Thinking with the Poem
Peter Quartermain

"Poems are only acts upon particulars," Zukofsky said in 1930, and
"only through such activity do they become particulars themselves" (Prepositions 18).  Thinking with the poem, I'm going to belabour the obvious, and I'm going view some of those particulars very narrowly indeed. I begin with vowels.


    A. E. I. O. U.  aeiou. ah eh ih oh uh. Vowels can be muscular, or slack. "Thið has the sound of tree," as Robert Duncan put it, "and thc has the sound of nut" ("Structure of Rime"). Sometimes you get to choose; sometimes you don't. We all, Zukofsky included, call his long poem "A" (_ei), and we do so without instruction and without thought. But that A of the title is in quotes because it's the first line of the poem, and so the title really should be Uh ().  His first poem of some length is exactly similar ö you might call it "Poem beginning Thee" [Thið]; as Zukofsky did; but if you pay attention to the first line you might prefer to call it  "Poem beginning Thuh" [Th] ö again, the title gives the complete first line of the poem. "A / round of fiddles playing Bach . . .";  "The / voice of Jesus I. Rush singing . . . ."  So, provided you pay attention, "A" (ei) rhymes with The [Th], and Uh
[] with Thee [Thið].  Zukofsky's a trickster, and he thinks like one; that sort of play is everywhere. It requires you to think as well as notice. And it requires you to listen. The vowels. ah eh ih oh uh and their many variants and combinations determine tone ö in March 1948 Pound instructed younger poets to be "vitally aware of the duration of syllables, of melodic coherence, and of the tone leading of vowels."  And the consonants? Consonants have to do with pace.


    Here's three words: Hedge-crickets sing. Basil Bunting thought that half-line from the ode "To Autumn" the only thing worth bothering with in the whole of Keats's work; it's the only bit of Keats that Zukofsky included in A Test of Poetry (41). The movement of the mouth, the shifts the tongue and the breath undergo (I'm talking about poems as mouthfuls of air) as you go from the close of hedge to the start of crickets, the unavoidable break in the breath (juncture) as you go from crickets to sing, is quite energetic.


    Here's three more words: A torch surged. That's the third line of "A"-12;
it might be a kind of antiphonal response to Keats. Here it is, in its immediate context:


    Out of deep need

    Four trombones and the organ in the nave

    A torch surged ö

    Timed the theme Bach's name,

    Dark, lark and ridge, night:                ("A" 126)


A torch surged ö the vowel sounds in that line prolonged by those barely-if-at-all-sounded r's in torch surged (Zukofsky didn't roll his r's). The vowels move ö there's nothing slack in that shift from uh to or to ur, the tones ö I mean the tune ö dipping down (to torch) and then rising on surge, a word which drags the torch up along with it: here the movement of the vowels and consonants gives rise to image, moves into image, conjures the image. This movement ö and possibly the flickering of the surging torchlight ö is reinforced first by the drastic slowing down of the line through the consonant clusters, and second by Zukofsky's inverted patterning of the consonants, in a brief cynghanedd sequence which the ear registers, though it might well slide right past the eye, in the shifts from ch to dg, and t to d.  The move from torch to surged is a move from unvoiced to voiced, catching the eye through the ear. Particularity, as Zukofsky puts it in Bottom, here resolving "tensions of melody and sight" (424). Thinking with the poem? This is thinking with the ear, whereby the words take on a physical form. Thinking with the poem? One might think of this as thinking with the body, and language as sense-able. At the Gotham Book Mart in 1931 Zukofsky spoke of "poets who see with their ears, hear with their eyes, move with their noses and speak and breathe with their feet" (Prepositions 17, 212). Thinking with the body connects to "the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody" (Prepositions 12).


    "The sound of words," Zukofsky says in A Test of Poetry, "is sometimes 95% of poetic presentation" (58). After an evening at a friend's listening to records of Bach and Mozart, Zukofsky found (as usual) that the music gave him an awful itch to get back to writing "A"-8.1 What he repeatedly called the "music" of poetry really does have close connections to played music ö Bunting commented that "when [Zukofsky] wanted to imitate a fugue, he determined that the actual sounds" ö rather than thematic recurrences or reiterative rhythm ö "should be the substance of it" (On Poetry 155) ö there may be a "music of ideas" in this poetry, but there's also an actual music. Bunting commented that "no other [twentieth-century] poet has stated or followed more clearly the closeness of poetry to music." We are so used to zooming in on the meaning of poems that we still down-play the immensely complex relationship of poems to music;2 critics and readers pay so little attention to the tone-value of vowels that they forget how difficult it is even to say the vowels A E I O U in a flat monotone ö to sound them that way takes hard practice and great concentration. There is quite explicitly and distinctly a music in speech, each vowel sounding its own note. But we don't have a vocabulary to trace the subtle interactions and patterns of pitch, stress, duration, the movements of breath through voice, and we certainly don't have a notation. All we have is the ear. Part Two of Bottom: On Shakespeare gives us sixty-two detailed pages (33-94) on prosody considered as speech, the music of speaking. A footnote on page 37 tells us that Celia Thaew [Zukofsky]'s setting of Pericles is "the one excuse for all that follows in this part." In October 1963, after Bottom had been published, Zukofsky told Corman "yes I mean that footnote . . . & will mean it more & more as the world understands less & less how much I mean it" (Corman 168).


    But reader after reader has remarked on the "genuine difficulty" (the phrase is Bunting's) and general impenetrability of Zukofsky's poems ö  "semantically dense" says one critic (Johnson 257); "opaque and annoying to a remarkable degree" says a contemporary poet (Rachel Blau DuPlessis, personal communication 8 August 2004); some of the poems drive one nuts. What makes that worse is Zukofsky's repeated assertions that they' re clear: There's not just letters to Corman ["I'm nothing if not direct" (17 August 1959)] and Niedecker ["If you read carefully you can't say they're not clear" (1941)], there's also the half-humorous half-mocking but certainly not wholly ironic claim in Anew #42: "I will not regret it one day / That I am plain to the simplest" (CSP 99). But if he's so clear, how come we can't see what he's up to? What's going on? Mark Scroggins has suggested that it is the "tactics of juxtaposition and montage . . . pose formidable difficulties for the average reader" of Zukofsky's poems of the 1930s  ("Revolutionary word" 54). Leaving the question of "the average reader" to one side, the difficulties are far more pervasive than he suggests.


    In 1962 Ian Hamilton Finlay wondered how serious Zukofsky was in sending his poem "The" for Finlay to publish in the sixth issue of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse (May 1963). He was puzzled and dubious.







           towing                     (CSP 232)


A one-word title, followed by four one-word lines. Zukofsky had to explain that he'd been thinking of tugboats, which tow very seriously; and he pointed out that none of the vowels in the poem repeat.3 Well, I'm not so sure about that ö when Zukofsky read the poem on tape not long after he wrote it, he repeated schwa three or possible four times. But of course there are various ways to sound the poem, there are so many ways to think it / hear it.4


    And that's the difficulty. It's a simple enough little poem, I guess, but what does it sound like? What noises does it make? How can we tell? Thinking with the ear? Whose ear? Your own, of course, but I think Guy Davenport somewhat overstates the case when he says "His obscurity is in the reader's mind, not in the poem" (Geography 106). It is of course true that the assumptions you bring to your reading determine the difficulties the poems raise, and it follows that the nature of the difficulties varies from reader to reader. But very often Zukofsky's writing seems to constitute a pretty direct assault on collective reading habits. A study group in Berkeley was recently (June 20045) scratching its collective head over a possible gloss for the opening line of Zukofsky's 1941 poem Anew # 38 (MS dated 7 April): "Belly Locks Shnooks Oakie" (CSP 97). That line might, I suppose, have something in common with the well-known utterance from The Meaning of Meaning, "The gostak distims the doshes" (Ogden and Richards 46) published in 1923 and still (2004) enjoying wide circulation. But there it's obvious that distimming is something gostaks do to doshes (and so on, by permutation) ö there is a syntax in that sentence, which unlike Zukofsky's opening line follows a familiar grammar. The parts of speech in "Belly Locks Shnooks Oakie" are so unstable that syntax disappears, we can't tell whether there's a verb at all. If there's one verb, there's quite possibly even two, but which is which is up for grabs, and the line might just as readily be a simple list of names,6 a notion reinforced only when you get to the second line:


           Belly Locks Shnooks Oakie

           When he awoke, . . .


But even then ö since the first line is unpunctuated ö grammar and syntax remain uncertain.


    However you understand that opening line ö and surely you have to keep the options open ö it's clear that that line generated the sheer playfulness of the whole poem, the sound of it, and the echoes (Oakie/ He awoke, he/ etc) fundamentally constitute the poem. But here there's a problem: how does it sound? what noise does it make? Here's the whole poem, all five lines. What noise, exactly, does it make?


           Belly Locks Shnooks Oakie

           When he awoke, he

           Scared all the spooks. He

           Was some oak, he



Well, obviously, I just said the poem, so that's how it sounds. But what sort of weight do you give that final Was? "He was some oak, HE was"? or "He was some oak. He WAS"? And does that Shnooks / spooks in their surround encourage me to hear the word smoke coming forth from that some oak? And so on. There's a range of possible voicings here, and the whole poem is ö from a sonic point of view ö extremely unstable.


    Now, I take as a truism that meaning determines tone, and meaning determines quantity ö tone, pacing and rhythm are intimately connected, and in traditional or conventional verse the sense of the words, their meaning, is the governing, determining factor. To note that there is a connection between voicing and thinking belabours the obvious, but if the poem is there for the music, then the question "How should this poem sound?"demands thought, and it tempts one into interpretation."Thinking's the lowest rung," says the close of "A"-12 (260), but it is a rung, and necessary: Get the meaning clear and you can get the tone clear, get the tone clear and you get the sound right. And interpretation ö in the sense of coming up with a paraphraseable meaning or summary of the poem ö is very tempting, the opening line indeed invites it.7 It's worth noting that the suggestive uncertainties of reference in the first line of the poem raise the spooks that we meet in line three, but that reflection doesn't get the meaning clear, nor even the multiplicities of meaning clear, they proliferate so, and the sound the poem makes is still variable. Although in its middle three lines


           When he awoke, he

           Scared all the spooks. He

           Was some oak, he


the poem seems to settle into a fairly secure voicing ö the syntax and grammar are pretty clear even if the semantic field is still obscure ö the sounds the poem makes nevertheless have an improvisational quality, a different sound each time you say it, and it might even be ö as Meredith Quartermain suggested in conversation ö that the multiplicity of possible voicings, simultaneously held in the poet's ö and perhaps the reader's ö head, begin to feel a bit like voices all sounding at once: the poem as chorus. Zukofsky achieves that effect not simply by making the poem "difficult" or "opaque" but by deliberately withholding the meaning, I mean, making sure it's more-or-less incomprehensible ö while at the same time enjoining you to think (and speak). That double push ö the carrot always held out of reach on the stick, the hermeneutic promise of meaning dangled before the reader's nose ö is a characteristic Zukofsky move.


    So. If he's withholding the meaning, to that extent he's withholding the poem by cultivating its inaccessibility. But why? Why is he so opaque? A quick answer might be that if the world, the events and objects in it, is essentially opaque, if "writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody" (Prepositions 12)8 and if poetry "is an object or affects the mind as such" (Prepositions 13)  then necessarily the poem, if it is to be an object in the world, if it is to be a "particular," will resist what we think of as "understanding." (In 1928 Williams congratulated Zukofsky on his achievement in "Poem Beginning The": "It escapes me in its analysis [thank God] and strikes against me a thing [thank God] There are not so many things in the world as we commonly imagine. Plenty of debris, plenty of smudges." [Correspondence 5].)   But that quick answer's too simple. Again and again in his critical writing Zukofsky is scornful of what he calls "the predatory intent" (Prepositions 18), and ö to put it bluntly ö he cultivates opacity because he wants to change the way we read, he wants to make predatory reading impossible.9 In this, he's like Stein. "What is the difference between a fig and an apple" Stein asked, and answered "the one precedes the other" ("Patriarchal Poetry" 128).


    Zukofsky is at times more cryptic even than Stein, as in, for instance, the recurrence (in early movements of "A") of billboards advertising Wrigley's chewing gum. They come up three times, in "A"-2 (8):, "A"-5 (19), and "A"-6. The last of these reads:


           Jesus bless, too, that lady's avoirdupois

           Great as of outlasting song,

           Also her tiny daughter hoiden

           Outwriggling the wriggly Wrigley boys. (21)


 ö lines which puzzled Cid Corman, who complained that "certain references . . . certainly are almost meaningless for any readers younger than I. The Wrigley advertisements, for example. (I have to dig back into memory for that.) It is NOT the personal allusions that vanish, for you establish them perfectly . . . but the highly local (even Gracie Allen or Fred Allen)" (4 January 1960 [TxU]). Zukofsky's impulse is to remove reference and force attention to the movement of the words. And he told Corman (7 January 1960 [TxU]):


If I give reasons for what I do, the convictions are deeper, really . . . nothing to do with what anyone would call reason. Like that use of Wrigleys, . . . ö there's that wriggle which is I feel fated to outlast the Îparticular' reference to a time, or at any rate breathing that name in that line or two preserves it for as long as the print should last for all that time was worth, & that's all there's left of it.


Half a year later he would exclaim, in another letter to Corman (25 August 1960 [Origin 63]), that as for "content, . . . the sooner I can get that out of the way & buried in the music of the whole thing the better."10 The uncertainty ö of "Belly Locks Shnooks Oakie," "The desire of towing,"  "the wriggly Wrigley boys" ö is part of the poem and essential. Zukofsky withholds reference and meaning because he want you to think through the uncertainty, by means of it. The uncertainty is itself the material and the ground of thought, for uncertainty is, when all's said and done, how we go through the world in which those particulars we call objects are, finally, inscrutable. The poem is a way of being in the world without claiming power over it.


    Corman seeks what Zukofsky once called "the horror of explanation" ("U.S.A. Poetry"), and his complaint is symptomatic of what Williams called "an easy lateral sliding" ("Prologue" 14), reading the language as instrument of another will, moving outside the poem. In this, his reading is predatory, akin to Henry Ford's, whom Zukofsky quoted scornfully in "A"-6:


           "I read poetry, and I enjoy it

           If it says anything,

           But so often it doesn't say anything,"

                                                     says Henry.

                                         (Active Anthology 137; "A" 26)


But what would one want a poem to say? What is the value of certainty, and of assertion? Bunting had the right of it when he told Pound in1958 that "Zukofsky gets stronger and stronger, particularly in short pieces, that dont seem to be about anything" (10 April [CtY]).


    I can't find a word that adequately identifies or describes "non-predatory" reading ö and, I must add, non-predatory writing.11 It has to do with getting rid of unquestioned habits of mind and assumptions that we customarily bring to the act of reading. In Part One of Bottom: On Shakespeare Zukofsky tells of taking a four-year-old to see Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." After sitting through most of the film the child asks "When will the beast become fancy?" Zukofsky explains that "he means, of course, when will the good Beast look as good as he is" (21). I'm still not at all sure I understand this, , but I take him to mean the child seeks a match between appearance and reality, or ö to put it another way ö that words should mean what they say. Zukofsky is discussing the difference between hallucination and imagination ö he's talking about Ovid's Metamorphoses ö and says it is "more salutary" to read literally than to "cower" in the figurative. "One will see," he had said in "A"-6 (27), "gravel in gravel" ö no symbolism here. In these terms, language as figuration constitutes a retreat from language itself, an evasion, a refusal to see and hear what is before us, and it is a refusal to engage the imagination.


    Our sympathies, in the interlude which brings A Midsummer Night's Dream to a close, are with the "rude mechanicals," for the demands of the play of Pyramus and Thisby are that Snout be a wall, so he is one, and those hands held in the air make a chink through which Bottom-Pyramus may see, speak, and attempt to kiss. Snout is transformed into Wall (though he is still Snout), and Wall, in a play within a play, is by turns transformed to "lovely" (line 172), "wicked" (line 178) and "vile" (line 198), transformed into a state of which "the eye  . . . hath not heard, the ear . . . hath not seen, [the] hand is not able to taste, [the] tongue to conceive, nor [the] heart to report." (MND IV.1, 210 ff.)12. Imagination transforms the world ö this is not a matter of illusion, precisely ö it is a making, a seeing ö we see Snout and think or feel Wall (I'd take feel to be Zukofsky's preferred term): In Part One of Bottom Zukofsky suggests that "furthering the same theme over and over and multiplying reflecting hallucinations of it . . . make it literal" (23). It is the literal we are after, in our non-predatory reading, That a torch surged with which I began conjures an imagined event which we perceive and feel, and our perception is a perception of language, an act of conjuration attentive to possibilities of meaning, possibilities of pun, possibilities in which the literal fact, the poetic fact and the imagined fact merge in a complex of make-believe. Attentive to transformations of which language is the agent and of which language is the subject, making up a world, making it up.13 "The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intent" (Prepositions 18). Physical and emotional.  Musical. 


Copyright © 2004 Peter Quartermain


Excerps from letters by Basil Bunting, Cid Corman, and Louis Zukofsky are printed with permission of the holders ö the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin (coded TxU) and the Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (coded CtY).


This is, with one small change, the text of an address given at the LZ/100 Conference, Columbia University, New York 19 September 2004.




Works Cited

Ahearn, Barry. Zukofsky's "A": An Introduction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983 

Ahearn, Barry, ed. The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2003.

Andrews, Bruce. "Misrepresentation," Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996, 153-161.

Booth, Marcella. A Catalogue of the Louis Zukofsky Manuscript Collection. Austin: Humanties Resarch Center, 1975.

Bunting, Basil. Basil Bunting on Poetry. Peter Makin, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Bunting, Basil. "The Lion and the Lizard." Three Essays. Richard Caddel, ed. Durham: Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, 1994, 27-31.

Corman, Cid. "At: Bottom." [written 1963; originally published in Bloomington, Indiana by Clayton Eshleman as the second of his "Caterpillar" series of pamphlets in May 1966.] Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language, Volume One (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1977), 128-169.

Corman, Cid. "In the Event of Words." in Terrell 305-336..

Davenport, Guy. "Zukofsky." The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays. San Francisco: North Point, 1981, 100-113

Duncan, Robert. "Structure of Rime X." The Opening of the Field New York: Grove, 1960, 72

Duncan, Robert. "The Venice Poem." The First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950. London: Fulcrum, 1968, 81-107.

Johnson, Kent. "A Fractal Music: Some Notes on Zukofsky's Flowers." In Scroggins, Upper Limit 257-275.

Ogden, C.K., and I.A. Richards. The Meaning of Meaning (1923). 8th ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1946.

Penberthy, Jenny, ed. Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky. New York: Cambridge UP, 19

Ponge, Francis. "Ardens Organum, Selections from Pour un Malherbe." The Power of Language: Texts and Translations. Serge Gavronsky, ed. and trans. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979, 214-273.

Pound, Ezra. "Cleaners Manifesto." Four Pages 3 (March 1948): 3. [Summarised in part in Duncan, "Venice Poem" 91; the full text quoted in Simpson, ii-iii.]

Quartermain, Peter. "Writing and Authority in Zukofsky's Thanks to the Dictionary." in Scroggins, Upper Limit, 154-174.

Scroggins, Mark, ed. Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997.

Scroggins, Mark. "The Revolutionary Word: Louis Zukofsky, New Masses, and Political Radicalism in the 1930s." in Scroggins, Upper Limit, 44-64.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Madeleine Doran, ed. (Pelican Shakespeare). Baltimore: Penguin, 1959.

Simpson, Dallam [as "Dallam Flynn"]. "Preface." Basil Bunting. Poems: 1950 (Galveston: Cleaners Press, 1950), i-v.

Stein, Gertrude."Patriarchal Poetry." Yale Gertrude Stein. Richard Kostelanetz, ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980, 106-146.

Terrell, Carroll F., ed. Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1979.

Williams, William Carlos. "Author's Introduction [to The Wedge]." Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1954, 255-257.

Williams, William Carlos. "Prologue to Kora in Hell," Imaginations, ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions, 1970,.6-28.

Zukofsky, Celia. A Bibliography of Louis Zukofsky. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1969.

Zukofsky, Louis. "A."  Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Zukofsky, Louis. "From ÎA' [Fifth and Sixth Movements]." Active Anthology. Ezra Pound, ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1930, 124-149..

Zukofsky, Louis. "'A' [1st through 7th Movements]." An "Objectivists" Anthology. Louis Zukofsky, ed. Le Beausset, Var: To Publishers, 1932, 112-155.

Zukofsky, Louis. Bottom: On Shakespeare. 2 vols. Austin, Tex.: Ark Press, 1963

Zukofsky, Louis. The Complete Shorter Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Zukofsky, Louis. "Discarded Poems." in Terrell, 145-162.

Zukofsky, Louis. Letter to Cid Corman, 25 August 1960. Origin second series, 1 (April 1961): 63; also quoted in Corman, "In the Event of Words," 326.

Zukofsky, Louis. Propositions +: The Collected Critical Essays. Foreword by Charles Bernstein. Additional Prose edited by Mark Scroggins. Hanover: U of New England / Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York: Jargon/Corinth, 1964.


All materials by Basil Bunting quoted herein are copyright © 2004 the Estate of Basil Bunting

All materials by Cid Corman quoted herein are copyright © 2004 the Estate of Cid Corman

All materials by Louis Zukofsky quoted herein are copyright © 2004 the Estate of
Louis Zukofsky