Louis Zukofsky

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The cover of the 1978 edition of Zukofsky's long poem A.
The cover of the 1978 edition of Zukofsky's long poem A.

Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 - May 12, 1978) was one of the most important second-generation American modernist poets. He was co-founder 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 York of Lithuanian Jewish parents and grew up speaking Yiddish. His parents 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 Bowery 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. He graduated with a Master's degree in 1924. 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 Russia.


In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist. While stuying at Columbia, he was recruited by Whittaker Chambers to take a leadership position in the Communist Party, and he considered doing so. He refused, reputedly after studying Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Marxist ideology in mind. Moreover, he sensed that his non-political avant-garde work would never find favour in Communist circles. This, combined with his sense of the importance of his private, domestic life, caused him to distance himself from the Communist Party from the early 1930s.

Zukofsky the Objectivist

Pound was impressed by Poem beginning "The" and promoted Zukofsky's work as well as 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 improving. 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 the insistence of Pound, 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 clarification. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth.


His major work was the long poem A, which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life. 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 interweaves 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 violin player and conductor.

Shorter poems 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 Pericles . 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 translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate the sound rather than the sense of the originals in English. His A Test of Poetry was a teaching anthology with critical commentary.

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 comment on it in his magazine Origin and through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In he 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, particularly in their foregrounding of the formal aspects of writing. The complete A was at the printers when the poet died in 1978. His Complete Short Poetry appeared in 1991.



Poetry, prose, plays

  • First Half of "A" 9 (privately printed, 1934)
  • Le Style Apollinaire (With Rene Taupin (1934))
  • 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)

As editor

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


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