Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Last May and June, I ran a couple of notes (here, here and here) on the idea of what one might include in a selected poems for Louis Zukofsky. I was thinking out loud, at the time, because Charles Bernstein encouraged me to do so, since he was then in the process of going through what I took to be an impossible task directly, editing a Selected Poems of Zukofsky’s for the Library of America (LOA). The volume is now out and it’s instructive to see the different decisions Bernstein made in shaping the final book.

It took me three run-throughs to get down to an LOA length, because when you’re aiming for a 150-page representation from a career that has left us with some 1,100 in total, the cutting has to be more than just brutal. You end up having to choose which Zukofsky (or whomever) to present to a broader reading audience. And with Zukofsky, the question is not just which poems will be included & which – inarguably essential – ones have to go, but also how to represent his master work, “A”. What percentage of the selected would be given to it, for example, let alone which sections, which passages?

Ultimately, I argued that “A” ought to be presented as the key text, given perhaps two-thirds of the 150-page format, but I also argued that, rather than presented in a single solid whole, it ought to be spread throughout in roughly chronological order. Here is the first part of that discussion:

Working with a predetermined page count, I would take basically that same stance, setting 100 pages aside for “A,giving the rest to the short poems. Further, using the Library of America as a model, I would reverse my adjustments for page size in the opposite direction. That is to say, to get to 100 pages in the LoA format, I would have to limit myself to something like just 80 pages of the UC Press version of “A.” My basic premise with regards to that longpoem would be to keep complete sections, but if I choose the one that I think show off Zukofsky at his strongest – 1 through 3, 7, 9, 15 & 16, 22 & 23 – I have ten pages too many and, save for the Poundian opening of the first three numbers, I don’t really include any of the passages in which Zukofsky lets his thinking air out, developmentally. This would be exactly the sort of impossible trade-off that a project like this would entail. If I were to think of the book less as a Selected and more as an introduction to Zukofsky’s work, I might be inclined to go the other way – excising 22 and maybe including some passages (the same material I noted on May 31) from “A” – 12. Yet dropping “A” – 22 would probably cause me to cry myself to sleep that night.

I don’t know whether or not Charles wept, but his ultimate selection is not so radically different. Instead of representing two-thirds of the final selection, Bernstein's excerpts from "A" take up slightly under half of the book. “A”-22 is not there, but all of the rest are, save for the 2nd & 3rd, passages, while Bernstein has added portions of 11 and 21. That de-emphasizes Pound’s role in Zukofsky, while emphasizing Shakespeare’s – it’s an argument I can listen to, even if ultimately it would not be my own. Most important of all, all of “A”-23 is here, Zukofsky’s finest piece of writing. It is, in fact one of two pillars around which this book is gathered.

The other pillar, to my mind, is more surprising – it is the 38-page “short” poem, “4 Other Countries,” originally published in Barely and Widely, a poem I’d rejected as “simply too long to consider.” I still think that, particularly since it is a poem that makes Zukofsky seem more of a Williams’ clone than he ever really was. And it forces Bernstein to make some other hard choices, most notably the exclusion of “’Mantis’” and “’Mantis’: An Interpretation” & “Motet,” two pieces that strike me as foundational for Zukofsky’s practice, as well as “Atque in Perpetuum A.W.,” a work that was very nearly Zukofsky’s anthology piece during his lifetime. In addition, “Poem beginning ‘The’” is excerpted down to three movements. I suspect that “’Mantis’” – note the quotation marks in the original, a la “A” – may have been the book’s final cut, the poem Bernstein is most likely to have wept over the exclusion of, since it is the work, outside of “A,” discussed in the greatest detail in the introduction¹, with but a “not included in this edition,” aside to suggest a scar of omission.

Bernstein also makes the decision not to put “A” first, but rather after the selection of poems from LZ’s shorter collections prior to Catullus. This has the advantage of emphasizing the importance of “A,” but of de-emphasizing the evolution of his writing. “4 Other Countries,” for example, appears before the early sections of “A” when in fact it was penned in the mid-1950s, after all of “A” 1 – 12. I can sort of understand this, tho I felt a closer chronological order would give the Selected an additional rationale that is indicated here only by approximate dates in the table of contents.

I should note that Bernstein includes two poems not found in either “A” or the Collected Short Poems, “A Foin Lass Bodders,” an ‘outtake from “A”-9,” in Bernstein’s words, that Zukofsky himself appears to have rejected, and “Julia’s Wild,” from Bottom: On Shakespeare. Both are great works, and the thorough Zukofsky aficionado will own this book for “A Foin Lass Bodders” alone. The other primary reason to do so is Bernstein’s introduction, which is remarkable in its own right, and will be the standard introductory essay going forward.

So this is a less dense Zukofsky than readers of his larger corpus will recognize, just maybe a little less forbidding to the casual reader who fears the idea of effort in reading. But it leaves open the possibility of another, lengthier selected a decade or two down the line, one that is more chronological, and ultimately more representative.


¹ “A”-22 is discussed in some detail as well.

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