To what extent do you make an attempt to understand a poet’s purposes? Or should you?
I suspect that many readers do not take the time to understand a particular poet’s poetic, or weltanschauung, before delving into a reading experience. But I think in many cases, they should.
I recently had a copy of Louis Zukofsky’s “A” sent to my local library from a university library within my state. This will be my first reading of the poem. Understanding a few things about Zukofsky in general and his worldview in particular helps me to better understand the purposes for which he wrote and what he was trying to accomplish. I suspect this could be true for many other poets as well.
Zukofsky begins his poem thus:
Round of fiddles playing Bach. Come, ye daughters, share my anguish - Bare arms, black dresses, See Him! Whom? Bediamond the passion of our Lord, See Him! How? His legs blue, tendons bleeding, O Lamb of God most holy! Black full dress of the audience. Note: The bold lines appear italicized in the original; all other lines appear without typographical enhancements.
I find this to be a brilliant sequence and Bach plays a very significant part in the poem throughout. But what I’d really like to focus on is Zukovsky’s devout Marxism.
There are passages in the first 7 parts of “A” that deal with politics – a strong theme throughout – and which would be completely misunderstood without some understanding of Zukofsky’s political background.
And on one side street near an elevated, Lamenting, Foreheads wrinkled with injunctions: "The Pennsylvania miners were again on the lockout, We must send relief to the wives and children - What's your next editorial about, Carat, We need propaganda, the thing's becoming a mass movement."
From Part I. Zukofsky had attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall and upon his leaving, or after the performance as he stood near the exit, he lit a “Camel” and observed a tramp – a lowly person – walk by. From there he hears tidbits of conversation including a remark on “Poor Thomas Hardy” who admired “our recessional architecture”, patrons of poetry and business devotees of arts and letters discussing the “lyric weather” and the above quote about the Pennsylvania miners.
What’s the deal?
Zukofsky, who grew up in a poor Jewish family, the only American-born child of his family, would have been very familiar with the laissez faire economy of pre-World War II. He was also a committed Marxist in 1928 when the first part of “A” was written. The Pennsylvania miners is referencing the Rossiter coal miners strike under progress concurrent with Zukofsky’s writing of this section of his poem. Carat is a reference to the pen name or a nickname of a writer of the period who was decidedly pro-Soviet.
In many ways, the Great Divide of American politics today was born here in Zukofsky’s time. Henry Ford and a few other well known capitalists of the day were supporters of Hitler and the Third Reich. Many artists and writers, Zukofsky and Charlie Chaplin among them, of the period were strong supporters of Communism. Interestingly, Zukofsky’s literary hero Ezra Pound was a Nazi supporter.
I find these kinds of passages helpful because they illumine the worldview of the poet a great deal. Is the poet sympathetic to the Pennsylvania miners? He seems to be, but why? Nothing in the text at this point tells us why the miners or Thomas Hardy are so important. They’re simply glimpses into a particular time in the narrator’s life. But they add an element of character to “A” that would not be there if Zukofsky simply stuck to impressions of Bach’s music.
"Many people are too busy to be unemployed," says Henry.
A reference to Henry Ford.
(Especially those who have their own factories to take care of). "If communism ever gets into a country And raises Ned with it, It's because that country needs it."
And he continues to quote Ford with a short editorial note interjected:
If goods don't sell, It's because they're no good Or are too high priced." (Disposed of: the short change of labor.) As for labor, "There are more people Who won't try to do anything." Says Henry, "Than there are who don't know what to do, I am in the business of making automobiles Because I believe I can do more good that way Than any other ...."
The interjected parenthetical “disposed of the short change of labor” is a direct attack on Henry Ford’s brand of capitalism.
The star, Venus, bathed In the sunsets of elegant, imperial islands - Mr. - 'we own your, this government benefits by our protection...' - And in Haiti Mars Bloody Tinkered with the other Stars.
I don’t know who said “this government benefits by our protection” but it could have been any Republican of Zukofsky’s day as of our own. A typical jingoist sentiment. And the reference to Haiti is a reference to the Marine occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Mars, of course, is the Roman god of war.
“A” is full of literary and historical allusion. Sometimes Zukofsky breaks from one allusion to run right into another, jamming them together in quick-running sequences that move past like a flash of light.
I don’t know much about Bach’s political views, but I wonder how much of Zukofsky’s “A” is directed at it. Many of the allusions I’ve come across so far bear some significance to the life and music of Bach. Even when he quotes Einstein he relates it to Bach as in:
Asked Albert who introduced relativity - "And what is the formula for success?" "X=work, y=play, Z=keep your mouth shut." "What about Johann Sebastian? The same formula."
The story goes that Einstein was asked how best to enjoy Bach and he said something similar to the quote about work, play and “keep your mouth shut.”
These are the kind of details that might make “A” seem too obscure to bother with for many, but if you can somehow pull them out of a cloud and make them earthbound then Zukofsky makes more sense.
Reading Zukofsky, Ron Silliman (and several of the other Language poets) makes more sense. I still get irritated reading the rehearsed disjunction, but I can understand better why they do what they do. The Language poets in a sense put into practice the views of Zukofsky and Communism on the page with collaborative efforts, which is itself a political statement. Understanding this makes the reading much more enjoyable than just trying to figure it out by reading the plain text.
When you read poetry, do you look for background notes or commentary to help you read difficult passages or do you just go it alone?
Some notes for this blog post have been enlightened by Z-site. Hat tip to Jeff Twitchell-Waas.