Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Transatlantic Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky’s writing has always had more currency in the United States than in Great Britain. That isn’t to say that some British poets and scholars haven’t followed and promoted his writing – the great Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting was one of Zukofsky’s earliest and best readers and a lifetime friend and correspondent, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gael Turnbull, Charles Tomlinson, and Tom Pickard discovered Zukofsky’s work in the 1950s and 1960s, and for my money Zukofsky’s two keenest commentators are Kenneth Cox and Peter Quartermain (who, while he holds a Canadian passport, is betrayed by his transatlantic accent) – but I’ve always had the sense that the various British poetry communities, particularly the “mainstream” schools covered by the TLS and the London Review, have viewed Zukofsky as something of a peculiarly American aberration. Donald Davie (at heart a Thomas Hardy follower to the end, despite the important Pound criticism he wrote), never could quite accept Zukofsky: in his last year at Vanderbilt, he taught a graduate seminar on “The Objectivists” that wholly omitted Zukofsky.

It’s fascinating then to see Zukofsky pop up on the website of the Poetry Society, the United Kingdom’s peculiar cross between the Academy of American Poets and the Book of the Month Club. He’s there as the subject of the Second Prize-winning poem of the Society’s 2004 competition, Matthew Caley’s “L. Z.” Caley is a Senior Lecturer in Graphic Communication at The School Of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, and – according to one website – a “top London poet.” And he’s a poet who seems aware of how deeply retrograde official British verse culture is, even though his own gestures towards a more up-to-date poetics are rather touchingly tame. It’s a shame that “L. Z.,” despite the fact that it’s netted Caley a nice handful of cheese – a thousand pounds – isn’t a better poem. Yes, he appears to have read Zukofsky, or at least hit some of the high points (“Poem beginning ‘The,’” “A”-7). But as any real coming to grips with Zukofsky, “L. Z.” is an abject failure.

It’s not really a matter of the details (though, as Aby Warburg told us many years ago, “God is in the details”). When Caley says Zukofsky “never saw the major work complete,” I assume he means that Zukofsky died before seeing “A” in print in one volume: but the work was complete, and all in print, several years before Zukofsky died in 1978. The sawhorses of “A”-7 are in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. (Zukofsky did not move to Brooklyn until after World War II; his youthful nickname, conferred upon him by Tibor Serly, was the “Manhattan Mauler.” But I suppose one should forgive a Londoner his ignorance of New York borough geography.) New York fire escapes indeed look like stacked letter Zs, but no New Yorker would dream of calling them “zeds.” And I assume that Caley’s “If seahorses could but sing Offenbach, Father” is meant as parody of the “If horses could but sing Bach” line in “Poem beginning ‘The’” (addressed to Zukofsky’s mother), but it’s a pretty damned lame parody.

Caley’s conclusion, that Zukofsky was a “a man who for forty-six years watered a single letter, yet was / left with nothing but the odour of odourless zinnias,” for all of its metrical and musical ineptitude, does however repeat one criticism of Zukofsky that I’ve certainly heard before: that the work, for all of its single-minded complexity, its obdurate focus and cunning craftsmanship, its entanglements in and explorations of the political geography of the twentieth century, is somehow lacking in that much-prized human touch – or perhaps, in line with Caley’s image, that human “odour.” Paradoxically, I suspect that what Zukofsky lacks for Caley is the “wildness” that Caley associates with American poets like Cage, Pound, and Mac Low. Ironic, ultimately: that the careful machinings of Zukofsky’s verse have been best interpreted by the painstaking, penetrating, and very English intelligences of Bunting, Cox, and Quartermain; and that Caley, the Briton in search of new sources of poetic energy, would reject that very verse as lacking the true stench of the American.

Addendum: It’s worth quoting the first sentences of a review by Jane Yeh in the 15 April TLS: “Colette Bryce’s second collection, The Full Indian Rope Trick, sits firmly in the mainstream of contemporary British verse. Rarely longer than a page each, Bryce’s poems are neatly crafted vignettes about personal experiences and the world at large, clearly related in everyday language. They contain a sufficient amount of internal rhyme to be deemed musical, and enough metaphor-making to seem artful.” This, one hastens to add, is meant as neutral description. Glad to hear someone else’s “mainstream” is at least as dreary as one’s own.

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