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Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 – May 12, 1978) was one of the most important second-generation American modernist poets. He was co-founder and primary theorist of the Objectivist group of poets and was to be an important influence on subsequent generations of poets in America and abroad.

Early life and writings

He was born in New Yorkmarker of Lithuanianmarker Jewish parents and grew up speaking Yiddish. His parents (father Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and mother Chana (1862-1927)) were orthodox and Louis reacted against this religious tradition at a young age. Nevertheless, his family figured quite strongly in his later writings.

As a child, Zukofsky frequented Yiddish theatres in the Bowerymarker where he saw many works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He also read both Longfellow's Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in that language. His first real contact with English was when he started school, but he was a quick learner and by the age of 11 had read all of Shakespeare's works in the original.

He went on to study English at Columbia, studying with the prominent poet Mark Van Doren and the philosopher John Dewey. He graduated with a Master's degree in 1924. (He never got a B.A., having failed to take a necessary phys. ed. class.) He began writing at university and joined the college literary society as well as publishing poems in student magazines. One early poem was published in Poetry but never reprinted.

Zukofsky considered Ezra Pound to be the most important living poet, and in 1927 he sent his poem Poem beginning "The" to the older man. The poem, most of which is addressed to the poet's mother, was a kind of parody of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In contrast to Eliot's pessimistic view of the modern world, The suggests a bright future for Western culture based in Zukofsky's belief in the energy of the new immigrants to the U.S. and the socialist experiment then occurring in Russiamarker.

Later life

In 1934, Zukofsky got a research job with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), a position he held until 1942, working on a history of American handicrafts. In 1933 He met Celia Thaew and they were married six years later. The Zukofskys had one child, Paul, born in 1943, who went on to become a prominent violinist and conductor. In 1943 Zukofsky left the WPA to work as a substitute public school teacher and a technical writer. In 1947, he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and he taught there until his retirement in 1966. Although Zukofsky lived in New York City for most of his life, in 1972 the Zukofskys moved to Port Jefferson, New York, on Long Island. Zukofsky died there in 1978.


In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist. While studying at Columbia, his friend, Whittaker Chambers, sponsored him for membership in the Communist Party, though it is unclear whether he actually joined. While he associated with Party members and published in Party-associated magazines, his poetry, which while strongly political was resolutely avant-garde and difficult, found little favor in Party circles. Though Zukofsky considered himself a Marxist at least through the end of the 1930s, the focus of his work after 1940 turned from the political to the domestic. Much later, he would claim that reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally turned him away from Marx.

Zukofsky the Objectivist

Pound was impressed by Poem beginning "The" and promoted Zukofsky's work, putting him in contact with other like-minded poets, including William Carlos Williams. The two poets influenced each other's work significantly, and Williams regularly sent his new work to Zukofsky for editing and improvement. Zukofsky was one of the founders of the Objectivist group of poets and of To Publishers, later the Objectivist Press, along with Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. Thanks to Pound's insistence, he was able to edit an Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he both coined the term and defined the two main characteristics of Objectivist poetry as sincerity and objectification. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth.


Zukofsky's major work was the long poem "A" - Zukofsky never referred to it without the quotation marks - which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life, albeit with an eight-year hiatus between 1940 and 1948. The poem was written in 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day, and the figure of the poet's father is a major theme. The first 11 sections contain much that is overtly political but interweave this matter with formal concerns and models that range from medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach. Section 12, which is longer than the first 11 sections combined, introduces materials from the poet's family life, and from there on "A" interweaves the political, historical and personal in more or less equal measure. The extensive use of music in this work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife Celia, a professional musician. Their son Paul Zukofsky became a noted violinist and conductor.

The problem of assimilation

One of the themes that appears in Zukovsky's poems, a theme that was especially close to his own heart as the child of immigrants, was the problem of assimilation, both cultural and poetical. In his poem Poem beginning ‘The’ Zukofsky refers to the Yiddish-American poet Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden). The poem raises the problem of the poet, educated, socialist, atheist, losing connection with his religious familial culture. This theme appears in the poets poignant address to his mother in the fifth movement of the poem Autobiography
If horses but could sing Bach, mother, – / Remember how I wished it once – / Now I kiss you who could never sing Bach, never read Shakespeare.
In contrast to Pound and Eliot, Zukofsky recognized the central significance of difference. The final lines of Autobiography express this: "Keine Kadish wird man sagen" The passage is adapted from Heinrich Heine’s Gedächtnisfeier (Memorial) – "Keine Messe wird man singen, / Keinen Kadosch wird man sagen, / Nichts gesagt und nichts gesungen / Wird an meinen Sterbetagen" ("No Mass will anyone sing / Neither Kaddish will anyone say / Not said and not sung / When I lay dead"). These same issues are also addressed in the poem A-12, in which Zukofsky’s father figures prominently.

Shorter poems, translations, and other writings

In tandem with "A", Zukofsky continued writing shorter poems throughout his life. Many of these shared the political and formal concerns of the longer poem, but they also include more personal lyrics, including a series of Valentines addressed to Celia. The first book publication of these shorter poems was 55 Poems (1941). He continued to write and publish shorter poems and these were eventually collected in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971).

Zukofsky also wrote critical essays, many of which were collected in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968) and the book-length study Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) which was accompanied by a second volume containing a setting by Celia of Shakespeare's play Pericles, Prince of Tyre . His prose fiction includes Ferdinand (1968) and Little: For Careenagers (1970). He also wrote a play Arise, Arise (1962/1973) and, in 1969, an extraordinary set of homophonic translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate the sound rather than the sense of the originals in English. For Zukofsky, translation provided occasions not for modest apprenticeship but rather for technical tours de force.

This virtuosity, inventiveness, and humor are all in full dazzle with "A Foin Lass Bodders Me," his translation of Guido Cavalcanti's "Donna Me Prega," a 13th-century canzone which Pound had translated several times. Pound had muted the poem's intricate rhyme scheme, reasoning that English was rhyme-poor next to Italian, and that lines "with the natural swing of words spoken" in the latter would sound stilted and artificial in the former. Zukofsky's solution was to substitute a Brooklyn vernacular for standard English, and transform a philosophical lyric into a dramatic monologue. In this way he managed to preserve every aspect of the poem's technical intricacy, down to the leap-frogging internal rhymes; what might otherwise have seemed an excess of artifice is resolved within the boozy virtuosity of the poem's swaggering speaker. Cavalcanti's envoiTu puoi sicuramente gir, canzone,

là 've ti piace, ch'io t'ho sì adornata

ch'assai laudata - sarà tua ragione

da le persone - c'hanno intendimento:

di star con l'altre tu non hai talento.– is performed as follows by Zukofsky's speaker:You may go now assuredly, my ballad,

Where you please, you are indeed so embellished

That those who've relished you more that their salad

Days'll hold you hallowed and away from shoddy–

You can't stand making friends with everybody.

His A Test of Poetry (1948) was a teaching anthology with critical commentary, after the manner of Pound's The ABC of Reading.

Late revival

Having suffered critical neglect for most of his career, Zukofsky, along with the other Objectivists, was rediscovered by the Black Mountain and Beat poets in the 1960s and 1970s. The poet and editor Cid Corman was largely responsible, publishing Zukofsky's work and critical comments on it in his magazine Origin and through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In the 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the Language poets, particularly in their formalism. The complete "A" was at the printers when the poet died in 1978. His Complete Short Poetry appeared in 1991.

Currently the Zukofsky revival continues unabated. In 2000 Wesleyan University Press, honoring Zukofsky's birth in 1904, began publishing The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky. Editions of "A" continue to be published and sell quickly; Chicago Review (Winter 2004/5) devoted an issue to Zukofsky; his correspondence with William Carlos Williams was published in 2003. In 2007, Shoemaker & Hoard published Mark Scroggins' The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, a full-length analysis of the poet's career derived from extensive archival research and interviews with Zukofsky's friends, acquaintances, and family members.


Poetry, prose, plays

  • The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire/Le Style Apollinaire (1934), with René Taupin‎, Sasha Watson, Jean Daive and Serge Gavronsky, Univ Pr of New England, ISBN 0-819-56620-9; (Hardcover ISBN 0-819-56619-5)
  • First Half of "A" 9 (privately printed, 1940)
  • 55 Poems (1941)
  • Anew (1946)
  • Some Time: Short Poems (1956)
  • Statements for Poetry (1958)
  • Barely & Widely (1958)
  • It Was (1959)
  • "A" 1-12 (1959, 2nd edition 1966 (UK), 1967 (US))
  • Louis Zukofsky: 16 Once Published (1962)
  • Arise, Arise (1962/1973)
  • Bottom: On Shakespeare two volumes (Volume 2 is C. Zukofsky's musical setting of Shakespeare's Pericles) (1963)
  • I's (Pronounced Eyes) (1963)
  • Found Objects: 1962-1926 (1964)
  • After I's (1964)
  • Finally a Valentine: A Poem (1965)
  • I Sent Thee Late (1965)
  • Iyyob (1965)
  • Little: An Unearthing (1965)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems,1923-1958 (1965)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems, 1956-1964 (1966)
  • "A" 14 (1967)
  • Fragment for Careenagers (1967)
  • Ferdinand, Including "It Was" (1968)
  • "A" 13-21 (1969)
  • Catullus Fragmenta (with music by Paul Zukofsky) (1968)
  • Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968)
  • Catullus (1969)
  • The Gas Age (1969)
  • Autobiography (poems set to music by C. Zukofsky) (1970)
  • Little: For Careenagers (1970)
  • Initial (1970)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971)
  • "A" 24 (1972)
  • "A" 22 & 23 (1975)
  • 80 Flowers (1978)
  • "A" (1978)
  • Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (1987)
  • Collected Fiction (1990)
  • Complete Short Poetry (1991)
  • Selected Poems (edited by Charles Bernstein) (2006)

Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings

  • A Test of Poetry (Foreword by Robert Creeley) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.I (Wesleyan University Press, 2000)
  • Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays (Foreword by Charles Bernstein; Additional Prose edited & introduced by Mark Scroggins) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.II (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
  • Bottom: On Shakespeare (with Celia Thaew Zukofsky) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.III & IV (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)
  • A Useful Art: Essays and Radio Scripts on American Design (Edited with an introduction by Kenneth Sherwood; afterword by John Taggart Complete Critical Writings-Vol.VI (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)
  • Le Style Apollinaire:The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire(Edited with introduction by Serge Gavronsky; foreword by Jean Daive) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.V, bilingual edition (Wesleyan University Press, 2004)

Letters and correspondence

  • Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (Faber & Faber, 1987)
  • Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams & Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)

As editor

  • An 'Objectivists' Anthology (1932)
  • Test of Poetry (1948/1964)


  1. see Charles Bernstein, Introduction to Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, American Poets Project of the Library of America (2006)
  2. see Bernstein, op.cit.

Further reading

  • Perelman, Bob. The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1994.
  • Louis Zukofsky Papers at the University Archives at Kansas State Universitymarker.
  • Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, University of Alabama Press, 1998.
  • Scroggins, Mark (editor). Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky, University of Alabama Press, 1997.
  • Scroggins, Mark. The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.


External links

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