|. . . 2003-02-22|
Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers by Michele J. Leggott
80 Flowers was published in an edition of 80 in 1978, soon after Louis Zukofsky's death, and left at that. I didn't own any of the 80.
I first tracked down a library copy of Leggott's book not long after its own publication in 1989, but I didn't read it, really, just her citations. Like Stuart Gilbert in 1930, under cover of criticism Leggott had smuggled extensive excerpts from an inaccessible work. Although I was grateful, criticism of an unread work needs to be awfully coherent to seem anything more than discardable cover. I discarded it .
In 1997, the Flowers were finally reprinted.
Last month, while browsing another library, I rescued Leggott's book from a misshelving and decided to read it anew.
There are three ways of defending and elucidating a pointedly difficult work. They build on one another: the upstairs neighbor gets access to the downstairs neighbor's heat, but she's on shakier ground.
The thing itself and you yourself, nose to nose, mano a mano, pas de deux, no time limits and no props other than the ones you walked into the room with. Structure is grasped, experience is applied, pleasure is described. When faced with relative transparency, a plot summary might be attempted. When faced with apparent chaos, a celebration of apparent chaos is likely. Rewards are hit and miss, as followers of this site may have noticed over the years.
Kent Johnson took more or less that approach in his 1996 essay, "A Fractal Music: Some Notes on Zukofsky's Flowers." For hit, he usefully described Zukofsky's 8-line-by-5-word stanza as a grid of multidirectionally associative vectors. For miss, he then vanished into Catchphrase Forest with his fuzzy-wuzzy friends Quantum and Fractal and Noneuclidean. (Few English majors notice that Zukofsky's own mathematical figure for poetry was the frumpish chore of calculus.)
You maintain the pretense that some ideal reader -- an ideal reader who doesn't trade on any personal relationship with the author but who has fingertip access to all other possibly relevant sources of knowledge -- might have the reading experience you describe. You give up the pretense that it's you. Instead, you seek to become that ideal reader. The work supplies your checklist, your syllabus, your scavenger hunt; assignments radiate from the object and are reflected back again. You report as the person you've become.
Volumes of the OED circled round him, David Levi Strauss took more or less this approach in the first published criticism of 80 Flowers in 1983 (sadly excluded from this online edition of the book in which it appeared).
The author-artifact barrier is perforated, leaking special knowledge, special relationships. Work sheets, drafts, charts, conversation, and diaries are brought to bear. As scholarly infotainment in its own right, or as instructive example to those learning a useful craft, this is straightforward enough. As criticism, it seems to assume that if the writer had something in mind and can document it, then it's up to the reader to find it communicated.
The assumption is flawed:
Nevertheless, the strategy has proven a useful defense against charges of arbitrariness or sloppiness, Stuart Gilbert being the pioneer here, too.
|. . . 2003-02-26|
"I fall upon the books of life! I read!"For the very most part, what Leggott finds in the genealogical record of Zukofsky's book is other books (including Zukofsky's own earlier work). There are some notes on the Zukofskys' retiree garden, whose progress guided the composition schedule, but (to judge from Leggott's presentation) as usual the material world impinged on Zukofsky mostly as calendar: dates of flowering join birthdays and Valentines as occasion for verse, while botanical expedition reports and seed catalogs join the shelves of poetry and philosophy.
As anyone who's ever written anything knows, the relation between preliminary notes and a finished work isn't simple derivation. If it was, there would be no point to the finished work, and we could stop reading any novel at its epigraph. (Not a bad idea in most cases.) The raw materials -- which is to say the words -- of Zukofsky's poems are drawn from other sources, as they are for most of us. The question is: what got made with them?
It's a question Leggott treats with understandable caution, given the extremity of her straddling. As a Ph.D. candidate, she shouldn't have to defend exemplary primary research; as someone who's publishing 400 pages about an inaccessible book by a not-yet-industrialized writer, she's got some 'splainin' to do. The lines between "ideal reader" and "genealogist" are blurred in self-defense.
She's careful in her talk about intentions; the intentionality she writes about is always tactical (and always tactful, given Paul Zukofsky's iron grip on the copyright), never going so far as to claim readerly recognition of Zukofsky's sources as Zukofsky's goal. When she says of Paradise:
"The garden must be like a real garden, with cycles of growth; blossoming and witherings."the cycles are those of the writing, not those of the reading.
On the other hand, she knows hostile suspicions might be aroused when one seems to make interpretation and enjoyment of a supposedly functional work dependent on ancillary scribbledehobble, and so she defends the practice as a pragmatic smoothing of the way: Zukofsky was always ahead of his time, and this book, being newest, is ahead furthest. To help its time along, crafty Zukofsky deliberately dropped off its blueprint (in the form of notes, drafts, and galleys) at U. Texas. (Being from New Zealand, Leggott might not have realized how financially dependent American poets have become on archival donations to state universities.) And in using that material so extensively, Leggott is merely following Zukofsky's implied wishes. After all, it's always easier to inhabit a house once you've seen the blueprint. That way you can find the kitchen when you need it.
Leggott relates the material in Zukofsky's notesheets to Zukofsky's finished poetry using the Poundian-and-Objectivist dictate of "condensare" ("condensation" in Zukofsky; in Niedecker's exquisite American, "this condensery"). Now, besides being somewhat self-destructive (in both good and bad ways), "condensare" is ambiguous. In Pound's and Zukofsky's critical writings, "condensare" sounds something along the lines of Strunk & White or Readers Digest: don't waste words; don't dude it up; get to the point. Niedecker, for example, could often be said to follow the poetic practice Zukofsky recommended: notice something, reduce it to its essentials, and make it musical. (Not necessarily in that order, of course.)
In Pound's and (particularly) Zukofsky's poetic writings, what happens is less often condensation than fragmenting. The effect isn't of a cleanup or a liposuction or a diagram or a sketch or even an ideogram of "the original source"; the effect is of "the original source" being busted to bits and used to tile a more-or-less abstract mosaic.
Busting doesn't come much finer than in 80 Flowers. (Jackson Mac Low's mechanical word crushers don't count, since his original sources are explicitly cited as the subjects of the work.) No matter what the diligent scholar finds in the manuscripts, when a "quote" consists of a single word or two, or a punning transliteration of a single word or two, in what sense can 80 Flowers be said to reference Theophrastus, Juvenal, Horace, Chaucer, Gerard, Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, John Adams, Henri Fabre, Thomas Hardy, Albert Einstein, or private correspondence from Guy Davenport?
|. . . 2003-03-01|
Whether theoretically justified or not, when she purveys a back-o'-the-thick-hornrimmed-specs view of 80 Flowers, Leggott follows the author's lead. The nearest Zukofsky came to a public statement about the book was in a 1975 recorded discussion with Hugh Kenner. After reading "#22 Bayberry," the first words out his mouth are:
The source of this is...And it doesn't take long for the author's own source-digging to strike apparent absurdity.
"Durant," and that's where Dante comes in.... The name Dante: do you know what that means? ... It's still used today: it's deer-skin. And it's enduring. It presumably holds. So it's "durant leaf."Let's imagine -- or even embody -- a close or expert reader facing the following lines:
|Candleberry bayberry spice resinwax green
durant leaf moor in key
dour attested deer-wit winds survive
Given Zukofsky's lack of interest in biography, the focus on process is surprising. Maybe his assumption is that there's no reason to point out the details of the craft, it resting right there on the surface free for Kenner's taking? We are talking about someone whose most manifestive critical work was an anthology. Maybe he's not really talking professionally, even if he's not talking all that personally either. (Another quote from the tape: "My original source, that's a private matter.") Maybe he's just providing a professional friend with professional gossip.
So! All right, this is how Zukofsky amuses himself. They say, they ask me, do I amuse myself? God, no, I...! But when it's done, well, then, it's -- at least it's out of the way, damn it.It's always a shock to find a bone-familiar sensation described by someone you admire, isn't it? "Out of the way" -- yeah. The only good reason I know for writing is to get the annoying jingle-jangle-jingle of the spurs down and out of my head so I can stop being bugged by them. I guess there aren't many other reasons for writing if you're not writing for an audience. (And I guess it's appropriate if one then ends up with not much of an audience....) But in these circumstances, it makes me feel like a piker: I haven't written about Zukofsky's poetry myself; I haven't written about most of my favorite things. When I read Zukofsky's poetry, or Karen Joy Fowler's stories, or watch Howard Hawks's movies, nothing bugs me; I'm kind of with Zukofsky in thinking that the pleasure's blatantly there.
Instead, here I write about a book about Zukofsky. Because that's where something bugged me.
|. . . 2003-03-05|
My public allegiance is pledged to the researched reading camp, even though, being a lazy kind of guy, I mostly engage in close reading. When it comes to genealogical history, well, I enjoy a good piece of detective work and (being a lazy kind of guy) I have no objection to picking up short-cuts anywhere I happen across them. But I'm uncomfortable with using special knowedge about the author to "explain" a work.
So why is it that Levi Strauss's researched presentation improved my experience of 80 Flowers not a whit, in fact left me completely untouched, while I put aside Leggott's genealogy with an exhilarating new sense of ease?
In one minor way it could be at least partly his fault or my prejudice. Levi Strauss inclines to that rhetorical quirk in which the author is personified as a paternal god (usually some unholy mix of Falstaff and Gandalf) whose slightest gesture fills the critic's doggy-like field-of-vision. This ploy may have began with bardolatry ("He is all in all."), but I particularly associate it with Joyceans and post-structuralists: "With a bawdy laugh and a knowing wink, canny Joyce invites us to join the transgressive free play of signifiers...." (You see it with Joss Whedon fans, too.) It seems kind of creepy and twitchy, like a Jerry Lewis movie with Jerry Lewis in all the parts. I think of myself as a comparatively informal and affectionate person, but I'm put off by the familiarity: that's not Joyce; I've never met Joyce and I doubt that he'd ever want to meet me, much less invite me to his signifier orgy.
But I'm grasping at straw men. In his researched reading of "#56 Hyacinth," Levi Strauss worked that OED hard, made some connections to "A", and even spotted one-word and two-word quotes from Shakespeare. Much better job than I'd've done, anyway.
And maybe because he wasn't writing a Ph.D. dissertation, Levi Strauss touched on some obvious issues that Leggott almost perversely put off, like goals and pleasure, and he voiced some obvious questions that Leggott left unasked.
(For example: The only punctuation marks in 80 Flowers are an occasional apostrophe and the compounding hyphens that Zukofsky uses to fudge the word count. In this stripped-down anti-discursive narrativeless context, words bobbing semi-detached from semantics or syntax, what can we make of the frequent italicization? Do italics indicate tonal emphasis? Emphatic citation? Purely lexical signal for some otherwise invisible formal milestones? Levi Strauss admits ignorance, which seems a comradely gesture; Leggott doesn't mention the problem except to point out "the italics that foreground thyme, rose, and thyme as the scope of #75 Thyme.")
All of which I support but stubbornly gained nothing by.
"if I asked him hed say its from the Greek leave us as wise as we were before"
|. . . 2003-03-10|
Having worked even harder than Levi Strauss, Leggott permits even more niggling. No (or little) OED for her; she keeps Zukofsky's own 10 volume 1895 Century Dictionary close at hand -- in fact, most of Zukofsky's library close at hand, along with his manuscripts, letters, and published works. That makes for a pretty crowded (even cramped) hand. The hand becomes overstimulated. The hand bounces off the walls.
She assures us that the line "zebra-fragrant sharpened wave currents tide" (#80 Zinnia) ain't so tough: thyme has a fragrance, even if zinnias don't, and thyme is important, thyme thymitie thyme time! And the Century's "zebra" entry is really keen since its text includes Zukofkian attractors like "light and symmetrical," "wild asses," "bottom," "secluded," "watchfulness," and "destined to extermination."
Which is all very nice for those of us who like this sort of thing, but still doesn't begin to answer the most obvious questions: What the heck is zebra-fragrant supposed to mean, and what's eau-de-zebra doing at sea?
And so on, but not entirely so forth.
I can't think of any way to convey the odd surface inutility and subterranean utility of Leggott's approach except by example. Here's one of Leggott's shorter and simpler exegeses, of "#63 Oxalis":
Was it the combination of "sorrel" and finding out that the Greek oxys had more senses of sharpness than acidity, sourness, pungency (the leaves and stems of most oxalises are sour-juiced), that decided Zukofsky to bring in the horse again? Plus the resemblance of oxalis leaves (three leaflets, notched) to those of clover, the lucky leaf ("One's a lucky horse," "A"-12, p. 176) -- more lucky to Zukofsky when its heart shapes number three rather than four? Each leaflet-heart comes to a sharp point at the mutual conjunction, or is "brought to a point" (kyrbasia es oxy apēgmenas); Zukofsky was looking at Liddell and Scott's entry for oxys. "Tow ox / a"? The vertex of a triangle is expressed in the phrase to oxy. The Greek point was also extended to the senses, and could signify sharp keen feeling, whether the blazing heat of the sun or stabs of pain or grief. Virgil's "rapidus sol" is cited by Liddell and Scott as an analog; Zukofsky checked Lewis and Short and found the reference under the literal sense (very rare, used only poetically) of rapidus as "tearing away, seizing." In the Georgics, the effects of burning-over are supposed to harden and therefore protect the soil from, among other things, "seizure" by the sun's heat:Shorter and simpler than most, but still one might hope to be prepared for the original at this point.
ne tenues pluviae rapidive potentia solis
acrior au Boreae penetrabile frigus adurat.
"So that the searching showers may not harm, or the blazing sun's fierce tyranny wither it, or the North-wind's piercing cold." Remembering "so much sun, clouds, stars usw*(ice storms too) [sic] thru our windows, we should have left the city ten years ago" -- Zukofsky is developing a landsman's sense of the elements, probably hearing with the poet's ear: "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun, / Nor the furious winter's rages" (Cym. IV.ii.258), or even: "The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night" (Ps. 121:1). In #63 Oxalis, the sense of Virgil's "rapidus sol" and Liddell and Scott's citation of the trope is to be heard in: "rapids whose soul / air-spring disperses through water."
For rapidus in its more customary sense means "tearing or hurrying along, swift, quick, rapid"; and suddenly we see that the oxys-rapidus carryover has generated a multitude of meanings in #63 Oxalis, from the sharp points of (keen) hearts that may feel (or, unwittingly, inflict?) pain, grief, or other emotional blazes ("scald scold"), to the quick (and as sharply felt) elations sweeping those same rapid souls: "a breeze sweet rampant pulse." If this last, by means of the drive word "pulse," stirs powerful memories of the horse of the Epigraph, perhaps it is intended to, because the source of the line deals expressly with the issue of poetic inspiration. Johnson wrote of Milton's compositional technique: "Richardson, who... discovers always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men, relates, that 'he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he make; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with an impetus or oestrum, and his daughter was immediately called to secure what came.'"
Oestrum, says the Century, is more properly oestrus and it means "vehement desire or emotion, passion, frenzy." Oestrus, from the Greek oistros, is "gadfly" or "breeze" and by extension "vehement urging, stimulus, desire"; in fact, "sting." Oistros is listed as a synonym for myōps, the goad/gadfly/squint of #59 Spirea. And so it is that a sweet breeze is another sharp point, this time rather like the Aristotelian goad, for the "rampant pulse" of the horse -- whose imagination still seems to run with the wind whatever stable the old singer is compelled to inhabit, reaffirming: "If someone stole off with its body / Be sure that its spirits / Canter forever" ("A"-12, p. 181).
As for "honor the bard," the phrase with which #63 Oxalis closes, more than Shakespeare and a hint of the honorary doctorate [from Bard College, 1977] is encompassed when we discover, as Zukofsky did when he checked the Century and found a fine illustration, that a bard can be medieval horse's armor....
Let's try it:
Wood sorrel lady's-sorrel 3-hearts tow ox
a leese rapids whose soul
air-spring disperses thru water elator
ox lips mistaken for clover
more ruse mulberry locust-flower shield
welcome wanderer óxalis time primrose-yellow
a breeze sweet rampant pulse
scald scold honor the bard
Part of the comedy here is the contrast between Leggott's prolixity and Zukofsky's enigma (that 400-to-80 page ratio).
And part is how little elucidation has occurred. Not just what remains unexplained ("leese"? "more ruse"? why the accent?), but also the irrelevance of Leggott's "explanations" to any possible reader (the Samuel Johnson quote may show up in Zukofsky's worksheets, but not a single word from it remains in the finished poem).
It's a one-way passage. Following Zukofsky's sources gets Leggott further along the "z-sited path are but us," but she's further along in the same direction: a path that remains z-sited and but them, while we remain but us.
That's what Leggott demonstrates, and that's why her work helps me enjoy Zukofsky's.
|. . . 2003-03-29|
|. . . 2003-04-05|
Non-anorexics can't always discern the healthy glow to be gained from obsessive-compulsive fasting, scrubbing, and exercise. And to the uninitiated reader, Pound's and Zukofsky's fear of fatty inexactitude didn't produce dignified austerity but new forms of excess. (Lorine Niedecker had too robust an appetite to fully trust that imperative. From a letter: "I know that my cry all these years has been into -- into -- and under -- close your eyes and let the music carry you -- And what have I done? -- cut -- cut -- too many words...")
Working from different notions of sincerity, Pound and Zukofsky carved down to different peculiarities. Pound-pundit's minimalism is as bullying as the maximalism of D. H. Lawrence or Wyndham Lewis: rather than advancing an argument, he bellows a few sacred words and assumes our bellowed "Ditto!", and if we don't supply it, well, fuck us for fuckwits. Whereas Zukofsky never seems comfortable with the idea of self-expression, and, though his passive-aggression might be called cold, he never bullies.
For Zukofsky, the sincere is the objective. Sincerity opposes subjectivity.
But given what's been acceptable poetic message-matter since the mid-nineteenth century, to eliminate self-inflationary rhetoric from one's poetry is to risk eliminating message entirely.
It's a risk Zukofsky took without a second glance. Zukofsky's essentials are the words. The inessential pared from the words is the message.
Which sabotaged any early ambitions as Marxist propagandist or movement leader.
Doubly rejected, and thin-skinned and soft-spoken by nature, after the mid-1930s, Zukofsky famously restricted his polis to the family triangle of father-mother-son. He became celebrant of a closed-system cocoon of irritable praise.
In both parts of his career, the disappointing moments are the uncoded ones. Earlier, the mantis is fine, but the armies of the poor thud: the disjunction between spavined syntax and familiar figure brings the cliche zooming to the foreground. The later valentines, OK, but that "Blest ardent Celia" hoohah creeps me out as much as John Lennon's flat "Yoko and me: that's reality" or Lou Reed's shower-baritone "Syll-ILL-vee-ee-ee-uh!" Keep it in the bedroom, guys.
Zukofsky's music is incomparable: it's the sound of crabbedness folded back into itself so densely as to break through the floorboards into downstairs' lyric ceiling. When not biscotti, it feels undercooked. When not startlingly odd, it feels compromised.
Since Zukofsky was always going to seem excessive, he might as well skim and serve up the pure excess. Clotted cream: a springtime treat.
|. . . 2003-04-06|
I've written before (and will again) about our urge to subsume lyric in narrative.
Genealogical narrative is a way to co-opt even the most abstract work. It's more indirect a method of identification than some; still, the artist remains the point-of-view hero.
The utility of Leggott's book is not as crib sheet, reference, or propaganda. Direct application's not the point. What Leggott provides isn't an explanation but disproof (and liberation) by example.
By removing all proper names from "A" 22 and 23, Zukofsky said that he was trying to convey the "noise" of history. As Leggott demonstrates, that's not a reversible process. Putting the proper names back in doesn't make it less noisy; it just makes the room more crowded. (And two hard-boiled eggs!)
She spends sixteen pages on the first 40-word song -- a dozen or so pages on many others.... And having shown just how far that gets us, Leggott leaves me satisfied to give up.
Whether as a goal or as a side-effect that contented him, Zukofsky was determined that his heart us invisibly thyme time would stay invisible. And he did his job: it will, no matter how much thyme time we apply.
But the odd thing is how, over these hundreds of pages, any lingering sense of frustration or disappointment is worn away. As we vicariously live through Leggott's months of flipping between notebooks, manuscripts, the ten-volume Century Dictionary, a Shakespeare concordance, the Burpee seed catalog, the Loeb Library, the Zukofsky library, "A", and All, we participate in a renewed echo, in a resemblance fit to join the very resemblances she's documenting: the plagiarising Renaissance naturalist, the classical transcriber of hearsay, and the transplanted bookish New York retiree scrabbling in the soil to figure what bulb the hell just sprouted. A transtemporal community of focused potterers, joined in vegetable contemplation.
Our identification becomes non-narrative and experiential -- in other words, lyric.
Zukofsky was smart to call his country retirement project 80 Flowers instead of 80 Sunday Double Acrostic Solutions. The title plants it straightforwardly in the tradition of anthologies anonymized, fragmented, winnowed, condensed, abstracted, arranged, but alive.
Here in his final work, by sheer dint of artificial wordiness, he created something as opaque as the material natural: organic but not subjective; inhuman, cultivated, fragile; blossoms which may invite, to the inquiring or ambitious mind, explanation or replication, but which remain intractibly themselves.
"That central privacy, a silence where words leave off (and flowers bloom?) is unassailable...."
- Michele J. Leggott
|. . . 2003-04-16|
|Hotsy:||... and that's how I learned to stop worrying and love 80 Flowers.|
|Totsy:||A pretty story. As pretty a pastoral as alienation from labor might hope to produce.|
|T.:||You've dropped us off at our departure point, since "difficult" writers typically insist that any perceived difficulty is a product of the reader's own depraved refusal of surface pleasures.|
|T.:||And so Leggott's 400 pages finally consummated your espousal? Filled you with the Holy Spirit where you'd emptily professed before?|
|H.:||Oddly put, but OK....|
|T.:||How many pages of Finnegans Wake criticism, geneaological and researched, have you read over the decades?|
|H.:||At least a thousand, I expect. Maybe two.|
|T.:||Then why haven't they set up a similar chemical action in your soul? As Fritz Senn wrote, the Wake is more often opened to support theories about the Wake than for actual reading. Why, for you as for most Joyceans, does the Wake remain more gestured toward and dipped into than engaged with?|
|H.:||The apparent problem is structural, but the structural mystery is due to mysteries of scale and genre. If the Wake was a short lyric rather than an enormous novel, I doubt we'd stumble so. No one has trouble justifying whatever few pages they choose to read aloud.|
|T.:||Then they give up and go to dinner.|
|H.:||Ulysses had shaken off its own early defenders with its structural stylistic shifts, and Joyce's more clued-in contemporary defenders must've thought they were prepared for anything when Work in Progress began serialization. Anything except more of the same. And more.|
|H.:||At first, early readers were bewildered and excited; as ensuing chapters stayed true to the initial groove, bewilderment won out. In Ulysses, Joyce's gigantism lifted the characters onto its shoulders and stayed within giant-arm's length of a conventional naturalistic narrative. The Wake instead offers us a microcosmic zoom across a panascopic pan. Who has the time?|
|T.:||It makes me want dinner just thinking about it.|
|H.:||Maybe it's just a question of finding the right context for the scale. One typed page of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" could easily be incorporated in narrative or lyric* literature. Four hundred pages of it would become conceptual art instead. How could one approach a 275-hour Stan Brakhage film? As wallpaper?|
|T.:||The Wake might make wonderful background music. Like at dinner.|
|H.:||Or maybe it's just lack of a framing analogy as richly supportive as "flowers" is. I read "A" 22 and 23 more easily than Finnegans Wake but still not with quite the ungrudging pleasure I now take in the 80.|
|T.:||What, "dream of a dead peeping-tom innkeeper" doesn't grab you? I pitched the concept to Schumacher and he green-lighted it ASAP. Anyway, I still think you're full of shit.|
|H.:||Et in Arcadia est.|
|*||A sample stanza (53 of 60) from Jackson Mac Low's "Converging Stanzas":
|. . . 2003-11-20|
Understands he chapter 4?
He understands not chapter 4.
He has could understand chapter 4.
Canning understand chapter 4.
He wanted to can understand.
He will can understand.
He can music.
I see from a teasing PDF-only abstract-only that Lightfoot has also tackled the Libertarian question:
He suggests that we replace it with a process of cliticization, "which captures the desirable effects of government and unifies 'government' phenomena with many other phenomena." Sounds kind of utopian to me, but he's the doctor!
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.