1928, rev. 19 July 1942 / An “Objectivists” Anthology (1932); Pagany 3.3 (Summer 1932)

For the revisions to the text, almost entirely deletions, see Textual Notes

1.1        A: in later years, when asked, LZ always insisted that the title of “A” was simply the first word of the poem, thus the quotation marks (see SL 260, 272). Also he sometimes pointed out that A traces back to the Hebrew aleph, meaning ox-head, so the quotation marks are the two horns. Among the various obvious significances of this initial “A”, a is the note sounded to which all instruments of the orchestra are tuned. Although the rest of the early movements do not begin with “a,” LZ seems to have decided quite early to move from “a” to “an” in the second half of the poem; in the event, the “an” movements begin with “A”-14 and all subsequent movements begin with an/an- (see 12 Dec. 1930 letter to EP in EP/LZ 80). Also relevant is that “A” was conceived as a follow-up to LZ’s first major poem, “Poem beginning ‘The'” (EP/LZ 79; see next note) and in this regard one might consider his well-known later statement about the importance of words such as “a” and “the” (Prep+ 10). LZ included quotation marks in a number of his titles, such as “‘Mantis,'” as well as italics, but even scholars have been erratic in respecting these details. Some of the more speculative rationales for the title are Ron Silliman’s suggestion that this refers to the baseball team, the Philadelphia A’s, see The New Sentence (1989): 128, but see also Richard Parker, “‘A’ and the A’s: Louis Zuko’v’sky goes West,” Textual Practice 26.6 (2012): 1065-1080; and Craig Dworkin’s suggestion that is was suggested by a major coffee dealer based in Brooklyn, Ehlers, whose packaging prominently promised: GRADE “A” COFFEE, in Dictionary Poetics (2020): 49-50..

1.2        Bach: the contemporary setting of the opening of “A”-1 is a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion) that LZ attended at Carnegie Hall in NYC on Thursday, 5 April 1928 (1.21-25), the eve of Good Friday and also the second evening of Passover (see 3.32). This contemporary performance is paralleled by the work’s initial performance conducted by Bach himself on Good Friday, 15 April 1729 in Leipzig (current scholarship puts the probable first performance in 1727). Although LZ’s primary source of information on Bach was Charles Sanford Terry’s scholarly biography, in this case the information on the original performance of St. Matthew Passion in “A”-1 appears to have come from the program notes of the performance LZ heard.
            In the brief Foreword to the publication of “A” 1-12 (1959), LZ states: “‘A’ / a poem of a life / —and a time. The poem will continue thru 24 movements, its last words still to be lived. Bach is a theme all thru it, the music first heard in 1928 affecting the recurrences of changes as may be of the story or history” (Prep+ 228; see also Contributor’s note to An “Objectivists” Anthology). CZ claimed (“Commemorative Evening” 25) that the genesis of “A”-1 was in a letter describing the performance to WCW, who was unable to attend with LZ; the letter apparently has not survived, but see WCW’s letters in WCW/LZ 4-5, which LZ recalls in his 1958 “A Citation” to WCW (Prep+ 46). In a 12 Dec. 1930 letter to EP, LZ states that “A”-1 developed directly out of line 309 of “Poem beginning ‘The’”—“Our God immortal such Life as is our God”—which is itself quoted from LZ’s uncollected poem “For a Thing by Bach” written in 1925 (EP/LZ 79).

1.3        Come, ye daughters, share my anguish: this and the following italicized lines in “A”-1 through “A”-7 are from a translation of the libretto of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; the version LZ quotes here and through the first seven movements is evidently from the program notes of the performance he attended at Carnegie Hall, although there appear to be various versions of the same basic translation and there is no guarantee that following quotations are the precise ones he used. St. Matthew Passion required a double choir that alternately sing these opening lines in culminating antiphonal mode (No.1 Chorus and Chorale):
Come, ye Daughters, share my anguish,
See him! Whom?
The Bridegroom see;
See him? How? So like a lamb;
See it? What? His love untold!
Look! Look where? Our guilt behold!
Look on Him, betrayed and sold,
On the cruel cross to languish.
O Lamb of God, most holy,
The bitter Cross undergoing,
O Saviour meek and lowly,
Despite and scorn only knowing,
Else were we left despairing.
On us have mercy, O Jesus!

1.10      Black full dress of the audience: the conductor of the Carnegie Hall performance, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, “had requested plain dark dress and a silent reception of the masterpiece” as reported in the New York Times on 6 April 1928 (Scroggins, Poetry 196).

1.19      twenty–two / children: a slight exaggeration. In his two marriages, Bach had 20 children in all, only half surviving to adulthood; at the time of the first performance of St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig (assuming the 1729 date), Bach would have had seven surviving children and six who had already died.

1.21      The Passion According to Matthew, / Composed…: see 1.2.

2.2        (Heart turned to Thee): from Bach, St. Matthew Passion, the concluding No. 68 Chorus:
Double Chorus: Around thy tomb here sit we weeping,
Hearts turned to thee, O Saviour blest:
Rest thee softly, softly rest.
Long, ye weary limbs, lie sleeping.
This cold stone above thy head
Shall to many a careworn conscience
Be a sweet refreshing pillow;
Here the soul finds peaceful bed.
Closed in bliss divine
Slumber now the weary eyes.

2.3        I, too, was born in Arcadia: the original printings of “A”-1, in An “Objectivists” Anthology and Pagany (both 1932), give this motto in German, “Auch ich war in Arkadien geboren,” and it is probable the this is directly or indirectly indebted to Goethe, who famously used a shortened form (Auch ich in Arkadien) as the epigraph for his Italian Journey, or to Friedrich Schiller previously used it in his well-known poem, “Resignation.” Corman points out that Henry Adams quotes the full version of this motto in German in an 18 Nov. 1903 letter to Henry James (“Z Gambit” 87), without mentioning any source as if it is simply a common saying. Goethe’s use of this phrase is unironic, as is undoubtedly also the case with the German speaker in “A”-1, since it alludes to his sense of reinvigoration on encountering classical cultural remains in Italy. However, this motto was originally in Latin from the Renaissance period, Et in Arcadia ego (Even I was in Arcadia), which is a memento mori, that is, even Death exists in Arcadia. In this sense, the motto appears in a number of major paintings, most famously by Nicolas Poussin, who, however, shifted the emphasis and interpretation toward its less moralistic and more elegiac sense. Erwin Panofsky wrote a famous essay on the history and shifting meanings of this motto in “Et in Arcadia ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition” (1936).

2.8        Ecdysis: shedding of skin by snakes or insects; here punning with “exit” and perhaps “ecstasy.”

2.10      chamfer: a flat surface formed by cutting off the edge or corner; or a furrow or groove as in a column. So here the beveled edge of steps whose shoulder would be the bit that sticks out. Apparently there were no marbled steps in Carnegie Hall then or since, so possibly referring here to red carpet (Richard Parker, personal communication).

2.15      Desire longing for perfection: Cf. 6.24.23 and LZ’s definition of “an objective” in the “Objectivists” issue of Poetry (Feb. 1931); see Prep+ 12/191. This formulation is informed by Spinoza for whom perfection is identical with an entity’s reality or realization as defined by its nature (see quotations at 6.24.23).

2.16      And as one who under stars / Spits across the sand dunes…: Cf. WCW, Spring and All (1923), which LZ always considered WCW finest work: “Thus / the movies are a moral force / Nightly the crowds / with the closeness and / universality of sand / witness the self spittle / which used to be drowned / in innocence and intoned / over by the supple-jointed / imagination of inoffensiveness […]” (Collected Poems I, 214).

2.21      “Camel” smoke: Camel is a well-known brand of cigarettes; LZ was a life-long smoker. Ahearn suggests (42) that the famous image on the cigarette packet of a camel against a background of a pyramids, palm trees and desert refers back to the previous stanza’s mention of “sand dunes.”

3.3        Thomas Hardy: British novelist and poet, died 11 Jan. 1928; he originally studied to be an architect. 

3.5        Sherry-Netherland: luxury NYC hotel on 5th Avenue at 59th Street, opened in 1927.

3.13      Chirping quatrain on quatrain; / And the sonneteers…: the poets LZ has in mind here through the rest of this passage can be reasonably identified as the major groups of conservative modernists, who were at the height of their influence on contemporary American poetry at the time: the poets “Down East” (generally speaking, refers to New England) would include Robert Frost, those of the “Middle West” would include Carl Sandburg and other mid-west poets associated with Poetry magazine, and those of the “West coast” would include Robinson Jeffers and Yvor Winters. All those poets are at least mentioned dismissively and sometimes analyzed in the original version of LZ’s “American Poetry 1920-1930,” published in The Symposium in Jan. 1931; these more negative and polemical comments were edited out of the essay for collection in Prepositions (1967). Edna St. Vincent Millay would be a good candidate as one of the sonneteers LZ has in mind, although there are quite a few other possibilities, such as Merrill Moore. 

3.16      holluschickies: young male fur seals (<Russian, meaning bachelors), in other words, those that may be legally killed for their fur.

3.18      “mélange adultère de tout”: Fr. adulterous medley of everything. A famous phrase from Tristan Corbière (1845-1875), the poem “Épitaphe pour Tristan-Joachim-Edouard Corbière, Philosophe: Épave, Mort-Né,” which was also used as the title of a French poem by T.S. Eliot included in Poems (1920).

3.23      Who sang of women raped by horses: according to Cid Corman, a reference to Robinson Jeffers (“Z Gambit” 77); in any case, a reference to the Greek mythological subject matter of the Centaurs’ attempted rape at the wedding of the Lapiths (see 6.35.21).

3.24      elevated: or the El; the local train on raised rails that used to be common in NYC.

3.27      Pennsylvania miners: the bitter Rossiter coal strike in Indiana county, southwest Pennsylvania lasted from April 1927 to August 1928. Strikers were treated with extreme brutality by mining company police and were subject to a notoriously heavy-handed legal injunction by Judge Jonathan Langham, which prohibited any actions on behalf of the strike and even forbade the singing of hymns in the church situated just opposite the mine. Media reports of this injunction brought the strike to national attention and gained the strikers wide-spread sympathy. The plight of the strikers was furthered highlighted by the visit of a Congressional committee headed by Senator Robert Wagner in late Feb. 1928, which sharply questioned the legality of the injunction, although no effective action was taken against it (thanks to Kenneth Sherwood). 

3.29      Carat: Mike Gold (1893-1967) communist writer associated with a number of major left journals, in particular New Masses, which he co-founded in 1926 and then served as chief editor from 1928-1934. A proponent of proletariat literature, he wrote perhaps its best-known example, the autobiographical novel, Jews Without Money (1930). Born Irwin Granich, Gold grew up on the same street as LZ in the Lower East Side of NYC, which he vividly recalls in his novel.

3.32      It was also Passover…: 5 April 1928, when LZ attended the performance of St. Matthew Passion, was the second evening of Passover (thanks to Samuel Whitehill).

4.13      “There are different techniques…: from EP, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony (1924): “[Henry] Lawes’ work is an example of how the words of a poem may be set, and enhanced by music. There are different techniques in poetry; men write to be read, or spoken, or declaimed, or rhapsodized; and quite differently to be sung”; see EP and Music 271 (Ahearn 44). See headnote to “A”-7. In the earlier printed text of “A”-1, EP is more directly identified in the text as “Atheling,” EP’s pseudonym as a music critic, a selection of which was included in Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony; see Textual Notes. 

4.17      “I heard him agonizing…: from WCW, A Voyage to Pagany (1928) in a chapter on Bach in which the autobiographical narrator describes a performance of St. Matthew Passion he attended in Vienna in 1924: “Funny old figure he must have been going across the street having generated another child in the night. Over to the old organ loft. Something uncanny about it. —Dev [the novel’s autobiographical protagonist] was concerned. A light—coming, I saw him, I heard him and not like a man on the street. I heard him agonizing. I saw him inside, not cold but he lived and I was possessed by his passion” (179-180) (Ahearn 45). Also qtd. 17.377.12-13 and Prep+ 53; the latter is in a review of WCW’s novel written in 1928 and originally published as a “Postscript” to “Henry Adams” (Prep+ 51-53).

4.19      “Everything which / We really are…: from E.E. Cummings, the play Him (1927) Act III, scene v: the character Him is narrating a dream within which he describes a moment of absolute contact with another: “I can’t describe it—a shyness, more shy than you can ever imagine, a shyness cohabiting very easily and very skillfully everything which we really are and everything which we never quite live” (120). The same quotation, but without being designated as such, appears in LZ’s review of Cummings’ play in The Exile 4 (Autumn 1928); see Prep+ 84-85 (original title of essay was “Mr. Cummings and the Delectable Mountains”). In the earlier printed text of “A”-1, Cummings is more directly identifed as “Estlang,” which seems to be a misspelling or mishearing of his middle name, Estlin. 

4.24      Cold stone above Thy head…: from J.S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion; the first line and a half is taken from the concluding No. 68 Chorus around Jesus’ tomb (see 2.2), while what follows appears to be a conflation of No. 67 Recitative, immediately preceding the previous, and No. 26 Recitative, which is the moment when Jesus finds his disciples asleep at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40f); the latter is more clearly referred to in the original printing of “A”-1, before LZ revised it.
[No. 67 Recitative:]
And now the Lord to rest is laid,
His task is o’er, for all our sins he hath atoned.
O weary broken body! See!
With repentant tears we would bedew it.
Which our offence to such a death has brought.
My soul shall bless thee all my days with thousand thanks.

4.29      liveforever: common name for various plants, but LZ almost certainly has in mind the genus Sempervivum (L. always living), specifically Sempervivum tectorum or common houseleek (Leggott 148). These are succulents that grow in rosettes with rows of thick leaves around a clear center. Leggott examines in detail the recurring appearance of liveforever in many of the movements of “A” and extending to related or alternative image-terms, such as everlasting, a literal translation of the genus’ Latin name (144-164), see note at 2.7.19. For other appearances of liveforever, see 2.7.8 & 19, 7.40.18, 7.41.24, 12.142.25 & 237.22, 15.359.13 and then the closely related “live here ever” at 22.508.14.

5.6        Ready to give up the ghost in a cellar: Cf. Shakespeare, Hamlet I.v.171-173:

             Hamlet: Ah, ha, boy! sayst thou so? Art thou there, true-penny?
Come on,—you hear this fellow in the cellar-age,—
Consent to swear.

5.11      ‘Production exceeds demand…:

5.12      Wobblies: members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary industrial union.

5.15      great Magnus: LZ identifies this as Magnus W. Alexander (1870-1932), an American engineer, business leader and first president (1916-1932) of the National Industrial Conference Board, a pro-business research and lobbying group. LZ worked for the NICB from Oct. 1927-March 1928 (SL 276). Etymologically, magnus < L. = great. It seems likely that LZ was attracted by the aptness of the name rather than recording incidents he actually witnessed—in fact the age given at 5.22 does not tally since Alexander apparently died at 62. Presumably this is the same Magnus or type as appears in “A”-6.28.10-13 and 30.13-14.  

5.15      confrères: Fr. colleagues, associates.

5.19      “We ran ’em in chain gangs…:

5.27      Ye lightnings, ye thunders / In clouds are ye vanished? / Open, O fierce flaming pit!”: from St. Matthew Passion, No. 27b Chorus; at the moment of Jesus’ arrest:
Ye lightnings, ye thunders
     in clouds are ye vanished?
Then open, O fierce flaming pit, all thy terrors
Engulf them, devour them,
     destroy them, o’erwhelm them
In wrathfullest mood.