Alpha Poet

Dan Chiasson in the New York Times:

Chiasson450Louis Zukofsky (1904-78) is the author of an enormous poem called simply “A,” an 800-plus-page work written over the course of more than 50 years in a mélange of styles and forms, from Poundian free verse to Italian canzoni. “A”-21 — the poem was composed of 24 parts, mirroring the hours of the day — translates an entire play by Plautus. “A”-24, the final section, is the score of a masque composed by Zukofsky’s wife, Celia. “The most hermetic poem in English,” a “long intent eccentric unread game,” was the critic Hugh Kenner’s judgment of “A,” and Kenner liked it.

Reading “A” is hard; in its time, even getting the chance to try was hard. Until 1979, a year after Zukofsky’s death, when it was finally published in its entirety, only privately printed partial editions circulated, including a beautiful “A” 1-12 set by the poetry impresario Cid Corman in Japan in an edition of 200. (You had to know Corman personally in order to be allowed to buy one.) Zukofsky, who like Joyce died of a perforated ulcer that had long caused him pain, would seem the very model of the cantankerous, obscure, even obscurantist modern poet.

“The Poem of a Life,” Mark Scroggins’s terrific new biography, never strays far from Zukofsky the poet.

More here.