Carnegie Hall, c.1915
The question of whether Zukofsky is truly neglected (and of whether said neglect has been just) is far less interesting than the simple fact that one can approach Zukofsky with a readerly freshness—an innocence, if you will—that is perilously hard to come by for such art without equal. This is in starkest contrast to Pound’s Cantos, which has never fully emerged from its author’s divisive personal reputation (and probably never will). “A” is perhaps the last major work of American Modernism to feel like uncharted territory.
“A” is a book-length poem divided into 24 sections, one for each hour in the day. Begun in 1927 and completed in 1974, “A” is self-consciously the major work of its author’s life, but it also seeks to present that life in something like real time. In a 1930 letter to Pound, Zukofsky explains that “A” will attempt “the objective evaluation of my own experience, an indigenous emotion controlling a versification which would (possibly) by my own and a natural ability (or perverseness) for wrenching English so that (again, possibly) it might attain a diction of distinction not you, or [T.S.] Eliot, or Bill [Carlos Williams] or anyone before me.” This is Zukofsky’s way of saying that he feels comfortable writing about himself. (In today’s world Zukofsky might have been a world-class blogger or Twitterer. On the other hand, “A” is 826 pages long—so maybe not.)
The earliest sections of “A” are very much enamored of Objectivism, the literary “movement” Zukofsky invented at the urging of Poetry magazine’s Harriet Monroe. It adhered strongly to Pound’s dictum that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol,” and it became the theory through which most scholars have looked in on Zukofsky’s poetry. But what lends distinction to what might otherwise seem like Pound-apprentice work is Zukofsky’s insistence on the primacy of the personal. “A”-1, for example, opens with “A / Round of fiddles playing Bach” because Zukofsky is attending a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion:
Composed seventeen twenty-nine,
Rendered at Carnegie Hall,
Thursday evening, the fifth of April.
From Carnegie Hall it’s a short trip down to the Lower East Side, where Zukofsky—the child of Orthodox Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe—grew up, and where the multitude of languages and nationalities and politics inspired him to try and draw “the song out of the voices,” as he puts it in the concluding line of “A”-2. Music, it quickly becomes clear, is the art Zukofsky admires most. He takes seriously Walter Pater’s assertion that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” but his view of the problem is technical rather than metaphorical. In “A”-6, he asks, “Can / The design / Of the fugue / Be transferred / To poetry?”, and though he’s clearly posing the question to himself, he is not asking it rhetorically. “A” itself is his answer.