Louis Zukofsky's Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry
(New Directions, 2011)
Cooper Renner

Like Pound with his Cantos, Zukofsky invested the greatest part of his poetic energy (as well as decades of his life) to the creation of a single book-length poem, his "A". Unlike Pound, who pretty well abandoned the lyric by age 35, Zukofsky continued to write and publish briefer works, those collected here in Anew. (An earlier edition from Johns Hopkins University Press was entitled simply Complete Short Poetry.) These poems, though obviously "modern" and principally in free verse, run quite a stylistic gamut. The opening (and possibly earliest) poem, "I Sent Thee Late," begins with three lines of free verse and concludes with a rhyming quatrain, and indeed rhyme, often internal and irregularly placed, plays a significant role in Zukofsky's verse. Formalism was not a phase he passed through (or back into), but rather one mode of composition which he employed as and where he saw fit. Also notable in these shorter works, sometimes in conjunction with formal methods, is a strong sense of humor, not exactly a common characteristic of mid-twentieth-century verse. In the first quatrain of "The Laws Can Say," for example, he rhymes "potato" and "Plato" and, in the final stanza, "fedora" and "Andorra," which also plays off "and/or". The lightness of tone seems to emanate from the same depth of heart which led him to compose so many love poems and Valentines for his wife and son, an all-encompassing approach to life which allows him to address B-movies (Tarzan and Boy) and God's resignation letter in the same sequence ("Light"), and include the work in a collection alongside poems on William Carlos Williams and George Washington, an elegy to his father-in-law and a remembrance of his dead mother. And yet the plight of workers during the Depression, the Nazis, artists and music find their place as well. This anthology begins and ends with perhaps the densest and most stridently Modernist of the poems. The early "Poem beginning 'The'" both mocks and pays homage to "The Waste Land" in lines alternately funny and beautiful, the latter here in praise of horses:

Horses that pass through inappreciable woodland,
Leaves in their manes tangled, mist, autumn green,
Lord, why not give these bright brutes -- your good land --
Turf for their feet always, years for their mien.

The two longer sequences which conclude the volume, "Catullus" and "80 Flowers," are much heavier going, so much so that I in fact abandoned reading them both. The translations from Catullus, done with his wife Celia, are frequently impenetrable, in a way that Catullus is not, because -- if I understand their method correctly -- the Zukofskys aimed not to translate the sense of the Latin originals, but rather their sound and linguistic structure. Zukofsky's earlier, more "ordinary" translation of "Catullus viii," for example, begins:

Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish
And admit it's over,
The sun shone on you those days
When your girl had you[...]

The later version of the same poem starts like this:

Miss her, Catullus? don't be so inept to rail
at what you see perish when perished is the case.
Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace, when you went about it as your girl would have it[...]

and this is one of the less compressed of the later versions. Other readers will, of course, find these intense explorations of sound and language satisfying, and the same applies to the unpunctuated, syntax-free masses of language which constitute "80 Flowers".

Unlike so many contemporary poets who seem to return again and again to the same well, spinning out variations on a handful of themes and methods, Zukofsky was on the move as he aged, making him one of those rare poets whose work can appeal to vastly different sorts of readers, ready to argue vehemently about his best poems, and whose career cannot be summed up with a single lyric.