55 Poems (1941)

The publication of LZ’s first book of poetry was a rather belated affair, as 55 Poems collects the pre-1935 poetry, other than the movements of “A”, that he wanted to preserve. The seemingly innocuous title obscures the organizational conception of the volume, which in fact includes 61 poems (counting “‘Mantis’” and its “Interpretation” as one). The structure of the volume is quite clearly laid out in the original table of contents:

                    Poem beginning “The” (1926)
                   29 poems (1923-1931)
                   29 songs (1931-1934)
                   “Further than” — (1935)
                   “Mantis” (1934)

This neat plan into which asymmetries are introduced will be typical of LZ throughout his life. 55 Poems is framed by the two major poems, “Poem beginning ‘The’” and “‘Mantis,’” which are intended to define an initial stage in LZ’s career. Despite their distinction as “poems” and “songs” the two groups of shorter poems are determined by composition dates rather than genre. “‘Further than’—,” which strictly speaking falls outside either grouping, is the only poem written after “‘Mantis.’” 

LZ appended a somewhat puzzling terminal note (CSP 73) to 55 Poems pointing out that “Song 29” mentions that he had written only 23 of the intended 29 songs by the 29 Jan. 1933 deadline he had set himself, which at the time he believed to be his 29th birthday (see note to “Song 29 N.Y.”). Apparently 29 also dictated the number to be selected from his pre-1930 short poems as the “29 Poems.” Although he wrote the remaining six “songs” during 1933 and early 1934 and included them in the volume, he says he did not count these for the title 55 Poems. However, even leaving out these six songs, the number 55 assumes the inclusion of “‘Mantis’” and “‘Further than’—,” which were written during the year following his 29th birthday.

As far back as August 1930, LZ asked his friend René Taupin to make a selection of 50 out of a batch of 161 poems, to which would be added “Poem beginning ‘The'” and the first seven movements of “A” to make a volume. LZ expressed enthusiasm for Taupin’s selection, but it is impossible to judge the degree Taupin’s selection determined the eventual contents of 55 Poems or, more specifically, what became “29 Poems” (see letters dated 23 Aug. and 24 Oct. 1930 held at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana). Later it was hoped 55 Poems would be brought out by the Objectivist Press but that operation required each volume to be self-funded (except for the initial Collected Poems of WCW), and LZ simply could not afford the costs in the midst of the Depression. 


7          [Persian epigraph]: this is a ruba‘i in the original Persian by Omar Khayyám (1048-1123). The epigraph was hand-written by Basil Bunting. In an undated but almost certainly 1941 letter to Lorine Niedecker, when 55 Poems was in production, LZ explains: “One day in Rapallo [in August 1933], B. said he always connected that stanza, never Englished by Fitzgerald, with me, + wd. like to see it opening a book of mine. Since he may no longer be alive, I suppose it’s even more true of me – + no one’ll guess the Persian anyway. Not a word from B. yet.” Bunting apparently provided the following translation: “We cannot speak out as many of the world’s secrets as are in our ledger. It would bring calamity upon us. Because there is not, amongst these learned people, one with sense, not everything that is in our mind can be uttered.” The Persian text reads from right to left, with Omar Khayyám’s name at the lower left. Bunting sent the Persian text with a letter dated 30 Aug. 1933 that includes a phonetic transcription (HRC 21.5). The notes add a reference to Rosen No. 11, referring to the edition by the German Orientalist, Friedrich Rosen (HRC 13.1?). 

In All, this Persian epigraph is printed on a page facing the title and notes for “Poem beginning ‘The,’” which has lead some commentators to mistakenly assume that the epigraph belongs with this poem rather than to the entire volume of 55 Poems, as LZ intended.