Zukofsky and Williams
By Tom Sharp
(excerpted from The Objectivists)
The extent of the friendship and mutual influence of Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams is not sufficiently known. Williams’ autobiography records that the two were “good friends” but not that they read and criticized each other’s work with interest and a sense of common purpose from the day they met until Williams died. Critics fail to acknowledge the importance of Zukofsky and “Objectivism” to Williams and his work because they do not know the facts. Webster Schott, for example, fails to credit Zukofsky for editing The Descent of Winter for Pound’s Exile and A Novelette and Other Prose for the Oppens’ To Publishers.
Pound’s letter of 5 March 1928 suggested that Zukofsky meet Williams: “Re/ private life: Do go down an’ stir up ole Bill Willyums, 9 Ridge Rd. Rutherford (W. C. Williams M.D.) and tell him I tole you. He is still the best human value on my murkin. visiting list.” It also enlisted Zukofsky’s service as editor: “I shd. be inclined to print anything of Bill Wm’s that you picked out. Editing ought really to be done by the young (?? what/ d– age are you) not by the senile or even by the mature. -eh- save for the purpose of commerce.” Pound was 42; Williams, 44; Zukofsky, 23. Zukofsky responded to this on 20 March 1928 by noting that he had written Williams and Cummings and that, meaningfully, his previous letter to Pound, which crossed Pound’s in the mail, had expressed interest in meeting Williams.
Williams replied to Zukofsky on 23 March, beginning: “My dear Zukofsky: By ’human values’ I suppose Ezrie means that in his opinion I can’t write. Dammit, who can write, isolated as we all find ourselves and robbed of the natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments?” Apparently mistaking Zukofsky’s role as editor, Williams wrote: “So you are responsible for Exile now. Is that so?” Since Zukofsky came “with an introduction from my old friend,” Williams invited him to Rutherford “for a country meal and a talk.”
Zukofsky wrote that he could visit Saturday, but Williams countered on 28 March that he would “not be home this Saturday evening” but that he could meet Zukofsky “in the city” after “being interviewed — at five o’clock by some stranger.” The two met, then, on 1 April 1928. Williams remembered in his autobiography that “one day I met Louis Zukofsky in the city after I had been sketched for a caricature by a person named Hoffman. Louis and I became good friends.” This friendship brought Zukofsky to Rutherford in April, and repeatedly thereafter, affording, as Pound observed, “some pleasure and consolation” to them both.
The facts of William Carlos Williams’ life are well-known. He was born 17 September 1883. Although, as Mike Weaver wrote, “He was half English, one-quarter Basque, and one-quarter Jewish,” he is known for his insistence on the value of the American language and locale. Like Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Rakosi, his American values were not inherited; they were earned.
Williams met his life-long friend Ezra Pound while he was in medical school and Pound was in graduate school studying romance languages. Pound involved him in the free verse movement. His job as a general practitioner with specialties in pediatrics and obstetrics left him little time for his main passion, his writing. In 1928 he was feeling the lack of recognition that should normally come to a writer of his merit in middle age. He felt isolated. Attention from other writers more than flattered him; it provided the “natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments.”
Of the years following his return from Europe in 1924, he remembered:
These were the lush Republican years when money flourished like skunk cabbages in the swamps in April. . . .
Damn it, the phone ringing again. . . . That was Mr. Taylor who said excitedly, You never wrote a poem in your life, Doc. What you write is prose, like Shakespeare.
when Doc. K. was selling week-ends at two hundred dollars a shot, complete: liquor, keep and a woman guaranteed; and when stupidity had no measure.
Mr. Taylor’s stupidity makes his criticism into praise. Coolidge prosperity did not improve the intelligence or integrity of Williams’ contemporaries. “Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found.” In these years, Williams banged off his work between patients. “Then would come the trial. The poem would be submitted to some random editor, or otherwise meet its fate in the world. I would observe that fate and so come to judge the intelligence of my contemporaries.”
Zukofsky swiftly became Williams’ special editor and critic, extending the care taken between Williams’ creation and submission. His first visits left Williams with suggestions for cutting deadwood from his first novel, A Voyage to Pagany, which was in progress and would be published in September 1928. Williams wrote to Zukofsky on 17 May 1928: “What you had to say about the novel did me much good. I felt that you had hit on some very raw spots. Oh well, I can’t quite bring myself to throw the thing away though I wanted to do so after you had left.” And, on 25 June 1928, after working on it, Williams added that “the book looks about as presentable as I can make it. I cut out a lot about the Rhine! which should give you a special pleasure.”
Williams’ novel was based on his trip to Europe with his wife in 1924. When in Vienna, as he described it in Chapter XXVI, titled “Bach,” he attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Soon after their first meeting, Zukofsky invited Williams to attend with him a performance of the Passion at Carnegie Hall. Williams could not make it. His letter of regret on 2 April 1928 attested to the importance of this new friendship:
This has been a pleasure, the reading of your poem. You make me want to carry out deferred designs. Don’t take my theories too seriously. They are not for you–or for you, of course, or anybody.
I’d give my shirt to hear the Matthaus “Passion” this week, but I doubt if it can be done. If I do get there in spite of everything, I’ll cast an eye around for you.
But your work’s the thing. It encourages me in my designs. Makes me anxious to get at my notes and the things (thank God) which I did not tell the gentlemen. Thanks for the supper. As soon as work lightens a bit for me here in the suburbs, I want you to come out. I congratulate Pound on his luck in finding you. You are another nail in the –coffin. Damn fools.
It is likely that Williams and Zukofsky had read together “Poem beginning ’The,’” Zukofsky explaining its allusions and structure and Williams, as he suggested, extemporizing poetic theory. Already Williams had found Zukofsky to be a compatriot and perhaps a disciple in his struggle against the “damn fools” who did not accept the value of his work.
Zukofsky went to the Passion alone; “A”-1 is his reaction to the performance:
The Passion According to Matthew,
Composed seventeen twenty-nine,
Rendered at Carnegie Hall,
Thursday evening, the fifth of April.
“As a matter of fact,” Celia Zukofsky remembered, “the poem ‘A‘ started out as a letter to William Carlos Williams.” The Passion became one of the themes for this work, whose 24 movements took Zukofsky the next 46 years to complete:
of a life
—and a time
Bach is a theme all thru the poem, the music first heard in 1928 affecting the recurrences or changes as may be of the story or history.
Zukofsky referred in “A”-1 to A Voyage to Pagany directly and indirectly. The lines “I heard him agonizing, / I saw him inside” are unchanged from their occurrence at the end of “Bach” chapter, where they form the thought of Williams’ protagonist, Evans, after the performance in Vienna, and refer to Bach empathizing with Christ. Further, Zukofsky’s vision of Bach hurrying to church, “Ah, there’s the Kapellmeister / in a terrible hurry— / Johann Sebastian, twenty-two / children!” reflects Williams’: “Funny old figure he must have been going across the street after having generated another child in the night.”
Williams’ letter to Zukofsky on Easter expresses his feeling of direct relation between himself and Zukofsky:
I did not wish to be twenty years younger and surely I did not wish to be twenty years older. I was happy to find a link between myself and another wave of it. Sometimes one thinks the thing has died down. I believe that somehow you have benefited by my work. Not that you have even seen it fully but it proves to me (God Damn this machine) that the thing moves by a direct relationship between men from generation to generation. And that no matter how we may be ignored, maligned, left unnoticed, yet by doing straight-forward work we do somehow reach the right people.
Williams’ feeling is confirmed by a consideration of the importance of the two other topics in his letter in the history of their work and association. First, Williams expressed curiosity and regret, having missed the performance of the Matthew’s “Passion.” Such interest had already inspired the beginning of Zukofsky’s life’s work, “A”. Secondly, Williams claimed:
There must be an American magazine. As I have gotten older, I am less volatile over projects such as this (a magazine) less willing to say much but more determined to make a go of it finally—after I am 70 perhaps—. Perhaps it will crystalize soon.
Williams and Zukofsky continued in the years that followed to be interested in publishing the “straightforward work” which others ignored.
Williams was temporarily rescued from the need to begin a new magazine by a request from Pound that he help with the “Exile”. Williams responded on 16 April 1928:
Dear Ezra: Your present letter rescued me from an oozy hell. Your offer is generous. I hereby give up any thought of a new magazine. Within two weeks I’ll let you know what kind of material—what kind of impetus it is that has been stirring in me. If you feel impelled to give me a whole number of Exile when you have the material in hand, well and good. But I’ll be content with as much space as comes my way.
But it is a delight to me to feel a possible bond of workmanship being exercised between us today. Damn it, why don’t–why didn’t I seek you sooner? Exile is a good venture; let me from now on really throw my energy into it—not for my name or for myself in any way, but just to do it. I’ll do it. For a year at least I’ll shower you with anything I can rustle up or squeeze out. I want to. I need to. I have felt sometimes of late that I am sinking forever.
Williams again referring to Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The,’” in Exile 3, was perhaps one of the reasons he considered Exile “a good venture.”
This is just to accept your offer. More later. I heartily support your judgment of Zukofsky’s excellence (in the one poem at least) and he seems worthwhile personally.
The entirety of Tom Sharp’s scholarly appraisal is available at The Objectivists with all the attendant footnotes and proper permissions.
Tom Sharp is the author of numerous books, including Spectacles from Taurean Horn Press, and a member of Seldovia Village Tribe. He was a student of David Bromige’s at Sonoma State University and studied with Albert Gelpi at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D. He is retired from IBM where he was a writer and programmer, and currently lives in Seattle.