Friday, July 11, 2008

Louis Zukofsky, Selected Poems

Part of the Library of America’s American Poets Project, Louis Zukofsky’s Selected Poems (ed. Charles Bernstein, 2006) is quite a cool and, if I may say, important book. Leaving aside its content, which I’ll get to in a second, it is also a nice little book-as-object, with an embossed cover designed by Chip Kidd and Mark Melnick. I think it’s fitting to mention this, as Zukofsky, being the Objectivist poet and Marxian materialist that he was, would probably have appreciated the attention paid to the volume’s physical characteristics, not only regarding the cover art but to the typographical layout as well. As for the selections herein, Charles Bernstein does a very good job of presenting an overview of Zukofsky’s immense and sprawling body of work, and Bernstein’s introductory essay seems extremely percipient. What follows is not really a review per se, since the book has been available for two years now. It is simply a personal reading of a great and sometimes overlooked poet, with the caveat that others have probably written about him far more knowledgably than I.

In the early part of the twentieth century (long before postmodern theories of language came to prominence), a colleague of Ezra Pound’s in the early Imagist group, T.E. Hulme noted that

language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language... Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas (Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism”).

While other, more contemporary, linguists and philosophers have elaborated on these ideas, Hulme’s formulation is succinct and useful to a discussion of Zukofsky, not only because Zukofsky was initially influenced by Pound and Imagism, but because his own poetry elaborates it in its own way. Zukofsky’s work preeminently reflects an awareness of the socially-constructed nature or “communal” aspect of language. He allows it to take center stage, rather than trying to make it bend to his will. He “struggles” with it, in the sense that he disbelieves in language as direct representation, but is nonetheless concerned with what and how it might signify in other ways, and how it relates to the realities of the material world.

At the end of “A”, section 7, Zukofsky writes, “words, words, we are words...” (Selected Poems, 90). This statement is meaningful on many different levels, but one thing Zukofsky is suggesting is that human consciousness creates itself, or is at least partly created, through language. There is the sense in his work of a mind (or minds) being enacted through the medium of poetry. His poetry is correspondingly self-reflexive and overtly aware of itself as language, concomitant with the poet’s awareness that language is an entity unto itself rather than a neutral medium. For Zukofsky, if language is socially-constructed and relational, it is therefore beyond the full control of any one individual: “we are words,” he says in this poem, not “I am words.” What it implies is that language can only represent tentative versions of reality, reflecting subjective and evolving perceptions through time. And so Zukofsky’s poetry reads something like a graph of consciousness in action. Broadening this viewpoint outward, his work implies that the nature of reality itself is a kind of Heraclitean flux, eschewing fixed certainties and embracing change. Thus, while language cannot fully represent the world, in Zukofsky’s work it is capable both of suggesting this state of flux, and of enacting its own materiality through the act of writing. This is where the fun part comes in.

Language can be crafted and constructed into poetry, but for Zukofsky it will always be something other than what it purports to describe. This is clearly exemplified in “A” 7, where he in a sense lifts the veil on representational art. He does not pretend to describe a real horse here (ostensibly the subject of the poem), but rather offers a meditation on the ways in which the poet will struggle (as Hulme describes it) with language in a poem. The section begins with a question: “Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words/ Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but/ They have no manes...” (Selected, 86). Quickly the reader realizes that Zukofsky is not talking about real horses at all, but the words used to refer to them – like “manes” – and that the horse in this case is actually a mere wooden sawhorse, a blatantly hollow representation of a “real” horse. He plays on the notion that the poet can make words be something more than they are:

Trot, trot—? No horse is here, no horse is there?
Says you! Then I—fellow me, airs! we’ll make
Wood horse, and recognize it with our words [...]
For they had no manes we would give them manes,
For their wood was dead the wood would move—... (87)

The only thing is, he’s already undercut the whole venture, and knows full well that these assertions are wholly unbelievable.

There is no way to make wood into a horse, just as there is no way to make words into a horse. What Zukofsky, as a poet, is capable of doing is exploring the nature of language, which after all is his medium, just as a sculptor or a carpenter might use wood. Therefore, much of this poem is taken up with word- and sound-play – it’s “Not in the say but in the sound’s—hey-hey—” he writes (88). Instead of trying to force the poem to describe a horse, Zukofsky is content to let the sounds of the words interact with thought, and lead him where they may. Language is capable of signification here, but not of the thing directly. For Zukofsky, what it represents is a world in continual flux. A further conclusion that his explorations lead him to is that individual identity is also in flux, and that consciousness is not necessarily composed of a single willful voice, but can embody the voices of many: “Two ways, my two voices.../ ...And the seven came/ To horses seven.../ Spoke: words, words, we are words, horses, manes, words” (90). Implicit in these lines, again, is the conception of language as socially constructed, “a communal thing,” as T.E. Hulme says. It embodies the multifarious versions of reality of the illimitable number of people who have contributed to its formation over time.

Section 9 of Zukofsky’s poem Anew is another example of his poetic, a poetic which sees language as a fluctuating entity. It employs stream of consciousness and sound association, which prevails over any possible closed or prescriptive meaning in the poem. Anew 9 begins with the programmatic statement, “For you I have emptied the meaning/ Leaving the song” (23). Logical meaning, then, is not the focus for Zukofsky; instead it is the material aspects of language – the sound sense of the poem. That is not to say that the poem is devoid of all meaning, however. After the compact manifesto of those first two lines, Zukofsky then humorously suggests that if he’d wanted to he could have posited, for example, a mythological theme: “Or would a god—a god of midday/ Have been brought in by the neck/ For foes to peck at”. But he does not want to impose a tidy mythological structure onto his writing – a strategy utilized for example by modernists like T.S. Eliot – and thereby assign a prefabricated solution for the reader. The imposition of such a mythological structure would be artificial, a reaching after some kind of all-encompassing, explanatory paradigm. Such a paradigm would not be reflective of the nature of reality which, as Zukofsky perceives it, is continually changing and is composed of multifarious voices.

As Charles Bernstein writes in the introduction to Selected Poems, “these poems are not representations of ideas but enactments of thoughts in motion, articulated as sound” (xvii). This statement encapsulates Zukofsky’s view of language. On the one hand it implies that language and thought are in flux (“motion”) – a continual process of becoming. At the same time, it deemphasizes the representational capabilities of language, emphasizing instead its ability to “enact” thought materially, as sound. Sound-play in Anew 9 comes to the fore predominantly in the way the poem’s stanzas relate to each other. For example, the beginning of the second stanza echoes the first in rhyme and rhythm: “For you I have emptied the meaning” / “God the man is so overweening”; “Leaving the song” / “He would prolong”. These two stanzas are connected by sound even as they diverge in logical meaning. Linear logic is not evident, which forces the reader to attend to the material aspects of language separate from what it may or may not signify. In the third stanza, Zukofsky presents an image of sunset and coming night, the world in a state of change, moving from light to dark, existence seemingly captured for a brief moment in this state of change, yet poised to move continually onward. He thereby implies that if there is any sort of pattern at all, it can only be one which reflects the nature of reality as he sees it – the world turning, continual flux. Human consciousness for Zukofsky too embodies such flux, and therefore so does the function of language in the poem. His poetry can exist only in relation to the reality of the world, and to the reality of human consciousness in that world, which is created in the action of language itself.

In Anew 12, Zukofsky is concerned with the ways human consciousness might be accurately described. This seems to be what he’s writing about in the lines: “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.../ And there are waves—/ Frequencies of light,/ Others that may be heard” (24). As Hulme reminds us, language has a social component; there are always other viewpoints from which we might see or hear. The nature of life and language both, Zukofsky suggests here, is relational: ultimately we exist only to the degree that we are capable of interacting with the material and social world around us, and we do so through language. As in A” 7, Zukofsky posits many different voices, a multiplicity lying behind the speaker of the poem, rather than one unitary ‘I’. The poem is where these other voices interact, combine, or play off of each other. This multiplicity of voices is also evident toward the end of Anew 12:

...Which is a forever become me over forty years.
I am like another and another, who has finished learning
And has just begun to learn. (25)

These lines suggest that the self is continually undergoing change, always being created afresh. At the end of “A” 23, Zukofsky writes that “...music, thought, drama, story, poem/ park’s sunburst—animals, grace notes—/ z-sited path are but us” (151). Just as language, according to Hulme, is communal, a product of all who have spoken it up through the present moment, so is the human mind a product of what has come before, of those who have come before, in turn interacting with the things of the material world. But at the same time, language is capable only of representing perceptions of the world which are subjective and evolving through time, not, for Zukofsky, any fixed or determinate meaning. In other words, language is fluid because material reality, at least as perceived by the human mind, is fluid as well.

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