Review by Brad Haas
Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge
I bought Mark Scroggins' book at a Borders without hesitation. I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the 'z' shelf, where one is lucky to see the Johns Hopkins "A" and Complete Shorter Poems at any one time simultaneously. Much could be said concerning the buying policies of large bookstore chains; the fact is, I haven't seen a copy of Scroggins' book since. And that is unfortunate, as his is a model book of criticism, one both useful and enjoyable, a rare thing when dealing with - as Scroggins has written while praising Bruce Comens' work on Zuk - a 'notoriously "difficult" poet'.1
Why is this book so laudable? Most obviously for its topic. As Scroggins has written, 'On more than one occasion, I have lifted a glass with a scholar of Olson, or Zukofsky, or of twentieth-century poetry in general, only to find a shared thought rising to our lips: "I'd love to write on Pound, but who's got the time to go through the secondary literature?"2 Yes, there is always more to do on Pound or Joyce, but it is becoming harder to write something which is in any sense authoritative, as one would be a septuagenarian before one had read the respective critical corpus. This aside, Pound and Joyce studies at this level absorb so much time - spent with critics, not poets - that of necessity it causes the relative neglect of other worthy authors, such as Zukofsky. For years seen under the shadow of Pound (as with his friend, Basil Bunting), Zukofsky has emerged as a poet and thinker to rival Pound as the American poet this century. You would never guess this by looking at a Norton or Oxford anthology, but that could very well change in our lifetimes if books such as Scroggins' continue to be written.
The other elements that make this such a nice volume are somewhat more elusive. As someone currently engaged on a thesis, I can read Scroggins with admiration for being able to perform a bit of critical alchemy. Perhaps I can attempt to elucidate what I mean, if not emulate Scroggins' skill in my own writings.
In his introduction Scroggins outlines his main thesis:
In a century during which poetry saw itself losing most of the cultural prestige that it once enjoyed, saw itself rapidly losing cultural ground to the increasingly powerful physical and technological sciences, Louis Zukofsky, in both his poetry and his critical writings, advanced a vision of his poetry as the human construction most capable of giving us reliable knowledge both of the world in which we live and of ourselves. That knowledge is for him bound up with poetry's formal essence, which is in turn bound up with the notion of music - an ideally formal art. The knowledge that his poetry imparts, then, can be described as "musical" knowledge. (p.7)At this point it seems that Scroggins has written a fairly straight-forward dissertation; but he is not finished: "While this thesis will be qualified and complicated in the pages to come, it remains the theme underlying all the variations and divagations of the book as a whole" (ibid.). Variations and divagations indeed! Scroggins badgers into his subject, showing the multifarious aspects of Zukofsky, yet at no point does the reader feel lost; no matter how 'complicated' things become, they at all times remain clear.
The variations of the book form four main sections, constituting (in order) an examination of Zukofsky's thought, his background as a Jew and as a Leftist radical in the 1930s, a study of the musical forms in "A", and Scroggins' take on the influence of Zukofsky on subsequent poetries. Scroggins defends this seemingly wide scope: 'I conceive of this book as an advanced introduction to Zukofsky's thought and writing' (p.11). And it is just that, a smattering of everything. But it works, and this is why: Scroggins has deep knowledge; he knows Zukofsky, and furthermore he knows Zukofsky criticism and the history of modern poetry. All this would be moot if Scroggins did not possess the astuteness to see what is needed and fill the gap, and the lucidity to lace the various parts seemlessly together. As such, his book is both an end and a beginning, a summation of what is known and a guidebook to new territory.
Most welcome is his treatment of Zukofsky's thought, and especially the long 'prose' work, Bottom: on Shakespeare, as it is the longest to appear in a Zukofsky monograph (it is a mystery how previous critics have attempted readings of Zuk's poetry with barely a mention of the essential Bottom). Also refreshing is his alternative view of the Zukofsky inheritance: Sandra Kumamoto Stanley in Louis Zukofsky and the Transformation of a Modern American Poetics shows the influence of Zukofsky on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Scroggins, while acknowledging the debt the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group owes Zuk, highlights Ronald Johnson and John Taggart as more overtly the heirs to his poetics. Scroggins' evidence is compelling, as Taggart and Johnson are seen as 'loners', much as Zukofsky, refusing to dirty themselves with the politics and hang-ups of an organized movement. Scroggins also illustrates, especially with Johnson's Ark, how this next generation has not used Zukofsky as a boundary to be imitated, but as a springboard to further ideas and concepts.
To start the book, Scroggins glosses 'Zukofsky's writing life', a biographical sketch of sorts, using as the main events Zukofsky's works. It seems Scroggins has adopted Zuk's thinking; Zukofsky describes Bottom: on Shakespeare as, among other things, "A poet's autobiography, as involvement of twenty years in a work show him up, or as in the case of Shakespeare his words show it, are his life."3 In this sense, Scroggins is exactly right: Zukofsky is his writing; it defines him, it is his unique contribution to humanity. Acknowledging this fact, Scroggins must be aware of the implications for his own book, and relieved it too is a springboard, is a life so far well-written.
1. Scroggins, Mark. 'Dogmatic Gossip: Defining Modernism [Recent Assays]'. FlashPoint, Summer, 1996, vol.1 no. 1., p. 92.
3. Zukofsky, Louis. 'Bottom: a Weaver'. Prepositions: the Collected Critical Essays of
Louis Zukofsky. U. Cal. Press, 1981, expanded edition. p. 167.
3. Zukofsky, Louis. 'Bottom: a Weaver'. Prepositions: the Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky. U. Cal. Press, 1981, expanded edition. p. 167.