Review by Brad Haas


Louis Zukofsky
Wesleyan University Press, 2000
paperback $15.95

   Wesleyan is launching a large, multi-volume reissue of the complete critical writings of Louis Zukofsky. The first and only volume so far released is A Test of Poetry, a 1948 Objectivist Press book, Zuk's probing collection (perhaps seen as his 'ABC of Reading') that shows rather than argues, presents rather than alludes. Its method is far ahead of its time, still challenging; it prefigures many post-modern strategies. "The test of poetry," writes Zukofsky in the preface,

is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art. But readers have rarely been presented with comparative standards to quicken their judgments: 'comparative' in the sense that the matter with which poems deal may be compared. To suggest standards is the purpose of this book. By presenting for comparison several translations of the same passage from Homer, an elegy of Ovid and lines from Herrick that read like an adaptation of Ovid, or a fifteenth century poem about a cock and a recent poem about white chickens, and so on, a means for judging the values of poetic writing is established by the examples themselves.

It is a bit frightening, then, flipping through this book which purportedly is 'to suggest standards', to find in two of the book's three sections poems without titles, authors, dates or criticism, the second alone giving this information along with brief notes by Zukofsky. All the information, be rest assured, is at the end of the book, but the point is not to look for the monikers of famous poets (to say, it's by so-and-so; it MUST be good!), but to look at the poems and compare them for ourselves; Zukofsky believes that readers should be able to do this, or wants readers to learn how, or at least for them to recognize their inability to do so. To my dismay, I found myself floundering without the guiding dogma of literary critics, the panderers of formulas and supplied answers, and had very little to say about the comparisons for myself. A TEST of poetry indeed; a finger pointing saying 'Shame, Shame!' If one wants to cheat, however, and peek at the names at the rear, one will find mingled among classical and 19th century poets the likes of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, as well as those somewhat closer to Zuk: Basil Bunting, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker - perhaps suggesting these relative unknowns (in 1948) can stand favorably in the company of established 'greats' from all centuries. (Those wanting some critical reflection on this jagged book might look at the poet Cid Corman's The Practice of Poetry: Reconsiderations of Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry, published by Longhouse, 1998, and available directly from their website; see the Cid Corman feature in this issue of FLASHPOINT for more information).

   Over the next several years the other volumes of Zukofsky's criticism will be published, including Prepositions: the Collected Critical Essays, the rare essay on Appollinaire from 1934, and the monumental Bottom: on Shakespeare(and it will be interesting to see whether they include the second volume, made up of Celia Zukofsky's music, as the 1987 University of California edition did not...). These reissues must be due to demand, and that demand surely reflects the emergence of Zukofsky as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. They are welcome, and provide a wider audience access to Zukofsky's thought, the key to approaching his prickly poetry. Now if only some insightful publisher would produce a proper reissue of Zukofsky's Catullus, with the integral Latin texts facing the translations...