Louis Zukofsky

(1904 - 1978 / New York City's Lower East Side)

Biography of Louis Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky (January 23, 1904 – May 12, 1978) was an American poet. He was one of the founders and the primary theorist of the Objectivist group of poets and thus an important influence on subsequent generations of poets in America and abroad.
Zukofsky was born in New York City's Lower East Side to Lithuanian Jewish parents, father Pinchos (ca. 1860-1950) and mother Chana (1862–1927), both religiously orthodox, a tradition against which Zukofsky reacted early. Pinchos immigrated to the United States in 1898, working as a pants-presser and night watchman in New York’s garment district until he could send for his wife and children in 1903.
The only one of his siblings born in America, Louis Zukofsky grew up speaking Yiddish and frequented Yiddish theatres on the Bowery, where he saw works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Tolstoy performed in Yiddish translations. He read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in Yiddish, too. His first real contact with English was when he started school, but, being a fast learner, he had read all of Shakespeare's works in the original by the age of eleven.
Although Zukofsky’s family was poor, and though he could have gone to the City College of New York for free, his parents sent him to the expensive Columbia University where he studied philosophy and English; some of his teachers and peers were to become important figures of culture, namely Mark Van Doren, John Dewey, John Erskine and Lionel Trilling. Having failed to complete the institution's undergraduate physical education requirement, Zukofsky graduated with a M.A. in English in 1924.
Zukofsky's master's thesis was the earliest version of his long essay "Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography"; his fascination with Henry Adams was to persist through much of his career. Adams's late and rather recondite ideas about the progression of "phases" in history would greatly influence Zukofsky, and the form of his Adams essay, the vast majority of which is quotation from Adams's works, looks forward to Zukofsky's mature compositional methods in both criticism and poetry, where collaging of quotation lies at the heart of his writing.
Zukofsky began writing poetry at university and joined the college literary society, as well as publishing poems in student magazines like The Morningside. One early poem was published in Poetry but never reprinted by Zukofsky. He considered Ezra Pound the most important living poet of his youth. In 1927, he sent his poem Poem beginning "The" to him. Addressed mostly to the poet's mother, the poem was in part a 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 the new immigrants brought to the United States and in the October Revolution.
Pound was impressed by the poem and published it a year later in the journal Exile. Zukofsky further impressed Pound by writing the first analyses of Pound’s Cantos in 1929, when they were still unfinished. Pound then persuaded Harriet Monroe, Chicago founder of Poetry, to allow Zukofsky to edit a special issue for her in February 1931.
In 1934, Zukofsky got a research job with the Works Projects Administration (WPA), where he worked on the Index of American Design (a history of American material culture) until the project's dissolution in 1942. In 1933, he met Celia Thaew who he married six years later; their child, Paul Zukofsky (born in 1943), went on to become a prominent avant-garde violinist and conductor. Following brief stints as a substitute public school teacher and lab assistant at Brooklyn Technical High School in the aftermath of the WPA layoff, Zukofsky edited military-oriented textbooks and technical manuals at the Hazeltine Electronics Corporation (1943–44), the Jordanoff Corporation (1944–46), and the Techlit Corporation (1946–47) through the remainder of World War II and its immediate aftermath. In 1947, he took a job as an instructor in the English Department of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he retired at the rank of associate professor in 1965. A reticent teacher, Zukofsky (who was frequently denied the expected perquisites of raises, promotions, and sabbaticals) characterized many of his students as "kids... who cannot sit on their asses" and castigated the engineering majors who dominated the student body as "my plumbers"; nevertheless, he advised the university's poetry club and introduced the modicum of artistically inclined students to "then-obscure works of his friends Niedecker and Reznikoff."[1]
In October 1973, the Zukofskys moved from Brooklyn Heights (where they had resided for three decades) to Port Jefferson, New York, where he completed his magnum opus "A" and other works, most notably the highly compressed 80 Flowers (a sequence inspired by his wife's garden). When Zukofsky died there on May 12, 1978 he had published 49 books, including poetry, short fiction, and critical essays. He had won National Endowment for the Arts Grants in 1967 and 1968, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Grants in 1976, and an honorary doctorate from Bard College in 1977.
The difficulty of Zukofsky's later poetry alienated many critics and even some of his former friends. Zukofsky quarrelled bitterly with George Oppen after Oppen accused Zukofsky of using obscurity as a tactic. But the 1960s and 1970s also brought Zukofsky a degree of public recognition that he had never before received. The influential scholar Hugh Kenner became a close friend of Zukofsky and an advocate of his work. Such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley testified to Zukofsky's importance as the creator of daring experimental writing.

[Report Error]