A recent issue of Chicago Review devoted a number of pages to a discussion of his work and excerpts from his letters, and his angular face graced the cover. And now, a lovely piece on him written by the marvelous poet Robert Hass has appeared in the September/October issue of The American Poetry Review, a journal that originates in Philadelphia.
A bit of the poet's biography may help to orient readers. Zukofsky was born in Manhattan in 1904 of Lithuanian immigrant parents; his first language was Yiddish. While his parents were Orthodox, he rebelled at an early age against all types of religion.
When young, he was a frequent visitor to the Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and was an avid reader, mostly of major poetic works that had been translated into Yiddish. He was not exposed to English until he began school, but he learned quickly, and it's said that he read all of Shakespeare by age 11.
He did his undergraduate studies in English at Columbia University, and earned a master's degree there in 1924. He began writing poetry in college, and one of his early pieces was published in Poetry magazine.
Zukofsky thought of Ezra Pound as the most important poet of the period, and in 1927 sent the older man a copy of the poem titled Poem Beginning "The." The work is addressed to Zukofsky's mother, and parodies T.S. Eliot's Waste Land. But where the Eliot work takes a harsh, pessimistic view of the modern world, "The" sees the future as bright, due to Zukofsky's belief in Soviet socialism.
Zukofsky coined the term "Objectivist" for the poetry he, Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen wrote mostly in obscurity. Though Pound tried to boost Zukofsky's career, it was not until the poet was championed in the 1960s and '70s by the Black Mountain poets and the Beats that his reputation rose somewhat.
The Hass piece focuses on Zukofsky's long poem, known simply as "A." At the beginning, as Hass makes clear, the work is filled with talk of Marxist politics.
" 'A' was also begun in apprenticeship to Ezra Pound's Cantos, and the Cantos had become in the early 1930s, a didactic poem, or at least a poem of information, a georgic, and Zukofsky, in imitation of Pound, wrote the sort of poem in which Joseph Stalin, through the use of patchworks of quotation, became heir to the political thought of John Adams; his readers also knew that Zukofsky and 'A' had come to the end of something by the time of the Second World War, and that 'A' in its second half, written between 1950 and 1968, had become quite a different poem."
Hass' essay is intense and at times densely argued, but it's worth every ounce of effort. The same goes for Zukofsky.