"Art new, hurt old":
On the occasion of Louis Zukofsky’s hundredth birthday—and the hundredth calendar year beyond June 16, 1904, James Joyce’s designation of the day to be exfoliated in his Ulysses (i.e., Bloomsday)—it is worth comparing Zukofsky’s major opus, "A", with the earlier groundbreaking Modernist novel. In such a framework this essay will examine one particular section of "A", "A"-11, which I would argue encapsulates the writerly strategies of both works. "A"-11 is most unyielding to explication—as much as or more so than any other portion of "A"—and yet it is most stirring and beautiful. Moreover, it contains one particular phrase—"Art new, hurt old" (1. 13) —which I believe is a key not only to solving "A"-11’s seductive mystery, but also to understanding "A" in its entirety, and even (a Herculean feat for such a brief rhetorical figure) to recognizing a cornerstone of Modernism as we see it typified in Joyce’s work (including Finnegans Wake).
Both Ulysses and "A" are epics, and both are the products of genius. With special regard to "A"-11, furthermore, both are peculiarly Modernist—Joyce’s 1922 novel High Modernist, Zukofsky’s poem that first begins to appear in 1928 later Modernist, as it was composed over a period of almost fifty years ("A"-11 came into being between 1950 and 1951 [Ahearn 124]). What the two works share profoundly is the abundant and ingenious use made of prior texts—sometimes forthrightly, more often through subtle resonances or oblique allusions and abstruse references. For one thing, Ulysses is patterned on Homer’s Odyssey; "A" is patterned variously, with "A"-11 based on Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone "Perch’i’ no spero di tornar giammai" (cf. Ahearn 118-21; Kenner 202; Scroggins 30, 351-52). As for the trope "Art new, hurt old," it is one of Zukofsky’s more graceful echoes; and while it telescopes two earlier texts (to be discussed below), it serves as a pivot that illuminates this particular section and all of "A". This phrase has not as yet received the commentary it deserves, which would have to do with its multiple resonances across millennia, and its metatextual consciousness.
Joyce’s book embodies the Modernist ethos in many ways. Perhaps most notable is the manner in which his narrative unfolds; there is a zeal with which a civilization’s texts are mined, recast, echoed, alluded to, quoted, and otherwise brought into the moment for contemporary purposes. As Jennifer Levine has aptly remarked, "Ulysses poses the question of prior knowledge with some urgency because it can make us feel so unknowing, and with such devastating speed, and because sometimes a small bit of information available outside the novel, or inside it but hundreds of pages further on, can just as quickly unravel pages of confusion" (131). Of course, one can think of certain preModernist, and premodern, works such as Dante’s Commedia, which does somewhat the same thing. Yet the Modernist text may make little or no effort to aid the reader in sussing out the origins of one or another allusion. Dante or, say, Chaucer, can be subtle; Joyce, or Zukofsky, can be arcane. Indeed, what is to be found in a work like "A" is that Zukofsky is a reader and thinker on a par with Joyce—precisely because of its intertextuality, Zukofsky’s work is far more enigmatic—and this parity needs to be fully appreciated in order to grasp the younger writer’s literary-historical significance. "A" may seem more akin to other Modernist texts like The Waste Land or The Cantos, particularly as concerns Zukofsky’s willingness to orchestrate references both personal and literary, philosophical and so on, without attribution—a modus operandi quite likely most familiar in Marianne Moore’s poetry but on a far grander scale. Joyce and Zukofsky (Pound may keep their company in this regard), as contrasted to Moore and others, are better read, as is revealed by their respective intertextual efforts. As well, Joyce and Zukofsky, arguably more so than Eliot, Moore or other Modernists (even Pound), quote, echo and otherwise allude to other texts in dense literary works that are precisely dense because the references are twisted, acutely clever, in Zukofsky’s case occasionally eccentric, and sometimes quite esoteric. Hence, Hugh Kenner has said of "A"-11 that if it "would go by more slowly you could follow it"; like music, of course, if the poem could be read more slowly it would not have the same effect -- if played "at a slower tempo" the notes of a musical piece "are no longer the same notes" (195).
So how does one read, or rather parse, "A"-11? Kenner advises, "you must hold yourself a little back from the language, alert to watch where something may jump; it’s not an idiom you can quite trust" (195-96). In fact, he continues, "[r]eading in the normal sense—collecting a sequential meaning—is all but out of the question, so impacted are the formalities and syntax" (198). In comparison, Ulysses presents a similar problem (and joy) of reading. Clive Hart and David Hayman have commented that "there is always more to Ulysses than meets the eye of any one observer during any particular reading" (ix). The book contains, in Margot Norris’s words, "a pyrotechnic display of stylistic devices, arcane erudition, and an immense symbolic superstructure" (21). And, perhaps closer to Kenner’s overall point about "A"-11, Don Gifford maintains that "Ulysses advertises itself as a novel that includes and says it all, yet the experience of annotating the novel and teaching it with the aid of annotations suggests that often what is not said is central to our experience of the novel" (1).
An enormous amount of scholarly delving and explaining has made the understanding of Joyce’s work deeper and its admiration wider. That sort of effort is still in its earlier stages as regards "A", partly, in all likelihood, because the poem is supremely challenging. As Barry Ahearn has reported,
Zukofsky took hold of words wherever he found them. Seemingly innocuous remarks made by his son, wife, or friends might appear in ["A"] years later, without any warning or comment by the "author." Such ephemera were laid into place next to quotations from written texts. He had his own list of Great and near-Great Books, and he liberally scattered portions of them through[out]. (72)
Modernism’s propensity for intertextuality is the extension of a tradition that begins far back in time; it is just that Modernism very much foregrounds, while problematizing, this quality. And, in a work such as "A", we see the promotion of the kind of ironic quotism prevalent in much of what will be called postmodernism. The literary tradition is the very air Joyce breathes. Somewhat the same claim can be made about Zukofsky who was, as Mark Scroggins puts it, "a hyperintellectual modernist" (12); with a singular passion, "A"’s persona summons the past into an extended meditation that spans many years as it segues into the postmodern world. Like Ulysses, "A" can be read without much awareness of its many references; still, it truly comes alive when it is placed in the context of a canon, even one amended by an individual author. "A"-11’s pithy figure "Art new, hurt old" wonderfully exemplifies this literary dynamic as it discloses "A"’s essential impulse.
How does this phrase work, within its section of "A" as well as within the whole poem? "A"-11 is metatextual; that is, it observes its own existence as a poem, as a text—commenting, furthermore, on its own textual praxis. This section is an envoi (like Cavalcanti’s song), and so it operates starting with the premise that any envoi is an instruction of an author to that author’s poem. "A"-11’s speaker-author even dictates verbatim what this "song" must say by way of instruction to the author’s son. In this sense this section is a microcosm of all of "A". And one particular function "A"-11 serves is to usher in the following section, "A"-12, in which, Ahearn comments, "Zukofsky achieves what might be called the high point of the entire poem: he manages to reconcile his cosmology with his family" (102). Ahearn also refers to the two sections as "companion pieces" (124). To be sure, a portion of "A"-12 reprises the opening lines of the prior section (cf. Scroggins 220). "A"-11 opens with:
Song, my song, raise grief to music
Light as my loves’ thought [etc.].
To speak to
Everyone of its order, but will run on
In the words after the sun on
The singer stops shining […]. (p. 247)
Yet "A"-11 can be viewed as a signature for all of "A". Taking its basic structure from Cavalcanti’s medieval song, this section’s speaker (i.e., Zukofsky) directs his words not only to "raise grief to music" upon the occasion of his death, but to instruct his son (i.e., Paul) to "Honor // His [i.e., the speaker’s] voice in me [i.e., the song], the river’s turn that finds the / Grace in you [i.e., the son]" (stanzas 4-5). Paul Zukofsky is already a budding violinist at the time when "A"-11 is being composed, following in the wake of his musician mother Celia. As a motif, music—and by inference poetry, and all art—is a crucial factor in "A"-11 (this is true in one way or another for all of "A"). For instance, as Kenner has pointed out, the word "turn" is used repeatedly in this portion but to achieve various effects—in a typical Zukofskian musical and multivalenced translation of Cavalcanti’s "tornar" (Ahearn 118). The above lines continue (picking up from where we left off):
Lighting stem, stems bound to the branch that binds
Tree, and then as from the same root we talk, leaf
After leaf of your mind’s music, page, walk leaf
Over leaf of his thought, sounding
His happiness […].
Kenner points out that a dictionary definition of turn is a musical "ornament consisting of four tones [Zukofsky’s "four notes first too fall for talk" (stanza 5)—a comment on the poem’s density], the first a degree above and the third a degree below the principal tone which comes in the second and fourth positions," while a grace can be "an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony, as the trill, turn, etc." (qtd in Kenner 201). Kenner concludes from this revelation that even if we are "[u]ncertain what mathematic Zukofsky may be pursuing here, we may content ourselves with the climate of musicality, an immediate delight as quick movement incorporates run after run of rapid notes [. . .] from leaf down to the father’s and son’s common root [. . .]." The terms leaf and page can hardly avoid "Dante’s leaves of the universe [that] love has bound into a volume" (201). Further (to add to this fount of medieval literary sources), Ahearn notes that Zukofsky’s epigraph heading up the first six movements of "Poem Beginning ‘The’" comes from Chaucer: "And out of olde books, in good feith: (Parliament of Fowls l. 24; qtd in Ahearn 35); Chaucer’s poem plays a crucial role in "A"-11 too (more on this shortly). Yet Zukofsky has something specific in mind as regards music, the phrase "sounding / His happiness" evoking Paul’s violin playing (Kenner 201)—another, related motif raised earlier in "A"-11 and one that is germane to a full consideration of "Art new, hurt old." That the very idea of music is related to poetry in this envoi is not only stipulated by these lines from the poem; it is a notion abundantly reinforced by reading almost anywhere in Zukofsky’s oeuvre. Poetry is song and vice versa, to a great extent.
Earlier in "A"-11 the interconnections among poetry, music, family, and tradition are made evident:
Whose losses show them rich and you no poorer
Take care, song, that what stars’ imprint you mirror
Grazes their tears; draw speech from their nature or
Love in you—faced to your outer stars—purer
Gold than tongues make without feeling
Art new, hurt old: revealing
The slackened bow as the stinging
Animal dies, thread gold stringing
The fingerboard pressed in my honor. (from stanza 2)
The "song" is in harmony with the universe typified by the "stars." The speaker is asking the song to be sure that the stars influence the mourners of his death, namely, the speaker’s wife and their son. It is the son who becomes the focus of "A"-11 at this point and throughout the remainder of the envoi; it is he whom Zukofsky assigns as the one who will perpetuate an intellectual and artistic, as well as familial, tradition, thus aligning art and family, and by extension author and canon. The song will find its eloquence from "their nature" or from "Love in you"—a song in harmony with the entire universe or what later in the poem is called "the extended / World" (stanza 4)—the same song that "[draws] speech" from their metaphorical inner stars, their inner genius, even as it faces the "outer stars," the stars in the heavens. The speech that must be drawn, that the song will comprise, will be extraordinary, sublime perhaps, a "purer Gold." What could be such a speech? How pure can gold be?
This reading of the stanza differs from interpretations provided by Kenner and Ahearn; supplying synopses of their amplifications will not add to my point—which is that the only true speech, the only inspired speech (including the notion of inspired as having the breath of genius and truth breathed into a person by a muse) is one that recognizes the life of art, especially the tradition of art, partaken of by many writers, painters, musicians and other artists over the course of a civilization. The passing on of a tradition creates civilization. To make this point, Zukofsky has exquisitely compounded a sententia that originates in early written time with Hippocrates and later more popularly with Horace and others. That saying is: "ars longa, vita brevis"; "art is long," surpassing the span of the mortal human being, while, poignantly, "life is short." Authors partake of a literary impulse greater than themselves. They often strive to achieve fame by identifying themselves with that impulse. The artist draws from the tradition and makes something new and great, adding to it, and then dies. Hopefully, as in the case of Zukofsky, the artist is surpassed by her or his progeny who add still more to the tradition, who strengthen and ennoble the impulse, while carrying it on, just as Zukofsky has. Zukofsky is a poet, who writes songs, and his son is a musician. Both are part of the continuum of art that is greater than any individual. How to dramatize this arrangement? In an appropriation of the classical double entendre that sees a similarity between the lyre and the hunting bow (both stringed instruments, as is a violin), Zukofsky the father becomes the sacrificial animal ("the stinging / Animal dies"), sacrificed to art by his son who metaphorically shoots him when he "[bows]" his violin (i.e., plucks his lyre); thus, as in the archetypal myth of the Fisher King who is sacrificed, the civilization goes on. Paul "[presses]" the "fingerboard" of the violin whose strings are "purer / Gold" in Louis’ "honor."
What Zukofsky contributes to this ancient sententia is the idea that the art is "new" (rather than the proverbial "ars longa, vita brevis" we get "Art new, hurt old"), that his song is new and, too, that his son’s music will supersede his achievement, at the expense of grievous emotional loss, the death of the father—"hurt old," a perennial, archetypal event—and embedded in this concept is the rising of the son to command the world with his own art. Zukofsky’s twist on Horace (probably, rather than Hippocrates) has come by way of Chaucer. Just as Chaucer’s poem, The Parliament of Fowls, served Zukofsky well in "Poem Beginning ‘The’," in "A"-11 it provides the link between Zukofsky’s envoi and ancient literature, and between Zukofsky’s conflation of music and text, ultimately of song and poem. Chaucer, before him, echoed the ancient saw to a new effect, one that provides the provocation for Zukofsky’s subtle twisting of its meaning.
Intertextuality, especially translation, lies at the heart of Chaucer’s work as well. For his part, Chaucer makes the attempt to reconcile a discrepancy between the principle of formality, and knowledge, an essentially epistemological problem that is most vividly addressed in the opening lines of the Parliament of Fowls, which draw an analogy between formalistically determined courtly love that occurs within the realm of experience, and artful writing; by extension, the capacity truly to know the world is held to be a likely possibility through the act of writing that must also take place, for the author, as an experience:
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye alwey that slit so yerne:
Al this mene I by Love [. . .].
[The life so short, the craft (of art) so long to learn,
Chaucer has injected into the expectation established by the Horatian figure the notion that love is a force in creating art, and as well he may be implying that love and mortality are interdependent. He has also reversed the order of "art" and "life." Zukofsky’s envoi, which constitutes a kind of elegy before the fact of his death, associates the struggle to make art with both death and love, and not only maintains Chaucer’s reversal of order but also expands upon it. The ingeniousness of Zukofsky’s reverberation is that both Horace and Chaucer are combined—notice the reconstituting of the classical saying’s terse phrasing in Zukofsky’s line—as the present day poet is associated with this great literary past, and, moreover, love and loss are fully shown to be essential to art, and, finally, art is shown to be a matter of an inherited artistic tradition to which a kind of homage is to be paid through a poetics of intertextuality.
Here, then, we see an example of, and recipe for, a great deal of twentieth-century literature. Scroggins has observed that "[I]n Zukofsky’s later works, one must take quotation or borrowing as a continual given: the very texture of the verse is a tissue of quotations, translations, and transliterations, only a minimal proportion of which are acknowledged as such through quotation marks or italics" (234). This writerly tactic situates Zukofsky both as a late Modernist and finally as a postmodernist. Joyce was a master of such a strategy (and Zukofsky read him carefully). Zukofsky quotes and echoes, often abstrusely, and he constructs a matrix of texts that in his hands turns out to be a poem. "A"’s "constant acknowledgement of the babel of voices that constitutes the background and the material of the poem’s voice, makes a single ‘song’ out of a host of subjectivities […]" (Scroggins 94). One of the shortest sections in the entirety of "A", "A"-11 nevertheless—indeed, it is not too far fetched to think that a brief statement might most elegantly and therefore most appropriately contain such a signature—bespeaks the poetics that guides the entire, long opus, and in a sense all of Zukofsky’s life-long enterprise. One must always make art that is new, as if to fulfill Pound’s dictum "make it new," and yet such art must emerge out of artistic, out of a literary, history; most of all, such art must emerge out of and acknowledge human connection, love and loss.
Ahearn, Barry. Zukofsky’s "A": An Introduction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
Gifford, Don. "Introduction." Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2nd Ed. Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988. 1-8.
Hart, Clive, and David Hayman. "Preface." James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays. Eds. Clive Hart and David Hayman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974. vii-ix.
Kenner, Hugh. ""Too Full for Talk: ‘A’-11." Maps 5 (1973). Repr. Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Ed. and Intr. Carroll F. Terrell. Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 1979. 195-202.
Levine, Jennifer. "Ulysses." The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Derek Attridge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Norris, Margot. "A Critical History of Ulysses." A Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ed. Margot Norris. Boston / New York: Bedford Books, 1998. 21-46.
Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998.