Friday, August 04, 2006

Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems (ed. Charles Bernstein)

I make no excuses for only having recently gotten around to reading thru Charles’s selection of LZ for the Library of America’s “American Poets Project” series. Afer all, I have a nodding acquaintance with much of the work included here. What’s new, of course, is Charles’s selection & arrangement. Last year (or was it year before last?) Ron Silliman spent several long blog posts agonizing over what ought to go into a short selected LZ, & I did the same; both of us, of course, were in consultation with Charles – “in on the secret,” as it were. But it’s Charles’s baby, ultimately, & I’m very happy to report that he’s done just a fine job of it.

The problem with selecting LZ for a wide audience – perhaps even an audience that doesn’t turn to poetry on a regular basis, judging by the promotional materials & subscription offers the LOA keeps sending me – is that the bits of LZ most highly valued by those who’ve been reading him for decades are apt to pose really formidable challenges to the casual reader: “A”-9, 80 Flowers, the impacted collages of “A”-22 & -23. At the same time, there’s a good deal of LZ that pays off the reader for whom immediate apprehension is a necessary prequel to pleasure: large swatches of “A”-12, many of the short poems (in particular the valentines). (This is the LZ which most closely resembles Williams on the one hand & parts of Creeley on the other, the LZ which proved so attractive to Cid Corman.) And then there’s the work that hovers between the two extremely of dense hermeticism & graceful lucidity – the majority of the writing, I’d hazard.

Charles, to his credit, devotes the bulk of his selection to this “mid-range” work and to the more obdurate & difficult – at the same time sprinkling the volume with enough well-chosen examples of “easy” LZ to keep a less-committed readership awake. Emblematic are 2 of the 3 long “pivotal” texts Charles includes (the 1st, inevitably, is a long sample from “Poem beginning ‘The,’” in some ways the Transformer* of LZ’s early career – a flashy and quite impressive early work that unfortunately sometimes obscures what comes after): “4 Other Countries” & “A”-23. I think the selection would have been a failure had Charles not included “A”-22 or -23 in its entirety (indeed, I’d love to see the 2 movements reissued in a single volume), because they’re the culmination of “late” LZ, & a fountainhead for a whole range of interesting subsequent writing.

But it’s Charles’s inclusion of the whole of “4 Other Countries,” the longest of LZ’s poems outside of “A”, a poem that could be loosely described as a travelogue tracking the Z family’s 1957 tour of Europe – the 4 countries of the title are England, France, Italy, & Switzerland – that it’s worth drawing attention to. Ron was not particularly enthusiastic about this piece taking up almost 40 pages of the selection. I can’t lay my hand on his specific post, but I seem to recall him regretting how it made LZ seem more Williamsesque than was accurate.

10 years ago, I might have agreed; now, with Charles’s selection in hand, I’m inclined to see including “4 Other Countries” as a pretty canny decision. The poem, that is, is an exemplary transition work in LZ’s corpus, the poem in which the plain-spoken, legible statement drawn over short lines – Williams’s trademark – begins to become the mosaic, the collage of impressions & quotations. And it’s here that the shortlines most exemplarily drive the syntax of the poem thruout, in ways that WCW only accomplished at the top of his form.

If there’s an “argument” to Charles’s selection – and ofcourse everyone who edits such a book is making an argument – then it’s a diachronic one, that one way of reading LZ is to note how his poetry evolves over the course of his career from a straightforward, if “crabbed,” idiom (“Poem beginning ‘The,’” the passages of “A”-12) to reach its fruition in the tangible word-stuff of “A”-23 & 80 Flowers. “4 Other Countries” is indispensible as a snapshot of LZ’s work in the midst of that evolution. The missing link, that is, between “To my wash-stand” & “Zinnia.”


margaret said...

I found your blog via your recent "Restoration Pin-ups" posting.

I really like it here...expect to return often!

Anonymous said...

Cid Corman "made a career" out of imitating "easy Zukofsky"? That seems an unfair, flippant remark -- if not a display outright, shameless ignorance. In addition to his own poetry, which isn't "easy Zukofsky" unless you're barely scratching the surface of his many books, he was the editor of one of the most important magazines and presses in this country: Origin. And you would have to factor in his accomplished work as a translator (Basho, Ponge, Char, Celan, and many others).

I just hate to see such an off-hand, callous remark made about a fairly recently deceased poet who deserves more respect than what you've flippantly dished out here.

Sincerely --

Joseph Massey

Mark Scroggins said...

Yes, there was some unfairness to that remark, Joseph. I think Corman's achievement in Origin & Origin Press is one of the high points of 20th century poetry editing (at times, given the micro-attention he devoted to individual issues of the magazine, really astonishing). I'm less convinced by his translations, but I salute his energy and acuity in choosing poets to translate.

Okay, so I've only "scraped the surface" of his many books -- I've only read about 10 or a dozen of his poetry collections, which I suppose leaves several dozen to be read (I understand he once boasted of being the most prolific writer of all time, a claim which I can't understand why anyone would *want* to make). I've found his poems consistently readable, occasionally moving, but rarely memorable. Is this a matter of fractal self-similarity from collection to oeuvre, or of "de gustibus," or is there a particular collection of CC's that will reveal something more striking to me?

Given Corman's recent death, and given how little the poetry world ever gave back to him for his ceaseless energy, it is indeed callous to speak of his "making a career" in any worldly sense. I will revise.