The career of Louis Zukofsky (1904–1978) has been overlooked by all but the most fervent students of American poetry, a situation that legendary house New Directions hopes to correct with its double-barreled publication of Zukosky's book-length epic "A" and Anew, a somewhat less menacing companion volume of shorter poems. To call Zukofsky an acquired taste would be an understatement; an 826-page opus of remarkable density, "A" has long held a shadowy legendary status as a stark obelisk of high modernism, the verse equivalent of Finnegan's Wake. The poems collected in Anew are accessible only by comparison, and represent a body of work that, taken alone, would qualify Zukofsky as a major figure in American modernism.
While Anew shows a progression of experimentation as a kind of running dialogue with Eliot, Pound, and Williams, all of whom were Zukofsky's peers, "A" is unlike anything else this reader, who has been studying and analyzing poetry in academic and professional contexts for over a quarter century, has ever encountered. The self-contained poetic universe of "A," Zukofsky's life's work, spans five decades of American life and contains a dizzying array of prosodic techniques, from torrential free verse to rigorous rhymed stanzas to terse minimalist tone sketches, including long passages written in a rolling, beautiful, and archaic-sounding imaginary Renaissance language of Zukofsky's own invention. In other sections it ruthlessly breaks language down into the smallest units of sound possible, a process as radically inventive as that practiced by any subsequent, and more celebrated, avant-garde; it is rife with puns, spoonerisms, homophones, double-entendres, and other forms of wordplay; it is formidably allusive, conducting a thematic conversation with the mental and aesthetic achievements of Bach, Marx, Henry Adams, Shakespeare, Vico, Spinoza, classical theology, quantum physics, and many other artists and fields; it includes soaring passages depicting the Great Depression, World War II, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War alongside sequences of great domestic and connubial tenderness.
Perhaps most radically of all, the staggering scope and range of Zukofsky's great poem demand a redefinition of the act of reading. Unless you are a doctoral candidate in English literature or other specialist, there is no practical way to attack "A" except to surrender to it, riding its relentless and incantatory language in a kind of mental surfing. Such surrender is not easy to achieve or to sustain, but this vast and genuinely unique piece of writing repays the patience and willingness necessary to enter a trance-like state of receptiveness with a vivid and hallucinatory literary experience.
In reading Zukofsky I kept thinking of Jonathan Franzen's celebrated 2002 essay "Mr. Difficult." Franzen understands—better than any of his peers, I think—the strange, almost masochistic, joy of reading challenging literature, of "a kind of penance" that one engages "in a state of grim distraction, like somebody going out to score hard drugs." Immersing oneself in the work of this humble, nearly anonymous man, dead now three decades, carries the same potent, slow kick—for those who dare.