Ariel Resnikoff: Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht, A Test of Jewish American Modernist Poetics, Part One

With special reference to Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” [Procession Three]

Left, Louis Zukofsky c. 1940; Right, Mikhl Likht, c. 1936
Left, Louis Zukofsky c. 1940; Right, Mikhl Likht, c. 1936

[EDITOR'S NOTE.  To say again what I’ve been driving at in previous postings, the attempt here is to bring into the open a remarkable Yiddish-American poet whose master work, Processions, accompanies & may even prefigure the long-poem experiments of English language masters like Pound, Williams, & Zukofsky, with all of whom he was in contact.  If so that might in itself suggest a rethinking of experimental American modernism & open the possibility of a multilingual history of twentieth-century American poetry.  The groundwork here has been initiated by Ariel Resnikoff, in the form of a recent thesis in Jewish Studies, “‘Double Exposures’: Poetics of Resistance and Acculturation in the works of Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht,” at the University of Oxford, from which the present excerpt is taken.  A complete translation of Processions by Resnikoff and Stephen Ross is currently in the works.

Otherwise earlier postings regarding Likht can be found here & here & here on Poems and Poetics. (J.R.).]

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.

Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” which he published at the age of twenty-two in the literary journal, Exile, does more than allude to The Waste Land—it openly challenges it. As the young poet writes to Pound in 1930: ‘“The’ was a direct reply to The Waste Land…intended to tell him why spiritually speaking, a wimpus was still possible and might even bear fruit of another generation.” The poem begins its “direct reply” from the dedication: “Because I have had occasion to remember quote, paraphrase, I dedicate this poem to Anyone and Anything I have unjustifiably forgotten. Also to J.S. Bach—309…”  Yet, as John Tomas notes, “This is a dedication in name only”; what follows is an assortment of notes to the intertextual references included in the body of the poem. These notes are eclectic, ranging from “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History—248” and “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—310” to “Modern Advertising—163,” “Mussolini—74” and “Myself—130”.  Zukofsky’s glosses take a deliberate and aggressive jab at The Waste Land. Where Eliot includes footnotes at the end of his poem, which (beyond any rhetorical significance) appear to be functional and sincere, Zukofsky’s notes are impractical and absurd: they are ordered alphabetically (not in the order that they appear in the text), and precede the poem. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes that this act of inserting “the end beforehand” begins the poem “in a scandalous formal pun on Jewish ‘backwardness’ (whether the non-acceptance of Jesus as messiah or the insistence upon Moses seeing only the backside of God, Exodus 33:23)”.  Additionally, Zukofsky’s “end beforehand” is entirely nonhierarchical, noting “Henry James—2nd Movement” next to “Title, Jewish Folk Song—191” in a gesture that overtly undermines Eliot’s brand of high literary tradition.

“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 wrecks
                7  Creating out of the dead, —
                ……………………………………

               10  Books from the stony heart, flames rapping
                                the stone,
                11  Residue of self-exiled men
                12  By the Tyrrhenian.
                13                              Paris.   

Citing Canto IX of The Inferno in 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 New York, these English modernists produce “[r]esidue of self-exiled men” from “the Tyrrenian” and “Paris.” They have divorced themselves from the world deliberately, a sin Zukofsky can neither comprehend nor forgive. He is particularly critical of Eliot, asking, “And why if the waste land has been explored, travelled over, circumscribed,/ Are there only wrathless skeletons exhumed new planted in its sacred wood…[?]”. Eliot’s quest for a viable Western culture within “the waste land” of modernity has generated nothing more than a collection of recycled relics to be reburied in his “sacred wood.” Zukofsky does not deny the existence of a “waste land” in the first movement of “Poem Beginning ‘The,”’ but, rather, submits that it is the modernists themselves, as self-exiles, who have conjured this modern nightmare: “And the dream ending—Dalloway! Dalloway—/ 53 The blind portals opening, and I awoke!”

Zukofsky’s “exile,” on the other hand, is imposed from without, allowing him a perspective on the potential of modern culture that is much clearer than Eliot’s and the other Anglophone modernists. Like “… Spinoza grinding lenses, Rabbaisi” Zukofsky intends to offer a credible alternative to the “Broken Earth-face” of English modernism in his poem at any cost.

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 Columbia University, his alma mater. “163 Drop in at Askforaclassic, Inc.,” he writes,

                 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
                                      Plato’s Philo.               

                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 Columbia, 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.

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
                                                mushrooms,
                 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 leiden mach ich
                                    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.

 [Continued here]