PLAYING THE NUMBERS:
THE FRENCH RECEPTION OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY
published in Verse 22-23 (2006): 102-20.
–Like the oceans, or the leaves of fine Southern
palm, we must appear numbered
to you, like the tides. . . .
Louis Zukofsky, Twenty-nine Poems, #25
–Comme les oceans, oÃ¹ les feuilles des beaux palmiers
du sud, nous devons te sembler
nombres, comme les marÃ©es. . . .
Jacques Roubaud, 29 PoÃ¨mes, 25 [i]
â€œWe must appear numberedâ€: Zukofskyâ€™s words point to his lifelong concern with mathematical formâ€”a concern that connects his own poetry to that of the French Oulipo, one of whose leading members, the poet-mathematician Jacques Roubaud, has been a frequent Zukofsky translator.Â But â€œwe must appear numberedâ€ (â€œnous devons te sembler nombresâ€) can be taken more personally: it also refers, I think, to the poetâ€™s consuming desire to be counted, to matter in the face of the neglect he met during his lifetime.Â Indeed, as book sales and curricula attest, Zukofsky remains relatively obscure even today.
In France, on the other hand, Zukofskyâ€™s reputation was established in the early â€˜70sâ€”at least in the more avant-garde poetry circlesâ€”as a poet who demonstrated that formal innovation and a radical politics need not be at odds. Thus Roubaudâ€™s translation of some two dozen Zukofsky poems in the special Objectivist issue of Europe (1977-78) opens with a headnote that calls Zukofsky as, â€œWithout a doubt, together with Pound, the most important American poet of our timeâ€ (â€œSans doute, avec Pound, le poÃ¨te amÃ©ricain le plus important de notre tempsâ€ 78).Â Â Journals likeAction poÃ©tique, Europe, Po&sie, Fin, and Java have published translations of and essays on the Objectivists, and the late eighties even gave birth to a little broadside journal named Zuk, which published, side by side, American language poets and their French counterparts.
In the Introduction to his Toward a New Poetics (1994), Serge Gavronsky discusses the links between Zukofsky and such well-known poets as Joseph Guglielmi, Emmanuel Hocquard, Claude Royet-Journoud, Jean FrÃ©mon, Pierre AlfÃ©ri, Gavronsky himself, and perhaps most notably Anne-Marie Albiach, who translated, among other Zukofsky texts, the first half of â€œA â€-9, a translation included in the bilingual Gallimard editionVingt poÃ¨tes amÃ©ricains, edited by Roubaud and Michel Deguy. [ii] Indeed, Albiachâ€™s 1971 lyric sequence Etat is structured around citations from her French version of â€œAâ€-9â€”a tour de force, given its complex assemblage of statements from Marxâ€™sKapital and Herbert Stanley Allenâ€™s Electrons and Waves, worked into the grid of Cavalcantiâ€™s double canzone â€œDonna mi Priegha.â€Â The words of Marx and Allen impose formidable constraints on Cavalcantiâ€™s rhymes so that, in Peter Quartermainâ€™s words, â€œthe abstract (like the word â€˜valueâ€™, for instance) becomes concrete, specific, in the activityâ€”the actionâ€”the labour, which the form of the song embodies and which the form of the song calls forth in the reader: concentrated thought.â€[iii] It is this embodiment of abstraction, so Albiach herself tells an interviewer, that she derived from Zukofsky.Â As she puts it, her own poetics follows â€œAâ€-9 in holding that â€œthe body must try to coincide with the origin of its own imageâ€ ( Le corps doit tenter de coincider avec lâ€™origine de sa propre image) .â€[iv]
But a reading of Etatâ€”indeed a reading of any of Albiachâ€™s books of poetry– makes one wonder if her comment is not best understood as an anxiety of influence.Â Consider the following page (Albiachâ€™s prosodic unit is always the page rather than the stanza or line) that opens Part IV of Etat: [v]
l aÂ Â Â p l u i eÂ Â aÂ Â Â e uÂ Â c e t t eÂ Â Â c o u l e u r
le corps qui prend
In Keith Waldropâ€™s excellent translation, this becomes:
the inexhaustible novel
of a situation
t h eÂ Â Â Â Â r a inÂ Â h a dÂ Â Â Â t h a tÂ Â Â c o l o r
Superficially, this may look like one of Zukofskyâ€™s short poems, but despite its abstraction and the non-sequitur of line breaks, as when â€œlâ€™inÃ©puisable romanâ€ is followed, surprisingly, by â€œdâ€™une situation,â€ Albiachâ€™s indeterminacies carry an emotional weight one doesnâ€™t find in Zukofsky.Â Â Â â€œThe rain had that colour,â€ we read in a line whose letters are separated by double spaces, so that our focus is on the letter as such. How can rain have color and what color is it?Â Zukofsky would give us a buried allusion, whereas Albiachâ€™s laconic line seems to be part of a missing narrative in which the pathetic fallacy is operative.Â Â Â How, in any case, does the reference to rain lead to the body â€œcaught / by knowingâ€ and those â€œexposuresâ€ (â€œles posesâ€), which suggest physical (the bodyâ€™s pores, possibly) as well as mental exposure.Â Perhaps we may look to the final â€œelucidationâ€ (the paragram on light inside that word relates to the â€œcolourâ€ of the rain) for answers.Â Â But no more than in Steinâ€™s great prose piece â€œAn Elucidationâ€ do we find one.
The issue, then, is less what Albiach derives from Zukofsky than why she thinks of herself as deriving from him.Â There are a number of answers to this question.Â The first has to do with visual prosody and syntax.Â Zukofskyâ€™s own page designs certainly must have given a radical French poet like Albiach permission to reject justified margins and verse columns, not to mention the alexandrine, stlll the dominant form in French poetry.Â Â Then, too, Zukofskyâ€™s syntax is almost made for French translation.Â No long periodic sentences as in Hart Crane or long subordinate clauses as in Charles Olson.Â And no Poundian complex of proper names that inevitably lose their rhythmic value in translation.Â In Zukofskyâ€™s early short poems, the unrhymed line unitsâ€”short noun phrases or simple declarative sentences– can be rendered with precision.Â Consider the well-known #2 of 29 Poems, as translated by Roubaud:
Not much more than being,
Thoughts of isolate, beautiful
Being at evening, to expect
at a river-front:
A shaft dims
With a turning wheel;
Men work on a jetty
By a broken wagon;
The summer riverâ€”
Under: Â Â Â Â Â Â The Dragon:Â Â Â Â (CSP 22)
Rien dâ€™autre quâ€™Ãªtre, attendre
pensÃ©es dâ€™isolement, dâ€™une existence
belle, le soir
devant les quais:
une machine devient vague
dort la roueÂ tourne;
des homes travaillent sur la jetÃ©e
prÃ¨s dâ€™un wagon dÃ©moli;
leopard, taches de lumiÃ¨re,
laÂ Â Â riviÃ¨reÂ dâ€™Ã©tÃ©Â —
Dessous:Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â le Dragon:Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ( Traduire 105)
Zukofskyâ€™s enigmatic observation about â€œbeing,â€ carefully qualified as â€œisolate,â€ â€œbeautiful,â€ and â€œexpect[ed]â€œat eveningâ€ on the river-front, is presented in three slow-moving lines, heavily stressed on long vowels, and alliterating subtly on the t, a letter that appears in nine of the seventeen words of the first stanza.Â Roubaud heightens the sound chimingâ€”â€œRien dâ€™autre quâ€™Ãªtre, attendre,–and inverts the word order, so that being (Ãªtre) is subordinated to its temporal and spatial locations: â€œle soir / devant les quais.â€Â In the rest of the poem, he keeps close to Zukofskyâ€™s syntax, although in line 6 he adds a verbâ€”dort–and the participial modifier â€œturningâ€ becomes the active verb tourne: the machine sleeps and the wheel turns. Remarkably, the constellations reflected in the river are designated by the same words in French as in Zukofskyâ€™s English, even as the spacing and semantic ambiguity of the last line â€œUnder:Â Â TheÂ Dragonâ€ is retained in Roubaudâ€™s â€œDessous:Â Â Â Â Â le Dragon:â€ with its final anti-closural colon.
When, in his 1969 interview with Zukofsky, L. S. Dembo questioned this construction, remarking that â€œthe colon in the last line after â€˜Underâ€™ would seem to imply that the dragon is under the river, â€œ not vice-versa, Zukofsky replied, â€œThere is a question of movement and enough rest; notice the space after â€˜Underâ€™.â€™Â The dragon is also reflected in the riverâ€”inverted.Â Of course, that kind of thing has already been done by MallarmÃ©.â€ [vi] Roubaudâ€™s translation, â€œla riviÃ¨re dâ€™Ã©tÃ©– / Dessous:Â Â Â Â le Dragonâ€, one could thus argue, brings the English back to its French antecedents.Â Whether or not we take the French version to be Mallarmean, it is the case, I think, that Roubaudâ€™s version is almost as effectiveâ€”perhaps as effective– as the original.Â And the same holds true for #5 â€œFerry,â€ where the dialogue of â€œsirenâ€ and â€œsignalâ€ is retained using the same nouns–
Siren and signal
Siren to signalÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (CSP 24)
sirene et signal
sirene au signal –Â Â Â (Traduire 106)
and the sound imitation of Zukofskyâ€™s final lineâ€”
Plash.Â Night.Â Plash.Â Â Sky.
is kept intact in
Plash.Â Nuit.Â Â Â Plash.Â Â Ciel.
Perhaps what gave Roubaud license to retain â€œPlashâ€ is the English wordâ€™s etymology:Â in its now obsolete sense of â€œto plait or braid,â€ plash comes from the Old French plaissier. Thus â€œPlash.Â Nuit.Â Plash.Â Cielâ€ sounds exactly right in the context.[vii]
What cannot be directly translated, however, is Zukofskyâ€™s penchant for nouns that can also be verbs, as in the opening line of â€œFerry,â€Â â€œGleams, a green lamp / In the fog.â€Â French inflections make such ambiguity impossible.Â Roubaud has to make a choice and opts for the noun:
Lueur, lampe verte
dans le brouillard
The resulting couplet nicely captures Zukofskyâ€™s sound, right down to the alliterating lâ€™s of the original, and the simulation of the â€œgleamsâ€/â€greenâ€/ â€œlampâ€ sound structure in Roubaudâ€™s â€œLueurâ€/ â€œlampeâ€ / â€œbrouillard.â€Â For both poets, it is sound as visualized on the page that generates meaning. [viii]
And in both cases, syntax is pared down so that carefully chosen nouns, adjectives and verbs can take on a life of their own.Â The careful differentiation ofÂ Zukofskyâ€™s â€œSiren and signal / Siren to signalâ€ provides a model for Albiachâ€™s â€œ lâ€™imprÃ©cisable /Â lâ€™inÃ©puisable roman,â€ where the sound chiming masks the real difference suggested by the im/in prefixes:Â that which is unspecifiable is by no means necessarily inexhaustible and vice-versa.
The ability of poetry to travel has everything to do with syntax.Â George Oppenâ€™s poetry, especially his major sequence â€œOf Being Numerous,â€ is much more difficult to translate into French than is Zukofskyâ€™s:Â even that â€œOfâ€ in the title is curiously ambiguous.Â Or again, Bertolt Brecht, who is considered in Germany at least as notable a lyric poet as he is a dramatist, is all but unknown as a poet in the U.S. because his German phrasing has no plausible English counterpart.
I turn now to the second reason for Zukofskyâ€™s place of honor among French avant-garde poetsâ€”namely, his use, already mentioned in my epigraph, of numerical constraints.Â Â In his interview with Gavronsky for Towards a New Poetics, Roubaud refers to troubadour poetry as his primary model.Â When Gavronsky tries to make a connection between that source and American poetry, Roubaudâ€”somewhat surprisingly–remarks:
My appreciation of American poetry was more evident before than it is now, because . . . a great American poetry arose essentially during the sixties, and since then things have slowed down, weakened. . . . In any case, Iâ€™m not as interested in it as I once was. . . . American poetry doesnâ€™t really concern me, except for Zukofsky, whose concerns were close to mine.Â (Gavronsky 276)
The observation that â€œthings have slowed down, weakened,â€ refers to Roubaudâ€™s bÃªte noire–the slack free verse lyric common in American poetry of the 1970s and 80sâ€”a so-called poetry which, so Roubaud has long argued is really no more than chopped-up prose, with little attention paid to line breaks or any kind of sound structuring.[ix] In Roubaudâ€™s lexicon, poetry is by definition verseâ€”which is to say, a linear form.Â Prose poetry, when it succeeds, adapts line to strophe, as in Roubaudâ€™s Quelque chose noir. [x] In either case, counting, whether of stresses, syllables, or words, is central.
But counting does not mean the mere recycling of conventional formsâ€”say, the iambic pentameter Petrarchan sonnet.Â Rather, the poetâ€™s job is to Make It New in the Poundian sense.Â Thus the alexandrine, which was the staple of French poetry for over four centuries was by no means abandoned by Rimbaud and MallarmÃ©, as is often thought; it was refigured in what came to look like the twelve-tone row of Schoenberg.Â However playful the experiments of contemporary poets, so the argument goes, the sine qua non is an element of numerical recurrence.Â Indeed, for Roubaud, as Jean-FranÃ§ois Puff puts it, â€œPoetry is the dimension of number in language,â€ and it is number that generates meaning. [xi] And further: the poetic form chosen can be understood, in the Wittgensteinian sense, as a form of life; it structures the poetâ€™s subjectivity.
Thus, as Puff explains it, Roubaud takes the major Western and Eastern poetic forms as models for transformation: the forms themselves never become obsolete even though they exist in exhausted versions that need to be scrapped.Â The poetâ€™s first task, accordingly, is to engage in an intense reading of the poetic tradition so as to penetrate its spirit without reproducing it exactly.Â â€œIf one represents tradition as a tree,â€ writes Puff, â€œas a schema of arborescence, it signifies that one can lengthen the branches, that one can discover points from which new branches may grow, that one can, finally, establish relationships between one tree and another, one tradition and anotherâ€ (110-111).
Consider what happens in Roubaudâ€™s sequence Trente et un au cube (Thirty-One Squared). The core of the poem is the Japanese tanka, five lines with the syllable count 5-7-5-7-7.Â Roubaud fuses tanka with another Japanese form, the renga or anthology of lines, usually a group effort but here assembled by the poet alone.Â There are 31 poems, each with 31 lines, each line having the 31 syllables of the completed tanka.Â And further the piece has a rhyme schemeababbababbab. . .the fusion, as Roubaud himself put it in La fleur inverse of â€œimbrication (abab) and â€œembeddingâ€(abba). [xii]
Trente et un cube is a love poem.Â So, Roubaud explains, â€œje vais entrelaÃ§ant /les mots et rendant pur les son / comme la langue est enlacÃ©e / Ã la langue dans le baiserâ€ (I go interlacing the words and purifying their sounds / as the tongue is enlaced with the tongue in a kissâ€). [xiii] Form thus becomes meaning:Â the complex structure represents the pulse of the loversâ€™ blood.Â But of course, as Roubaud knows only too well, form can never quite succeed in its effort to control the materials of life: â€œCar la forme ne peut se declarer elle-mÃªme sans declarer aussi lâ€™informeâ€ (â€œFor form canâ€™t reveal itself without also revealing the unformedâ€).
And here constraints come in.Â The aim of the Oulipo, Roubaud has argued, â€œis to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature (contraintes) and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature.â€Â What are the relationships between these constraints and potentiality?Â â€œDescribable, definable, available to everyone, Oulipian constraints provide the rules of a language game (in the Wittgensteinian sense) whose â€˜inningsâ€™ (texts composed according to its rules) are virtually unlimited and represent linguistic combinations developed from a small number of independent elements.â€ [xiv] Indeed, according to Roubaud, â€œOnly mathematics could offer a way out between a nostalgic obstinacy with worn-out modes of expression and an intellectually pathetic belief in â€˜total freedomâ€™.Â It was a matter, at least at the start, of asserting a theoretical anti-Surrealismâ€ (Mathews 41)
There are a number of ironies in this position, insofar as it applies to Roubaudâ€™s singling out of Zukofsky as great poet of the American century.Â For one thing, as Stephanie Abigail Lang has shown, Zukofskyâ€™s own work, for example, his most famous poem, â€œMantis,â€ owes a great deal to Surrealism. [xv] For another, despite Roubaudâ€™s frequent distinction between Zukofskyâ€™s formalism and the dominant American free verse of the 1950s and 60s, [xvi] Zukofskyâ€™s own postwar booksâ€”especially the long â€œAâ€-12 (1950-51)– contains many passages like the following, which deals with the naming of the poetâ€™s infant son:
Naming little Paul for him
I knew Pinchos would not mind
Their â€œEnglishâ€ names being the same
He might have said to reprove me:
Jews remember the dead in time
Are in no hurry to flatter the living.
He never reproved me.
â€œLet it be Paulâ€”I know
Ivanovich named for Ivan,
Before he is born.
Still, our Hebrew names are not the same
Bless him, may he live
120 years.â€Â [xvii]
Neither the rhythm, nor the syntax and diction of this conversational passage–and there are many such exemplars of what we might call le cÃ´tÃ© confessionel of Zukofsky– fulfill the demands Roubaud makes of poetry in La Vieillesse dâ€™Alexandre and elsewhere.
But it is also the case that, from the numbered one-line units of â€œPoem Beginning â€˜Theâ€™,â€ (which Roubaud has expertly translated for the 2003 issue of Fin) [xviii] to the tight Williams-like â€œmachines made of wordsâ€ of 55 Poems and Anew, to the highly formalized counting stanzas of â€œA â€ â€“22, â€“23 and Eighty Flowers, quasi-Oulippean constraints are central to Zukofskyâ€™s oeuvre. Consider the cento[xix] that opens â€œAâ€-22, which, in the French version, appears inTraduire, journal, under the title Fragment dâ€™une appropriation de Louis Zukofsky (46-49), and in a slightly different version in Vingt poÃ¨tes amÃ©ricains.Â The hundred lines of Zukofskyâ€™s cento are based on a simple constraint: they are divided into twenty five-line stanzas with each line containing five words.Â Michele Leggottâ€™s magisterial Reading Zukofskyâ€™s Eighty Flowers studies the black spiral notebooks in which the poet recorded his intention to cover 6,000 years of history, from 3000BC to the present, each century to be allotted one double-page spread. [xx] In â€œA â€-22, Mark Scroggins notes, the emphasis is on â€œthe history of human natural philosophy, considered above all as linguistic systems by which people strive to make sense of and find ways of living in the natural world.â€(Scroggins 39).Â Â But the mode of presentation is not, as in â€œAâ€-12, that of collage, for here the individual items retain their separate identity.Â Rather, Zukofsky now uses almost exclusively found textâ€”a tissue of quotations, fragmented, transliterated, and spliced, from Ancient and Modern sources ranging from Pythagoras and Aristotle to Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, and even engineering manuals.Â Unlike Bottom or Le Style Apollinaire, where the quotations are identified, â€œAâ€-22 avoids all proper names. â€œHistoryâ€™s best emptied of nameâ€™s / impertinence,â€ as we read in â€œ Aâ€-22.
Thus in the opening cento (originally called â€œInitialâ€), the third stanza reads:
let me live here ever,
sweet now, silence foison to
on top of the weather
it has said it before
why that was you that
The syntax of this final line is completed in the first line of the next stanza, â€œthat / is how you weather divisionâ€ (â€œA â€œ 508)
Michelle Leggott identifies the following sources from The Tempest for the first two lines here–
â€œLet me live here everâ€â€”Ferdinand to Prospero , IV.1.122
â€œsweet now, silenceâ€â€”Prospero, to Miranda, IV.1.124
â€œfoisonâ€â€”Ceres, marriage song, IV.1.110–
and notes that Chaucerâ€™s Parlement of Foules supplies the source forÂ â€œon top of the weatherâ€ and â€œit has said it beforeâ€; in the Parlement, the birds sing a roundel to the sun that hath â€œthis winters weders over-shake,â€ which is to say gotten on top of the weather or weathering itÂ (See Leggott 37-40).Â But what is interesting for our purposes is that Zukofskyâ€™s splicing empties these citations of their content.Â For one thing, the phrases are taken out of context: Ferdinand, for example, marveling at the wedding masque Prospero has orchestrated for the two young lovers, exclaims â€œLet me live here ever,â€ even as Prospero tells him and Miranda to be quiet (â€œSweet, now, silence!â€) so that Ceres can recite her blessing, which contains the now archaic word â€œfoisonâ€ (plenty), referring to the bountiful harvest promised.Â Then, in the last two lines, the literary allusions give way to the calculated awkwardness of function words, pronouns and auxiliariesâ€”â€œit has said it before / why that was you that,â€ with the â€œthatâ€ clause, as I noted above, left hanging.Â The poem thus undercuts the â€œfoisonâ€ of the wedding masque, ironizing its â€œsweetness,â€ with the recognition that it has, so to speak, been said before, and then trailing off into calculated incoherence.
And here the constraint comes in.Â Mark Scoggins notes that, unlike earlier sections of the poem,Â â€œAâ€ -22 and â€“23 â€œdo not invoke the partita or fugue, for instance, nor are they modeled on a song form such as the canzone.Â Nevertheless, the two thousand lines of these painstakingly compacted sections bring to a high pitch the musical counterpointing of thematic, aural, and textual repetitions that structures â€˜Aâ€™-1 and â€˜Aâ€™-12â€ [xxi]
But musical not in the conventional sense of melody.Â Rather, the five-word-per-line, five lines-per stanza rule allows for a good deal of metrical freedom (some lines have five stresses, others only two), even as it provides a sense of stability and coherence, producing such curious conjunctions as â€œsilence foisonâ€ that compact the unlike speeches of Prospero and Ceres into a seamless web.Â Texture, not rhythmic structure, is what counts in this lyric.
Now let us turn to Roubaudâ€™s translation of the five-line stanza and its override into line 6:
laissez-moi vivre ici toujours
doux maintenant, silence foison pour
et comble de beau temps
il lâ€™a dit autrefois
comment cela est toi cela
et comment tuÂ Â Â beau tempsÂ divisionÂ Â Â Â Â ( VPA 63)
Roubaud adopts Zukofskyâ€™sÂ five-word countâ€”but with significant variation.Â Here, for example, line 4 has only four words, unless we count the elided â€œleâ€ of â€œil lâ€™a ditâ€ as a word.Â Similarly, in line 6 above, there are six words, Roubaud evidently playing on the sound similarity of â€œcomment tuâ€ and â€œbeau tempsâ€ to stretch the line out.Â Then, too, there is no French equivalent for the verb-noun ambiguity of â€œweather,â€ and so Roubaud, making no attempt to find the right verb, gives us one particular kind of weatherâ€” beau tempsâ€”and places it in apposition to â€œdivision,â€ which is, for Zukofsky, the object of the verb.Â For Roubaud, therefore, the game is to create clashing fragments rather than plausible phrases like â€œthat / is how you weather division.â€ Hs version heightens the triple rhyme in the last lineâ€”comment, beau temps, divisionâ€”signals a further turn from semantics to sound at the further expense of the alluded referents.
Thus, for a French reader, the Shakespeare sources simply disappear: â€œdoux maintenantâ€ is hardly going to evoke Prospero calming down the young lovers.Â â€œFoison,â€ on the other hand, is perhaps more familiar in French than in English; since foisonner used as a verb means â€œto abound.â€Â The French stanza, in any case, has more sound chiming than the English:toujours/ pour and maintenant/ foison/ temps, division.Â Sound repetition thus introduces a kind of Troubadour element into Zukofskyâ€™s less figured, purposely ungainly and uncomfortable language.
Indeed, A-22 offers Roubaud a special challenge.Â What happens, Roubaudâ€™s â€œappropriationâ€ asks, when one poem takes over anotherâ€™s structure and usually its exact words but cuts off the referent?Â The three stanzas that follow #3 (â€œlet me live here everâ€), are revealing:
is how you weather division
a peacockâ€™s grammar perchingâ€”and
perhaps think that they see
or they fly thru a
window not knowing it there
the window could they sing
it broken need not bleed
one proof of its strength
a need birds cannot feign
persisting for flight as when
they began to existâ€”error
if error vertigo their sun
eyes deliriumâ€”both initial together
rove into the blue initial
surely it carves a breathÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ( A 508-509)
Reading these stanzas against the notebook versions, Leggott establishes the presence of the ninth-century philosopher John Scotus Erigena, specifically the sentence in The Division of Nature, â€œIn the intelligible world . . . . Grammar begins with the letter, from which all writing is derived and into which it is all resolved.â€Â â€œBecause the word grammar derives from gramma (letter),â€ remarks Leggott,Â â€œwe see that Erigena is as much the literalist in these matters as Zukofsky could wishâ€ (Leggott 46).Â And she relates the concern for what the Russian avant-garde called â€œthe letter as such,â€ back to the opening tercet of â€œAâ€-22:Â AN ERA / ANY TIME / OF YEAR,â€ of which more in a moment.
In the finished poem, Erigenaâ€™s sentence, copied out in the notebook version, is crossed out, and Zukofsky substitutes â€œa peacocks grammar perchingâ€”â€œ.Â Â The peacocks take us back to the masque in Tempest, IV as well as to the Parlement of Foules.Â Then too peacock blue relates to â€œblow blue up against bellow /–scapes welcome young birdsâ€”initialâ€ of the centoâ€™s first stanza.Â And, just as one gramma (letter) can change the meaning of a poetic line or a sentence, so it is the birdsâ€™s â€œeyes deliriumâ€ to fly â€œthru a / window not knowing it there,â€ and hence â€œbleedâ€ in a moment of â€œerror vertigoâ€ as they zoom into the sun with the â€œblue initialâ€ of their â€œcarve[d] breath.â€Â Grammar and its source gramma are the measure of metamorphosis felt everywhere in the poetâ€™s perception of the natural world. [xxii]
â€œA text written according to a constraint describes the constraint,â€ is perhaps the central Oulipo rule, as formulated by Roubaud (Matthews 42).Â Zukofskyâ€™s five-word line enacts Erigenaâ€™s precept that â€œgrammar begins with the letter.â€ In the line, â€œa peacocks grammar perching-and,â€ the word grammar is right at the center, flanked by words beginning with a and p chiastically arranged:Â a peacocks . . . perchingâ€”andâ€, the sound picked up in the next line in the word â€œperhaps.â€Â The internal rhyme of â€œwindow not knowingâ€ and â€œn eed not bleed,â€ and the modulation of individual letters, as in error vertigo is prominent because words that have lost their phrasal or clausal context as have Zukofskyâ€™s, inevitably receive steady emphatic stressing, as in â€œÃ©yes |delirium |bÃ³th | inÃtial| togÃ©ther.â€Â And that steady beat prompts the reader to accept what would otherwise be puzzles or anomalies. What, for example, is the referent of the pronoun â€œitâ€ in the last line above stanza and why doesÂ â€œit carve a breathâ€ â€œsurelyâ€?Â Whatâ€™s sure about it?
Roubaudâ€™s version is remarkable in rendering the original so perceptively.Â Consider the last stanza of the three above:
ils commenÃ§aient Ã Ãªtre–erreur
si erreur vertige leur soleil
yeux dÃ©lireâ€”tous deux premiers
errant, dans le bleu initial
qui sÃ»rement dÃ©coupe un soufflÃ©Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ( VPA 65)
Here, as in the original, â€œÃªtreâ€ and â€œerreurâ€Â (â€œexistâ€ and â€œerrorâ€) are linked by sound but the syntax is ambiguous:Â is it an error that they began to exist or an error to think so, or what?Â In the second line the apposition â€œsi erreur vertige leur soleilâ€ again follows the original, â€œif error vertigo their sun,â€ allowing the relation of sun to error and vertigo can be construed in a number of ways.Â â€œErreurâ€ and â€œvertige,â€ for example, are linked by consonance and so are â€œerreurâ€ and â€œerrantâ€ in line 4, even as â€œerrorâ€ and â€œroveâ€ are linked in Zukofskyâ€™s original.Â But Ãªtre and erreur are so close that one also might say that our very existence is an error.Â And so on.
From the French translatorâ€™s perspective, then, Zukofskyâ€™s constrained asyntactic lyric provides a perfect poetic challenge.Â We can see this best in the little valentine, first printed in 1970 on a Unicorn Press poetry postcard, with its blue uppercase type on a ground of yellow (cf. â€œblow blue up against yellow,â€ -22, line 4) that came to stand at the head of â€œAâ€-22:
ANÂ Â Â Â ERA
OFÂ Â Â YEARÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (A 508)
Both Peter Quartermain and Michele Leggott devote pages to the sources, allusions, anagrams and puns contained in these six words, printed in boldface capitals, two words per line, three justified lines, and I shall not attempt to summarize their complex findings. [xxiii] Suffice it here to point to the relation of era to the Latin aera (from aes [ore, brass, money] and hence an item of counting. In an undated diagrammatic note opposite the title page of the â€œAâ€-22 spiral notebook (see Leggott 41), the little poemâ€™s eighteen letters are seen to yield 9 vowels (3 per line) and 9 consonants (if we include y), and the right justified margin gives us the word AER, while the left can be diagrammed as ANNO for year. Anno in turn yields annona, which means â€œyearly produce, the annual income of natural productsâ€ and this connects to the opening line of the cento itself, â€œOthers letters a sum owed.â€Â And so on.
But what does Roubaud do with the six-word headnote?Â There are two versions, the first from 1974, reproduced inTraduire, Journal, the second, in Vingt poÃ¨tes amÃ©ricains (1980):
UNÂ Â Â Â Â Â EÂ Â Â Â Â Â ERE
EÂ Â Â Â Â NUÂ Â Â Â Â Â NÂ Â Â Â POINT
DEÂ Â Â Â LAÂ Â Â Â Â Â DÂ Â Â Â U REE
UNEÂ Â Â Â ERE
ENÂ Â Â Â Â Â UNÂ Â Â Â POINT
DEÂ Â Â Â Â Â LAÂ Â Â DUREE
In the first version above, Roubaudâ€™s eight words (twenty-four letters) are taken apart so that â€œUNâ€”Eâ€ (â€œanâ€) can yield to its mirror image â€œNUâ€ (â€œnudeâ€) and the English word â€œENDâ€ is produced running vertically down the page.Â â€œUNÂ Eâ€Â forms a chiasmus with â€œEÂ Â NU.â€Â But I think the second version, which translates as â€œAn Era / at a point / in duration,â€ is more effective.Â Â For Zukfoskyâ€™s justified margin spelling A-E-R, Roubaud substitutes a step-line, the final letters at the right margins spelling â€œE-T-Eâ€ (summer).Â Further, â€œEREâ€ and â€œDUREEâ€ are cognates. And the columnar layout also gives us NUL (zero, nothing) and lets â€œU-N-Eâ€ (an) be both horizontal and vertical.Â In an especially nice touch, the U in lines 1 and 2 is absorbed in the larger â€œDUREEâ€ of the poem.
Roubaudâ€™s â€œvalentineâ€ not only captures the sense of Zukofskyâ€™s original, leading into the meditation on time and space, but also creates its own numerological equivalent.Â In Zukofsky, there are 3 lines comprising 6 words and eighteen letters: 3 x 6=18.Â In Roubaud there are 3 lines with 8 words and 24 letters: 3 x 8 = 24.Â The constraint thus remains faithful to the power of three.
For Roubaud, then, Zukofskyâ€™s late poetry furnishes a goldmine for his own Oulipo invention and word play.Â It is only fair to say, however, that the elaborate lipograms, â€œchimeras,â€ and â€œsnowballsâ€ of Oulipo require a rather different kind of skill from such decisions as writing lines that have five words each. [xxiv] In Zukofskyâ€™s case, the semantic structure of the created poem continues to count for more than it does in most Oulipo works. The sources of the allusions may be buried, but the resulting etymologies and word play produces new semantic relationships, as when â€œan eraâ€ yields aera and so on.
Roubaudâ€™s own poetry, of course, takes the constraint much further and hence creates a rather different poetic field.Â Indeed, the difference suggests to me that there is yet another reasonâ€”although perhaps not aÂ conscious one– why Roubaud, Albiach, and their circles have made so much of Zukofsky.Â In post-1968 France, when Zukofsky first came into favor, he had the advantage of being Not Pound, a phrase I use in the sense we have all been using the term Not Bush.Â The Cantos do, after all, carry with them the baggage of Fascism, anti-Semitism, and a certain misogyny: the women in Poundâ€™s poetry are always goddesses or â€œwhores from Eleusis,â€ whereas the men are generally real people like the Possum (Eliot) and Uncle William (Yeats).Â Â Â Pound, moreover, forces us to interest ourselves in such nonsensical items as the use of stamp-scrip by the citizens of WÃ¶rgl, AustriaÂ and exposes us to what may be excessively heavy doses of Confucius and John Adams.
Zukofsky, by contrast, was the son of a poor Jewish pants presser, who grew up on New Yorkâ€™s Lower East Side and whose first language was Yiddish. A Communist during the thirties, he wrote an elegy for Lenin, and â€œAâ€-9, as I already noted, is made up of phrases and sentences from Kapital. The perspective of his writingsâ€”from â€œPoem beginning â€˜Theâ€™â€ and the early short lyrics to the essays collected in Prepositions and the commonplace book Bottomâ€”is liberal and humaneâ€”as open to the problems of urban poverty as to the glories of English literature.Â In France, where intellectuals and poets are almost by definition on the Left,Â â€œAâ€ thus provides what may be a more palatable diet of Poundiana than do the Cantos themselves: epic sweep, verbal brilliance, an encyclopedic use of elegant verse forms like the canzone, sestina, centro, and renga, as well as the expert juxtaposition of verse and prose passages and of such unlikely pairs as Marx and Cavalcanti, Spinoza and Veblen.
Yet â€“and this is a topic for another essayâ€”from the distance of the 21st Century, a textual comparison is, in the end, less favorable to Zukofsky than to Pound, the question being where derivativeness ends and true innovation begins.Â Â Late in his career, in Aâ€-22 and â€“23, as in Eighty Flowers and Catullus, Zukofsky was doing something quite original: such rule-governed mosaics as the flower-poems â€œPachysandraâ€ and â€œLiveforeverâ€ are lyric puzzles that have no precedent in Pound.Â But it took Zukofsky a long time to get there, and the early books of â€œAâ€ can sometimes sound embarrassingly like the work of Zukofskyâ€™s mentor.
The correspondence between Pound and Zukofsky is revealing in this regard.Â On 27 November 1930, Pound wrote to his young disciple (Zukofsky was twenty-six at the time), who had recently sent him a packet containing the first seven movements, as they were then designated, of â€œAâ€:
recd. one development or fugue or fuagal etc. produced by Ludwig von Zuk und Sohn, on not always digested meat of his forebears, but with a ditional and final contortion or fugal (quasi) termination in form of canzone (miscalled 7 sonnets) but still a conzone a la sestina but with 14 lines to the strophe.Â [The reference is to â€œAâ€-7]
Crit wd. Be
[A.]Â eliminate top dressing inherited
Youâ€™ll have to work at that, just as hard as I did to get Roberto de Browneningâ€™s
hs vocabulary outer my system.
Wd. B [B] the purely rational and commentatarian expositions a bit perfessorial in parts. [xxv]
And Pound concludes that Zukofskyâ€™s would-be epic poem â€œshould not go on after your seven wollups,â€ â€œAâ€ being, in a phrase that evidently cut Zukofsky to the quick, â€œa work not in but showing progressâ€ (76).Â Â But then, so as not to hurt the younger poetâ€™s feelings, Pound adds:
You have not wasted the year or however long it has been.
I strongly suggest that YOU send me a crit. of it before I say anything more about it. . . .
Certain things can be remedied more or less by procedures known to yr/venbl/ frienâ€™ but it wd. even better to remedy them by procedures evolved by L. Z. ipsissimo.Â Â (76-77)
But it would be a long time before L.Z. ipsissimo would have the confidence to surface.Â For the moment, Zukofsky was in despair:Â I have rarely read a letter as defensive as Zukofskyâ€™s reply to Pound of 13 December 1930.Â He cannot, he notes somewhat maliciously, â€œdo as Bill [Williams] doesâ€”notice something the write the note down and then type it off . . . and another poem!â€ (78).Â Rather, his aim is to produce an â€œepicâ€™ 24â€ movements for his long poem. The Cantos an influence?Â Zukofsky claims that he had not yet seen â€œthe 3 Mts. Edtns of your Cantosâ€ and hence â€œhad read only the early ones in Lustra & 4,5 & 6 in Poems 1918-21.â€Â This is hard to believe given that, for example, the four Malatesta Cantos (8-11) were published in Eliotâ€™s Criterion in July 1923.Â Â Internal evidence, in any case, suggests an almost excessive familiarity with Poundâ€™s collage technique, his use of allusions and time shifts, â€œAâ€ presenting itself, like the Cantos, as â€œa poem including history.â€Â Indeed, further along in the December letter, Zukofsky shifts from a defensive tone to obsequiousnss: â€œIn the meantime if you can spare the time & it doesnâ€™t interfere with your own processes, Iâ€™d like to know what particular things can be â€˜remedied by procedures known to you.â€™Â Be hard on the damn thingâ€”slash itâ€”if you think itâ€™s a dilution of The Cantosâ€ (81).
Pound was not exactly a grand old man in 1930; he was forty-five when this appeal came in and he was living in exile in Rapallo, neglected by the literary world at large.Â Â But, for better or worse, he considered himself a poet of such strength that he had never sought the sort of advice Zukofsky is seeking here, although, of course, he was happy to get any help finding publishers.Â It is doubly interesting, therefore that Zukofsky entertains the doubt that â€œAâ€ might be a â€œdilutionâ€ of The Cantos.Â Zukofskyâ€™s phrasing raises the specter of Poundâ€™s distinction, in ABC of Reading, between three classes:
1. Inventorsâ€”â€œMen who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
2. The masters.Â Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.
3. The diluters.Â Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldnâ€™t do the job quite as well. [xxvi]
Pound clearly puts himself in the first class and he would probably have put the young Zukofsky in #3.â€”a placement we need, by no means, accept as accurate.Â Â Still, Roubaudâ€™s estimate of Zukofsky as â€œwithout a doubt, together with Pound, the most important American poet of our timeâ€ â€“an estimate shared by American language poets, many of whom would go further and get rid of the â€œtogether with Poundâ€ qualificationâ€”is perhaps due for reassessment.Â One of the by-products of rereading Zukofsky, as we are doing here and now on the occasion of the poetâ€™s centenary, is the recognition of just how great a poet his mentor was, his â€œideasâ€ notwithstanding.Â Â Indeed, the paradox of â€œA,â€ aggressively â€œnot-Poundianâ€ as we now take it to be, is that it sends us right back to the Cantos.
[i]Louis Zukofsky, Complete Short Poetry (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University, 1991), p. 34.Â All further references to the short poems are to this edition, subsequently cited as CSP.Â The Roubaud translation appears in Roubaud, â€œLouis Zukofsky,â€ Europe: Special Issue: Une literature meconnue des U.S.A. No. 578-79 (June-July 1977): 78-108; rpt. Roubaud, Traduire, Journal (Caen: NOUS, 2000), 108.
[ii]See Serge Gavronsky, Introduction,Toward a New Poetics: Contemporary writing in France: Interviews with an Introduction and Translated Texts (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1994),Â pp. 38-44, 52-56.Â Gavronsky cites, not only specific French translations of Zukofsky but also the various festivals and conferences held at Royaumont and the Centre international de poÃ©sie at Marseilles where Zukofsky translations were read and discussed.Â Anne-Marie Albiachâ€™s version of the first half of â€œAâ€-9Â first appeared in the journalSiÃ¨cle Ã mains in 1970; Pierre AlfÃ©riâ€™s translation of Zukofsky essays appeared in Louis Zukofsky: Un Objectif, et deux autres essays (Royaumont: Fondation Royaumont, 1989). Michel Deguy and Jacques Roubaudâ€™s groundbreaking Vingt poÃ¨tes amÃ©ricains was published by Gallimard in 1980.Â This volume is subsequently cited in the text as VPA.
[iii]Peter Quartermain, â€œNot at all Surprised by Science: Louis Zukofskyâ€™s First Half of â€˜Aâ€™-9,â€ in Quartermain, Disjunctive Poetics:From Gertrude Stein to Louis Zukofsky and Susan Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 80.
[v] Anne-Marie Albiach, Etat (Paris: Mercure de France, 1971), 27; Etat, trans. Keith Waldrop (Windsor, VT: Awede, 1989), 31.
[vi] L. S. Dembo, â€œThe â€˜Objectivist Poet: Four interviews,â€ Contemporary Literature, 10 (Spring 1969), 155-219, p. 211; rpt. in Terrell, 265-81; see pp. 272-73.Â MallarmÃ© figures significantly in Zukofskyâ€™s poetry: for example, at the end of â€œA-19.Â And in a recent interview, the French poet and translator Yves di Manno refers to Zukofsky as â€œa sort of MallarmÃ© amÃ©ricain,â€ with respect to his opacity, enigma, and the musicality of his syntax. Â See Yves di Manno, â€œConversation avec Sebastian Reichmann,â€ Po&sie 97 (April 2003): special issue â€œPoÃ¨tes dâ€™AmÃ©rique et de France: les â€˜AlliÃ©s substantiels,â€ 14.
[vii] In Yves di Mannoâ€™s translation of â€œFerry,â€ published in Java 4 (Summer 1990), 30, the last line is translated, â€œFlac.Â Nuit.Â Flac.Â Ciel,â€ which also works nicely.Â And the refrain is â€œSirÃ¨ne, signal / SirÃ¨ne vers signal.â€
[ix] See Jacques Roubaud, â€œNotes sur lâ€™â€™evolution rÃ©cente de la prosodie (1960-1974), Action poÃ©tique 62 (1975): 50-60. These important remarks are then absorbed into the argument ofÂ LaVieillesse dâ€™Alexandre.Essai sur quelques Ã©tats rÃ©cents du vers franÃ§ais (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 1988), passim; Marjorie Perloff, â€œThe Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bok,â€ Textual Practice, 18 )1), 2004: 23-45.
[x] I discuss Quelque chose noir in â€œBut Isnâ€™t The Same at least the Same?: Wittgenstein and the Question of Poetic Translatabilityâ€ in The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 34-54; rpt. in my Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2004),
[xi] Jean-FranÃ§cois Puff, â€œLe dÃ©ploiement du nouveau chez Roubaud,â€ Formes poÃ©tiques contemporaines, 2003 (Paris: Les Impressions nouvelles, 2003), 99-119; see p. 106.Â Translation mine.
[xii] Jacques Roubaud, La fleur inverse.Â Essai sur lâ€™art formel des troubadours (Paris, Ramsay, 1986), chapter 6.
[xiv] Jacques Roubaud, â€œIntroduction Jacques Roubaud the Oulipo and Combinatorial Artâ€ (1991), in Oulipo Compendium, complied by Harry Matthews & Alastair Brotchie (London: Atlas, 1998), 36-44.Â See pp. 38, 40.
[xv] In Le Monde, Compte Rendu: Lectures de Louis Zukofsky, ThÃ¨se doctoral , UniversitÃ© Paris IIIâ€”Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999, 146-61. StÃ©phanie Abigail Lang demonstrates convincingly that â€œMantisâ€ is largely a found text based on an article by Roger Caillois called â€œLa Mante religieuseâ€ for the Surrealist journal Minotaure 5 (1933).
[xvi] See, for example, the roundtable â€œDes PoÃ¨tes quâ€™on appelait â€˜Objectivistesâ€™,â€ Entretien entre Serge Fauchereau, Jacques Roubaud, et Charles Dobzynski,â€ Europe:578-70 (June-July 1977), 7-30, p. 17.
[xvii] Louis Zukofsky, â€œAâ€ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 143.Â All further references are to this edition.
[xix] The term Cento, according to Harry Mathews in the Oulipo Compendium, refers to â€œthe ancient practice, also known as â€˜patchwork verseâ€™ or â€˜mosaics,â€™ [that] makes a poem out of lines by other poetsâ€ (120).Â John Ashberyâ€™s â€œThe Dong with the Luminous Nose,â€ which begins, â€œWithin a windowed niche of that high hall/ I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. / I shall rush out as I am, and walk the streetâ€ (121), is Matthewsâ€™s example.Â But whereas Ashberyâ€™s cento relies on well-known lines from Keatsâ€™s â€œEve of St. Agnes,â€ Hopkinsâ€™s Terrible Sonnets, and Eliot Waste Land, respectively, Zukofskyâ€™s collaged fragments are all but impossible to identify
[xx] See Michele Leggott, Reading Zukofskyâ€™s 80 Flowers (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1989), 9-11.
[xxi] Scroggins 236.Â In an interview with Jean Daive, ( Fin 17 (July 2003), the poetâ€™s muisician son Paul Zukofsky is quite skeptical about the usual supposition that his father uses fugal form in â€œAâ€.Â A fugue, he argues, â€œorganizes certain aspecs of music and has specific rules; I donâ€™t know what he [Louis] means by itâ€ (26).
[xxii] On the metamorphosis theme, see Barry Ahearn, Zukofskyâ€™s â€œAâ€:An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 183-86.
[xxiv] To write a chimera, one chooses a text for treatment, removes its nouns, verbs, and adjectives.Â Then â€œreplace the nouns with those taken in order from a different work, the verbs with those from a second work, the adjectives wth those from a third.â€Â So a chimera for â€œApril is the cruelest month,â€ using Claude C. Bowers, My Mission to Spain, Lewis Carrollâ€™s, symbolic Logic, and Kingsley Amisâ€™s Lucky Jim, we get â€œJue contains the silliest credentials.Â A Snowball is made by beginning with a word with only one letter (or syllable), the second two, the third three, and so on.Â See Oulipo Compendium, 124, 1226.
[xxv]Barry Ahearn (ed.), Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (New York: New Directions, 1987), 75-76.Â The eccentric phonetic spelling is Pounds and is a device Zukofsky adopted in his own letters.