Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Obviously, I think that editing a selected poems for a writer like Louis Zukofsky needs to begin by defining how one approaches the longpoem “A” – not only does it give one a sense of how much room is or might be available for excerpting from the shorter poems, but the process alone should help one to address what I see as a critical question – how to incorporate both the short poems & the lengthy segments of “A into a single, coherent sequence. No poet I can think of has such a disparate relationship between his long works & his short ones. Would one, for example, follow a strictly chronological sequence, interspersing sections of “A” with short poems? Or would one place all of them at the front or back of the book? Basil Bunting, for example, who probably comes closest to LZ in the formal gap between his longer poems and the snippets he called “Odes,” treated the latter almost as if they were an appendix to the primary work. An awful lot of Spicer’s early poetry got treated the same way in the Black Sparrow Collected Books.

But Selecteds are not Collecteds, and presumably nothing would be chosen for a Zukofsky selected that one could imaginably call an “appendix” to anything. My first thought was to keep all of “A” together – but then going through the short poems, I changed my mind. The great pauses & gaps in writing that poem really argue for weaving in the shorter poems. Putting them into this chronological sequence also would give a selected an additional rationale for existing at all – it would be the first book to actually show the interplay of his longpoem with the shorter works.

My instinct here – that really is what it is – would be to keep all of my selections from the short poems through Some Time together before starting “A in the text. Those really are the early works. Then I would run my excerpts from “A” – 1- 12 together. Then I would insert poems from Barely and Widely and I’s (pronounced eyes), following this sequence with my suite of “A” – 13 – 16. This I would follow with excerpts from After I’s, then “A” – 19. I would then insert excerpts from Catullus, followed by “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, then excerpts from 80 Flowers & finally “Gamut,” which I take to be the lone poem completed from the envisioned project LZ was thinking to call 90 Trees.

So which poems, exactly, would I include from these collections?

  • “I Sent Thee Late” – this is the first poem in the Collected Short Poetry, an uncollected piece from 1922, during LZ’s matriculation at Columbia. It’s a schoolboy poem, perhaps, but superb & contains, tucked into its seven lines, so many of the seeds of his formal sensibility.
  • “Poem beginning ‘The’” – also from LZ’s Columbia days, but already a major poem, even if it is a parody of Eliot & “The Waste Land.” With this poem, Zukofsky announced publicly that he was going to be an important poet, ironic & erudite. This was the first poem in LZ’s first collection, 55 Poems (which contained, by my count, 62 poems).
  • From “29 Poems,” the first of two long sequences in that book, I would eight poems (permitting LZ the use of the N word in no. 6 because it isn’t charged with the ideological hatred that I find in the anti-Japanese lines of “A” – 10), numbers 16 & 17, then poems 26, through 29.
  • From “29 Songs,” the second, counter-balancing sequence in that book, I would include numbers 1, 5, 16, 22, 23,27 & 28 – some of Zukofsky’s finest & most well-known short poems are included in this sequence.
  • I would include both “Mantis,” (LZ himself uses the quotation marks) and “'Mantis,' An Interpretation.” As with “Poem beginning ‘The,’” and the prose piece of 28, LZ is showing an early proclivity for poetry that contains a critical dimension – in this, he goes beyond what might be implicit in Pound. These are poems that, of themselves, changed poetry.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that I’ve included 54 pages out of 73 possible. From the 43 poems Zukofsky gathered into Anew, his second book, I would be more circumspect. There are some great poems here, but by now Zukofsky’s best work generally was directed into “A,and the overall quality of this collection reflects that. By the time LZ starts Anew, he has already completed the first seven sections of A,” and by its end, he has completed “A” – 10 & is already midway into the ten-year hiatus that will separate that section from those that would follow it.

  • From Anew, I would include 1, 9, 10, 20, 21, 24, 31, 36 & 38 – depending on the layout, this would come to the most six pages.
  • From Some Time, a volume that partly overlaps with Anew & contains the remainder of the little Zukofsky wrote during the hiatus from “A,” I would include only “que j’ay dit devant,” “To My Valentines,” and the sequence “Songs of Degrees,” ten pages.
  • From Barely and Widely, I would include the title poem, numbers 4 & 8, both being examples of LZ’s use of the valentine, and 11, one of my favorite of his shorter pieces for its uses of found language. Number 12, “4 Other Countries,” is a problematic choice – at 27 pages, it’s one of Zukofsky’s most substantial short poems, which in the economy of a Selected volume can be a minus even as, in poetry, it should be a plus. Let’s say here that I’d include it, but if I got static from a publisher, this (along with the excerpts from “A” – 12) would the first to go. But at 33 pages, Barely and Widely is the volume of the shorter collections mostly thoroughly represented after 55 Poems.
  • I would similarly include a large portion of I’s (pronounced eyes), tho it’s a much shorter volume than Barely and Widely. Included would be “(Ryokan’s Scroll),” “Her Face the Book of – Love Delights in – Praises,” “Motet,” the one piece I would include that contains a score by Celia, “Peri Poietikes,” the book’s title sequence, and “To Friends, For Good Health,” an instance of the deliberately dumb joke as poem (the inspiration, I suspect, for much of Jonathan Williams’ poetry).
  • Selections from After I’s would appear after the most sustained sequence from “A in the collection. Here I would include the first eleven pages, through “The.”

I’m not going to specify which sections I would include either of Catullus, or of 80 Flowers, because I would really need to sit down & read both again closely. Catullus is the only book of Zukofsky’s I’ve ever sold without having a replacement copy in hand – a fit of stupidity on my part occasioned by the fact that when I lived in SF & Berkeley, I had to be ruthless in marshalling how much room was set aside for books (the impact of the cost of real estate on poetry collections). I never owned a copy of 80 Flowers I was using a Xerox of Robert Duncan’s copy until the Complete Short Poetry came out from Johns Hopkins. If I say that my goal would be to include 20 pages of each sequence, it comes with the understanding that this is a demonstrably larger portion of 80 Flowers than it is of Catullus. Both books are excellent examples – as is “A” – 22 & 23 – of volumes that ought to continue in readily available separate volumes, Catullus with the Latin on facing pages as it was in the original edition, 80 Flowers generally accessible as its own book for the very first time. Catullus is historically important, given LZ’s role in the evolution of homophonic translation, although there are passages in “A that also make use of the device. But to my eye 80 Flowers works better as poetry, so I would be happy to include a larger percentage of that volume.

Thus, with “Gamut,” Zukofsky’s final poem, to conclude the book, I would have – it would seem some 427 pages (presuming all pages to be equal, which they wouldn’t be – the UC Press version of “A” using a smaller font than the Johns Hopkins version of the Complete Short Poetry¹). Roughly one-third of Zukofsky’s oeuvre.

Again, published roughly chronologically as such, this is a volume that would serve a purpose, giving readers sense of Zukofsky that they can’t really get from either “A by itself or the Complete Short Poetry. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that these other books shouldn’t continue in print forever or that volumes that deserve their own separate existence (as the three volumes mentioned above do, or even 55 Poems & Barely and Widely) shouldn’t be republished.

Which to my mind proves that if the typical “new & selected” is a volume that almost always didn’t need to exist, a carefully chosen Selected can indeed prove to be an essential book.


¹ Which, I feel compelled to note, is not complete at all, omitting most of Zukofsky’s juvenilia from his days at Columbia, plus other pieces written under pseudonyms. Happily, I’m not aware of any that would deserve to show up in a Selected.