Post 3: 9/25/04
Tests of Zukofsky
I am not merely asking, What are the possibilities and limits of one's art? I want to continually access the structure in which one's art and criticism find their way with others, or meet their limits in resistance. Such limits must be encountered as the ground for the work itself—it is of crucial importance to access their structure, to try to envisage a kind of work that would change them. (Prospect)
Louis Zukofsky's poetics are a signal instance of "horizon work"—writing that attempts to write its way into the structures of its reception, even as those structures change. We can imagine how such a mode of writing might come about through an historical thought experiment made by Zukofsky in "Poem Beginning 'The,'" on what will have been his undergraduate experience at Columbia:
Lo! from my present—say not—itch
179 How statue-like I see thee stand
180 Phi Beta Key within thy hand!
181 Professor—from the backseats which
182 Are no man's land! (Complete Short Poetry, 15)
Fast forward to 2004 and the Zukofsky Centennial Conference at Columbia, its opening ceremonies attended by roughly two hundred Zukofskyans, many of them professors. The question of the relation between Zukofsky's parody of his "academic training" and the structure of his reception bears comment. Could he have predicted this turnout, and in what sense? Graffiti from time immemorial, or at the very least 1923, may still be found on some desktops at Columbia—a signal instance of the material text, where once logocentrism was given its definitive demonstration beside the bunsen burners? Zukofsky clearly initially took a position outside the normative discourse of the academy—the nightmare of the "establishment" from which Robert Smithson sought to awake. How does such a position unfold at a later historical moment?
The structure of Zukofsky's reception in 2004, I am going to claim from the evidence of the conference (see recent discussions by Joshua Corey and Ron Silliman), is problematic and incomplete. Since the moment in the 1960s when the Objectivists were positioned as countercanonical heirs to the Pound Era by conservative critics of modernism (Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, and most recently, Marjorie Perloff), there has been a steady "working up" of Zukofsky, his poetic and critical legacy, in the terms of such an inheritance. Despite legendary difficulties with Zukofsky's literal heir, the corpus of his work is being established; a series of book-length critical works and, soon a biography (perhaps even a Library of America volume); numerous articles; and a wide influence among several generations of poets has had its intended effect. Zukofsky is "canonical"; this result may be subject to revision, but it cannot be undone.
Such an inheritance, though it has a cultural argument specific to the time of its engagement (from the 1960s through the present), has become increasingly a matter of a defense of the author and its transmission via inheritance—its mere transmission, as if that were enough for literature to do its work. Zukofsky predicts this conflict in the fragment above: agency is in the back row, not at the lectern, and is pitched precisely to undermine static forms of literary valorization. Poetic, as opposed to canonical, readings of Zukofsky thus will be split—along the lines of the material text as resistant to tradition as logos. The poetic descent from Zukofsky, as opposed to the canonizing lineage, is thus positioned precisely at the crux of dilemma that it cannot ignore: either it positions its use of the material text—as a shorthand for all the technical devices now in practice that problematize transparency of meaning—as species to the genus of canonical authorship, or it thinks its position otherwise. But how so, if obduracy simply predicts the later reception of countercanonical authorship? By rethinking the historical arguments of the work, I would say.
I want now to go back to a specific historical moment of Zukofsky's reception insofar as intersects this crux of decision, between the material text and the horizon of authorship. In 1973, in the fourth issue of This and at the moment that I took over editorial responsibility for the journal, I wrote the following account of Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translation of Catullus (London: Cape Goliard, 1969):
First, that the sounds and rhythms in English come as close as possible to those of the Latin. The English is all of Zukofsky's experience of it, through reading, speech, radio, etc. Second, syntax, diction, mode of statement are a function of the sound. The syntax and meaning become increasingly elaborate and difficult as the words sound and move like the Latin. Careful attention (with the help of a literal translation) brings the thread of the original meaning into focus within the twist of the "new" English. One sees Catullus through an intermediate which is a constant (or one that approaches an "ideal" in the course of the work), and this transformation is of a fixed order. English has its sounds—meaning runs through them. Knowing English, and once learning to "see" the sense through the sound-torque, one can "see" Catullus through the English words. There's such pleasure in the language but that's not the point to make. I felt a presence behind what the difficult English was making me do. By holding one thing constant, Zukofsky makes a direct perception possible. The translation is then of Catullus into English, not into Zukofsky or Horace Gregory and their feelings for who C is. Such method comments directly on Pound's, in which case the constant was the translator and his feeling for the original poem and poet. In Zukofsky there is not this intuition, rather mastery over a fixed set of procedures. (For the other method see the earlier [?] translation of Carmen 8 in All.) Zukofsky takes the original out of of historical time and makes the poem again language. Instead of a "personal" take on C, one is given language which points to a living other. Catullus is direct, but his poem is realized language, not the directness of his life. The subject (C) for translation parallels Catullus' subject for his poem. Each is only known through language which we now have. Translation as act takes one a lot farther than what Catullus "literally" did or said or wrote—such false literalness assuming an arbitrary rendering of another language and time into a least common denominator of experience. By preserving the distance, Z gives insight which is not arbitrary. It depends on the exactness of one condition. Knowing this, the present experience is completely active, language moves. Zukofsky's translation makes C exist in the time of English. This seems only possible, or clear, when the language itself is taken to a limit. This is what Zukofsky does in his Catullus.
This is may well be the first critical text I wrote of any cogency. In the context of This and the emerging Language School, it might be seen as my own manifesto in response to the poetics of phenomenological immediacy Robert Grenier proposed in his well-known dicta "I hate speech" and "what now I want . . . is the word way back in the head" (This 1). At the time of its writing, it bears on an almost religious enthusiasm for Zukofsky in our community as his work was coming into print (both volumes of All had been published, but not yet the full text of "A")—as well as the homosociality of that community, evident here in the lack of understanding of Celia Zukofsky's role. We may say that, in the manner of such immediacy, intense conversations on Zukofsky continued in the San Francisco Language community—with Ron Silliman on the possibilities of the material text; Bob Perelman over the distinction between "sincerity" and "objectification" (the subject of my still unpublished talk "On Objectivism" in the first series of San Francisco Talks); and with Robert Duncan at the notorious memorial evening for Zukofsky in November 1978, a poetic watershed and political disaster that has been often commented on, but only spuriously until now.
It is timely to look back on that moment, as well as the other conversations, in terms of the present uses of Zukofsky for contemporary writing—and for me and possibly others, much more. For those who were not at the event, a thumbnail sketch. Tom Mandel, then director of the Poetry Center, had asked Duncan, as the major promulgator of Zukofsky and guiding light of the Poetry Center from the 1950s on, and myself as a reader of Zukofsky from a new and differently politicized generation, to participate in a memorial event. The event would be widely advertised, even a letter-press broadside of a Zukofsky poem was commissioned. At a meeting the day before (I remember the huge crab salad Duncan ordered at a restaurant in a mall near San Francisco State), we agreed that the event would begin with a screening of the NET film outtakes of Zukofsky, to be introduced by Duncan, I would make my presentation, and Duncan would follow. My strategy—both proposal and defense—was to employ the material text as means of speaking for Zukofsky and to avoid the traditional encomium and any authority of transmission it would imply. Quite simply, I could not know my future use of Zukofsky, and could only present it in fragments as a result. I remember Duncan's pitched, even catty introduction to the film—some fuzzy anecdote about Zukofsky wanting the outrageous sum of $500 as an honorarium in a period in which that was unheard of—but which ended with a grand claim that Zukofsky's work was written, in its brilliance and obduracy, "that we can be American." I had not seen the Emersonian core of Duncan's poetics until then, but the idea in the late 1970s that "being American" was the goal of a poetics of countercanonical resistance was anything but tenable. Much can be said on the question of the American horizons of Zukofsky, but we were close to the Vietnam period then.
Not only that, but in the weeks immediately preceding the memorial two disturbing historical events had occurred that marred the horizon of "being American"—the Jonestown massacre of November 18, and the double assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27. The Poetry Center event took place only a few days later, on [November 30?]. There was a horrible affect of paranoia and victimage in the air, one that resonated in multiple senses. For one, the Jonestown cult, not just their ugly demise, was an obscene perversion of collective ideology, one that reflected badly on the legacy of the counterculture in 1970s San Francisco, and clearly the assassination of Moscone and Milk by the homophobic Dan White had an effect of immediate violence on the gay community. The ultimate resonances of these events on a memorial for Zukofsky must be carefully assessed at greater length, but there was an evident undercurrent of all manner of disquiet. In my own presentation, I tried, by means of an opaque projector and a series of carefully typed selections from "A," to show how the material text in Zukofsky derived from both poetic and political motives. The revival of the politics of the 1930s clearly resonated negatively with Duncan and George Oppen, seated in the first row, and this response may have been affected by the revulsion at the recent collectivist disaster. Next, I read my note on the Zukofskys' Catullus. At some point—memory blurs the recollection of trauma—either after the selections of "A" or the note on Catullus, Duncan had heard enough. He literally attempted to retake the podium, I asked him to sit down until I had finished, he complied, and I quickly summed up my remarks. Duncan's presentation involved a strong rebuke of my argument on Catullus—specifically, that Zukofsky could not translate Catullus, in that he could not enter into the spirit of his passions. An expressivist reading, as opposed to my constructivist one, here found a defining moment. For Duncan, Zukofsky's experiment was (though he did not use the term) perverse in masking the eroticism of the original; one can infer that the underlying subtext of his criticism was that there was something sexual that Zukofsky was covering up. Close readings of the early sections of "A" support this sense of hidden sexuality ("Every day's a love day to sailor"; "A"–6, for example). In what followed, Duncan took up one of the Zukofsky fragments I brought (of 80 Flowers) and tried to give it an impassioned, spontaneous reading that would recover its vital core in an act of embodied transmission—a performance that, due to already overloaded synapses, started to fritz and spark without focus. As overdetermined by the events that had preceded, this literary debacle—and those who listened to it later on tape could scarcely understand why—conveyed an aura of utter symbolic violence. I remember the audience streaming from hall, looking like an evacuation from a train wreck. The event, in any case, became an urban legend in San Francisco; though furtively referred to since, it was used to mark the unbridgeable chasm between textualist and authorial readings of Zukofsky, and between the emerging community of the Language School and the more established San Francisco literary scene around Duncan.
Was this historical crux necessarily schismatic—better put, should one continue to see it that way? It is not a matter of the separation of schools or tendencies, though I may have thought so at any time earlier. Rather, it is a question of agency and the imagination of the goals of writing in a larger sense. In my reading of Catullus, Zukofsky precisely becomes a critic of the "author function," and I would be as well. What I saw Zukofsky doing was refunctioning the original text into a new language, not through identification with the author. This, then, would be an example—to be expanded on any number of registers—of a refunctioning of that which had come before in the widest senses, building "a new world within the ashes of the old." Poetry becomes the site of a critical construction of that which precedes it, and there is no sense that this process could not continue. The act of criticism, then, could be a continual restaging in new historical circumstances, not a reinvestment of orders that had been there all along (like "America" or "literature"). I had not yet read Gadamer and his notion of the "fusion of horizons," but it was Zukofsky's demonstration of a kind of agency that translated one set of terms into another (from source text to target form, in the terms of The Constructivist Moment) that interested me. Catullus was a roadmap to agency. That this proposal elicited such violence, however, is its second entailment—it was seen as a direct threat to, a destruction of, the continuity of a (counter)tradition that was in process of being built. The materialist component to my argument, then, was seen as antagonistic to emerging cultural orders, as if it implied a refusal of translation into "higher" forms of authorship—we might say their "mystery"—in Duncan.
Having thus acted—and having been reacted to—one can only set out to live with the result. The first result was a discussion group on Zukofsky in the next few years, and the performance of "A"–24—a watershed of another kind, in several senses. Later, much later, I tried to account for our version of Zukofsky in a section of our ongoing work in The Grand Piano. While that text is not ready for publication, I incorporated parts of it as a "Tribute to Zukofsky" read at the "Poetries of the 1940s" conference at Orono this summer; that text is available here. The reading was, for me, a kind of reenactment of the earlier and failed tribute; coming immediately after homages by Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman, both part of the "A"–24 group, and immediately before Robert Creeley, the stakes were immediate. I imagine the work, now, as a substitute for the original event as it was translated into a series of decisions to live through its implications as a poetics. That may sound entirely cryptic; in which case, I refer the reader to the text. The work can be seen as a kind of second test, after the schismatic moment of the first, in which poetry is measured by its consequences for experience as it unfolds in a historical duration. The extension of the text as life, rather than an intention of the life as text, it may be said—leading to the third of my tests of the nature of "Zukofsky's Historicism":
Zukofsky’s work, I am going to claim, is a lifelong meditation on the horizon of liberation that was first understood in the class politics and theoretical framework of the Marxist tradition, and this is true even after the many moments in which those horizons were revised at crucial moments—the turn to Spinoza in “A”–9; to the family in “A”–11; to the everyday in “A”–12; to music throughout the second half of “A” and to language particularly in “A”–16, 22, and 23; and to a literary horizon that makes the historical seem merely an occasion to be gone beyond, as either particular or universal, in his reception—literally, Zukofsky is a poet who was influenced by Marxism in his youth, but went beyond it for modernist horizons. The implications of anti-historicist readings, however, go much farther than that. We can chart, here, two influential routes “beyond” history that are, without any doubt, offered by Zukofsky—but which are insufficient. The first aligns the horizon of the work’s completion (“Zukofsky is the only major modernist to have completed his long poem”) with the great conversation; this is the reading represented by Robert Duncan’s neoplatonism, seen as a seminar in the sky where great souls hold forth unto eternity. The second takes the turn to language as Zukofsky’s literariness, and reads his swerve from any kind of ideality as the material instance of the work itself, a perpetual motion machine by which particulars are generalized as the kind of work literature does. Both readings are well founded in the text and have a range of implication, but both give up crucial aspects of how Zukofsky worked his materials as history and futurity. The first ignores the situatedness of literary production for an eventual overcoming that mystifies its origins; while the second positions language as the present in which it is produced. Both founder on the historical futurity Zukofsky constructed, as he shifted from one horizon to the next, in a staged presentation in which the manifest concerns of present language substitute for and overwrite the buried content of an historical past. [Text continues here.]
Much like the "Tribute to Zukofsky," this approach intends an intervention in Zukofsky studies; as in the former, I wanted to move from the register of experience to the question of Zukofsky's writing as historicist. In it, I am sketching two horizons of Zukofsky's reception that are only partial, and that raise questions of poetic agency in specific ways. Seeing the folding of Zukofsky's work into tradition as neoplatonic and ideal—eternity as a permanent "fusion of horizons," perhaps—is a way of making sense of Duncan's claims for authorial immediacy in his reading of Zukofsky, as opposed to my textualist approach. However, I also call into question the textualist deferral of that entry into tradition (even if at times it seems to be seduced by the possibility of doing so in a quick overcoming of its negative moment) as not dealing adequately with the historical argument of the work—which we may have sought to prove in experience—and by extension with its own methodology. Before offering an alternative, one may ask, How did these two partial horizons manifest themselves at the conference? Certainly, neoplatonism was a minority concern—I can only cite one paper, on Zukofsky's "quincunxes," as looking for the kinds of correspondences between the text and ideal orders that would be the legacy of late-nineteenth century symbolist aesthetics in a poet like Duncan. It is, however, at the unexamined level of the "author"—which I am going to claim is explainable as an ideal "form" used to provide an interpretative framework as a kind of correspondence—where the blindspot of idealism may be discerned. The conference itself was almost entirely "authorial"—looking for its readings in a construction of Zukofsky and the series of works that give his authorship extension, and by that fusing his horizons with the "author" as the irreducible substrate of literary readings—to be reproduced, as well, in the context of poet/critics who are, no one can deny, authors themselves. Zukofsky's horizon, at present, is one of authorial construction where contemporary poets of the material text find their meanings defined in advance by a reception—soon, they too will be authors, from "Mr. Language" to "Ms. Marginality."
What an impoverished horizon! Why not stop now, or continue on unto eternity—either way. One way or another, the author will achieve the limits of being that is the author, and all will be well. Meanwhile, a war is going on outside, the body counts add up as they have before, there is massive misuse of language in the public domain, where poetry is ever more that which millions die nightly in their beds for the lack of. The second, more noble, alternate thus would be, poetically, at least to produce—to meet Zukofsky at the level of the material text and continually swerve from the horizon of reception as it comes forth to meet one. Not bad—but not good enough. This horizon of work—within the horizon of language—may be done in present time, but it is a present time that could be any time—quite literally, any time in the last two decades. What we need, I go on to say, is a reflection on precisely what we are doing now, and for what reasons, in reading Zukofsky—as parallel to a concern for what Zukofsky was doing in the time in which he wrote. Here, the early Marxism of Zukofsky is crucial, and I advance a reading in which the formal strategies of the evolving work continually refunction, by means of "substitution" and "overwriting," its earlier history as text, much as Zukofsky's translation of Catullus refunctions the historical original in the present. Coming full circle, then, I wanted to extent the moment of my reading of Catullus as history precisely into the domain of authorial construction as the dominant institutional site of reading Zukofsky's work.
This is horizon work, as one way of accounting for the legacy of Zukofsky. And just as much as Zukofsky wrote himself into the tradition that was here being institutionally constructed—the hints are not subtle on how he should be read in this way, and are everywhere in his work—the implicit logic of his work provides an alternative. This is the moment where historical uncovering is essential (one reason for the self-protection of his sources, both in the obdurate text and in the archive?), as providing the prescience toward futurity of a method that I will claim is Zukofsky's unique and enduring contribution. Three tests, then, for Zukofsky obtain this result: of the failed schism between expression and construction in his historical poetics; of the limited horizon of experience as a refunctioning of that divide; and of the need for a reading of the texts that have been "substituted" and "overwritten" in the construction of the work—toward a continuing poetics.
Zukofsky's work thus becomes a site for a radical questioning of it. I saw this opening toward questioning Zukofsky in many places at the conference—in Tim Woods's recovery of Zukofsky's relation to leftists like Whitaker Chambers at Columbia; in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's uncovering of a buried "Worker's Anthology" at the core of A Test of Poetry; in Bob Perelman's skepticism about Zukofsky's use of "music"; in Ruth Jennison's recontextualization of the Marx congealed in Zukofsky's Spinoza; in Abigail Lang's move from linguistic and formal accounts of word meaning to their status as "fetishes"; and finally in the performance of "A"–21, which had the effect of unlinking the Shakespearean overtones from Zukofsky's radical overwriting of Rudens as, in fact, a substitution of one for the other. While I was often disheartened by the lack of social history, critical theory, psychoanalysis, and gendered approaches in what I heard, in retrospect there were a core set of inquiries that provided the kind of test of Zukofsky as an author—not just a "test of poetry" as a maxim of value—that will be a prerequisite. For?
[Photo by Jonathan Williams. Text copyright © Barrett Watten 2004. Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]