scenes from the writing life: the silent estate of louis zukofsky

"I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature . . ."

[Zuk_alone1.jpg] 

Don’t quote me

 

In any alphabet of modern American poets (Ashbery, Bishop, Creeley … ), Louis Zukofsky (1907- 78) conveniently fills twenty-sixth place. He is less well-known than contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth, or even his friend Lorine Niedecker, who has benefited from "a posthumous boom in her reputation", according to David Lehman’s recent Oxford Book of American Poetry. No boom has sounded in Zukofsky studies, and none will do so in the near future, if the poet’s son has his way. Paul Zukofsky, who administers the author’s estate, has posted a "Copyright Notice" on an independent website devoted to his father’s work:

 

People have been misled into thinking that, in terms of quoting LZ, they may do what they want, and do not have to worry about me. These people are then suddenly faced with the reality of an irascible, recalcitrant MOl, and are confronted with the very real prospect of years of work potentially down the tubes.

 

He wants scholars and critics to know that he is planting "an obvious ‘do not trespass ‘sign where LZ aficionados may see it". He has no desire to cultivate interest in his father’s poetry, the most prominent example of which is the long poem "A", which occupied fifty years of Zukofsky’s life. "I urge you to not work on Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not", Paul writes. "You will be more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish your work. I do not."

 

Should you insist, you and Paul may "more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand". Otherwise, "remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers". As for those (like us) who believe that the "fair use" clause in copyright law permits reasonable quotation for critical purposes, be warned. "I promise to do my utmost to hamper, hinder, and preferably prevent all quotation."

 

The TLS is one of the few mainstream journals in the English-speaking world to have paid critical heed to Zukofsky, an allegedly "difficult" poet. In the issue of September 7, 2007, Marjorie Perloff reviewed a biography by Mark Scroggins. Needless to say, she quoted all she needed to qualify her well-informed argument. Would Zukofsky have enjoyed the serious attention devoted to his poetry? Probably yes. Does Paul? No.

 

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature … but one line you may not cross, ie, never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity.

 

You wouldn’t want that. You could, alternatively, calm your nerves by reading Zukofsky. We recommend the charming "To My Wash-stand", included in Mr Lehman’s Oxford Book.


—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009

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