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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE POEM OF A LIFE

A Biography of Louis Zukofsky

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By Mark Scroggins

Shoemaker Hoard. 572 pp. $30

This splendid biography of poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) performs three important functions: It acts as a memorial, an introduction and a prod.

First, memorial: The Poem of a Life tells us about Louis -- pronounced Lewee -- Zukofsky's childhood in New York (Yiddish-speaking family, pants-presser father), his years at Columbia (where his classmates included Whittaker Chambers, Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer Adler) and his various jobs (substitute teacher, technical writer, professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic). From an early age, though, Zukofsky also wrote poetry and hardly into his 20s produced the playful and melodious "Poem beginning 'The.' " A loose parody-homage-extension of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," it shows the flair for puns and wordplay that marks much of its author's later work: "The/Voice of Jesus I. Rush singing/in the wilderness . . . For the Pater that was Greece/The siesta that was Rome." Before long, Zukofsky was corresponding with the great teacher of the modernists, Ezra Pound, who helped him publish his early poems and told him to look up William Carlos Williams.

From the 1930s until about 1960, Zukofsky had virtually no audience outside of little magazines and chapbooks. This was not because of artistic purity or conviction: No trade publisher wanted to bring out his books. (Little wonder: Two months after publication, Barely and widely had sold only 26 copies.) After all, Zukofsky was in many ways the last of the real modernists, ambitious on a grand scale, producing appealing but still demanding short work, while giving his greatest efforts to a mammoth 24-section epic titled "A." Though full of verbal music, his poetry demanded attention, was neither personal nor accessible, invited -- or required -- multiple readings to fathom its sense.

Nonetheless, by the late 1950s and early '60s Zukofsky found himself looked to as a model by some of the more experimental branches of American poetry: the Black Mountain school, headed by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the San Francisco poets (Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer), and even the Beats (Allen Ginsberg). By the '70s, the critic Guy Davenport, was calling the author of "A" the greatest living American poet. Such acclaim arrived just in time: Zukofsky died suddenly in 1978 from complications following a perforated duodenal ulcer. The cause of death, remarked composer John Cage, was precisely the same as that which carried off James Joyce.

Mark Scroggins, who teaches at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, relates Zukofsky's life with speed, clarity and zest. But his book is also intended as an introduction to the poet, and so concentrates as much on the work as on its creator. "Interchapters," for instance, address major themes or look into the influence on Zukofsky of, say, Spinoza and Bach.

Scroggins's approach to interpretation is scholarly yet down to earth, full of good sense and useful information. The first section of "A," he tells us, "presents the dilemma of the poet's task in an unsettled time -- how to navigate between the demands of an unjust, capitalistic society and the otherworldly perfection offered by art, represented here by Bach's St. Matthew Passion." In section 8, he points out, a description of the artistic imagination mirrors Marx's account of the labor process in Capital:

What distinguishes any worker from the best of the bees

Is that the worker builds a cell in his head before he constructs


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