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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Two. Stevens’ Poetic Legacy across the Atlantic

Parents “in the French Sense”: Stevens and Louis Zukofsky

Xavier Kalck

Texte intégral

I am moved by the fact—as I would wish it in my own work— that his music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized.
— Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions+

  • 1 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 27

1Looking for possible connections between Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky might seem rather far-fetched, yet several critics have already paid close attention to the lecture Zukofsky gave in 1971 as part of the Eighth Annual Wallace Stevens Memorial Program at the University of Connecticut. They have wondered what appealed to Zukofsky so much in Stevens’ work that he not only declared he needed to “set right” his former neglect of Stevens but felt his writing “was closer to [Stevens’] than to that of any of his contemporaries in the last half century of life [they] shared together.”1 Critics have zoomed in on these claims for different reasons, but with a common purpose: the lecture provides them with a splendid opportunity to discuss the limitations of the so-called Stevens-versus-Pound division in twentieth-century American poetry; and, because Zukofsky’s essay “For Wallace Stevens” is also his last piece of critical prose, it sheds a unique light on Zukofsky’s own poetics.

  • 2 A. Golding, “The ‘Community of Elements’ in Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky,” p. 127.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 126.
  • 4 M. Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, p. 264.
  • 5 P. M. Campbell, “The Comedian as the Letter Z: Reading Zukofsky Reading Stevens Reading Zukofsky,” (...)

2According to Alan Golding, who was the first to consider the connection in 1985, it was Zukofsky’s own “identification of sound and meaning”2 that allowed him to overcome his original “distaste for what many readers value in Stevens, his philosophizing,” and focus instead on “diction and music.”3 In 1992, Mark Scroggins suggested that Zukofsky was interested in Stevens mainly for the latter’s epiphanic mode, as very early in his lecture Zukofsky quoted both “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” and “The Lack of Repose” in full. In these poems, Scroggins wrote, “the act of reading is figured as an epiphanic moment in which the reader loses consciousness of both time and identity.”4 Later, P. Michael Campbell found that “Zukofsky’s poetics most clearly intersect with Stevens’s” when they tackle the problem of abstraction, writing that “both go to great lengths to reveal the essentially figurative nature of language.”5 Campbell suggests that a tactic common to both poets in making the reader aware of the poem’s figurative nature is the use of humor, nonsense, and an overall playfulness that tests the epistemological limits of language. However, since the comparison is entirely Zukofsky’s doing, critics have mostly paid attention to his use of Stevens, less to what we might learn about Stevens in the process. With a view to complementing these different perspectives and fleshing out the allusive parallels drawn by Zukofsky between his poetry and Stevens’, this chapter will provide an extended close reading of two specific items: Stevens’ poem “The Lack of Repose,” which features as the point of entry into Zukofsky’s lecture, and, at the close, Zukofsky’s short comparative anthology of his and Stevens’ work.

  • 6 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 26-27.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 24.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 25.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 25.

3Zukofsky’s two selected poems from Transport to Summer are meant as self-sufficient explanations, and have understandably often been read as such. But the bulk of Zukofsky’s argument comes immediately after he has quoted “The Lack of Repose,” a poem said to intend “an instant certainty of the words of a poem bringing at least two persons and then maybe many persons, even peoples together.”6 This exemplifies the “feeling of duration” Zukofsky speaks of when he describes “the contingency of one poet reading another.”7 Commenting on the time he spent reading Stevens to prepare for his talk, he writes that he experienced an “indefinite continuance of existence.”8 Further down, Zukofsky goes on to explain that “it does not matter whether the reader is the book or the book is the reader or if the grandfather is the forbear of the grandson or the grandson the forbear of his grandfather.”9 Still, no practical method is ever proposed to help us recognize this “instant certainty of the words” that is supposed to bring about the union of readers and texts into a single simultaneous composition, experience, or indeed existence—beyond the direct example of Stevens’ poems. Zukofsky’s evidence is specifically made up of “a few lines” that he notes are “frequently anthologized,”10 and that he presents in a heavily truncated version:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 25-26.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The words were spoken as if there was no book, ...
The quiet...
The access of perfection to the page.
... the reader leaning late and reading there.11 

  • 12 Ibid., p. 26.

4Zukofsky goes on with what he calls “a variant of the same idea”12 and reads “The Lack of Repose.” The variation may nonetheless prove more substantial than Zukofsky acknowledges. His editing of Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet” makes the poem even more ideational than it already is, which he may have intended to stress the undeniable connections between the two poems, yet the specific color and full detail of “The Lack of Repose” stand in sharp contrast to the previous poem. Most strikingly, “The Lack of Repose” fleshes out through fiction the more abstract situation sketched in “The House Was Quiet.” Definite and absolute, “the book” becomes “a book,” while the overall timeframe moves from “the summer night” that is “a perfection of thought” (CPP, 312) to “mid-day,” which is explicitly “not midnight” (CPP, 269), and to the staging of an imperfect, if perfecting, thought process.

  • 13 C. Altieri, “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract, or What a Poet Can Learn from Painting,” p. 113.

5When we compare the two poems in more detail, other important differences appear as well. For instance, if we look at the occurrences of the adverbs “there” in the two poems’ last stanzas, we notice that in “The House Was Quiet,” “there” refers to “the book” as it is read presently, the performance being emphasized by the gerund—even though we read earlier that “The words were spoken as if there was no book” (CPP, 312). In “The Lack of Repose,” however, not only does the phrase “to have put there / A few sounds of meaning” suspend the finite nature of the operation, but because of the two contradictory statements that frame the poem, caught between “a book you have never written” and “not yet to have written a book” (CPP, 269), the poem’s central never-not-yet conundrum makes that demonstrative adverb much more evasive. Therefore, if in “to have put there / A few sounds of meaning,” “there” points back to the poem or book of poems, it does so without pointing to a solid point of reference. As the two titles suggest—the presence of quiet and calm, on the one hand, versus the lack of repose, on the other—the change is a substantial one. Even if this lack eventually proves beneficial, and not the sign of some insufficiency, the discrepancies between the two poems are intriguing, though they share common characteristics with other poems about reading, like “Large Red Man Reading,” in which, as Charles Altieri writes, “Stevens adds […] a remarkable level of self-reference—not of the poet to his own act, but of the reader directed to use his experience as the concrete evidence for the poem’s claims.”13 However, in “Large Red Man Reading,” the act of reading causes figures and expression to take on “color,” to assume “shape and the size of things as they are” and to speak “the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked” (CPP, 365), whereas in “The Lack of Repose” it is repose—that is, freedom from feeling—that is found lacking.

6“Repose” is by no means a rare word in Stevens’ poetry. In “Credences of Summer,” we witness

the visible rock, the audible,
The brilliant mercy of a sure repose,
On this present ground, the vividest repose,
Things certain sustaining us in certainty.
CPP, 324

7In “A Primitive like an Orb,” we read of

a principle or, it may be,
The meditation of a principle,
Or else an inherent order active to be
Itself, a nature to its natives all
Beneficence, a repose, utmost repose […].
CPP, 379

8Thus, if repose seems to be available or possible elsewhere in Stevens’ poetry, what endangers it in “The Lack of Repose”?

9If we consider the three instances of disclosure in “The Lack of Repose,” we see that the poem paints a very troubled picture of repose, far from the immediate associations the word might evoke as a variation on “compose” in the sense of “to put together” and “to put to rest.” Early on in the first stanza, “the words” are said to “reveal themselves” but it is unclear to whom. The young man reacts by blankly “Staring” at their “secretions”—a secret seminal production in which he does not seem to take any active part. In the second stanza he is a “well-disclosed” young gentleman— “one of the gang”—yet in spite of a conspicuously presidential American ancestry, “Andrew Jackson Something” is without a surname. Distinction quickly gives way to confusion, as an indistinct “voice,” assimilated to “a cloud,” only “mumbles” (CPP, 269). In Stevens’ earlier poem, “The Reader,” there was already “a voice […] mumbling” that accompanied the reading (CPP, 118).

10If, as Stevens writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” “the first idea was not to shape the clouds / In imitation. The clouds preceded us” (CPP, 331), and if “Clouds are pedagogues” (CPP, 332), then their lesson is unclear. Finally, in the penultimate stanza of “The Lack of Repose,” when the text evokes “intense disclosures,” these are the products of the belief—not the fact—that “One understands […].” Yet even that understanding is short-lived, since the last stanza offers but a humble, unspecified, and transient comfort: “A few sounds of meaning,” whose power is “momentary.” In the shadow of “an understanding compounded by death // And the associations beyond death, even if only / Time” (CPP, 269), this sobering reassurance does not alter the poem’s general outlook. The indefinite “few sounds of meaning” here seem quite far from such lines as can be found in “Credences of Summer,” in which we hear

last choirs, last sounds
With nothing else compounded, carried full,
Pure rhetoric of a language without words.

Things stop in that direction and since they stop
The direction stops and we accept what is
As good.
CPP, 323-324

11The echo is as remarkable as the distance that separates these statements.

12So what did Zukofsky find appealing in Stevens’ lines? We know he was always fascinated by generational overlaps. In his speech, Zukofsky also references “Credences of Summer,” which contains a rephrasing of “good” into “a good”: this turns the poem into a type of object—one of Zukofsky’s preoccupations from the start. As for Stevens’ “sounds of meaning,” they would presumably be read by him as “the meanings of sounds.” Stevens’ own praise of sound work, at the close of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” as “a final good” offers multiple points of comparison with Zukofsky’s well-known emphasis on phonemic over semantic value, down to the use of “round” (CPP, 350) by Stevens, a word which opens Zukofsky’s “A.”

  • 14 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 13.
  • 15 E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 188.

13Still, Zukofsky’s frequently quoted definition of the poem as a well-balanced “rested totality”14 does not exactly fit Stevens’ “Lack of Repose.” Stevens’ own preoccupations harken back to Ideas of Order (1936) and Stevens’ poem “The American Sublime,” which considers how “General Jackson / Posed for his statue” (CPP, 106). In Parts of a World (1942), Stevens also insists—in “Add This to Rhetoric”—that “The sense creates the pose,” because “It is posed and it is posed. / But in nature it merely grows” (CPP, 182-183). The issue, I would argue, is that Stevens is hoping to strike a balance, as he composes, between repose and pose—between achieving a definite or final “rested” form and adopting a position for effect, or between a quality akin to harmony, quite literally including a promise of assumption if we think of the repose of the Virgin Mary, and the skillful laying down of words. The young man sitting at a table, an image of Stevens’ “fictive man” from “Paisant Chronicle” (CPP, 294), may also be related to Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square discussed at length in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” As “Andrew Jackson Something,” his lack of a specific surname hints at Stevens’ belief that “The major abstraction is the commonal” (CPP, 336), while figuratively this nameless young man calls to mind the riderless horse from “Farewell Without a Guitar” (CPP, 462) that reads as “a metaphor for not possessing a metaphor. It represents nothing of itself and without a rider is bereft of significance.”15 He could thus embody Stevens’ idea of the poet who “knows perfectly that he cannot be too noble a rider, that he cannot rise up loftily in helmet and armor on a horse of imposing bronze” (CPP, 657), or he will resemble the “great statue of the General Du Puy”: “a bit absurd” and “rubbish in the end” (CPP, 338). The tension between the perfection of repose and the need to depose false creations like so many despots of the mind becomes visible in the figure of the young man in the poem. Like the philosopher in “The Role of the Idea in Poetry,” who is determined to philosophize “perhaps by his father’s ghost,” he is torn, Hamlet-like, between the proclamations of “the patriarchs / Of truth,” “masters of // The chant and discourse there,” and their becoming but “forms” around which “day settles and thickens,” signs of “A time existing after much time has passed” (CPP, 457).

14 What repose will reveal, thereby bringing a measure of resolution to the dilemma, is disclosed “by a parent in the French sense” (CPP, 269). By asking his reader to understand the word “parent” to mean relative as well as parent, Stevens opens up his poem in several different ways. Until that line, his poem can be said to follow a trajectory that doubles back on itself, since it is structured around a relationship between a young man and his grandfather, which in the last stanza replaces lineage with likeness, as the grandfather becomes an image of the young man, or vice versa. The connection between genealogy and self-portrait is also explicitly French in Stevens’ “Dutch Graves in Bucks County,” which uses Baudelaire’s address to the reader, this time in the plural, “you, my semblables” (CPP, 258), as a refrain to address his ancestors. But in “The Lack of Repose,” while the connection includes fictional, literary ancestry, it does not seem to allow any substantial or even recognizable heritage to be passed down beyond these “few sounds of meaning,” unless there is a specific French relative that Stevens had in mind, such as Pascal, whom Stevens discusses at length in “Imagination as Value.”

  • 16 B. Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, p. 46.

15As Pascal famously wrote, in spite of our “secret instinct […] that happiness lies only in repose, not frantic activity,” we will “seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders.”16 The reason why repose eludes us lies in the parent meaning of repose, as in the repose of death, and our discomfort when confronted with that thought. With that parentage in mind, however, the text does intensely disclose how a single condition affects the poem and ourselves. A pose, one of the obsolete meanings of which happens to be a cold, or catarrh—perhaps that constant “secretion of the words”—suggests all at once an affliction and an affectation that intimations of the cold repose of death promise to put to rest. Stevens does not solve Pascal’s dilemma, epitomized in a choice between battles and boredom, so much as he crucially adds to it a fleeting measure of repose in yet another sense, as if reading could give us pause—that pause we can wedge between the repose we seek and the repose we fear.

16In his essay, Stevens quotes Pascal’s last words as he asked to receive communion on his deathbed, clinging, as Stevens puts it, “to what he himself had called the delusive faculty”: “the sort of thing that was the object of Pascal’s ridicule and that was, to his way of thinking, an evil, or something of an evil, becomes to our way of thinking a potent good” (CPP, 725). One may wonder whether this final “good” is in fact the sign of a possible salvation or only the word for an indefinite artefact. The final words of “The Lack of Repose,” “a good,” as in a thing, also allow for another reading of the sentence in the previous stanza: “What a thing it is to believe that / One understands […].” One understands, one believes, a thing or in a thing of words.

  • 17 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 37.

17On a very similar note, Zukofsky’s cross-section of poems by Stevens and himself is meant to illustrate this very idea of the poem as a “momentary end,” as the place of the lack of repose, as a transitory place, through special emphasis on linguistic transit, that is, on translation as the form and the performance of transience. Several general remarks can be made about Zukofsky’s selection, which encompasses Stevens’ whole career, from Harmonium to The Rock, but includes only Zukofsky’s later period, from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The selection does not come across as immediately significant in itself, except in two instances: four out of the six poems by Stevens feature non-English words in key places—an important fact since Zukofsky’s selection from his own work is made up of translations in the same proportion; in both groups of poems, moreover, time seems to be a prominent theme, often through parent-child relationships. Translation is indeed a notion that might help us make sense of the dichotomy between repose and activity discussed by Pascal, since a translation, no matter how authoritative, can never be definitive. Even time, in terms of memory and inheritance, could be literalized as a kind of translating: conspicuously foreign words or dead languages symbolize a generational journey in time and space, a migration, that the poem captures. Zukofsky read the two series of six poems separately but said that “the sequence of Stevens’ poems suggest [ed] an antiphonal sequence”17 in his own, so that if we look at each pair, a pattern should appear. The procedure is similar to that of Zukofsky’s comparative anthology, A Test of Poetry, which also included a poem by Stevens. I will focus only on the possible connections between these texts, which would each require far more individual care than I can give them here.

  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 359-360.

18The first pair combines “From the Misery of Don Joost” and the “‘An’ song beginning ‘A’–15: (An hinny... hide any).”18 It draws a parallel between the storm in Stevens’ poem and the whirlwind in Zukofsky’s free phonetic transliteration from the Hebrew of the Book of Job. Stevens’ repeated conclusion is that “The old animal”—both “my body” and “the very self of the storm / Of sun and slaves, breeding and death”— “Knows nothing more” (CPP, 38). Zukofsky’s abbreviated rendering of Job’s lament as a Babel-like confused speech also does not differentiate between man’s words and the words of the storm. In other words, Don Joost’s quixotic jousting, as many have noted, is its own reward, much as Zukofsky’s mock-complaint seeks no comfort outside its own song, for it too knows nothing more. The iconoclastic refrain in Zukofsky’s lines— “Why yammer?”19—which most often translates the Hebrew “vayomar” ( “he said” or “he prayed”), in one of Zukofsky’s typically humorous adaptations of the original, keeps hammering away at the same idea.

  • 20 L. Zukofsky, Complete Short Poetry, p. 259.

19We pick up almost where we left off with the next two poems, Stevens’ “Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun” and poem 31 from Zukofsky’s Catullus. In Stevens’ poem, we experience “gaiety,” “laughter,” “agreement,” and “surprise,” once we have redefined for ourselves “the labor of thought” (CPP, 225); in Zukofsky’s Catullus translation, we must unburden ourselves of “the mind’s onus” before we may “laugh” again.20 Both poems describe a coming home, or a coming into one’s own, which is celebrated by a song of joy, and which is, to a certain extent, also performed by a joyful singing. Stevens’ play on the verb “be” and the consonant b in a trajectory that reads as “be,” “being,” “bright,” and “belief” is what allows us to “pronounce joy like a word of our own.” When Stevens speaks of “A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing” (CPP, 225), that being has become onomatopoeic.

  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Ibid.

20To achieve that particular articulation of “the exactest element for us,” we need to access, according to Stevens, the “bright scienza outside of ourselves” (CPP, 225). In addition to this reference to Vico’s New Science, Stevens’ Italian, and earlier in the poem his Spanish, like Catullus’ Latin, all suggest a necessary detour through the “peregrin / labors,”21 as Zukofsky transliterates, which translate as the poet’s occupation: to work with the familiar strangeness of language, within a linguistic community of which, in Stevens’ words, we “are a part” and in which “we feel, in a way apart.” Stevens’ repeated paronomasia here in “element” and “moment” evokes the music of that ambivalence, the transient stability of the meaning of words. Needless to say, Zukofsky’s own poetic labor proceeds from a similar bright science, exactly defined in Stevens’ line as “erudite in happiness, with nothing learned” (CPP, 225). Zukofsky’s last line, “redoubt, laugh! what what’s homey crackling every room,”22 for the original “ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum,” is a splendid technical illustration of that happy erudition. Yet the line should not be read only as a technical achievement but also, like the poem itself, as a return home, as if English could become the diasporic home Zukofsky makes it.

  • 23 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 473.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 474.
  • 25 Ibid.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 473.

21The third comparison is between Stevens’ “Extraordinary References” and a passage from Zukofsky’s “‘A’–21: Rudens III 6 (Voice off): (A concept... felicity).” At first, Stevens’ poem might appear to suit Zukofsky’s purpose almost too perfectly. Stevens’ concern for the ordinary, the interplay of voices, the combination of different genealogical threads through several proper names, all interwoven in the poem’s three ribbons, attest to the explicitly composite nature of the text as a metaphor for the self. Once again, Zukofsky quotes from one of his translations, here from a play by Plautus, but the text he chooses, from one of the asides (indicated as “Voice off”) is Zukofsky’s own addition, although it is also threaded with quotations culled from various sources. Here Zukofsky appropriates several statements from Spinoza, for instance about man’s fallible character ( “for no man is so / watchful he never falls asleep23), which also reads in this case as an acknowledgment of mortality, or about the limited malleability of man’s nature, through the image of a table that cannot be made to eat grass, now rewritten to apply to God and the tables of his law. Paradoxically enough, Zukofsky’s sampling of otherwise cryptic quotations always tries to balance the importance and limitations of exegesis. Indeed, his third rewritten quotation from Spinoza— “there cannot be too much / music”24— can be understood both as a plea for an always plentiful supply of exegetical material (such as that quotation itself) and as a reminder that these materials are there above all else for the sake of the music, not so much for the sake of sense. Yet the method is not at stake; what matters is its purpose. For instance, it might be tempting to consider Zukofsky’s declension of the word “rote”25 in his poem and call this an “extraordinary reference.” From the homophonic rendition of “wrote” to the various meanings of the word (repetition, memorizing, the stringed musical instrument also known as rota or rotta, down to the rare meaning of rote as the sound of surf on the shore) that are all interwoven in Zukofsky’s lines, it seems the word could be called, after Stevens’ poem, Zukofsky’s own ribbon. However, I would argue that the key element that drew Zukofsky to Stevens’ poem is his use of the word “eulogy,” echoed in Zukofsky’s lines that speak of capturing in language a “life escaped”26—even though the life that has escaped is also the life of words, if their past meanings can be conceived as their past lives.

22Some twenty years before “A”-21 was written, Zukofsky offered the following definition of poetry in an essay addressed to his son:

  • 27 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 3.

Poetry if anything has a sense for everything. Meaning: without poetry life would have little present. To write poems is not enough if they do not keep the life that has gone. To write poems may never seem enough when they speak of a life that has gone. The poet may visibly stop writing, but secretly measures himself against each word of poetry ever written.27

  • 28 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 474.

23Packing words with as much etymological or historical meaning as Zukofsky does here reveals to the reader the life captured in the poem. Such is poetry’s present, its gift of timeliness and timelessness that brings such felicity, writing “dayed” for “Dated,”28 in a way that is not so dissimilar from Stevens’ motif of breathing past or beyond death into the ear of the silent child in “Extraordinary References,” when he plays on word associations of his own in breath, hair, air, heir, leaving but a hairbreadth between those variations.

  • 29 M. Scroggins, op. cit., p. 268.

24So far, we have established that we need not know more than we can hear and that therein lies joy, to which we can now add that therein also lies our sense of time—how we treasure and measure it. The fourth pair, made up of Stevens’ “The Planet on the Table” and a page from Zukofsky’s massive quotation-based prose work, Bottom: On Shakespeare, “part 3: ‘Continents, ’ pp. 155-6: (oū tópos... the secret studies),” somewhat destabilizes this interpretation by underscoring the artifice of the materials at hand. Zukofsky’s text borrows Stevens’ persona, Ariel, and offers a mix of quotations from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Book of Isaiah, where Ariel is the name for the city of Jerusalem29, which allows Zukofsky to bring together Ariel’s deliverance, achieved when Prospero drowns his book, and Isaiah’s prophecy of deliverance. Such ambivalence is also visible in Stevens, where “his poems” are both substantial achievements, “makings of his self” or “of the sun,” and disappearing traces, “lineament or character” of a world that is no more. As if words on the page were allegories of actors in a play, Stevens writes, it is “not important that they survive,” adding nonetheless that even “if only half-perceived,” they must be representative “Of the planet of which they were part” (CPP, 450). Yet the planet on the table is but a linguistic creation that takes place on the mind’s stage—a utopia, as Zukofsky points out. As with the name Ariel, even proper nouns have no single property.

  • 30 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 508

25By contrast, the fifth selection, which brings together “Puella Parvula” and “‘An’ song beginning ‘A’22: (An ear... initial),” fleshes out the poet’s mastery over language as the power to name. Stevens’ taming of creation through poetic taxonomy to make room for the telling of “the human tale” (CPP, 390), mirrored in Zukofsky’s gematria, each word “a sum owed”30 in his own “summarium in excelsis” (CPP, 390), asserts the poet’s prerogatives when permuting letters or mutating images, as well as the poet’s total command of time—in Stevens’ performative “Puella” or Zukofsky’s time centrifuge.

  • 31 See P. M. Campbell, op. cit., p. 183.
  • 32 L. Zukofsky, Collected Fiction, p. 119.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 119-120.

26For his last example from Stevens’s work, Zukofsky explicitly returns to sound work in poetry. By calling on Stevens’ “Song of Fixed Accord,” Zukofsky prepares for the paradox his short anthology is meant to exemplify: namely, that sound, instead of being a destabilizing, if productive, force in the poem that helps to create meaning, can also be a stabilizing power that is instrumental in achieving harmony. Sound as what disturbs the expected accord, what disrupts language’s conformity to consensus, is also what the poet uses to fix, restore, and adjust the song’s final immutable proportions, like Stevens’ onomatopoeic French31 (the “Rou-cou” from “Song of Fixed Accord”; CPP, 441), which is completely integrated into the poem’s phonetic realizations of the vowel /o/ in English. The passage from Zukofsky’s prose fiction Little presents us with a child reading his father’s exercise in “Welshing”32—that is, transliterating from a late sixth-century Welsh poet—which is not meant to be mysterious or difficult, as he quickly makes clear. Often “charged with obscurity,” like Stevens with being enigmatic, Zukofsky dismisses the matter by asking his listeners—not his readers—to be careful, again, not to want to know more “than the words say,”33 that is, more than the words sound. With the picture of a child reading his father’s poem, derived from an older text, we have returned to the scene of “The Lack of Repose,” and its conclusion that those “few sounds of meaning” are enough to end “the complication” (CPP, 269).


1 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 27

2 A. Golding, “The ‘Community of Elements’ in Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky,” p. 127.

3 Ibid., p. 126.

4 M. Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, p. 264.

5 P. M. Campbell, “The Comedian as the Letter Z: Reading Zukofsky Reading Stevens Reading Zukofsky,” p. 178-179.

6 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 26-27.

7 Ibid., p. 24.

8 Ibid., p. 25.

9 Ibid., p. 27.

10 Ibid., p. 25.

11 Ibid., p. 25-26.

12 Ibid., p. 26.

13 C. Altieri, “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract, or What a Poet Can Learn from Painting,” p. 113.

14 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 13.

15 E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 188.

16 B. Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, p. 46.

17 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 37.

18 Ibid.

19 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 359-360.

20 L. Zukofsky, Complete Short Poetry, p. 259.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 473.

24 Ibid., p. 474.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 473.

27 L. Zukofsky, Prepositions+, p. 3.

28 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 474.

29 M. Scroggins, op. cit., p. 268.

30 L. Zukofsky, “A,” p. 508

31 See P. M. Campbell, op. cit., p. 183.

32 L. Zukofsky, Collected Fiction, p. 119.

33 Ibid., p. 119-120.


Lectures in American Literature and Translation Studies at Université Paris-Sorbonne. He edited a collection of poems by the British poet Anthony Barnett, Miscanthus (Shearsman, 2005), and is the author of Muted Strings: Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (PUF, 2015) and the forthcoming George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace (Peter Lang).

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