

    And shadow: 4. a. The dark figure which a body ‘casts’ or ‘throws’ upon a surface by intercepting the direct rays of the sun or other luminary; the image (approximately exact or more or less distorted) which this figure presents of the form of the intercepting body. Phr. under or in the shadow of: within the purlieus of, close up against, in proximity to.

    And then all of the “sheltering” implications of the word shadow also.

    What happens when “See sun, think shelter” happens—suddenly the line isn’t simply dealing with the sun & its opposite, but also what the sun provides: shelter, warmth, life.

    I could go all the way through this poem, but by the end of it, I’d have a novel. But it’s been a fascinating exercise. I guess I’m more curious what others think of this? Does knowing all of these definitions add to the poem for you? Does it end up being just sort of interesting? Or is the poem just as satisfying without excavating for every context? Is it possible Z wasn’t aware of any of this? Does that matter either?

  3. Amber: In a sense, it sounds like you’re getting at an element of New Criticism in Zukofsky. Now, I’ll admit I have a limited knowledge of New Crit, BUT from what I’ve garnered, it’s essentially looking at the poem purely as an object in itself, getting away from applying biography and circumstance and bringing criticism back to the poem itself. It’s the poem. It’s the object (oh, buzzword!).

    Now, that said, it seems as though Zukofsky’s biography and critical writing has essentially given us license for this. Consider Zukofsky’s care and even poetics of defining the poem as an object; this all seems to indicate that we DO in fact have infinite license when digging into his poetry etymologically as you did (or in any way you can imagine). And perhaps he didn’t always intend every avenue, but when he defines what a poem can (or should) do, he is working with the poem, not the biography. The poem is the perfect object, and theoretically, it should function as such. That said, it seems as though he would have that much care.

    In a sense, he’s removing authorship in that way. He’s furthering the idea that it’s all available because everything available is intentional, or if something isn’t part of intent, intent doesn’t matter—the poem has its own autonomy. Zukofsky then removes himself from the equation. There’s no way to narrow anything critically because of the bio because all ideas are then valid even if, especially if, we apply the biography.

    Perhaps this negates ideas of New Criticism because we in fact ARE taking into account the fact that Zukofsky could very well have intended everything, but also, the biography then becomes irrelevant in dissection. The dissection is still back onto the poem, rather than Zukofsky’s bio—the bio says, “look at the poem,” give or take.

  4. Also, this all seems extremely relevant in regards to Zukofsky’s continuum between speech and music in A-12. Namely, he almost seems to admit that the continuum is impossible because he’s still using words (he seems to either resign or question in his later work especially, which I plan on dissecting next class in Late Zukofsky). Whatever words are made up of, UNLESS they’re a foreign language, the words still function as signifiers. Even considering that he might move away from speech, the communicative aspect of language/poetry (moving toward music), he doesn’t actually move away from the communication. We try to make sense out of nonsense, and in this way, he seems to have completely embraced words’ capacity as signifiers wholly. I almost feel that he considered the flaw in complete sincerity so he completely embraced everything available.

  5. I apologize if this is all over the place, there are a few things I would like to respond to in both Charles and Amber’s posts.

    Amber: I think your right on in most of your reading of the poem. In addition to looking toward the OED for possible readings of the poem, an initial reading seems to lead you to the dictionary. “See Sun.” As in go to, as in the dictionary sending you different places, as in Daystar- See: Sun. The language of the poems almost seems to work in the language of the dictionary.

    I think once we dive into the poem the intent of the author is no longer relevant (al la Charles) because all possible readings are the intent of the poem. This is the poem being an object, it is an object with will. That sounds way hookier than I intend. But maybe that’s what this post intends…

    Charles: My understanding of New Crit is as limited as yours, but as I understand it we are meant to read the poem as if a world does not exist outside of it. I think the difference then might be that Z’s “perfect/objective” poem is an object that has relationships. Granted, those relationships rely on the reader. If the reader knows Heidegger then “Before the void there was neither/Being or non-being” in “A-12” makes a relationship between those texts. If the reader does not, than that relationship does not exist and that section of the poem is self-contained.

    Another thing I am curious about is the value structure in “Lower limit speech/Upper limit.” My knowledge of math is more limited than my knowledge of New Crit, but is there a value structure assigned to limits? As a class we seem to reading music as the better of the two, but I didn’t see established in “A.” In fact, by following that equation with “No?” he seems to be inviting his reader to disagree or doubt this statement. Perhaps he is also placing music and speech in the same dialectic relationship Amber pointed out in “21.”

  6. Viewed this way, it would seem like Z. would always have to navigate communication and speech, as Charles says, because signifiers always signify and words always denote some sort of sound. So like the sun/shadow issue we run up against, we cannot really abandon speech or music exclusively.

    As a side note: I think in these poems we see Z’s idea of sincerity shifting. Or my idea of what he means by sincerity is shifting. Initially, it seemed like sincerity was a gesture of portraying reality as it truly is. In “29 poems” and “29 songs” we encounters a lot of strong images that seems to depict an actual scene. Of course they always have their characteristic Z shift, but the image seemed to be the focus, as in W.C.W. and Pound’s early work. The parataxis of“4 other countries” seems to steer away from reality and toward perception. Of course, that is a dialectic as well.

  7. Amber –

    I think your examination was pretty rad, thanks for sharing it. (The OED is fantastic). I was interested in the idea of being able to describe what he was doing with current vocabulary, if that would have made things easier for him.

    Sometimes I can’t help, but get the feeling that each word should have an precise significant meaning, and all the others simply add upon it and open up different interpretations / examinations. E.g. the meaning of Can in this case—while having multiple possibilities, is simply the: to be able to, or have the ability to, pointing to the over-all literal meaning of the poem.

    With what you are talking about, I think the question “how far we should go with this” is important. As you have been exploring, you kind of illustrate how far we could go with it (a long way) because there is an infinite amount of things that language can say about itself.

    Definitions are interesting. For your question: the abstract and different definitions of words definitely add something to that word itself. (Make me like it more?) But, definitions almost become their own form of poetry—or at least they are definitely signifiers and try to help things uncover themselves.

    This doesn’t satisfy me though: there is a precision with words in context, their ability to explain themselves and to open things up. The preciseness of language in poetry compels me more than the possibilities of what exists within words. If something can be a verb, but it is a noun in the sentence, I will read it as the noun and not the verb. So yes—very interesting.

    I think the excavating “for every context” interests me a lot.

    Charles—removing authorship is an interesting sight, esp. with the given ability to find what is intended (all is intended). The signifiers is interesting. I feel like that snippet that Amber shared from 21 makes sense in context. Talking about the poem as a complete object and only embedding signifiers within and giving that poem over to the reader really does offer a lack of authorship, because you become the person saying something, reacting to the poem in itself, no longer letting it “be” but creating what it “is”

    I think that the rhetorical No? points to this lack of authorship. This isn’t just my perfect object, it’s a perfect object that anyone can pick up and toy with.

  8. Amber: I want to branch off from your discussion here because it seems that your attention to etymologies drifts toward another important aspect of Z’s poetics, the problems posed and opportunities afforded by the act of translation. It’s interesting to me that as readers of poetry our immediate tendency is to take this semantic approach to understanding what a particular poem is doing—it’s not surprising, because I think we intrinsically like puzzles. We like to be able to say that we’ve come up with an answer to a question (even if that question likely doesn’t have just one answer, as your interpretation of the poem from Anew suggests). As we take a look at the trajectory (generally speaking, of course) of the discourse surrounding different schools of modern poetry (through the “Objectivists,” the Language poets, Conceptualism and so on), we see that there’s been a definite shift from looking at a poem for its emotive qualities to understanding it in terms of its larger concept, a project of the intellect at times more than the heart. That’s why it’s so immediately off-putting to me (I’ll go out on a limb and say this applies to many others, as well) that Z hangs so much on the importance of poetry not meant to be understood with the intellect. I appreciated Scroggins’ assertion that for Z, “poetry is…a largely somatic affair, a matter of the poet’s making sounds through his physical organs.” The way Z asks us to approach a translation like Catullus definitely requires a more intuitive focus, or lack of focus, depending on how you look at it. As we read that translation, Scroggins says, “we breathe with Catullus as well, and find our own lungs, lips, and vocal cords reproducing the movements of those of a poet two thousand years dead.” Even to those who insist that the transference of ideas through a poem is of paramount importance to the art form, the suggestion in this statement of a more instinctive connection between poet and reader is compelling.

    In 4 Other Countries, Z visits the idea of translation in poetry through translation in visual art. Beginning on page 51, allusions are made to the works of Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Masaccio, all late Byzantine to Early Italian Renaissance painters. The chronological introduction of these references into the poem suggests a relationship to translation that is striking when one considers the poem as an object. In the Early Italian Renaissance, interpretations of religious iconography began to shift from highly stylized depictions (elongated figures, flat shading, little to no sense of linear or atmospheric perspective) to more realistic representations. The procession of these varying renditions of similar subjects speaks to the nature of poetry translation:

    The faded
    in San Zeno
    of Verona,

    Of the mourning
    of Jesus
    from the cross—

    cannot tell
    if leaves
    cover the weeping

    Or if the mottles
    shred colors
    where plaster flaked,
    never meant

    for leaves

    This section of the poem suggests an idea that Charles and Genna brought up, that even if the poet intends a specific effect through his language, that intention is often irrelevant in contextual and semantic appreciation of the poem.

  9. Just a brief note on mote:

    It's also the word used in the King James Version of the Gospel of Matthew:

    "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

  10. The Lesson Plan, such as it is:

    Shifts in Poetics
    *Marxism/Laborer --> Personal/Family
    *Self-conscious Allusion --> Subtle Allusion/Form
    *Anew 20 a statement of poetics?
    *From Poetry, 1931: “each word in itself is an arrangement” (274) – becomes more important as Z’s poetry matures (80 Flowers)

    Math and Calculus
    *Repetitions of n’s and r’s in “A”-9, first half
    *Subtleties of poetic equations and their relevance to the idea of “Duration”

    *Not just a sonic principle
    *Appears more in Z’s later poetry
    *Integral of music and speech “A”-12
    ***Privileging one over the other or two ends of a spectrum?
    *Fugue – “4 Other Countries” – parataxis
    *Words as chords – harmony in music important to Zukofsky – from last week, how far do we go in applying meaning to Z’s words? As far as harmony (in meaning) allows? Poetic line equal to a phrase of music.

    Avoiding “Objectivity” and “Sincerity”
    *Can we do this? Z seems suspicious of his own definitions and is resistant to the “ism.” Is his later poetry a movement away from or toward greater “objectivity” and “sincerity”

  11. Hi Genna (does anyone read this after the class, I wonder?) --

    I wanted to comment on the perceived preference for music over speech "as a class." I think what's contributing to that is the fact that reading poems "for music" is just less familiar to us than the other. We're not usually taught (encouraged?) to do that, and at least temporarily tilting our vision to highlight the music of Z. is somewhat strange. If it gets more attention in the discussion, that may be why.

  12. Now that we've had a chance to talk with Prof. Scroggins, I feel more comfortable with the idea of using New Criticism to look at Zukofsky's poems. I wasn't sure how that fit in with the Objectivist goal of sincerity and truth, since it implies, or rather makes it very likely, that more than one truth is possible. In some ways it seems like a leap into scientific certainties, and in others like a metaphysical acceptance that there are many truths. Since Scroggins sat in with us, I feel like we've been given permission to look for the evidence for Zukofsky's playfulness and use of puns, mathematical equations, and other hidden meanings to expand the possibilities of his poems, not merely enjoy them when they are immediately evident or if Zukofsky pointed them out to us. I was delighted with Genna's idea that the poetry itself has a will – that it wants to be read a certain way(s).
    As an OED addict, I already spend entirely too much time trying to decide which definition of a word fits best in context; I find it very difficult to get one reading from any poem. The way Amber used etymology to pick apart the oakum of Zukofsky's "21" is pretty much the way I tend to read, if given the opportunity. I am not sure how I would go about selecting the version of each poem which is true, or most true, for everyone. Who would be the one to measure this truth objectively?
    As Charles pointed out, it is one of the criticisms of New Criticism to suppose that the literary biography is not of value when it comes to the poem as an object. Yet I don't know why we, as students, shouldn't be allowed to use whatever tools seem best for the "excavation," as long as we are aware we do it. I admit, literary criticism is a new field for me; I'm taking the graduate class with Dr. Hansen now. I've been told that New Criticism is what I naturally do, but that doesn't imply I know what that means any more than Zukofsky knew what Objectivism was when he was trying to define his technique.
    Because so much of what we are learning in Form and Theory applies what I currently study in Literary Criticism, I plan from now on to try and apply each new theory to Objectivism as it comes up in class, and see how each changes my view of the movement.