Monday, September 20, 2004

Zukofsky/100

This is gonna be a loooooong post. What follows is a freely edited transcription of my notes from the Zukofsky/100 conference at Columbia this past weekend:

Friday, September 17

I am sitting behind Joan Retallack and Meredith and Peter Quartermain. Charles Bernstein is introducing Robert Creeley. He's shorter than I expected (Bernstein, not Creeley). Creeley looks good. He has more black in his hair than what I remember from the time I saw him read in San Francisco&#151though his beard is whitish. When I came in he was wearing a tie loose and askew and no jacket. He threw away the tie. Stands up to speak and sits down at a table so that I can barely see him. There are probably two hundred people in the room. At least two-thirds men and only a smattering of people of color.

Creeley talks about how he first heard about Zukofsky from Edward Dahlberg when he came to visit him on Mallorca. D suggested they publish Z in Black Mountain Review. Then Duncan came to visit with a copy of Z's Anew and that was Creeley first serious intro to the work. He talks about how Z's obscurity, how just ten years ago a dissertation on him was not permitted at Buffalo because he wasn't considered major enough. Another student (Mark Scroggins, maybe?) at Cornell did a diss. on Z in spite of no one in the English department's ever having heard of him. (I am glad to say this situation has long been rectified.)

Z's "fragility" as a person & to the world&#151could only handle 2 visitors at a time.

Recalls visiting the Zukofskys in terms basically identical to those used in his introduction to Complete Short Poems.

Cid Corman an important figure for Z. George Plimpton, of all people, behind publication of "A-1" - "A-12".

Z as poet's poet&#151the capacity of his imagination, the obstacles overcome. An anti-Semitic attack on Z by Horace Gregory.

(Momentary awe on my part at being in the same room with Creeley. This is the guy from the Olson correspondence! He knew everybody.)

Creeley: "What Louis wanted to be was a dancer. He wanted to be a flamenco dancer." This from a conference they both attended at U. Texas (Austin).

While Hugh Kenner was poetry editor for National Review (!) he became aware of Z. At first saw him as an extension of Pound; Creeley: no, it's a different form of prosody. Kenner: "It's so simple. Anyone could do it." Cites Z's poem "Harbor":
The winds
agitating
the
waters.
But then couldn't reproduce the same effect. Eventually one of Z's champions, writing the first major review of "A-1" - "A-12", comparing Z's prosodic authority favorably with Auden's.

Creeley: "Tears that it should take so long." Possibility of Library of American edition of Z.

"Who touches this book touches a man." "The actual person the poems are a fact of should not be overwritten by scholarship."

Z's delight in being born in the year of Henry James' tour of the Lower East Side (1904).

Now Tim Woods, author of The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, which apparently brings Levinas and Adorno to bear on reading Zukofsky and the other Objectivists, gets up to speak about "Zukofsky at Columbia." He talks mostly about Z's very early work, his "juvenalia," and more specifically about the influence Whitaker Chambers had on him.

Wave of young intellectual Jews, the sons of immigrants, flooding the colleges and universities of New York City in the 1910s: this "phoenixlike proletariat presented an appearance of invincible seriousness."

"Espousing a form of literary chromaticism."

A manuscript of poems titled The First Seasons written between 1920 and 1924, using the pseudonym "Dunn Wyth."

In spite of being completely unreligious, Z quit a menial job that required him to work on Yom Kippur.

On that note, after Woods sits down, Bernstein gets up and wishes us all a Happy New Year. Introduces Mark Scroggins as someone who has dedicated his life to Z, citing the tenderness and care of his work at Cornell on the poet. He remarks on the fact that so many of us here are poet-scholars as a tribute to the nature of Z's work and offers Scroggins as a model for "scholarship that leads back into the work."

Scroggins' remarks are titled "Louis Zukofsky's Bloomsday." He begins by answering Bernstein's remark about dedicating his life to Z thusly: "I'm not dead yet!" Remarks on the 100th anniversary's significance as being a supersition based on human love of symmetry.

"We love to celebrate our poets almost as much as we love to place them." Because Zwas born in 1904, "I'm inclined to place him in the company of James Joyce." Z's "Bloomsday" would be April 5, 2028&#151one hundred years after the performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion that opens "A".

Z to Cid Corman: "I grew up with Ulysses." Apparently he even worked on a film treatment of the novel in the 1930s and once referred to Joyce as "the brain and conscience of his literary generation." Z "knew Joyce the same way he knew English: as an atmosphere or environment."

Z on Joyce: he showed "you can have a structure that is music through the whole thing" (1966 interview).

"Music" for Z meant the repetition and counterpointing of thematic material&#151fugal&#151not only the sounds of words (Pound's melopoeia). Saw literature at "a system of recurrences."

Poet as horse: "The horse sees he is repeating all known cultures." ("A-13"?)

Ultimately rejected theory of cultural recurrence for Henry Adams' "solid, liquid, gaseous" schema (solid=imagery, liquid=sound, gas=abstract thought).

Why Joyce is famous and Z not: Joyce had the advantage of a coterie to assist in his works' dissemination. Joyce as explainer of his own work (and by implication, Pound as "village explainer" of others' work), promulgating the mythic structure of Ulysses as a means of interesting critics. Versus Z's intransigient and frankly unrealistic attitudes toward the literary marketplace. He was too oblique, too ambivalent about "movements," effectively squandering his position in 1931 as one of the most promising young poets in America. His great bitterness in later years; Dahlberg's phrase to describe him, "the forgotten man." Scroggins: "A Timon of Athens-style withdrawal."

"Unlike Pound he did not have 13 years of enforced leisure in which to interest and explain himself to critics."

Ends talk with a call for basic, "unsexy" scholarship on Z. Three major components urgently needed: 1) publication of Z's marginalia, a good bibliography, old fashioned explication; 2) A new corrected edition of "A", preferably a variorum; 3) A guide comparable to Terrell's Companion to The Cantos. It's something of a scolding, really. During the Q&A someone stands up to defend the poetic misreading of Z. Peter Quatermain adds to Scroggins' list that a book of the correspondence between Z and Cid Corman would be invaluable.

BREAK

Wet and blustery outside the Philosophy building. Sipped coffee and chatted with Ben Friedlander, Arlo Quint, and Kenneth Sherwood about Pound, his broadcasts, and his insanity.

Panel on A Test of Poetry

Alan Golding presents first: "Pound, Brooks, Warren, Zukofsky: Tests of Poetry." Remarks on how women rarely appear as subjects or authors of the poems in A Test.

Z as teaching an intellectual freedom to be interested in any vector away from everyday life.

A Test more used and useful in creative writing classrooms than elsewhere.

Pound in ABC of Reading more interested in canonization and hierarchy, compulsively classifying authors. "Pope should be given credit for his efforts at drainage."

A Test as an experimental engagement with the institution of the textbook. Quotes Hejinian: "Isn't the avant-garde always pedagogical?" A less textbooky textbook in its crypticness, requiring interpretation rather than providing it (as opposed to Understanding Poetry).

Cheating at A Test: the book puts all readers into the situation of the hapless undergraduate, thrown without contexts onto the text itself. Difficult to resist the temptation to find the authors' names at the end of the book while reading.

Norman Finklestein's paper is "Comparisons and Criteria: Testing the Test of Poetry." Cites Pound's "Credo": "I believe in a man's technique as a test of his sincerity."

Z "always the minimalist even in his most expansive works." A Test seeks the "appearance of objective research."

Z: "Only objectified emotion endures"&#151Z's pragmatic answer to Pound's dictum, "Only emotion endures." The pleasures of the poem&#151sight, sound, intellection&#151are attributes of its objectification. (How is this different from Eliot's objective correlative?)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "What Is Learned There, Or, After Such Pedagogy, What Forgiveness?" First woman I've heard speak; refers deprecatingly but also "proudly" (vis-a-vis Scroggins' call for basic scholarship) to her paper as "just a bibliographical footnote."

Z on A Test: "To suggest standards is the purpose of this text." What kind of standards? The question for the critic is how to integrate formalist and political demands.

Z displaces political beliefs into "conviction of technique," laying the groundwork for a poetry in which social meanings and poetic excellence are coextensive.

Notes that about a quarter of the poems in A Test deal with riches and gold. Class, poverty, and social injustice as recurring elements in the selections. DuPlessis claims that most of the poems from Z's aborted A Worker's Anthology, which was explicitly political, made it into A Test. Subjects of concern to proletarians hardly incompatible with great art (her aesthetic standards are not clear); King Lear the paradigmatic example: "Then distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough." (Also there's his comment on a sliver of Robert Burns' "A Winter Night": "Presents accurately an image connected with the wintry environment of Labour.") Z is "naturalizing political conviction within lyric poetry."

Bob Perelman, "'Now Put Down Your Pencils': Anxiety and Touchstones." I've seen Bob present papers a couple of times now, at the Modernist conference in Birmingham and once at AWP, so I feel comfortable calling him "Bob" here. He's always entertaining and provocative. Last time I saw him he had a beard and a bit of a 'fro; without them he seems much younger. He pitches his talk polemically against "music," which is an admittedly fuzzy term when it comes to Zukofsky studies. He wants to resist the tendency to adopt Z's own critical framework, which is a problem generally with those modernists who did a lot of theorizing about themselves. So he calls attention to the dissonance between Z's actual practice and what he prescribes in his various extrapoetic pronouncements.

Z describes Milton in A Test as "infatuated with sound" and doing false labor, but in his own work extravagance and opulence abounds (this is a reading of Z not as a minimalist, but rather prone to the same verbal grandiosity found in Finnegans Wake). Catullan exuberance vs. the pious tightness of a passage Bob quotes from "A". "Sly impiety."

Z's work as "syntactical teleporting to a world no one lives in yet."

The scope of A Test is "dated and nugatory"&#151Z's poetry exceeds his prescriptions. (But then again, how often does a poet's work actually conform to his or her own theories? How Confucian is Pound, really?)

A Test "is a line on a c.v. submitted by an unknown poet in an application for authority."

Speaking too quickly for me to catch it, Bob says something intriguing about how for the modernists a textbook of poetics might be akin to one of the stages on the Vergilian progression of a poet's career (i.e. pastoral, georgic, epic). But I'm not sure which slot poetics is supposed to correspond to. Most of Eliot's work in poetics comes after The Waste Land but well before Four Quartets. A lot of Williams' most important work in poetics comes relatively early in his career (i.e. Spring and All). Pound was a veritable poetics machine long before he commenced The Cantos. And so forth. If poetics tends to be pedagogy (certainly that's true in the case of A Test I'd hazard it's closest to the georgic, since it's an account of how to work.

Refers to Z's use of the sonnet form in "A-7" as "parapoetics."

"A hell Zukofsky doesn't believe in sung to music he does believe in." (Bach, I presume.)

ABC of Reading and A Test as little museums "with Pound as a particularly lively docent in the Victoria and Albert Museum," while Z more like the silent guards of modern museums.

"The Bach Zukofsky worshipped was a historical not a timeless figure."

BREAK

I don't have a ticket to the Friday reception, so I wander off down Amsterdam avenue for dinner. Indian food at a little place next to the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Delighted to discover that Labyrinth Books is an actual store you can browse in; for a song I pick up a beautifully illustrated biography of Walter Benjamin and a book of essays on Ernst Bloch, whose work on utopia are of considerable interest to this postmodern pastoralist. (Later during the conference when people asked me about my dissertation I began referring to it as work on "avant-garde pastoral," which may be a more useful way to think about my project than "modernist pastoral" or "postmodern pastoral.")

I got back a little late and missed the beginning of Marjorie Perloff's talk, "From "A"-22 to Oulipo: Zukofsky's French Connection." Talking about how Z's syntactical choices make French a hospitable language for translation purposes.

"The body must meet the origin of its image."

Talks about a translation Jacques Roubaud did of Poem 25 from "29 Poems." (I'm very fond of this poem and have my own little theory about it; it's worth quoting here:
Like the oceans, or the leaves of fine Southern
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  palm, we must appear numbered
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  to you, like the tides

Reaching up to you, also as leaves, calm, night-green
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  arching under you,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  Moon. And, O moon,
As we travail to sleep we do not know whether, with your
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  genius furthering us,

We should be counted as the cuspid waves of the seas, or
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  as the souls of trees
Whose leaves we are, growing for you, the crowded
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp  summits stark, heavenly.
Roubaud, she says, rejects the loose free verse of the 70s and 80s in the U.S. It's not verse if you're not counting something&#151preferably syllables in lines. Forms like the alexandrine exist to be remade anew, not abandoned&#151though they may be exhausted in their original form.

Roubaud: "For form cannot reveal itself without also revealing the unformed."

Oulipean constraints as providing the rules for a language game in the Wittgensteinian sense.

Splicing of sources drains allusions and citations of content. (?)

Dun Scotus: Grammar begins with the letter.

Z has received acclaim because he is "not Pound," the way we say Kerry is "not Bush." She still considers Pound "il miglior fabbro."

Applause, exhaustion, time for bed.

[And time for bed. I'll post the rest of my notes tomorrow, or whenever I feel like it; whichever comes first.]

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