|Louis Zukofsky, circa 1940|
A Modernist idiom…became, not an arbitrary overlay upon some purely Jewish consciousness, but rather the most effective means to explore what happened to that consciousness when it was immersed in the acids of American heterogeneity … (Burton Hatlen, “Objectivism in Context,” in Sagetrieb, 1994)
Zukofsky and Likht arrived at a Jewish American modernist poetics from opposite sides of the language spectrum. Their respective choices embody a widespread linguistic fissure which emerged between immigrant and first-generation American Jews during the first half of the twentieth century. The sociocultural implications of this fissure greatly influenced both writers and helped shape the poetry they produced. Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ (1926) and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” (Procession Three, 1925) represent powerful expressions of each writer’s stake in the question of what a Jewish American culture should look like, and how the Jewish American writer should function within it. Both poems respond, in many ways, to Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which, according to subsequent critics, communicated its author’s vision of the modern Anglo-American/European cultural condition. Yet, whereas Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ satirizes Eliot’s“master” modernist poem in an attempt to conceal what Charles Bernstein calls the“fault line for high culture” which this work established, Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” echoes The Waste Land’s bereaved tone by mourning the deterioration of a Jewish literary tradition as pure as that of Anglo-American/European literature. Zukofsky’s and Likht’s Jewish American modernist poetics clash in these two poems over a basic question of opposing linguistic orientations: while Zukofsky’s poetics rally for an English language literature inclusive enough to incorporate a Jewish American cultural experience, Likht’s poetics insist on a Yiddish language literature exclusive enough to stand on equal footing with Anglo-American high modernism.
“Poem Beginning ‘The”’ is written in six movements in the style of a tone poem. The first movement, subtitled “And out of olde bokes, in good feith” (a reference to the proem of Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls”) surveys the English modernist literary canon with allusions to various works by D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Norman Douglas, and T.S. Eliot, among others. Zukofsky represents these modernist writers as:
6 Residue of Oedipus-faced wrecks7 Creating out of the dead, —
10 Books from the stony heart, flames rapping
11 Residue of self-exiled men
12 By the Tyrrhenian.
Citing Canto IX of The Infernoin line 10, Zukofsky accuses the English modernists of a heresy comparable to that of Dante’s heretics, who are “imprisoned in stony sepulchers and subjected to eternal fire” (Tomas). Yet the heretical behavior of these “Oedipus-faced wrecks” is less religious than cultural; while Zukofsky struggles to find traction for his Jewish creative output in
The five movements that follow take up this cause, facing its consequences head-on. In the fourth movement Zukofsky brings his revolt to the gates of
, his alma mater. “163 Drop in at Askforaclassic, Inc.,” he writes, Columbia University
164 Get yourself another century
165 A little frost before sundown
166 It’s the times don’chewknow,
167 And if you’re a Jewish boy, then be your
168 Engprof, thy lecture were to me
169 Like those roast flitches of red boar…
“Askforaclassic, Inc” refers to the Great Books method of instruction at
, which Professor John Erksine had introduced a few years before Zukofsky’s arrival at the university. Zukofsky parodies Erksine’s method by using low “Modern Advertising” lingo; yet he clearly feels strongly about the Great Books ideal at Columbia, which make “a Jewish boy” into “Plato’s Philo.” The classics of Latin and Greek antiquity, he suggests, which Erksine adopted as the standard source texts for Columbia’s English Literature program, leave no room for a Jewish American student’s own literary history. The Jewish American student must give up his distinct cultural narrative, digesting the standardized English literary tradition“[l]ike those roast flitches of red boar” [where “flitch” = bacon]. Zukofsky rebukes Erksine, the Columbia University “Engprof” and his Great Books method, equating his literary philosophy with Eliot: “Professor,” he writes “from the backseats which/ 182 Are no man’s land!” The “waste land”—“the no man’s land”—is not something which high Anglo-American culture has discovered, Zukofsky suggests, but, rather, something it has created. Columbia
The final two movements of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ provide a glimpse into a new English literary tradition which is as Jewish as it is American and opposes the high modernist “waste land” and the Columbia University English literature classroom. In these movements Zukofsky“sets out to reclaim his distinctively Jewish Yiddish heritage,” writes Tomas. His aim “is to expand Western tradition by opening it to another type of epic”.This is a mongrelized epic—a Jewish adoption of Anglo-American/European tradition “but with a difference, of mimicry, deformation” (DuPlessis). Zukofsky constructs this mongrel Jewish epic, in part, by embedding classic Yiddish and English literary allusions alongside each other within his poem. At the start of the fifth movement he writes:
186 Speaking about epics, mother,187 How long ago is it since you gathered
188 Gathered mushrooms while you mayed.
190 A stove burns like a full moon in a desert night.
191 Un in hoyze is kalt…
“Gathered mushrooms while you mayed,” parodies Robert Herrick’s well known, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,” while the Yiddish, “Un in hoyze is kalt” (and in the house it is cold), alludes to a “Jewish Folk Song,” which Hannah Wirth-Nesher identifies as Mark Varshavski’s (1848-1907) celebrated “Oyfn pripetshik.” Zukofksy’s English/Yiddish collage technique gives weight to Jewish American cultural claims by “speaking about epics” which “fall out of the purview of those like Erksine” (Tomas) and Eliot, and open English literary tradition to a non Anglo-American/European majority narrative. He lays out the requisites for this new narrative at the close of the fifth movement. “Assimilation is not hard,”he writes:
252 And once the Faith’s askew
253 I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.
254 I’ll read their Donne as mine,
255 And leopard in their spots
256 I’ll do what says their Coleridge,
257 Twist red hot pokers into knots.
258 The villainy they teach me I will execute
259 And it shall go hard with them,
260 For I’ll better the instruction,
261 Having learned, so to speak, in their colleges.
Zukofsky speaks through Shakespeare’s Shylock here, (“the villainy they teach me I will execute,/ and it shall go hard with them”) proposing an act of vengeance against the Anglo-American cultural institutions that have prompted him to abandon his Jewish heritage in order to“pass.” He has “learned, so to speak, in their colleges,” and now “look[s] Shagetz [gentile] just as much as Jew;” but, though he has changed his “spots” through assimilation, his Jewish cultural past remains with him. This cultural past provides him an opportunity as an English-language poet “to better the instruction,” that is, to plant new literary flowers, mongrel Jewish flowers, in the “long dry…sacred wood”.
Zukofsky ends his poem with an English translation of the Yiddish poet Yehoash’s “Oyf di khurves” (On the Ruins). This is not, however, a strict translation. As Harold Schimmel writes: “the late nineteenth century formula which appeared on Yiddish translations and adaptations, ‘Translated and Made Better’[in Yiddish: fartaytsht un farbesert”]…is valid for Zukofsky.” The most significant change Zukofsky makes to Yehoash’s poem is to shift the first person possessive singular (“mayn”/“my”) to the first person possessive plural (“undzer”/ “our”),making “the poem into a triumphant affirmation of the value of his tradition, and Zukofsky into a representative of a people” (Tomas). The final lines of“Poem Beginning ‘The”’ read:
315 I have not forgotten you mother—
316 It is a lie—Aus meinen grossen
mach ich leiden
die kleinen lieder,
317 Rather they are joy, against nothingness joy—
318 By the wrack we shall sing our Sun-song
319 Under our feet will crawl
320 The shadows of dead worlds,321 We shall open our arms wide,
322 Call out of pure might—
323 Sun, you great Sun, our Comrade,
324 From eternity to eternity we remain true to you
325 A myriad years we have been,
326 Myriad upon myriad shall be.
327 How wide our arms are,
328 How strong,
329 A myriad of years we have been,
330 Myriad upon myriad shall be.
In opposition to a poetics of suffering (Heine’s grossen leiden), Zukofsky’s Jewish American poetics are “against nothingness joy;” they “call out of pure might” and “open arms wide” to pull the Jewish American experience into English. Zukofsky’s translation and adaptation of Yehoash’s “ruins” (lines 318-330)contradicts the “ruins” of Eliot’s The Waste Land, which signal a fractured, irreparable past. Zukofsky’s “ruins”of the “myriad years” of history gesture instead to the “[m]yriad upon myriad [that] shall be.” “Poem Beginning ‘The’” concludes with an optimisitic look to the Jewish American future, a future that will communicate its Jewishness fluently (and fluidly) in English.