Louis Zukofsky

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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The cover of the 1978 edition of Zukofsky's long poem A.
The cover of the 1978 edition of Zukofsky's long poem A.

Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 – May 12, 1978) was one of the most important second-generation American modernist poets. He was co-founder and primary theorist of the Objectivist group of poets and was to be an important influence on subsequent generations of poets in America and abroad.


  • 1 Early life and writings
  • 2 Politics
  • 3 Zukofsky the Objectivist
  • 4 "A"
  • 5 Shorter poems and other writings
  • 6 Late revival
  • 7 Bibliography
    • 7.1 Poetry, prose, plays
    • 7.2 Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings
    • 7.3 Letters and Correspondence
    • 7.4 As editor
  • 8 Further reading
  • 9 References

Early life and writings

He was born in New York of Lithuanian Jewish parents and grew up speaking Yiddish. His parents were orthodox and Louis reacted against this religious tradition at a young age. Nevertheless, his family figured quite strongly in his later writings.

As a child, Zukofsky frequented Yiddish theatres in the Bowery where he saw many works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He also read both Longfellow's Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in that language. His first real contact with English was when he started school, but he was a quick learner and by the age of 11 had read all of Shakespeare's works in the original.

He went on to study English at Columbia. He graduated with a Master's degree in 1924. He began writing at university and joined the college literary society as well as publishing poems in student magazines. One early poem was published in Poetry but never reprinted.

Zukofsky considered Ezra Pound to be the most important living poet, and in 1927 he sent his poem Poem beginning "The" to the older man. The poem, most of which is addressed to the poet's mother, was a kind of parody of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In contrast to Eliot's pessimistic view of the modern world, The suggests a bright future for Western culture based in Zukofsky's belief in the energy of the new immigrants to the U.S. and the socialist experiment then occurring in Russia.


In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist. While studying at Columbia, his friend Whittaker Chambers sponsored him for membership in the Communist Party, though it is unclear whether he actually joined. While he associated with Party members and published in Party-associated magazines, his poetry, which while strongly political was resolutely avant-garde and difficult, found little favor in Party circles. Though Zukofsky considered himself a Marxist at least through the end of the 1930s, the focus of his work after 1940 turned from the political to the domestic. Much later, he would claim that reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally turned him away from Marx.

Zukofsky the Objectivist

Pound was impressed by Poem beginning "The" and promoted Zukofsky's work, putting him in contact with other like-minded poets, including William Carlos Williams. The two poets influenced each other's work significantly, and Williams regularly sent his new work to Zukofsky for editing and improvement. Zukofsky was one of the founders of the Objectivist group of poets and of To Publishers, later the Objectivist Press, along with Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. Thanks to Pound's insistence, he was able to edit an Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he both coined the term and defined the two main characteristics of Objectivist poetry as sincerity and objectification. Other poets associated with this group included Williams, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth.


Zukofsky's major work was the long poem "A" - Zukofsky never referred to it without the quotation marks - which he began in 1927 and was to work on for the rest of his life, albeit with an eight-year hiatus between 1940 and 1948. The poem was written in 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day, and the figure of the poet's father is a major theme. The first 11 sections contain much that is overtly political but interweave this matter with formal concerns and models that range from medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach. Section 12, which is longer than the first 11 sections combined, introduces materials from the poet's family life, and from there on "A" interweaves the political, historical and personal in more or less equal measure. The extensive use of music in this work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife Celia, a professional musician. Their son Paul Zukofsky became a noted violinist and conductor.

Shorter poems and other writings

In tandem with "A", Zukofsky continued writing shorter poems throughout his life. Many of these shared the political and formal concerns of the longer poem, but they also include more personal lyrics, including a series of Valentines addressed to Celia. The first book publication of these shorter poems was 55 Poems (1941). He continued to write and publish shorter poems and these were eventually collected in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971).

Zukofsky also wrote critical essays, many of which were collected in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968) and the book-length study Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963) which was accompanied by a second volume containing a setting by Celia of Shakespeare's play Pericles, Prince of Tyre . His prose fiction includes Ferdinand (1968) and Little: For Careenagers (1970). He also wrote a play Arise, Arise (1962/1973) and, in 1969, an extraordinary set of translations of Catullus that attempted to replicate the sound rather than the sense of the originals in English. His A Test of Poetry was a teaching anthology with critical commentary.

Late revival

Having suffered critical neglect for most of his career, Zukofsky, along with the other Objectivists, was rediscovered by the Black Mountain and Beat poets in the 1960s and 1970s. The poet and editor Cid Corman was largely responsible, publishing Zukofsky's work and critical comments on it in his magazine Origin and through Origin Press from the late 1950s onward. In the 1970s, Zukofsky was a major influence on many of the Language poets, particularly in their formalism. The complete "A" was at the printers when the poet died in 1978. His Complete Short Poetry appeared in 1991.

Currently the Zukofsky revival continues unabated. In 2000 Wesleyan University Press, honoring Zukofsky's birth in 1904, began publishing The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky. Editions of "A" continue to be published and sell quickly; Chicago Review (Winter 2004/5) devoted an issue to Zukofsky; his correspondence with William Carlos Williams was published in 2003. If we add to this the hundreds of critical studies and dissertations appearing world-wide along with the perennial conferences devoted to his work, including the recent centennial remembrance at Columbia University, we have only hinted at the interest and trajectory Zukofsky's revival now generates on into the 21st-Century.


Poetry, prose, plays

  • Le Style Apollinaire (With Rene Taupin (1934))
  • First Half of "A" 9 (privately printed, 1940)
  • 55 Poems (1941)
  • Anew (1946)
  • Some Time: Short Poems (1956)
  • Statements for Poetry (1958)
  • Barely & Widely (1958)
  • It Was (1959)
  • "A" 1-12 (1959, 2nd edition 1966 (UK), 1967 (US))
  • Louis Zukofsky: 16 Once Published (1962)
  • Arise, Arise (1962/1973)
  • Bottom: On Shakespeare two volumes (Volume 2 is C. Zukofsky's musical setting of Shakespeare's Pericles) (1963)
  • I's (Pronounced Eyes) (1963)
  • Found Objects: 1962-1926 (1964)
  • After I's (1964)
  • Finally a Valentine: A Poem (1965)
  • I Sent Thee Late (1965)
  • Iyyob (1965)
  • Little: An Unearthing (1965)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems,1923-1958 (1965)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems, 1956-1964 (1966)
  • "A" 14 (1967)
  • Fragment for Careenagers (1967)
  • Ferdinand, Including "It Was" (1968)
  • "A" 13-21 (1969)
  • Catullus Fragmenta (with music by Paul Zukofsky) (1968)
  • Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (1968)
  • Catullus (1969)
  • The Gas Age (1969)
  • Autobiography (poems set to music by C. Zukofsky) (1970)
  • Little: For Careenagers (1970)
  • Initial (1970)
  • All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1964 (1971)
  • "A" 24 (1972)
  • "A" 22 & 23 (1975)
  • 80 Flowers (1978)
  • "A" (1978)
  • Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (1987)
  • Collected Fiction (1990)
  • Complete Short Poetry (1991)
  • Selected Poems (edited by Charles Bernstein) (2006)

Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings

  • A Test of Poetry (Foreword by Robert Creeley) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.I (Wesleyan University Press, 2000)
  • Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays (Foreword by Charles Bernstein; Additional Prose edited & introduced by Mark Scroggins) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.II (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
  • Bottom: On Shakespeare (with Celia Thaew Zukofsky) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.III & IV (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)
  • A Useful Art: Essays and Radio Scripts on American Design (Edited with an introduction by Kenneth Sherwood; afterword by John Taggart Complete Critical Writings-Vol.VI (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)
  • Le Style Apollinaire:The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire(Edited with introduction by Serge Gavronsky; foreword by Jean Daive) Complete Critical Writings-Vol.V, bilingual edition (Wesleyan University Press, 2004)

Letters and Correspondence

  • Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (Faber & Faber, 1987)
  • Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams & Louis Zukofsky (edited by Barry Ahearn) (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)

As editor

  • An 'Objectivists' Anthology (1932)
  • Test of Poetry (1948/1964)

Further reading

  • Perelman, Bob. The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1994.
  • Zukofsky at Modern American Poetry
  • Zukofsky at the EPC
  • Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky
  • American Poets Project page referencing Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems (2006) edited by Charles Bernstein
  • Feature: Zukofsky Webmag "Jacket Magazine" (#30: July 2006), devotes a prominent section to Zukofsky
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