Louis Zukofsky’s ‘1892-1941’
As it describes a site not
minutes from where I was born, ‘1892-1941’ has always been ‘my’
lyric. The only poem by LZ set in Washington, D.C., its subject
a monument, and therefore seems appropriate material out of which to
another monument - not of bronze, but words. As if to validate
choice, turning to the poem in ALL: THE COLLECTED SHORT POEMS OF LOUIS
ZUKOFSKY, one finds ‘1892-1941’ on page 100...
An Objective: (Optics) - The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry) - Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.
‘1892-1941’ is a poem which acts as such a
in that it focuses various facts of observation, of history and
particulars, onto an object. And in turn, because of its
desire to approach the subject on its own terms, the poem itself
an object which mirrors the function of what it investigates.
tribute explores the poem in the same manner, approaching the poem on
own terms, as an object, and bringing to bear on it all of the
‘historical and contemporary particulars’. My own experience,
makes this poem speak to me, seems to have a bearing on important
surrounding the text, which would not have manifested themselves to me
without the special personal experience I bring to this poem. We
will start, therefore, in ignorance (mine) and hopefully move towards
understanding, and from that understanding build a monument to LZ.
I. The Search for Death
In 1990 I began my freshman year at Columbia
College in Takoma Park, Maryland. I was a local, having been born
a stone’s throw away at the adjacent hospital, and since birth had
within a half hour of that epicenter aside from four years spent at a
academy in Virginia. My sister, four years ahead of me, had
graduated from the same school, and was working in a congressman’s
on Capital Hill.
SEARCHING FOR DEATH
‘It affects each person differently,’ the man said. ‘Some people
laugh, some cry, but it is so profound and unexpected that anyone who
it is moved.’
This search was more like a quest, and could have been more applicably
called an obsession. It had begun several months before on a
holiday, when in my boredom I drove down town to the Washington, D.C.
Guide Association. Being a native of the Washington area, I had
all of the famous attractions at tedium: the Capitol, the Smithsonian,
the Washington Monument, etc, etc... I had been told by a friend
that at the Tour Guide Association I could find a wealth of obscure
about our nation’s capital. But as I talked to each tour guide,
one predominant site escaped their lips: Death. Supposedly, in
of the old cemeteries inside the city limits, there was a statue
‘Death’. There are many sculptural tributes to the Grim Reaper,
this one was allegedly different.
This piece of juvenilia may not hold up as a
(I shudder to read parts of it - oh, the leaps in logic!), but it must
be remembered that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Washington earned
the infamous moniker of ‘Murder Capital of the United States’.
several years running, the murder rate exceeded 500 per year. In
this light, ‘Searching for Death’ makes a point for its place and
But for us, the interest is in the knowledge - or more properly LACK of
knowledge - I had in 1992: I had never seen the statue, and only knew
it through second hand knowledge verging on urban legend. In the
void created by the missing ‘facts’, I created an alternative based on
the mere notion of the statue and its properties. Oddly enough,
the point in the story where ‘Death’ is encountered, there is no
statue to be found. The potential was greater than the limits of
my imagination, tho at least my imagination knew its limits!
else this scant knowledge caused, it at least surrounded the idea of
statue with Mystery; and the search attained the status of a
for a potentially numinous object.
PORTRAIT WITH GRIEF
II. a lady of Nineteen Forty One met byIn a letter dated ‘Aug 25/41’ Zukofsky told William Carlos Williams, ‘P.S. We’ll probably be away from home and looking for jobs in Washington Aug 30 to Sept 7 ...’ (Ahearn 2003 284). Not long thereafter, on October 25, 1941, LZ sent a letter thanking Williams for his review of 55 POEMS (Decker 1941). He also enclosed a copy of the poem ‘1892-1941’ (ibid. 297). (Both the review and ‘1892-1941’ appeared almost a year later in the September, 1942 issue of POETRY (Chicago).) From this we can assume that Zukofsky visited Rock Creek Cemetery during his trip to Washington, sometime between August 30 and September 7, 1941. We can also know, then, that the composition of the poem ‘1892-1941’ began with that visit, and that the poem was finished sometime prior to October 25 of the same year.
Aside from accuracy, we might glean other insights from this timeline. Despite Zukofsky’s intimacy with Adams and his work from his 1924 MA thesis, he had not visited the grave site before 1941. Also, Zukofsky’s visit to Rock Creek may have been in homage, but it was not a pilgrimage. At least, Zukofsky did not seem in a rush to visit Washington, as it had been seventeen years since he had completed his thesis. It was the prospect of job hunting that took him there, not Adams. But saying this, since he was in Washington, he certainly took the opportunity to visit the grave and to see the famous statue that sat upon it. If Zukofsky had wanted to make the experience have symmetry, he would have made a special trip in 1942 - fifty years after Adams had recorded seeing the memorial for the first time. But it was not a contrived event; rather, the visit was conditioned by the flow of everyday concerns and commonplaces. Zukofsky viewed the statue as any other visitor on any other chance day, tho his was no common understanding, but a sincere and intimate knowledge - albeit secondary - of the circumstances of the memorial’s inception, and the personage who had mandated its creation.
So what uncommon knowledge and understanding did Zukofsky bring to the statue? For that we must have a look at Zukofsky’s MA thesis.
Zukofsky wrote his MA thesis only six years after Adams’ death and the posthumous publication of THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS. As such, his thesis is an early example of Adams criticism, one that did not have the benefit of the numerous scholarly works that followed: volumes of letters, biographies, and critical works. For ‘Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography’, Zukofsky utilized an unusual form for the first time. The majority of the essay is an arrangement of quotations from the writings of Adams, with a slender amount of comment linking these parts together into a whole. It allows Adams to give the particulars, allows the work to show the way. The subtle ‘argument’ is more in the arrangement.
From the outset Zukofsky shows an affinity with his subject:
These chapters on the writings of Henry Adams illustrate two actuating forces of his nature: poetic intellect is its continual undertow, and detached mind the strong surface current in the contrary direction. (Prepostions 86)
Zukofsky, working closely with Adams’
read himself into the material. The description of Adams, with a
‘strong surface current of detached mind’ and an ‘undertow’ of ‘poetic
intellect’ is in many ways the true mirror (an image exact but inverted
in the glass) of Zukofsky, of whom it could be said, ‘had two
forces of his nature: detached mind is its continual undertow, and
intellect the strong surface current in the contrary direction’(!).
Such was his sympathy for his material that it extended to the type of
information Zukofsky allowed in the thesis about the statue.
Adams lived it all
but ever so silently. He might imply that his life had been a
arch, but he felt repose and self-restraint as nothing else.
art to make the best of death in a monument at Rock Creek, Adams went
submissive. To the heart, at least, infinite peace meant
This ‘greatest matter’, not recorded by Adams, is recorded with the most extreme economy by Zukofksy: a mere 153 words in a forty-five page essay - Zukofsky is nearly as quiet as Adams himself about this monumental event. There is no more about the death of Mrs. Adams in the thesis, but there is, as there is in THE EDUCATION, a bit more about the St. Gaudens figure. This famous excerpt describes the first time Adams viewed the memorial in 1892, which had been built during a period of wandering and world travels in the years after his wife’s death:
His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence ... He supposed its meaning to be the one commonplace about it - the oldest idea known to human thought ... The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. As Adams sat there, numbers of people came, for the figure seemed to have become a tourist fashion, and all wanted to know its meaning. Most took it for a portrait-statue, and the remnant were vacant-minded in the absence of a personal guide. None felt what would have been nursury-instinct to a Hindu baby or a Japanese jinricksha-runner. The only exceptions were the clergy, who taught a lesson even deeper. One after another brought companions there, and, apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of despair, of atheism, of denial. Like the others, the priest saw only what he brought. Like all great artists, St Gaudens held up the mirror and no more. The American layman had lost sight of ideals; the American priest had lost sight of faith. Both were more American than the old, half-witted soldiers who denounced the wasting, on a mere grave, of money which should have been given for drink. (Prepositions 109)
Zukofsky included this excerpt from the
page of THE EDUCATION that refers to the statue, and by obscure
to Mrs. Adams. In it, Adams switches attention away from the
of the statue, which he writes is ‘not the interest’, and focuses
on ‘the response of the viewer’, stating that ‘like all great artists,
St Gaudens held up the mirror and no more’. Through his seeming
in anonymously overhearing the reactions of the curious visitors to the
site, Adams suggests that most people view the statue as presenting a
and look to it for an answer, not realizing that all they receive back
is their own reflection.
Henry Adams lies buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, in Washington. The casual visitor might perhaps notice, on a slight elevation, a group of shrubs and small trees making a circular enclosure. If he should step up into this concealed spot, he would see on the opposite side a polished marble seat; and placing himself there he would find himself facing a seated figure, done in bronze, loosely wrapped in a mantle, which, covering the body and the head, throws into strong relief a face of singular fascination. Whether man or woman, it would puzzle the observer to say. The eyes are half closed, in reverie rather than in sleep. The figure seems not to convey the sense either of life or death, of joy or sorrow, of hope or despair. It has lived but life is done; it has experienced all things, but is now oblivious to all; it has questioned, but questions no more. The casual visitor will perhaps approach the figure, looking for a symbol, a name, a date - some revelation. There is none. The level ground, carpeted with dead leaves, gives no indication of a grave beneath. It may be that the puzzled visitor will step outside, walk around the enclosure, examine the marble shaft against which the figure is placed; and, finding nothing there, return to the seat and look long at the strange face. What does he make of it - this level spot, these shrubs, this figure that speaks and yet is silent? Nothing - or what he will. Such was life to Henry Adams, who lived long, and questioned seriously, and would not be content with the dishonest or the facile answer. -Carl Becker. (Prepositions 129-30)
It should be noted immediately that this
is from a secondary source, as Zukofsky would not, as noted above,
the site until 1941. Secondly, Becker’s description includes much
of the physical detail found in the poem ‘1892-1941’. Notice, as
well, Becker’s statement on what the viewer will find: ‘Nothing - or
he will’. Yet while Becker states that reactions will be
he perhaps takes a swipe at popular misconceptions by adding, ‘Adams
would not be content with the dishonest or the facile answer’.
accurate description gave Zukofsky foreknowledge of what he would see,
and no doubt informed (and blunted?) his initial reactions.
III. The man who answers will be doomed to eternity like the men who answered the sphinxThe major works of Henry Adams, MONT ST. MICHEL AND CHARTRES and THE EDUCATION, are works of indeterminate genre. The CHARTRES is a ‘travel guide’, and a book of French mediaeval culture and architecture, while THE EDUCATION is an autobiography which gives great insight into American culture of the 19th century. Taken together, the two volumes create a philosophy of history comparable in its geometries to Spengler and Yeats. In other words, neither are what they first seem; they offer some things on the surface and others by insinuation or gradual revelation.
This same distinction can be said of the St. Gaudens figure. At once it is self-evident: a great piece of bronze and marble sitting in the open for any person to visit and ponder. Yet, by comparison to the standard monuments in Rock Creek, it obscures ‘meaning’ by its lack of names, dates, and symbols of a religious or civic nature. We know from Zukofsky’s thesis that ‘Adams lived it all through, but ever so silently’, and the general retreat from the public eye that was both in his nature and his upbringing as a member of a famous family (avoiding the paparazzi of his day); but of this Adams created an intellectual game that both allowed and justified his obscurity. And there can be no doubt that he reveled in it. As with the philosophy expounded by the CHARTRES and THE EDUCATION, Adams allowed the meaning to build after the fact, and did not, perhaps, intend it to begin with. It was only when so many questions and multiple interpretations surfaced, and the statue became the fodder for public contemplation, that Adams mandated that no one interpretation be allowed to formulate the figure. According to Adams’ biographer Ernest Samuels, the multiplicity of meaning was encouraged in that “Adams himself helped to throw about the figure veil after veil of significance, making it the mirror for his changing moods.” (Samuels 1954 57) Even after the death of St. Gaudens, when the newspapers and gossip magazines continued to offer specious interpretations of the memorial, Adams wrote to the sculptor’s son:
Do not allow the world to tag my figure with a name! Every magazine writer wants to label it as some American patent medicine for popular consumption - Grief, Despair, Pear’s Soap, or Macy’s Suits Made to Measure. Your father meant it to ask a question, not to give an answer; and the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx. (Samuels 1954 89)
It was the FIXING of a meaning, more than
of any individual’s interpretation, that bothered Adams. If, for
example, one view asserted itself so strongly as to be taken for the
‘truth’, it would have destroyed the interactive qualities caused when
the viewer, confronted by the mystery, was forced to create a
As Adams wrote to a person inquiring about the figure, “All
artists make it a point of compelling the public to think for itself
Every man his own artist before a work of art.” (Samuels 1954 88)
St. Gaudens was a ‘great artist’ by this definition, and as long as the
mystery of the memorial remained, the public was forced to ‘think for
and to become part of the creative act.
IV. To be moved comes of want, tho want be completeIn his well known poem ‘Mantis’, Zukofsky carefully records all the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding the event of seeing a mantis on the subway. The poem records the multiple events and associations that occurred during the few seconds of the event, the “thoughts’ torsion” swirling in the form of the sestina. ‘Mantis’ shows his sincerity in recording all the aspects of the event, and achieves ‘Objectification’ when these elements find suitable concrete form - the sestina itself. In comparison, ‘1892-1941’ achieves the same level of ‘Objectification’ as it, too, approaches its subject with ‘sincerity’, and carefully records all the various ‘historical and contemporary particulars’ surrounding the central object - in this case not an insect but a statue. But it all the same achieves, as much as Mantis, a ‘rested totality’ (with two bodies in a grave, quite literally!).
The poem, then, utilizing ‘Sincerity’ and ‘Objectification’ is written from a vantage point of knowledge. Just as in his MA thesis, Zukofsky approaches the ‘object’ on its own terms, records its physical details and the context of its historical moment in the duration of Zukofsky’s own visit. THE EDUCATION provided a model, recording not only what Adams saw in the statue, but what the tourists and curious gawkers said as well.
But unlike the tourists, who saw what they brought reflected in the statue (‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, ‘Atheism’, ‘Silence’, ‘Pear’s Soap’...), Zukofsky, in writing the poem, caused an effect unlike any other viewer: he held up a mirror to a mirror. ‘1892-1941’ in one sense gives no more than the memorial itself: neither Adams or his wife are mentioned by name; the dates given, tho appearing as years of ‘birth’ and ‘death’, we now apprehend as the year Adams first viewed the statue (1892) and the year Zukofsky did the same (1941). Beyond this, we know ‘two of them lie there’ - it is a grave holding two people. In short, the reader unfamiliar with Adams or the memorial is given a certain set of information: ambiguous dates, a location (Rock Creek Cemetery, not far from down town Washington, D.C.), specific details of the figure and its surroundings (very accurate, as confirmed when comparing it to Becker), and that the narrator of the poem is visiting the site and seeing these things on a particular day in 1941.
These elements, added together, do not provide much insight beyond what any visitor would see at Rock Creek. As Barry Ahearn has noted, ‘The poem tests, in a small way, any American reader’s familiarity with the story of Henry Adams’ (Terrell 1979 126). This is true, as the poem includes quotations from THE EDUCATION which any reader familiar with Adams’ work would most likely recognize: ‘the cemetery known as Rock Creek’ and ‘One’s instinct abhors time’ have an instant resonance to the initiated ear.
But here’s the crux: what about the un-initiated? Many readers might come to the poem ignorant of Adams and the memorial. How would they read it? Would these readers take anything away? If a poem is meant to communicate, to add the particular insights of the poet in aid of understanding, then wouldn’t ‘1892-1941’ be a failure to the vast majority of readers?
Perhaps we can look at it another way. Whether familiar with the exact statement or not, it seems Zukofsky was aware that ‘the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx’. With our knowledge of the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding the writing of the poem, we can see that Zukofsky approaches the memorial with ‘sincerity’, that in writing his poem he strives - just as in ‘Mantis’ - to ‘live with objects as they exist’. The statue, as Zukofsky knew, purportedly reflected whatever the viewer brought. Zukofsky, like Perseus approaching Medusa, used his perceptions as a mirror, and in creating his poem captured the blank reflective qualities of the statue itself: any obscurity of the poem is due to an accurate and sympathetic rendering of what the statue itself emanates.
Yet while allowing the mystery to stand, Zukofsky gives enough hints that show he knows more than he would divulge openly: the dates of the poem’s title; the quotations from THE EDUCATION; the location and description. These elements are possible to decipher under the right circumstances and coincidences.
This brings us back to my own experience with the memorial and Zukofsky’s poem. Far from being ‘trivial’, my history is a concrete example of how both the memorial and Zukofsky’s poem function. The ‘meaning’ of the memorial changed, in a very literal way, depending on the knowledge (or lack of) that I brought to it at any one point. From the abstract ‘Death’, to the concrete ‘Grief’, to the historical ‘Adams Memorial’, the figure held significance and inspired creation on my part. In a sense, fruitfulness was due to mis-information; but like Sir Thomas Browne’s URNE BURIAL, the error in historical fact (mistaking Anglo-Saxon burial urns for Roman ones) seems less important than the creative act that resulted in the process of meditation on the urns, whatever their origin.
Just as the meaning of the memorial depends on what is brought to it, the same can be said of the poem. ‘1892-1941’, in full sympathy with the memorial it records, will reflect what is brought to it. If the reader is not familiar with Adams or the memorial, or of Zukofsky’s own work that connects him to Adams, then the poem will be as the statue to the average visitor: an object without apparent meaning, and in this case the reader must create meaning, even if it is to say ‘I get nothing’ (as Becker said of the St. Gaudens figure, the viewer can make of it ‘Nothing - or what he will’). I think back to the happenstance of my encounter with the poem, and how differently my reaction would have been if I had not by coincidence been familiar with the statue; ‘1892-1941’ would simply have been another of those Zukofsky poems that did not resonate for me, and I expect this is the reaction of many readers. For those in the know, however, the poem is amazingly accurate in its detail and sentiments.
The poem begins, ‘To be moved comes of want, tho want be complete / as understanding’. What at first seems to be a confession - that the speaker cannot be moved, since his lack of understanding makes his want insufficient - may be more a statement of fact. If a viewer’s understanding IS lacking, then the want will not be sufficient to be moved by the statue. But we know Zukofsky DOES have complete understanding, therefore his ‘want’ must also be complete, and ‘to be moved’ comes from that complete want. If we can say the same as we approach his poem, then we are moved dependent on our level of understanding of its impetus and circumstances.
Having explored the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding both the Adams memorial and Zukofsky’s poem, we may see a chain of occurrences:
ADAMS seeing the figure in 1892, with the full knowledge that the figure sat upon the grave of his wife, who killed herself. Yet he records only the mystery of the figure, and the popular speculations surrounding it. He states, for the record, ‘St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more’. The viewer, according to Adams, merely saw him or herself reflected. ZUKOFSKY in 1941, knowing all of the circumstances of the death of 'Clover' Adams, and of the controversy over the meaning of the statue. In full sympathy with Adams, he writes a poem around the object of the statue, and does not ‘interpret’, but merely reflects back, detailing the particulars of his visit. As Barry Ahearn has written:
The title, brief as a riddle, suggests a particular balance. It puts Zukofsky and Adams in close alliance, denoting as it does a shared point in physical and mental space, yet there is a gap of fifty-nine years [sic - actually 49]. Two generations cannot be so easily dismissed. This tension between alliance and division is the friction that generates the poem (ibid.).
Zukofsky and Adams are met in the ‘shared
in physical and mental space’. The relative stasis of the statue
- in bronze, as lasting as any of our human monuments - becomes
unchanging, something outside the boundaries in time. The actual
point in time may not be co-habitated, but the sharing of a first
is possible. One may think of the last section of Basil Bunting’s
BRIGGFLATTS (1966) - another poem intended as monument - which
illustrates ‘Then is Now’ in a literal sense: the light from a certain
star travels 50 years before it is seen in the present, and by looking
at its light, the present is melded with the past into one . In
brief epiphany, time is nullified. It seems appropriate that
Zukofsky’s good friend, should express this concept so eloquently
years after Zukofsky’s poem was written.
V. A ‘Monumental Mirror’This essay (and the reader) takes part in the chain as well. Tho no piece of art, it records the complex and varied ‘historical and contemporary particulars’ surrounding both the Adams memorial and ‘1892-1941’ - including my own history, which has a bearing on the individual approach and understanding of the poem. In following Adams’ pronouncement of St. Gaudens, Zukofsky holds up the mirror, and no more. And in doing so reflects a bronze monument, while making of the poem a monument in its own right. This essay has tried to hold up another mirror, and in reflecting the poem and the particulars that surround it, is a sincere monument to its maker inscribed:
Adams, Henry. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
---. THE CORRESPONDENCE OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS AND LOUIS ZUKOFSKY. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2003.
POETRY: A MAGAZINE OF VERSE. Vol. LX, No. VI. September, 1942. Zukofsky’s ‘1892-1941’ appears on pp. 315-315; William Carlos Williams review of Zukofsky’s book 55 POEMS appears on pp. 338-340 with the title, ‘An Extraordinary Sensitivity’.
Samuels, Ernest. HENRY ADAMS: THE MAJOR PHASE. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1954.
Terrell, Carroll F., ed. LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: MAN & POET. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, . Ahearn, Barry. ‘The Adams Connection’. pp. 113-128.
Zukofsky, Louis. ALL: THE COLLECTED SHORT POEMS. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965. p. 100.
---. PREPOSITIONS: THE COLLECTED
ESSAYS OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY. Expanded Edition. Berkeley, CA:
of California Press, 1981.