A Test of Poetry (1948)

Commentary

Corman, Cid. The Practice of Poetry: Reconsiderations of Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry. Longhouse and Origin, 1998.

Creeley, Robert. “Foreword” to A Test of Poetry (2000): vii-x.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “A Test of Poetry and Conviction” (2004 Online).

Finkelstein, Norman. “Comparisons and Criteria: Testing the Test of Poetry (2004 Online).

Golding, Alan. “Louis Zukofsky and the Avant-Garde Textbook.” Chicago Review 55.3-4 (2010): 27-36.

Hamilton, Colleen J. “History as Medium, Media as History: Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry.” New Definitions of Lyric: Theory, Technology, and Culture. Ed. Mark Jeffreys (1998): 77-98.

Niedecker, Lorine. “A Review of Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry.” Capital Times (Madison, WI) 18 December 1948. Online.

 

The origins of this project go back to 1934 when LZ edited a never-published volume, A Workers Anthology, although most of the selections for that anthology were absorbed into A Test of Poetry (Scroggins Bio 146-148, see also DuPlessis Online). In letters to both EP and WCW, LZ indicates that he finished an initial version of A Test of Poetry by 1937 and the manuscript is dated 2 Aug. 1937, but he had no luck finding a publisher and continued to tinker with it until at least Oct. 1941 (see WCW/LZ 295). In the end the volume was self-published in 1948 at CZ’s instigation by the resurrected The Objectivist Press, designating the address of the press as the Zukofskys’ home at 30 Willow Street, Brooklyn. There were further revisions or additions at the final stage (see WCW/LZ 399), which included the incorporation of a passage from WCW, Paterson II (III.23a), one of LZ’s own poems (I.16c), as well as adaptations from Homer because of EP’s refusal to grant permission. Aside from EP’s version of Homer in Canto I and passages from “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (see WCW/LZ 397-398), LZ had also hoped to include three poems by Emily Dickinson, “To fill a gap“ (#546), “Revolution is the Pod” (#1082) and “It was not Saint” (#1092), but her estate demanded a $25 fee LZ was unwilling to pay (Penberthy 152-153, WCW/LZ 398)—two lines of the second Dickinson poem were incorporated into “A”-8.51.30-31. TP was republished in 1952 by Routlege & Kegan Paul (London), in 1964 by Jargon/Corinth Books, in 1980 by Celia Zukofsky (CZ Publications) and most recently by Wesleyan UP, 2000.

The final conception of TP clearly owes a good deal to EP’s ABC of Reading (1934), which introduces the section of “Exhibits” with the remark: “The ideal way to present the next section of this booklet would be to give the quotations WITHOUT any comment whatever. I am afraid that would be too revolutionary. […]” (95). TP reflects many of the same editorial views and selections as ABC of Reading, such as the emphasis on Renaissance translations of Latin classics (Gavin Douglas, Arthur Golding, Christopher Marlowe) or the inclusion of the relatively obscure sonnet by Mark Alexander Boyd. The following is a list of poems that LZ used and that appeared previously in ABC of Reading, although LZ often trimmed or added to EP’s specific selections from longer poems (references are first to TP by section number followed by page number in ABC): Chaucer (I.9b/111, II.9a/106, III.8a/112, III.9a/109), Gavin Douglas from Virgil (I.6a & II.6a/117), Mark Alexander Boyd (II.10a/134), Christopher Marlowe from Ovid (III.15b/135), John Donne (I.14a/137-138), Robert Herrick (II.16a/142), John Wilmot, Lord Rochester (II.17d/172), Samuel Butler (III.17b/160, 163), Alexander Pope (II.17a/168), George Crabbe (I.18a/176). In “A”-12.252.5-24, LZ quotes a sonnet by the Renaissance poet John Soowthern or Soothern that he considered including in A Test of Poetry

 

Notes to A Test of Poetry

 

For the most part the following notes indicate cross-references with other LZ works.

 

Part I

Epigraph: from Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Experimental Researches in Electricity (1844-1855); LZ owned the Everyman’s Library edition (1940) of these lectures, also qtd. in epigraph to Part III and in Bottom 205-206.

1c         For hell we launched…: this passage from Homer, Odyssey XI is adapted by LZ and continues in the following exhibit 2a. LZ used this version, somewhat abridged, in “A”-12.215.24-216.2, 218.6-8, 221.22-23 and 223.11-15. See also III.7b.

2a         And paid our respects…: see note at I.1c.

5a         Mentula: first line alluded to at “A”-8.50.9. Mentula means prick or cock. See “A”-18.390.21.

9b         love trouthe and . . wed thy folk: qtd. “A”-13.284.3.  

11b       When the sheriffe see gentel Robin wold shoote, held / Up both his hands: qtd. “A”-8.50.17.

12c       So distribution should undo excess: qtd. “A”-8.50.15.  

13a       Here the anthem doth commence…: this entire passage qtd. in Bottom 25-26 where it serves as a key text in the argument; also qtd. “A”-12.170.31-171.3, and alluded to in “A Keystone Comedy” (CF 186).

16c       Little wrists…: in CSP 114.

25b       Lollai, lollai, litil child, Whi wepistou so?: qtd. “A”-8.50.8.

 

Part II

Epigraphs: “. . . only the primarily beautiful and new (old: new) remaining”: apparently WCW wrote this as one of two  blurbs for 55 Poems, which LZ truncated: “An extraordinary sensitivity. Only the merely contemporary sloughed off and only the primary beautiful and new (old: new) remaining” (WCW/LZ 295, 399). “An Extraordinary Sensitivity” is the title of WCW’s review of 55 Poems published in Poetry in Sept. 1942 (Something to Say 129).
“You will find many pencil marks…: from 9 Dec. 1857 letter to John Tyndall.

1a-b      LZ juxtaposes the same passages in Bottom 352, although he does not quote Pope’s version of the Iliad.

5b         My voice is hoarse . . .: qtd. Bottom 355.

10a       LZ’s high judgment of this sonnet by Mark Alexander Boyd echoes that of EP in ABC of Reading (1934): “I suppose this is the most beautiful sonnet in the language, at any rate it has one nomination” (134) (Scroggins Bio 146).

11a       As ye came from the holy land / Of Walsinghame…: alluded to at “A”-12.131.8; phrases from last stanza qtd. Bottom 13 and Little (CF 147).
Note: St. Louis woman with her diamond ring / Leads her man round by her apron string: from W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues,” composed in 1914. There have been numerous recordings and variants of this song, but the precise version LZ quotes or remembers is uncertain. Bessie Smith recorded a particularly classic version accompanied by Louis Armstrong in 1925. 

12a       I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw…: qtd. Bottom 10, 91, 312.

14b       Things base and vile, holding no quantity…: qtd. Bottom 9, 16, 18, 19, 20 and “A”-12.132.6-8.

16b       Is this a fast…: partially incorporated into “A”-23.548.34-549.4.

19c       He’s but / A coof for a’ that: qtd. “A”-8.50.11 and 8.50.16.

24b       The white chickens of 24b…: part of the comment on WCW’s poem is incorporated into “A”-17.380.8-11.

25a       I spec it will be all ’fiscated. / De massa run, ha! ha! De darkey stay, ho! ho!: qtd. “A”-8.50.13.

 

Part III

Epigraph: from Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Experimental Researches in Electricity (see note Part I).

4a         (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing…: lines 3-4 qtd. Bottom 93.

5a         LZ used a phrase from the last line of the original Latin of this famous elegy for the title of the poem, “Atque in Perpetuum A.W.” (CSP 231).

7b        Tell me, Muse, of that man who got around…: LZ’s adaptation of the opening invocation of Homer, Odyssey is incorporated, somewhat abridged, into “A”-12.261.13-20.

10b       What is your substance…: this sonnet qtd. entire in Bottom 436-437.

13a       Green groweth the holly; so doth the ivy…: PZ wrote a variation on this poem that is incorporated into “A”-20.436.29-38.

14a       As virtuous men pass mildly away…: referred to in “An Objective” (Prep+ 18) and qtd. Bottom 166.

14b       begotten of Despair / Upon Impossibility…: these lines and also from the last stanza qtd. Bottom 187.

21c       And take upon’s . . / Who loses and who wins…: qtd. “A”-13.293.15, Bottom 312 and in “A Statement for Poetry” (Prep+ 22).

22a       To the dim light and the large circle of shade…: this sestina was the formal model for “‘Mantis’” (CSP 65-66), and LZ qtd. from it in “‘Mantis,’ An Interpretation” using a different translation by P.H. Wicksteed (CSP 69, 73).

23c       That day of wrath…: this poem, Dies Irae, mentioned in Bottom 411.

25a       Forty-leben days gone by…: LZ indicates that this is a “Negro Chain Gang Song,” collected by Lawrence Gellert, on the latter see notes below to A Workers Anthology.