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Louis Zukofsky (23 January 1904 – 12 May 1978) was an American poet. He was one of the founders and the primary theorist of the Objectivist group of poets and thus an important influence on subsequent generations of poets in America and abroad.
Zukofsky was born in New York's Lower East Side to Lithuanian Jewish parents, father Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and mother Chana (1862–1927), both religiously orthodox, a tradition against which Zukofsky reacted early. Pinchos immigrated to the United States in 1898, working as a pants-presser and night watchman in New York’s garment district until he could send for his wife and children in 1903.
The only one of his siblings born in America, Louis Zukofsky grew up speaking Yiddish and frequented Yiddish theatres in the Bowery where he saw works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in Yiddish, too. His first real contact with English was when he started school, but, being a fast learner, he had read all of Shakespeare's works in the original by the age of eleven.
Although Zukofsky’s family was poor, and though he could have gone to the City College of New York for free, his parents sent him to the expensive Columbia University where he studied philosophy and English; some of his classmates were to become important figures of culture, namely Mark Van Doren, John Dewey, John Erskine and Lionel Trilling. Zukofsky graduated with a Master's degree in 1924.
Zukofsky's MA thesis was the earliest version of his long essay "Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography." Zukofsky's fascination with Henry Adams was to persist through much of his career. Adams's late and rather recondite ideas about the progression of "phases" in history would greatly influence Zukofsky, and the form of his Adams essay, the vast majority of which is quotation from Adams's works, looks forward to Zukofsky's mature compositional methods in both criticism and poetry, where collaging of quotation lies at the heart of his writing.
Zukofsky began writing poetry at university and joined the college literary society, as well as publishing poems in student magazines like The Morningside (now Columbia Review). One early poem was published in Poetry but never reprinted by Zukofsky. He considered Ezra Pound the most important living poet of his youth. In 1927, he sent his poem Poem beginning "The" to him. Addressed mostly to the poet's mother, the poem was in part a parody of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In contrast to Eliot's pessimistic view of the modern world, The suggests a bright future for Western culture, based in Zukofsky's belief in the energy the new immigrants brought to the United States and in the October Revolution.
Pound was impressed by the poem and published it a year later in the journal Exile. Zukofsky further impressed Pound by writing the first analyses of Pound’s Cantos in 1929, when they were still unfinished. Pound then persuaded Harriet Monroe, Chicago heiress and founder of Poetry, to allow Zukofsky to edit a special issue for her in February 1931.
In 1934, Zukofsky got a research job with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), a position he held until 1942, working on a history of American handicrafts. In 1933, he met Celia Thaew who he married six years later. The Zukofskys had one child, Paul (born in 1943), who went on to become a prominent violinist and conductor. In 1943, Zukofsky left the WPA to work as a substitute public school teacher and a technical writer. In 1947, he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he taught until his retirement in 1966.
In 1972, the Zukofskys moved to Port Jefferson, on Long Island. When Zukofsky died there on May 12, 1978 he had published 49 books, including poetry, short fiction, and critical essays. He had won National Endowment for the Arts Grants in 1967 and 1968, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Grants in 1976, and an honorary doctorate from Bard College in 1977.
The difficulty of Zukofsky's later poetry alienated many critics and even some of his former friends. Zukofsky quarrelled bitterly with George Oppen after Oppen accused Zukofsky of using obscurity as a tactic. But the 1960s and 1970s also brought Zukofsky a degree of public recognition that he had never before received. The influential scholar Hugh Kenner became a close friend of Zukofsky and an advocate of his work. Such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley testified to Zukofsky's importance as the creator of daring experimental writing.
In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist. While studying at Columbia, his friend, Whittaker Chambers, sponsored him for membership in the Communist Party, though it is unclear whether he actually joined. While he associated with Party members and published in Party-associated magazines, his poetry, which while strongly political was resolutely avant-garde and difficult, found little favor in Party circles. Though Zukofsky considered himself a Marxist at least through the end of the 1930s, the focus of his work after 1940 turned from the political to the domestic. Much later, he would claim that reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally turned him away from Marx.
Pound was impressed by Zukofsky's Poem beginning "The" and promoted his work, putting him in contact with other like-minded poets, including William Carlos Williams. The two poets influenced each other's work significantly, and Williams regularly sent his new work to Zukofsky for editing and improvement. Zukofsky was one of the founders of the Objectivist group of poets and of To Publishers, later The Objectivist Press, along with Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. Thanks to Pound's insistence, he was able to edit an Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he coined the very term and defined the two main characteristics of Objectivist poetry: sincerity and objectification. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth.
Zukofsky's major work was the long poem "A" - he never referred to it without the quotation marks - which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life, albeit with an eight-year hiatus between 1940 and 1948. The poem was divided into 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day. The first eleven sections contain a lot of overtly political passages but interweave them with formal concerns and models that range from medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach. Especially the sections of "A" written shortly before World War II are political: Section 10 for example, published in 1940, is an intense and horrifying response to the fall of France.
The tone of the poem changes for good with Section 12, which is longer than the first eleven sections combined. Zukofsky introduces material from his family life and celebrates his love for his wife Celia and his son Paul. From here on "A" interweaves the political, historical and personal in more or less equal measure. The extensive use of music in this work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife and son, both professional musicians. "A" grew frequently difficult and even eccentric (section 16 is only four words long). The complete poem, 826 pages long, beginning with the word "A" and ending with "Zion", was published in 1978.
A theme that was especially close to Zukofsky's own heart as the child of immigrants, was the problem of assimilation, both cultural and poetical. In his poem Poem beginning ‘The’, Zukofsky refers to the Yiddish-American poet Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden). The poem raises the problem of the educated, socialist and atheist poet losing connection with his religious familial culture. This theme also appears in the poet's poignant address to his mother in the fifth movement of the poem Autobiography:
If horses but could sing Bach, mother, – / Remember how I wished it once – / Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare.
The final lines of Autobiography express Zukofsky's fear of permanent alienation from his upbringing and tradition as a bitter triumph of successful assimilation: "Keine Kadish wird man sagen". The lines are a variation on lines from Heinrich Heine’s poem Gedächtnisfeier (Memorial): "Keine Messe wird man singen, / Keinen Kadosch wird man sagen, / Nichts gesagt und nichts gesungen / Wird an meinen Sterbetagen". ("No Mass will anyone sing / Neither Kaddish will anyone say, / Nothing will be said and nothing sung / On my dying days")
In tandem with "A", Zukofsky continued writing shorter poems throughout his life. Many of these shared the political and formal concerns of the longer poem, but they also include more personal lyrics, including a series of Valentines addressed to Celia. The first book publication of these shorter poems was 55 Poems (1941). Zukofsky continued to write and publish shorter poems which were eventually collected in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971).
Zukofsky also wrote critical essays, many of which were collected in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968) and the book-length study Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) which was accompanied by a second volume containing a setting by Celia Zukofsky of Shakespeare's play Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
His prose fiction includes Ferdinand (1968) and the novel Little: For Careenagers (1970) about a youthful violin child prodigy modelled on his son. He also wrote a play Arise, Arise (1962/1973) and, in 1969, an extraordinary set of homophonic translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate the sound rather than the sense of the originals in English. For Zukofsky, translation provided occasion not for modest apprenticeship but rather for a technical tour de force.
Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry (1948) was a teaching anthology with critical commentary, after the manner of Pound's ABC of Reading.
Despite the attention Objectivism received as a major poetic movement of the 1930s, Zukofsky’s own work never achieved much recognition outside literary circles since his poetry was seen as obscure, too experimental, and dryly intellectual. Zukofsky, along with the other Objectivists, was rediscovered by the Black Mountain and Beat poets in the 1960s and 1970s. Largely responsible here was the poet and editor Cid Corman who published Zukofsky's work and critical comments on it in his magazine Origin and through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In the 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the Language poets, particularly in their formalism.
The Zukofsky revival continued into the twenty-first century. In 2000 Wesleyan University Press, honoring Zukofsky's birth in 1904, began publishing The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky. Editions of "A" continue to be published and sell quickly; the Chicago Review (Winter 2004/5) devoted an issue to Zukofsky; his correspondence with William Carlos Williams was published in 2003. In 2007, Shoemaker & Hoard published Mark Scroggins' The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, a full-length analysis of the poet's career derived from extensive archival research and interviews with Zukofsky's friends, acquaintances, and family members.
In 2009, Louis Zukofsky's son Paul Zukofsky, the owner of Zukofsky's copyrights, wrote an open letter telling graduate students and scholars that "In general, as a matter of principle, and for your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not."  In the letter, Paul Zukofsky required that graduate students ask him for permission to quote from his father's works in their dissertations (an unusual practice), and made it clear that he might withhold such permission. Quoting from e. e. cummings (presumably without permission), he indicated that he believed that scholars write chiefly from self-interest and that their claims that their scholarship would help enhance Louis Zukofsky's artistic legacy were offensive:
I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature, music, art, etc. I would be suspicious of your interest in Louis Zukofsky, but might eventually accept it. I can applaud your desire to obtain a job, any job, although why in your chosen so-called profession is quite beyond me; but one line you may not cross i.e. never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity. Your self-interest(s) I may understand, perhaps even agree with; but beyond that, in the words of e.e.cummings quoting Olaf: “there is some s I will not eat”.
Paul Zukofsky wrote in the letter that his chief concern was to derive income from his possession of copyrights in his father's work, not to censor what might be said, but it might well be the case that the unusual difficulty and expense of writing about Louis Zukofsky will affect the poet's legacy.
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