Tuesday, May 31, 2005

All weekend I’ve been thinking that there’s an absent third missing between Collecteds & “Books as They Happen” – it’s the case of the Selected. Sometimes even that literary act of category miscegenation, the “New & Selected” (a.k.a “Didn’t write enough new poems for a full book, but wanted/needed to publish one anyway”).

Selecteds are notoriously problematic & there are the horror stories about different ones, such Bob Grenier’s editing of a Creeley Selected that proved too radical for its publisher & was scrapped for something that the publisher thought more of as a Greatest Hits volume. You can find Grenier’s original table of contents in the 1978 Boundary2 issue devoted to Creeley – it would have been a great book.

So I was trying to think about how you might do that. How would one approach the question of thinking it through? I’ve always thought, for example, that my own work wouldn’t lend itself to that form, that you couldn’t intelligibly “excerpt” from these booklength poems that are themselves parts of larger projects. But I wanted to think it through without that double-sided investment of editor/author, so thought about who hasn’t ever had a Selected, and how would I approach their work. Louis Zukofsky. How would I think to edit a Selected works of his poetry?

Even as I’m resistant to the idea that one could/should excerpt from my own poems, I don’t sense that same taboo with his. Is that because it’s not my own work, or because there’s something fundamentally different between his poetry & my own (well, there is, obviously, but besides all of those reasons)?

So what would I pick from “A,” for example? I tend to read “A” not as a continuous whole, but as a series movements:

  • 1 through 6, the opening sequence written very much under the influence of The Cantos
  • 7 through 11, the poems in which LZ first reaches his mature works
  • 12 all by itself, the great WW2 poem, heavily influenced by Paterson
  • 13 also by itself, “partita,” one of LZ’s finest works, as finely tuned a modernist work as exists
  • 14-20, not “formally” the whole of An (that poem-within-the-poem that is a major sequence unto itself), but its gut”
  • 21, “Rudens,” a text I never understood until I saw it performed last year at the Centennial Conference at Columbia, LZ’s lust for Shakespeare’s late fantasies, the weakest section in the entire work¹
  • 22-23, which I think of as “the twins,” the finest writing LZ would ever do
  • 24, Celia’s gift to LZ proved to be closure, or perhaps cloture

Of these, I would include the following:

  • 1 through 3, a brilliant opening, it shows his roots, his indebtedness to Pound & the role of music as a template
  • 6, because it is where LZ really is thinking through the problem of the form of the long poem
  • 7, because it’s a great poem & where LZ really takes leave of his predecessors
  • I love “A” – 8, but realistically, it's too long for a Selected & its involvement with issues of labor, Marx, the question of social movements are all handled more compactly – and more profoundly from a poetic perspective – by the great double-canzone of “A” – 9. “A” – 9 is a must
  • “A” – 10 is the first WW2 poem & not nearly so long as “A” – 14, but in the compact environs of a Selected, I’m caught by the easy, careless (and never redacted) racism of lines like “No slant-eyed devil on stilts,” so I wouldn’t include it, even tho the evocation of a lost Paris is one of the most powerful images of the war from an American poet
  • “A” – 11, a love poem to his wife & son, one of the clearest statements of his theme of family love, one of his finest poems
  • “A” – 12 is both long & problematic from my perspective – this is the only number I would pull excerpts from: the first nine-plus pages up through the stanza on “How does the Czar sleep Nights?” – the section beginning with (big cap) “Blest” and continuing through the passage that starts (also big cap) “Ardent” – the final 11 pages or so, beginning with “These are some things I wanted / to get into a poem” –

Thus after the first 261 pages of the volume, I’ve selected just 70, and if I had to cut back, “A” 12 would be the first to get cut. The second “half,” by which I mean “A - 13-23, is not a whole lot longer, 302 pages, but I would include considerably more from this second half of the volume, which LZ did not begin until nine years after completing 12. The second half where Zukofsky’s greatest work lies.

  • I would include all of “A - 13 through 16, an uninterrupted swath of 114 pages.
  • I love “A” - 17, the coronal for Floss & elegy for her husband William Carlos Williams, but it’s not Zukofsky’s best work, in spite of its embodiment of poetry as community (&, as such, one of the first truly post-avant works) – likewise, I wouldn’t think to include “A” – 18
  • I would include “A” – 19, formally the strongest of the later portions of the 1960s work, a period when, from my reading, LZ’s work was again starting to level off – Zukofsky had a pattern of making enormous strides in his work, followed by longer fallow periods.
  • For those reasons, I wouldn’t include either “A” – 20 or 21, but I would include all of “A” – 22 & 23, written in the early ‘70s after the gift of Celia’s musical montage of 24. These two pieces are Zukofsky’s very best work.

That’s a total of 265 pages taken out of a work that contains over 800 once you fold Celia’s piece in. It would of course be the core of any Selected. But would these excerpts “represent” or at the least not entirely gut “A? My sense is that it wouldn’t, tho I think you could argue for including others, especially 8, 10 & 17 (another 85 pages). That’s where I’d have to start thinking about just how large my Selected would be, and just how adequately I thought to represent the shorter poems.


¹ This is where it becomes clear that Olson’s uses of Shakespeare completely trumps Zukofsky’s.