New Directions published a beautiful reprint edition of Louis Zukofsky’s “A” in 2011. Here is a tribute to the book featuring poems and short essays by Marina Blitshteyn, L.S. Asekoff, Adam Day, Ted Dodson, Seth Graves, Michael McDonough, David James Miller, and Erika Moya.
by Ken L. Walker
The general anti-Louis Zukofsky consensus is not one of hatred or disgust, but it mainly seems to be centered around this notion that his work is difficult to pierce, that it inhabits a kind of flesh no reading needle is going to make bleed. I disagree. What “A” illustrates about the philosophical concept of the individual is that a direct connection to the historical movements that surround and encompass the individual are solidified mainly in being and observing. Zukofsky, in “A-6,” writes: “And to rise in the morning,/Like nothing on earth,”. There it is. An individual, separate but connected. An individual, whole in its body within another whole body. The pregnancy, the planet spinning.
“A” is a long work, epic-mocking but epic and filled with densely-crammed research granules from times and places lost, forgotten, overlooked, and repressed—an 806-page red mammoth, written chronologically (with one exception—“A-24”), accompanied by a nineteen page index of name and object. Its musicality does not overwhelm or encompass but meditates on the many miniature environments within and around it. This is a life’s work, research-based, a collage deeper than a canyon and bigger than New York. The perpetual processes of research that Zukofsky engaged came “out of deep need” and out of rotation and/or movement. Not only does a human being possess a bottomless need to make but a human being is vibrating, moving and sounding. Is it possible to put this all into one poem? Zukofsky certainly believed so and so did. The determination and the scale does not say more about “A” or make “A” any better; it simply acts as component.
If a poem can be a field, or an open grid and can be plotted, then the poet must ask the obvious question: how do I plot this? When to ask that question is even more important. Zukofsky was an intricate professional at this type of crusade, plucking ideations from innumerable sources (Karl Marx, Alexander Hamilton, Jonathan Swift, Vico, Henry Adams, thousands of newspaper articles, Spinoza, Appalachian subculture, Baudleaire, Wagner, The Buddhist Fire Sermon, etc.). A research-based poem does something that other poems do not seem to do as well—to connect the individual and society but to assert both equally, in chorus. Why is this important? Because the one is part of the many and the many is emptied of false meaning and practiced without a single one.
Barry Ahearn points out that Zukofsky preferred “to read American handicrafts as relics of labor processes best understood according to Marxist economic analysis,” but, also believed that such vestiges “reflect the lives and loving care of the individuals who made them.” One less ambiguous example of this happens when Zukofsky, in “A-10,” writes: “Credo I believe//Shame//Ashamed of all people put to shame/And all planets emit light/and indeed all bodies do.”
Zukofsky long claimed that “A” is “of a life,” one trying to revive the century with a panoply of collected objects. It’s clearly a misnomer that readers feel they cannot penetrate “A” ; all one is obligated to do with this poem is spend time with it, to enter into the same simple dialectical process that one enters into upon birth—the process of one letter becoming the use of language which is the same process of one object becoming the ability to use and be used. I’m excited to present this project with dedication pieces from many talented poets. This is a tribute, no doubt.