Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Torture-rooms of the living idiom

I've just received my copy of Mark Scroggins' book on Louis Zukofsky, The Poem of a Life, and though I've only read a few chapters - it is a gratifyingly large volume - I can already say that it's one of the best-written and well-designed books on poetry I've come across. It is lucid, heartfelt yet with the decency of critical distance, and useful. I've found myself especially and unexpectedly moved by LZ's years in the Lower East Side. Thinking of Zuk as a boy being taunted - pennies thrown at him - to recite Hiawatha in Yiddish puts a whole new spin on Dana Gioia's revaluation of Longfellow, to say the least. Imagining LZ as an early aficionado of Shakespeare and Aeschylus, among others, by way of Yiddish theatre isn't surprising, but almost impossible to imagine. And then, as Scroggins puts it, "Whatever mastery of Yiddish Zukofsky had gained... he would gradually lose over the many decades in which he established himself as a speaker, teacher, and writer of English." Above all, LZ's contemplation of Henry James's 1905 visit to the Lower East Side, as recounted in The American Scene, which Z. read in 1946 with great sympathy, is poignant beyond belief. Zuk felt that James's visit was "beneficent," despite the latter's judgment that the cafes of the Lower East Side were "torture-rooms of the living idiom." It sheds new and overdue light on Zukofsky's life's work to see him contemplating James's pronouncement that "The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of humanity... but whatever else we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English--in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure." The extent to which Zukofsky helped create a new sort of literary measure becomes clearer than ever on reading Scroggins' fascinating biography.

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