The Ulysses of Poetry

Recently, I’ve been getting into 20th-century poetry in a fairly serious way. I’ve read Plath, I’ve read Eliot, I’ve read a good chunk of Wallace Steven’s collected works, I’ve read some Auden, and I’ve got D.A. Powell, John Berryman, and some others on my shelf.

I’ve also got a list from a poet friend of mine of 20 books I should have read before I’ll even think of calling myself well-read in modern poetry, and one of those books is A (or rather, “A“) by Louis Zukofsky. On the list my friend gave me, he annotated A with just one word–hard–indicating that I should read it last, or near last.

I now know why.

On my doorstep this weekend arrived a copy of A, recently put back into print by New Directions, and it is close to 900 pages. (And you have to love New Directions’ uber-minimalist cover, which makes the actual paperback look something like a freakishly large POD novel.) If the size and reputation didn’t scare me enough, the first lines of the book’s introduction certainly would:

Readers approaching “A” for the first time often presume they can only hope to understand the poem if they assail it with battering rams, nutcrackers, and tweezers. They may have heard that the distinguished critic Hugh Kenner once called “A” the most hermetic poem in English, one that scholars would still be elucidating in the twenty-second century.

Here’s Wikipedia’s somewhat less daunting description:

Zukofsky’s major work was the long poem “A” – he 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 divided into 24 sections, reflecting the hours of the day. The first eleven sections contain a lot of overtly political passages but interweave them with formal concerns and models that range from medieval Italian canzone through sonnets to free verse and the music of Bach. Especially the sections of “A” written shortly before World War II are political: Section 10 for example, published in 1940, is an intense and horrifying response to the fall of France.

If you’re a constant reader of this blog, you know I love a challenge. I’m in the midst of Ulysses right now. Perhaps A will find its time sometime thereafter.


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Oh, you’ve got to share your friend’s list! Such a tease, you are!

I’ve never made it through all of “A” by any means, but have very much enjoyed some parts of it I’ve read. Zukofsky’s short poems are well worth checking out, too. And his Shakespeare writings. And… Oh, but you don’t need another list!

Thanks, I enjoyed hearing about this book for the first time; but I’m not sure that more arcane is what poetry needs right now….

I would just say that Plath is not a poet by any definition of the word.

I’ve been working on Merrill’s “Changing Light at Sandover;” it would be interesting to see a group read of a long poem on this site (though I wonder how many participants it would attract). I wonder if Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” is on your list; it should be.

Seconding that you need to share your friend’s list of recommendations (+ his comments).

Darby: Why? Her poems read like bad, melodramatic nursery rhymes with the Holocaust thrown in every three lines for good measure. Jew linen? Nazi lampshades? To include her in the company of Eliot and Wallace–and female poets of *actual* merit, to avoid the inevitable sexism charge, like Elizabeth Bishop, H.D. and Marianne Moore–derogates from their contributions to the great dialogue of poetry. Just saying.

Also, along the same lines as Zukofsky, George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” is, I think, the great objectivist epic.

Darby: Why? Her poems read like bad, melodramatic nursery rhymes with the Holocaust thrown in every three lines for good measure. Jew linen? Nazi lampshades? To include her in the company of Eliot and Stevens–and female poets of *actual* merit, to avoid the inevitable sexism charge, like Elizabeth Bishop, H.D. and Marianne Moore–derogates from their contributions to the great dialogue of poetry. Just saying.

Also, along the same lines as Zukofsky, George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” is, I think, the great objectivist epic.

I’ll ask my friend if he’ll permit me to share the list. If he says it’s okay, it’ll go up.

Please do, I would love to see that list — I just heard about “A” recently myself and am very tempted to dive in!

[…] kind of woman she wrote her book about. She was white and well educated; she had a… »The Ulysses of PoetryRecently, I've been getting into 20th-century poetry in a fairly serious way. I've read Plath, I've […]

[…] “A” is the Ulysses of poetry:  “Readers approaching “A” for the first time often presume they can only hope to […]

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