Friday, May 18, 2007

Archives Project: STL #22

Title: "If Such a Category Exists"
Description: On Specialization
Date: 25 November 2003


I just learned that this post was linked as a resource for a class on modern American poetry. I swell with pride.

My "morning in rare book room" post a couple of weeks ago nearly violated my 'no dissertation' rule, and this week I'm going to break it altogether. But it's more to note an occasion than to surrender my mind to a single subject, and I promise next week I'll be back in the wider world. Writing a dissertation requires (and more importantly, signifies) becoming a specialist in some small portion of an academic discipline. "Specialist" to me is a dubious concept. I'm working on a doctorate in English, which to the layperson (opposite of specialist) might seem the appropriate credential for teaching Beowulf, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Powerpuff Girls. But actually, specialization is far more specific (special) than that. Me, I'm going to be a specialist in 20th century American poetry of the Objectivist tradition. 'Specifically' I'm working on a book on Louis Zukofsky, obscurest of the obscure. The poet and critic Bob Perelman, in a good book called The Trouble With Genius: Reading Pound, Stein, and Zukofsky, mentions the immense labor that goes into creating difficult art, and the commensurate labor in reading it. He writes that the value of such work relies largely on hearsay because "the writing remains illegible or semilegible for any reader who is not a Poundian, Joycean, Steinian, or--if such a category exists--a Zukofskian." While I resent the restrictiveness and pigeon-holing that specialization represents, I recognize that the work that reading works of genius demands requires it. And there's no doubt in my mind about the supreme value of difficult art.

If such a category exists, I guess I belong to it. The curator of an upcoming exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center of 20th century poets (it'll display manuscripts, letters, rare editions, etc) asked me to write a biographical sketch about Zukofsky for the exhibit. Mind you, this person is on my dissertation committee so it's not like he heard about me through the grapevine or something, but this task, which I guess will wind up as the blurbage on the placard next to the display, may represent the first formal exercise of my specialty. While I'm against specialization on principle (when I'm famous I'll write an essay "Against Specialization"), I confess that being consulted in this way is quite a thrill.

And so, here's the statement, coming soon to a museum placard near or far from you:

LOUIS ZUKOFSKY (1904-1978)

The son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, the husband of a composer, and the father of a concert violinist, Louis Zukofsky valued language, music, and family. Like two other great Modernists, Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, Zukofsky spoke another language before learning English. Perhaps because of this outsider’s perspective, his poetry shows a fascination with the musical aspects of language, with the sound of language, even at the expense of sense. He once even described the bounds of his poetry as set by a “lower limit speech” and an “upper limit music,” and imitated musical forms like the fugue and the motet in his writing. Some of his poetry may make little “sense” on a first reading, due to its eccentric syntax and obscure references, but can still be enjoyed for pure musicality. Although the surface pleasures of Zukofsky’s language are always available to us, certain passages are elusive because they simply were not written for us. He referred in print to his wife (“Blessed/Ardent/Celia”) as his “one reader,” and there is a sense of hermeticism to much of his work, as if it is written in a private language we can never fully understand. Lines like “music, thought, drama, story, poem/ parks’ sunburst—animals, grace notes-/ z-sited path are but us” have some meaning in the context of a larger work, but only a family intimate would that the final three words evoke Arbutus Lane, the street where his adult son lived. His work is full of such private references.

Zukofsky persevered through almost complete indifference from publishers and readers, supporting his life-long writing with jobs for the WPA, as a technical editor, and for many years as a teacher at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Though little known to the wider world of letters until late in life, he compiled a large body of work, including an eight-hundred page poem entitled, with characteristic understatement, simply “A”, hundreds of lyric poems, a controversial translation of the Roman poet Catullus, essays, fiction, and a book of Shakespearean criticism. He referred to “A” as a “poem of a life,” and while this obscure and beautiful twenty-four movement work is far from a traditional autobiography, we can see in it a life filled with intellectual pursuits, love of family, and an appreciation of daily interactions. While we can trace through its pages personal and public events from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, elaborate motifs based on Bach, horses and Marxism, transliterations of foreign languages, and even a condensed history of the world, he boils down his work to a simple equation: “As I love:/ My poetics.”

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