Monday, March 3, 2014

Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky [Isola di Rifiuti]

from Mark Scroggins's The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky:

For all of Zukofsky's talk of "mirror fugues" and eightfold themes, the texture of "A"-8 — which moves from one block of quotation, paraphrase, or narration to another in an easy, often long-lined free verse — is not dissimilar to that of "A"-6, or several of the earlier movements of the poem. Except, that is, for two passages composed in a far tighter and more rigorously determined form, and which suggested a turn that Zukofsky's work would take in "A"-9: a mathematical turn.

The first passage, near the beginning of the poem . . . runs through [nine] nine-line stanzas, each line of eleven or twelve syllables. The second passage is at the very end, functioning as a tailpiece to "A"-8 as a whole; it consists of three intricately rhymed ten-line stanzas . . . and a six-line coda . . .

These are ten-syllable lines, though by no means traditional iambic pentameter. What is not immediately evident in these two passages is that they have been carefully structured in a manner that goes beyond mere rhyme or line and syllable count.

While Zukofsky was at work on "A"-8, Basil Bunting — always an indefatigable researcher into poetic form — had sent him a set of notes on Welsh prosody. What arrested Zukofsky in these notes was probably a description of cynghanedd ("harmony"), the intricate schemes of sound correspondence out of which medieval Welsh poetry was woven. Such intricate and formalized patternings of sounds suggested to Zukofsky that there might be other means of structuring a poem than English's traditional arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables — "accentual-syllabic" meter — and rhyme. With [Jerry] Reisman, who by this point was majoring in physics at City College, Zukofsky began analyzing how consonantal sounds were distributed in his own poems, and then in other poems of the English tradition. Could such distributions be described by mathematical formulae? It was Reisman — as Zukofsky described him, "a friend (or an enemy of practical prosody)" — who suggested the converse approach: Why not compose a poem in which the distribution of certain sounds was determined mathematically?

The nine-stanza passage towards the beginning of "A"-8 and the thirty-six-line coda of the movement were composed according to Zukofsky's new notion of a mathematical cynghanedd. Using the sounds n and r as variables, Zukofsky distributed those sounds in the lines of his poem according to precise mathematical formulae. The earlier eighty-one line passage adjusts its n's and r's according to certain ratios of acceleration and deceleration," applied to three line units of the verses. . . .

Zukofsky was simultaneously working with other constraints: Each eleven- or twelve-syllable line contains approximately four main stresses, and this particular passage is a collage of quotations from A Workers Anthology — Burns's "A Man's a Man," Henry Clay Work's "The Year of the Jubilee," and King Lear, among others.

The precise equations with which Zukofsky worked have not survived. Barry Ahearn has proposed convincingly that the nine-stanza opening passage drew on "the calculus of a curve," while the thirty-six-line coda, in keeping with the poem's focus on "revolution," was based on a formula "related to a circular movement through 360 degrees." Zukofsky could not have expected any reader to detect the working of these mathematical underpinnings when reading "A"-8 — as a reader might immediately recognize that Paradise Lost, for instance, is in blank verse, or might recognize a Shakespearean sonnet about horses embedded in the fifth movement of "Poem beginning 'The.'" The effect of Zukofsky's mathematically structured work is rather more elusive; Hugh Kenner argues, perhaps overstating the case, that "Such hidden laws, presenting a different face to the poet and to us . . . suspend the whole poem on some plane other than the plane of unresisted discourse, much as musical laws, though we may not know what they are, yield effects we do not confuse with random sonority."

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