Ordering Bottom

Louis Zukofsky was born in January 1904 in New York’s Lower East Side, about the same time that Henry James was walking those streets in preparation for their ambivalent celebration in The American Scene. His first language was Yiddish, the language in which he would first encounter Ezra Pound’s ancestor Longfellow and (nota bene) Shakespeare. In the 1920s Zukofsky precociously approached Pound, and Pound published Zukofsky’s ‘A Poem Beginning “The”’ in his journal The Exile. The elder poet introduced the younger to a selection of other writers, including collaborators William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting, and arranged for Zukofsky to edit a special edition of Poetry in 1931, in which he created, collected, theorised and agitated for a new movement within American letters, the Objectivists. The following year Zukofsky would edit An “Objectivists” Anthology (no possessive), which would be published by To Publishers, a partnership with George Oppen (Zukofsky editing; Oppen funding and printing). These two publications mark the points of greatest publicity in Zukofsky’s early career, and the generous space he allotted himself in both ensured that his own work was a strongly felt presence. It is questionable, however, just how much of a public Zukofsky accessed with these projects: Poetry’s readers vacillated between displeasure and indifference, while Oppen would later suggest that To Publishers never sold more than a handful of copies of the few books they published.

From this mitigated obscurity, Zukofsky quickly dropped into outright oblivion, finding his works almost unplaceable with either publishers or magazines until the 1950s. During this period he was picked up and supported by Cid Corman, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, followed by further supporters among the next generation of American avant-gardists, with his work finally achieving canonical status at the hands of those experimentally inclined poets clustered around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a magazine begun in 1978, the year Zukofsky died.

In 1947, in the middle of his period in the wilderness, at probably the least publishable point in his life, Zukofsky embarked upon a grand, crazed cento: a huge meditation on epistemology, Shakespeare, the Western tradition and much more besides: Bottom: On Shakespeare. As Zukofsky’s reputation grew during the 1950s and early ’60s, excerpts from Bottom would appear in the Black Mountain Review and Origin, though it was not until 1962 that the work was published in full, after wrangling that saw the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, agree to publication in exchange for the incorporation of Zukofsky’s private papers into their archive (primarily because of his rich correspondence with Pound, Williams and others). Thus, Bottom, after fifteen years of work, was forced upon the public.

The titles of the Zukofsky works mentioned in the foregoing preamble give some idea of the manner in which certain elements of Zukofsky’s poetics functioned throughout his career: ‘A Poem Beginning “The”’ introduced Zukofsky’s interest in peculiar titles, and all his following works would be titled with equally exacting care, such as An “Objectivists” Anthology. The semantic uncertainties of his variously confusing titles serve as a kind of précis of and commentary on the contents of their respective volumes: the provisional nature of the Objectivist ‘movement’ is suggested by the quotation marks, the lack of an accompanying Objectivism suggested by the lack of a possessive (it is an anthology of Objectivists, not an Objectivist’s or the Objectivists’ anthology), while the singular ‘an’ underlines a proprietary claim by the editor. Similarly, “A” is held within inverted commas as the first line of itself; the poem’s first line becoming its title, as the first line of an untitled poem becomes its title. It should, as Peter Quartermain points out in his essay ‘Thinking With the Poem’, therefore be pronounced ‘uh’ rather than ‘ay’ i. This indeterminacy opens up the possibilities of what “A” might signify: it could be a meditation on either the letter or the word ‘a’, perhaps the beginning of an alphabetical series, this opening up of possibilities becomes a description of this poem on variousness, the title creates a space ideally suited to indeterminacy and multivalency. And in An “Objectivists” Anthology and the projected A Workers Anthology, Zukofsky often experiments with the possessive. I’s (Pronounced Eyes) and After I’s possibly possessive apostrophes refer to a decentralising of Louis Zukofsky as subject for these poems; they’re ‘after mine’, following the period when Zukofsky thought of this oeuvre as solely his own. Or, if we read the ‘I’ as being pluralized by its apostrophe and ‘s’, then perhaps the title refers to a point at which separate ‘I’s become a ‘we’. The volumes are made up in large part of small occasional poems addressed to his family and come as Zukofsky’s family unit was becoming the central subject matter, the sounding board, the primary public and collaboratory team behind his work.

These unusually rich titles tell us a couple of things about Zukofsky’s work and offer a handy approach to his poetry as a whole. Compression is central: a key realisation on the road to learning to read Zukofsky is to realise that he is nearly always saying two things at once, at least two things – an activity somewhat related to the pun, but which is actually rather more thorough-going than that, an operation familiar from Finnegans Wake, but employed by Zukofsky without such rearrangement of spelling and with a concentrating eye on syntax. These titles also suggest Zukofsky’s passion for a very particular and unusual kind of organisation: they are like lovingly appended labels pasted to files, pinning them to specific places in Zukofsky’s oeuvre and providing a key as to how Zukofsky’s work is ordered. Zukofsky’s systems, however, while featuring obsessive returns to such customary arrangements as the alphabet, chronology, geography and numbering, are always skewed and entirely characteristic. It is in Bottom: On Shakespeare that such schemas are used to their fullest, most confusing, most revelatory extent.

Bottom: On Shakespeare is as suggestive a title as any of Zukofsky’s: Bottom is, of course, Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and bottom is also the lowest depth, the bass-note and lowest common denominator, so a ‘bottom on Shakespeare’ might be something approaching a low-down, the last word on Shakespeare. In an interview, Zukofsky said that Bottom ‘was written to do away with all philosophy’ ii, an aim that is a kind of bottom in itself, and one here had ‘on’, or via, Shakespeare as prime exemplar of that project. Bottom might also be ‘on’ Shakespeare in the sense of someone speaking about a subject; thus, the book might be Nick Bottom’s thoughts ‘on’ Shakespeare, his creator. A bottom is also a bodily part (connected to the title’s sole punctuation, the colon), and here one ribaldly planted upon Shakespeare. And remember that Shakespeare was already punning with his character’s name. Nick Bottom was a weaver; ‘weaver’s bottom’ is ischial bursitis, a sore bottom caused by overlong sitting on hard surfaces. The ballad that Bottom hoped to persuade Quince to pen was to be called ‘“Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no Bottom’: Zukofsky promises to provide that bottom.

These titles offer different approaches to Bottom, a book that, in fact, doesn’t really feature too much of Nick Bottom, with Pericles more dominant than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and reference to Shakespeare, in fact, vastly outweighed by material of wider provenance. ‘Bottom, A Weaver’, a short explicatory piece by Zukofsky on Bottom, published in his collected critical essays, Prepositions, hints at what kind of processes might be at play. The modulation from propulsive colon to conjunctive comma suggests a less problematic relation here: Nick Bottom is a weaver, and so is Bottom. Weaving, as an ordering of difficult raw substance into a material of strength, suppleness and designed beauty, is an apt analogy for the processes at work in Bottom.

Pound terminated his reading of Zukofsky with Bottom: I have seen Pound’s deluxe, boxed copy of Bottom, housed at his daughter Mary de Rachewiltz’s Schloss Brunnenberg in the Italian Tyrol. The copy was sent to him by Celia Zukofsky, not Louis (their relationship had long since soured by 1963), and it is unread and unmarked; the spine unbroken. That Pound’s interest in Zukofsky’s work should end here is appropriate, for it is with Bottom that Zukofsky begins the process of casting off his Poundian inheritance in earnest.

In Bottom, Pound’s influence is felt most pervasively in the older poet’s adoption of the line as the primary poetic unit, combined with the ideogram, the paramount organisational procedure in The Cantos. The canto line, as the representative of an idea, suggests the possibility of rearrangement both on the page and in Pound’s conceptual ideograms: without the shackles of narrative and regular metrical structure, the visual arrangement on the page need not necessarily coincide with the imaginative, mental organisation of a text. Organisational principles are instead likely to be located away from the text itself in the crepuscular region of the meta-text; the relation of the grammatical units of many of the movements of “A” is an extension of the kind of arrangement explored in The Cantos, and is continued with the confounding movement between the ideas and the quotations of Bottom.

At this point it seems appropriate to interrogate an exemplary section of Bottom so that we can see these Pound-sourced procedures at work, in their expansion. Close to the beginning of the immense ‘Continents’ section of ‘An Alphabet of Subjects’ in Bottom, Zukofsky gestures to a consanguinity with the later Cantos when he writes:

Whether or not Ocellus Lucanus learned from Pythagoras, when Ocellus is read beside Shakespeare the eyes exist thru two millennia, suffer none of the changes of the mind’s eye, and persist in the changes called Los Cantares, 90 and so on, into America 1956: hardly forgotten Ocellus—little oculus, the Latin diminutive used to praise excellence. iii

The reference is to Rockdrill—full title, Section: Rockdrill, 85-95 de los cantares (1956). Zukofsky remakes Pound in his own image, drawing him into a thousand-year tradition of writing on and of the eye. The Cantos, ‘Los Cantares’, are a ‘changes’, suggesting both a set of musical variations and the alterations of this series from the Imagist eye to procedures that land Ocellus in the ninetieth canto, the canto in which Pound repeats ‘Ubi amor, ibi oculus’ iv and ‘UBI AMOR IBI OCULUS EST’v. Pound, with violent insistence, excises a comma and inserts an ‘is’ in the process of quoting Richard St Victor’s ‘Where love is, there is the eye’ —a statement at the heart of Bottom.

At the same time, Zukofsky qualifies his admiration of Pound by setting this passage on the same page as ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’vii from The Merchant of Venice. The run of subjects here, and their interconnectedness, serves as a vigorous example of Zukofsky’s organisational method in Bottom. Zukofsky follows his quotation from The Merchant of Venice, which Bottom itself stands as proof of, with a biblical description of the dispersal of nations and languages:

After the flood were born to Noah’s sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth – their sons who mixed eyes sometimes, sometimes heads. Of the whole earth they were still seen some time having language in one plain. Then differentiated speech scattered them, spelled out upon the earth’s face about its channels, the Great Sea, the Red, the Salt, Chinnereth.
Son of Japheth, Javan (Ionians). viii

And thus to Greece, and Pythagoras. Pythagoras the vegetarian brings together humanity, mathematics and transubstantiation; ‘Pythagoras, in whom green pulse of pod and flame seeded nine spheres of number and tone, saw thru the hindsight of five Changes of himself his incarnation before Troy and heard his latest voice, that of Zaratas the Chaldean.’ix Locally, this passage is attached both to the Jewish repopulation of the Mediterranean after the flood, and the ‘changes’ of Pythagoras predict Pound’s ‘changes’ and his method in The Cantos, as well as referencing the Pythagorean Apollonius of Tyre, a central figure in the later stretches of Pound’s long poem. The grand themes of Bottom are also present; Pythagoras’ careful trigonometries are of the eye, his kindness to animals is humanity and his generational rebirth speaks to Zukofsky’s theme of the family: his reincarnation in Paul, the theme of nations, the ‘Continents’ of this section of Bottom.

After Pound, who contains Ocellus, Zukofsky travels eastwards, to Confucius:

‘Whole earth … of one speech’ fed Kung’s eyes anew. The same continent turned Prince Siddhartha’s downward to worlds of lotus blossoms—a way from headiness, yet twisting to it as with Pythagoras (whom Ovid in the recaptured Changes of love praised curiously for the intellect into which he turned the gods his mortal eyes did not see.) The Asians Kung and Buddha flourished about the time 50,000 Jews came back with Zerubbabel to love for the second Temple at Jerusalem under Cyrus. (536 B.C.) x

Pound’s Confucius is first partnered with the bugbear of the Chinese cantos, Siddhartha, the Buddha, and then placed into historical context with the migrations of the Jews. This passage becomes, then, simultaneous refutation, parody and homage to The Cantos and that document’s distinctive arrangement. It refutes by placing Pound’s cherished Kung into context with the Buddhists he dismissed and the Jews he despised; the makers of continents as successful in another geography as Pound’s most revered culture-hero. This passage parodies Pound by aping the master’s methods and employing them against him—the ideogrammic organisation is Pound’s, but the conclusion is far from The Cantos. Yet by developing this technique into the Bottom technique, Zukofsky pays homage to Pound, his references to Pound via Siddhartha’s lotus blossoms and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, another kind of changes, draw the reader’s attention away from 1956 and towards the first books of The Cantos with the Ovidian second and fourth cantos and the lotus-eaters of the twentieth.

Zukofsky continues with a multivalent beginning, the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of mankind, the beginning of a Jewish paideuma and a Judaeo-Christian sagetrieb; here transliterated in a prediction of his late homophonic translations. xi

This Cantos arrangement, while foundational, is just one of the systems taken apart and put back together in Bottom: Zukofsky uses, among many other structures, the alphabet in ‘An Alphabet of Subjects’, approaches a quasi-chronological framework in ‘Greeks’ xii and in the account of American literature that moves from ‘John Clark of Rhode Island (1609–1676)’xiii to Paterson xiv, and a quasi-Platonic dialogue in ‘Definition’ xv. Zukofsky sometimes uses language, culture and geography as organisational principles, as in ‘Continents’. xvi

None of the above strategies are ever used in isolation, and usually in a combination of at least three. Thus, the ‘Continents’ section is part of an alphabetical series, is made up of geographically based accounts that also tend to be ordered chronologically, while the transitions between individual excerpts and ideas are arranged thematically. These procedures are more rigidly worked through than Pound’s ideogram. Thus, in the section of ‘Continents’ dedicated to the history of American literature, Melville (told by Hawthorne) and Poe are linked by the following juxtaposition of quotations:

[‘Melville] learned his travelling habits by drifting about, all over the South Seas, with no other clothes or equipage than a red flannel shirt and a pair of duck trousers. Yet we seldom see men of less criticisable manners than he.’

Edgar Allen Poe (1809–1849): Marginalia
‘All that the man of genius demands for his exultation is moral matter in motion. It makes no difference whither tends the motion—whether for him or against him—and it is absolutely of no consequence “what is the matter.”’
‘… the naked Senses sometimes see too little—but then always they see too much.’

Poe and Hawthorne’s Melville are linked via the chronology that the whole sub-section is built around, and also by the rhyming implications of wayward genius in extremis; with Poe’s maxim framed as a justification of Melville’s exoticism. This is not the primary reason for the ordering of these quotations, however, for it is the simple shared ‘see’ that has caught Zukofsky’s magpie’s eye for eyes. The chronology and the other incidental discussions are not to be dispensed with, but it is this obsessive, contingent repetition of words and themes that is the central organisational procedure of this unique work. In ‘Iliad’, a section of ‘An Alphabet of Subjects’, which works by drawing out slim correspondences from Rouse’s translation of Homer’s Iliad with Shakespeare, Zukofsky offers the following justification of his practice:

Echoes of Shakespeare out of his time come from looking at Homeric locutions and hearing Greek sounds, the ‘sources’ that may not be quickly traced in Shakespeare’s plays. Proofs or guesses of borrowings hang on a case like the slant of Troilus and Cressida, throwing The Iliad forward as a shade before his play. By a like slant disclaimers of Shakespeare in the preface to Saint Joan assure it of the medieval understanding of Henry VI, Part I. All that follows, from The Iliad, lights by suggesting Shakespeare.

‘Lights’, and the process of retroactive influence Zukofsky implies, recalls the catalytic reactions of Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ exaggerated: ‘one book judges and is judged by all other books’. xix

That so many procedures can function simultaneously suggests Zukofsky’s innovation in Bottom and its evolution from The Cantos. Pound’s ideogram, though often miraculously apposite, usually uses one or two connecting ideas to join one thought-unit to the next; in Bottom, ideas (characteristically suspended in quotation form, their original contexts complicatedly retained) are linked by a series of connections held in a taut net of correspondences that makes their contingency seem inevitable. Where Pound’s system opens up his text, making it seem a constellation of associated texts that appear notionally outside of the poem, Zukofsky’s has the effect of a medievally self-contained and restrained closed system. Pound’s is a sketched Galilean algebraic thought-universe; Zukofsky’s a worked-through Copernican geometry.

Richard Parker

i http://jacketmagazine.com/30/z-quartermain.html#fn6
ii Prepositions +, p. 229.
iii Bottom: On Shakespeare, p. 103.
iv The Cantos, p. 620.
v Ibid., p. 623.
vi Benjamin Minor, 13. V. Terrell’s Companion, p. 541.
vii Bottom: On Shakespeare, p. 103, and The Merchant of Venice, III, ii, l. 61.
viii Bottom: On Shakespeare, p. 103.
ix Ibid., p. 103.
x Ibid., pp. 103–04.
xi Ibid., p. 104.
xii Ibid., pp. 351–77.
xiii Ibid., p. 237.
xiv Ibid., p. 262.
xv Ibid., pp. 266–342.
xvi Ibid., pp. 219–36.
xvii Ibid., p. 241.
xviii Ibid., p. 381.
xix Ibid., p. 424.


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