By Silas Rowley
1: Lazlo Polgar; Paul Zukofsky; Johann Bach; Ezra Pound: An introduction.
The best place to start in any serious discussion of the work 'A' is a Czech psychologist named Lazlo Polgar. Polgar wrote his doctorate on genius, in which he proposed that genius is taught, , rather than being innate. This position being unpopular, Polgar did what any reasonable individual would do in the face of academic disapprobation: he put an ad out in the paper for a wife so he could have some children, raise them to be geniuses, and send some rude letters to his (at this point, geriatric) professors telling them to get fucked.
The three Polgar daughters were, at one stage, ranked 1, 2, and 3 in the world at chess. Judit Polgar is widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time.
This, while unexpected, is perhaps less surprising than prospective brides reading his ad, and thinking 'oo, that sounds perfect!'*
Zukofsky was certainly a precocious child. Born in NY in 1904, the son of two Jewish immigrants, he grew up speaking Yiddish, and only learned English when he began school. Despite this, he had read all of Shakespeare by the age of 10. Though his father, Pinchos, worked as a pants-presser, Louis Zukofsky had already seen productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Aeschylus, in Yiddish, before he began school. (I am skeptical that his father's first passion was the pressing of pants). However- this is not the correlative link:
Louis Zukofsky's son, Paul Zukofsky, is a comparable prodigy to Judit Polgar. Paul's mother, Celia Zukofsky, was a concert violinist. By three, Paul was playing the violin. Aged 10, he brought Ezra Pound to tears (legend has it, breaking a long, self imposed vow of silence), while Pound was incarcerated in an asylum in New York. John Cage, Phillip Glass, and many others all collaborated with him.*
For all his fame as a violinist, Paul Zukofsky will perhaps be remembered chiefly for being the most difficult bastard ever to get his hands on a literary estate. Here are some excerpts from an open letter he wrote to the academic community in 2009. It is, as far as I'm aware, the only literary work by a Zukofsky I will be able to quote in this essay.
"Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of “fair use”. “Fair use” is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights...
...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."
Ironically, Paul Zukofsky finishes his letter by quoting ee cummings, presumably without bothering to seek permission from Cummings' estate.
So. In light of this*, in lieu of any serious discussion of the work, involving quotes, and footnotes, and shit like that, sit back and settle in for some literary gossip, some speculation, and some good old fashioned mud-slinging.
Louis Zukofsky first began writing 'A' in 1927, and continued until his death in 1978. Just your casual 50 year epic, then. The work itself was published posthumously, and like the Aeneid, would have been left unfinished, save that Celia Zukofsky stitched together four previously published works of Zukofsky: an essay; a play; a novella, and a poem; and set them to the music of Handel. This masque is A24, and completes the sequence. It's probably not even in the top 5 most confusing sections of 'A'.
'A' is composed of 24 sections, of various length, corresponding (one assumes) to the hours of the day. ('B', for which Zukofsky had taken copious notes, is divided into 365.) It is a difficult read. A12 involves, amongst other things: a semi biblical auto-genealogy; flow charts; greek philosophy as seen by Shakespeare; an imaginary encounter with Henry James?; letters from a friend of Paul Zukofsky stationed in japan during the Korean war; a list of the different names of groups of birds ( a murmuration of starlings, a gaggle of geese, etc); long onanistic sections comparing his wife Celia Zukofsky to Penelope; many other obscure references that passed, somewhere between the murmuration and the gaggle, far above me.
'A' itself, ironically for a poem whose estate is so dead-set against being quoted, is more quote than not. (Confusingly, sometimes the quotes are in quotation marks, and sometimes not?) In fact, the poem used in A24, is -of course- 'A'. Here is an excerpt:
Still: for all its waffle, it is clearly a literary work of significant note. (Exactly how much I don't really know: quite aside from the antipathy of Paul Zukofsky towards academia; I am cheerfully ignorant myself, if slightly less hostile.) For every muddle-headed obscurism from A12 I could quote you an equivalent number of lines that are absolute Bangers. Zuk could definitely write.
The most quoted lines of 'A' are probably: "can/ the design/ of the fugue/ be transferred/ to poetry?" The other contenders are the opening lines: " A/ Round of fiddles playing Bach." * 'A' is, amongst many (probably too many) other things, a long poem about Bach, Handel, the fugue, the intersect between words and music, as they are viewed by the poet, living in the thick of them, over a life.
Reading 'A' is an experience of -at least for me- mostly feeling lost. It is a waterfall of quotes, and references, and hidden secrets. I found myself strangely pleased at recognising some of paradise lost in A14, a sequence about (amongst other things) the space programme.
There is an element of the emperor's new clothes at work here- it is difficult for me to admit: I imagine a Greek chorus of my peers, chanting: "What Do You Mean You Didn't Pick Up On The References to ____? "
Sorry guys. Here I am, bumbling along doing my best and whatnot. I don't know anything about classical music. I am pretty firmly in the 'if you like it, that's good, it's good music. Who cares anyway?' camp. I once sailed with an old guitarist who played Bach. Or Handel. I'm not really sure, it was one of the two, we had smoked about a pound of weed off the hook of Holland waiting for a ship to come in. He spent about 12 hours fucking around with his guitar, then suddenly broke into these fugues. Maybe they were sonatas. I dunno the difference. At the time I thought they were the best thing I'd ever heard, and this is the sum total of my classical music experience.
Zukofsky's parents wanted him to be an engineer. This is much more my jam. My father is a genetic engineer. Two of my uncles are engineers. Another is a builder. One thing you learn in a family of engineers is that the acid test is always: does it do what it's supposed to do?
I'm not sure that it does. What is poetry supposed to do? ('nothing!', shout my father, my uncles, and Oscar Wilde, glaring at each other suspiciously.)
The problem with a poem 50 years in the making (aside from either finishing the fucking thing or quoting the fucking thing), is that the poet suffers such undergoings in their day to day life; no matter how determined a negative capacity they retain; as to change a great deal. Borges once frankly remarked, in correspondence with the lucky bastard who first thought to translate his poetry*, that he'd written them so long ago he was no longer sure exactly what he meant.
By A21- which is a sonic translation* of an obscure Roman play by Plautus (Silas You Idiot, You Haven't Read Any Plautus?!) I'm wondering what the Everlasting Fuck this has to do with Bach, or the space landing, or a gaggle of geese.
Today we are simultaneously blessed and cursed with such a cornucopian dirge of litmus tests for literature, that book reviews inevitably reveal as much about the reviewer as the quality of the book. (my name is Silas Rowley, I'm a Moron.) Ever since reading 'Marriage', by Marianne Moore, I've thought that the acid test of this collage technique, (I dunno what it's called, Frankenstein literature? Paper-maché?), stitching a bunch of quotes into a poem, should be this- it's gotta stand up on its own. It doesn't matter how cleverly it's built if it's lurching about like an early prototype from Boston Dynamics.
Parts of 'A', thus viewed, fail spectacularly. No matter how searing a political commentary it seemed at the time, the long 'conversation' between Henry James and Karl Marx (consisting of quotes) which makes up A8 are about as poetic as a transcript of poorly funded pornography. At least the porn would have a discernible rhythm and a satisfactory conclusion.
The overwhelming sensation I had, reading 'A' was that Zukofsky had, whilst holding down a job as an English professor and being a published poet of some fame, somehow managed to turn himself into the first outsider artist ever to write from the inner sanctum of a tenured post.* Though it's comparable in difficulty to Finnegan's Wake, or at least Ulysses, in a way it reminded me more of Henry Darger: rather than being a cohesive artwork, it is the compulsive journey of a life.
Though in many ways I respect the project: moving, sometimes plowing, or skimming, or chanting through 'A'; I often wished for a Pound, who famously cut, iirc, 34 pages from the wasteland. Funnily enough, Ezra Pound, famous chiefly for being a fascist (I always felt a bit unfairly- he was very good at tennis), was a big part in Zukofsky finding success. Their collected letters are a far more entertaining read, at least to a poet, than either of their magnum opuses. Opi? I ope a fair bit. Zukofsky wrote to Pound in the first flush of youth, and the famous poet replied. It is a lively correspondence, full of a certain abashed anti-semitism, and a great deal of economic and political theory* which informs a tiresome amount of both 'A', and the Cantos, which itself forms a tiresome amount of 'A'.
The central conceit of the Cantos is the periplum, periplus being the first ship's logs; a story of a voyage, rather than dates or coordinates. Zukofsky takes this and runs with it- the periplum of a life, in obscurities. Both works involve a great deal of collage. Both reference The Odyssey a great deal (and live in the shadow of Ulysses more than a little.) Both works span the long course of a life. Having read both recently (I am delighted to admit that, not having -foolishly- committed to reviewing Cantos, I skimmed it and parked it on the bookshelf to gain a slow blessing of dust) I couldn't help but notice the similarities- of which, luckily for all involved, I have run out of space to discuss, save to note that both epics were occasionally in dire need of a Pound, or a Beckett.*
The most interesting sections of A are the short ones. A16 is only four words, which though I can't quote, consist of 'an, impartiality, wind, and flower.' This is a great relief after A15: Zukofsky Has Finally Read Finnegan's Wake. A9, which we will delve into in the next essay, is even more revealing. For now, all we need to know to carry on, is that it is a sequence of sonnets to his wife and son, which becomes- after the flirtation with economic theory, the odyssey, and the life of Bach which precede and follow it- the heart of the poem.
There is no easy way to conclude such a ramble as this. (To paraphrase the end of A23.) It is worth noting that all three of the Polgar sisters retired from chess at an early age. Genius may be taught- it may yet be genetic (Lazlo Polgar's books on chess are often held up as masterpieces.) One thing we can safely say is that it is relentless: Zukofsky worked on this book for his whole life. It is the last great work of the modernists; it is also one of the first post-modern epics. The heroic of the familial took a long time to make it into the epic. There is something touching about the story of A- that is so devoted for so long to the inner life of a family, wrapt up in music and itself- finishing with a meta-collage by the person who is at the heart of the poem, hovering at the fringe playing Bach- or Handel- Celia Zukofsky.
However: things are rarely as they seem. The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution*. In the next installment: Lorine Niedecker; the buk-zuk scale; Derek Walcott's Omeros; whatever else washes, unwashed, ashore.
*I have resisted seeking out the text of this advertisement for the delicious possibilities it presents to the imagination. 'Wanted: wife, to prove to my PhD Adjudicators that they are WRONG'. 'Wanted: laboratory assistant wanted for long term experiment. Must have womb. No pay. '
*In fact, Glass composed several of the notorious freedom Etudes specifically for Paul Zukofsky.
* it should be noted both that Paul Zukofsky died in 2017, and that lawsuits involving the Joyce estate's attempt to similarly redefine 'fair use' crashed and burned.
*Borges, who spoke fluent English, not only helped a great deal in the endeavour- he actually translated some of them himself.
*A simple Google search tells me this is, in fact, bullshit. "Infinite is a meaningless word: except – it states / The mind is capable of performing / an endless process of addition." Go figure. The eternal wisdom of crowds.
*Sonic Translation: Zukofsky and his wife produced a translation of Catallus in which; rather than presenting words in better order than some second rate 18th century poet doing couplets; they chose to faithfully reproduce the SOUNDS of the words, telling sense & presumably sensibility to go and get fucked. Without bothering to fact check, I assume that this is what's going on in A21.
*Zukofsky did not in fact hold a tenured post. It just sounds better.
*It is also worth noting that Marx, who looms fairly large over both works, counted the essays of Shelley (who was wise enough to keep his politics to his political screeds) as a major influence. One can only hope, for the reputation of both 'A' and The Cantos, that the next great political philosopher cites Pound and Zukofsky in turn. Though, having read parts of their letters- I doubt it.
*I am unsure of what, if any, Beckett's editorial role was for Joyce, with much the same enthusiasm as for the advertisements of Lazlo Polgar.
Silas Rowley is currently working as a builder