Louis Zukofsky: Building a Poetics of Translation

Sarah Ponichtera


Louis Zukofksy, a native speak­er of Yid­dish who wrote exclu­sive­ly in Eng­lish, uses the prac­tice of trans­la­tion as the cen­ter­piece of his poet­ics. As a mod­ernist who worked close­ly with Ezra Pound, Zukof­sky relies heav­i­ly on quo­ta­tion and pas­tiche, as did his men­tor. How­ev­er, instead of ref­er­enc­ing the clas­sics of West­ern lit­er­a­ture, Zukof­sky draws on Yid­dish, and specif­i­cal­ly on trans­la­tions into Yid­dish, to express his vision of a mod­ern poet­ics. Zukof­sky uses Yid­dish trans­la­tion — his own, and that of well-known Yid­dish writ­ers — to incor­po­rate new voic­es and sounds into Amer­i­can mod­ernist poetry. 

The most strik­ing exam­ple of this tech­nique can be found in Zukofsky’s incor­po­ra­tion of pas­sages from the Yid­dish poet Yehoash in his own poems. At times Zukof­sky will trans­late Yehoash’s orig­i­nal works, but he also trans­lates Yehoash’s poems that were them­selves trans­la­tions. Zukof­sky fore­grounds trans­la­tions from Yehoash which are heav­i­ly marked as com­ing from diverse lan­guages, includ­ing Ara­bic and Japan­ese. In this way, Zukof­sky sug­gests that the tra­di­tion that he val­ues is a poet­ic one, that puts aes­thet­ic con­cerns over cul­tur­al ones, and hints to the curi­ous read­er who search­es for the source of his quo­ta­tion that the ori­gins of poet­ic cre­ation are more com­plex than they may real­ize at first. This is a new lev­el of what Lawrence Venu­ti has called for­eigniza­tion.” The text high­lights its for­eign­ness to the read­er, but the for­eign­ness that the read­er may first assume is a false one. This tech­nique desta­bi­lizes read­ers’ assump­tions, both about their own lan­guages and about the process of trans­la­tion. Yid­dish is a sub­merged struc­ture for Zukofsky’s poet­ry, invis­i­ble to all but a read­er con­ver­sant in both Yid­dish and Eng­lish poetry.

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Louis Zukofsky, a modernist American poet with a long career spanning from the 1920s to the 1960s, is known primarily today for his formalist experimentation, which inspired later generations of poets including Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein. What is less well-known is that his first language was Yiddish, and he grew up imbibing the spirit of the most vibrant period of Yiddish poetry in America. He incorporates free translations from Yiddish literature into his English-language poetry, especially in his early works, and even more interestingly, translates Yiddish poetry that itself incorporates words and stylistics from languages as diverse as Arabic and Japanese. Not merely a piece of linguistic showmanship, Zukofsky’s method of translation informs his overall poetics, which embraces the potential of bringing diverse and even clashing voices into conversation with one another.

In 1929, as a twenty-two year old Columbia University graduate, Zukofsky published a poem titled “Poem Beginning ‘The’” in the journal Exile, edited by Ezra Pound. 1 1 Louis Zukofsky, “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” Exile 3 (Spring 1928): 23. “Poem Beginning ‘The’” cast itself as a satirical response to T. S. Eliot’s influential poem The Waste Land (not coincidentally, also a poem beginning ‘the’), beginning with a page of notes directing the reader to sources from college cheers to Broadway musicals, in contrast to Eliot’s rarified literary citations. The poem captures the fully incongruent cacophony of voices surrounding the modern American writer. Instead of Eliot’s dour vision of the decline and breakdown of civilization, for Zukofsky, this chaos represents the energy of rebirth. He ends the poem with a hymn to the sun that he translates from the Yiddish poet Yehoash: “Under our feet will crawl/ The shadows of dead worlds,/ We shall open our arms wide,/ Call out of pure might -/ Sun, you great Sun, our Comrade,/ From eternity to eternity we remain true to you,/ A myriad of years we have been/ Myriad upon myriad shall be.” 2 2 Louis Zukofsky, “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” in All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923-1958 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 22.

The Yiddish source of these lines is the concluding poem of the first volume of Yehoash’s poetic magnum opus, titled In geveb (or, Intertwined). The poem itself is titled “Af di khurves,” or “On the Ruins,” a title that gestures to Eliot’s nearly contemporary vision of a culture in decay. 3 3 Yehoash’s collection came out in 1919 while Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in 1922. In Yehoash’s Yiddish original, the lines read:

‏אונטער מײַנע פֿיס װעט קריכן
‏דער שאָטן פֿון צעפֿאַל'נע װעלטן,
און איך װעל עפֿענען די אָרעמס מײַנע,
און רופֿן פֿון פּור מאַכט און פֿרײד:
זון, דו גרױסע זון מײַן חבֿר,
אײביק װעל איך בלײַבן דיר געטרײַ,
און העלער װעט מײַן זון־ליד שאַלן יעדער טאָג –
טױזנט־טױזנט יאָרן בין איך אַלט,
און טױזנט־טױזנט יאָרן װעל איך אַלט זײַן...

Under my feet crawl
The shadows of fallen worlds
And I will lift my arms
And cry out in pure strength and joy
Sun, you great Sun, my comrade
Forever I will be true to you
And my Sun-Song will shine brighter every day
I am thousands and thousand of years old
And thousands and thousands of years will I yet live... 4 4 Yehoash, “Af di khurves,” in In geveb, Vol 1 (New York: Farlag Oyfgang, 1919): 278–79. Please note, the orthography has been standardized to modern YIVO spelling. Yehoash’s original (which predates the establishment of the YIVO) uses an older, German-influenced orthography. The literal translation is mine.

Harold Schimmel, the rare Zukofsky critic with access to the original Yiddish, points out that Zukofsky changes the poem’s singular first person voice in Yiddish to a plural first person in the English, rendering it a communal rather than individual expression. 5 5 Harold Schimmel, “Zuk. Yehoash David Rex,” Paideuma 7, no. 3 (1978): 559–69. This gives the English version the authority of speaking for a community, and gestures at the convention of Hebrew prayer being in the first person plural.

Zukofsky also elevates the diction of the final lines he quotes. In a literal translation of the Yiddish, the lines read, “I am thousands and thousands of years old / And thousands and thousands of years will I yet live.” Zukofsky’s replacement of the term “thousands” with “myriad” lifts the language into the realm of the Biblical, from a relatively dry numerical term to one that suggests infinitude. Zukofsky also removes the word “joy,” found in the original, from the lines (in literal translation of Yehoash): “I will lift my arms / and call out in pure strength and joy.” Perhaps this is because in the introduction to the section that includes this citation, he has already summoned this idea, in the lines, “It is a lie—Aus meinen grossen leiden makh ikh/ die kleinen lieder,/ Rather they are joy, against nothingness joy—.” 6 6 Zukofsky, “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” 22. The German is ascribed in the notes to Heinrich Heine, and may be translated as, “out of my great suffering, I make these small poems.” Joy emerges as the driving force of the poem, and the excerpt from Yehoash embodies that idea in its gestures and voice, and does not need to state it baldly.

As this example suggests, Zukofsky was strongly influenced by the Imagist poetics of Ezra Pound, in his poetics and in his approach to translation. Pound’s translations, particularly of Chinese poetry in his 1915 book Cathay, have been widely critiqued, on the basis of Pound’s simply working off of the notes of another English-speaking scholar, Ernest Fenollosa, without actual fluency in the original Chinese versions of the poems he was “translating.” 7 7 Critics who have critiqued Pound’s “translations” and preconceptions about Chinese literature include John Kennedy, John DeFrancis, Yunte Huang, and even T. S. Eliot, among others. In recent years, however, some scholars have taken another tack, looking at Pound’s attempts to use translation as a means to transform English literature and critique the deficiencies of its literary tradition by offering an alternative.

There is no doubt that this required an instrumentalization of the foreign source material. Ming Xie writes, “Pound was consciously using his Cathay translations as a counter-balance against what he saw to be the droning of a corrupt elegiac lyricism, as is in his view characteristic of much mid- and late-Victorian poetry.” 8 8 Ming Xie, “Elegy and Personae in Ezra Pound’s Cathay,” English Literary History 60, no. 1 (Spring 1993), 268. This represents a literary instance of Orientalism, using a homogenized and stereotypically understood “Eastern culture” to represent the antithesis of the West, rather than engaging with the culture on its own terms. 9 9 For an account of various approaches to Pound’s Orientalism see Eric Hayot, “Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound’s China,” Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 4 (Winter, 1999): 511–33. Zukofsky’s translation of Yehoash as a response to Eliot could be seen as a similar tactic—an example of how translation from a distant culture can open and expand the Anglo literary tradition. However, if for Pound, poetic inspiration and renewal reside in an encounter with a distant, ultimately incomprehensible culture, for Zukofsky, it resides in the encounter between his present and his past. Pound encounters Chinese poetry through the English-language mediation of Ernest Fenellosa and thus he is truly at a vast remove from the the voice he assumes in his writing. In contrast, Yiddish is a hidden language that Zukofsky has an intimate personal connection with—both within his own biography and through his connection to a community of Yiddish writers. Rather than seeking an agent of transformation in the foreign, Zukofsky finds it in the familiar. Yet the final effect for a monolingual English reader is the same—an intrusion of an unmistakably foreign voice into what had at first seemed like understandable English poetry.

Zukofsky’s approach reflects a dominant strand in translation theory, one most often associated with Walter Benjamin, which holds that the translator consciously transforms her native language in the course of conveying the sense of a foreign work. Further developed by scholars such as Lawrence Venuti, this view rejects the ideal of the translated work fitting seamlessly into the target language’s literature and rather advocates for translators to “foreignize” their translations, bringing the writer into the foreign world of the source text rather than bringing the foreign text to the reader. 10 10 See Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” Trans. Steven Rendall, in The Translation Studies Reader, 3rd ed., ed. Lawrence Venuti (London and New York: Routledge), 75–83, and Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London and New York: Routledge, 1995). In this view of “the writer as translator,” the translator is an active agent in transforming their own literary tradition by means of their translations, disrupting moribund traditions and introducing new ways of thinking and writing. 11 11 See Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies (London and New York: Methuen, 1980). Zukofsky absorbs this view of translation from Pound, while giving it his own twist.

One example of this, where Zukofsky’s translations from Yiddish take on an added dimension, appears earlier in “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” where he translates a poem by Yehoash that was written in an Arabic-influenced voice. Yehoash is most famous for translating the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] into Yiddish, learning not only Biblical Hebrew but also Aramaic and Arabic in order to render the most idiomatic Yiddish translation possible. He was also a linguist, collaborating on writing a Yiddish dictionary while in a sanatorium in Colorado. 12 12 C.D. Spivak and Solomon Bloomgarden (Yehoash), Yidish verterbukh (New York: Farlag Yehoash, 1911). Immersed in this deep knowledge of Yiddish language and history, Yehoash nevertheless writes in an astonishing array of voices and styles, from the Biblical themes one might expect to scenes set in the bustling streets of modern New York City to poems inspired by various cultures around the world. 13 13 “Af muter rokhls kever,” in In geveb, Vol 1, 149; “Got-gebentsht,” in In geveb Vol 2, 131; “Eroplan,” In geveb, Vol 1, 227; “Broadway,” In geveb Vol 2, 58; “Cinema,” In geveb, Vol 2, 62; “A buda-gebet,” In geveb Vol 1, 161; “Osaka-nu,” In geveb, Vol 1, 67; “Der dervish,” In geveb, Vol 1, 215. Zukofsky’s translations of this latter set of poems bring their multilingualism to the forefront.

This approach features prominently in “‘Poem Beginning ‘The’” in a section of the poem that reflects on the suicide of Zukofsky’s friend Richard Chambers (the brother of Whittaker Chambers). In this section, Zukofsky incorporates his rendering of Yehoash’s poem “Bakhr-Esh-Shaitan,” in which Yehoash writes in the voice of a Bedouin merchant, peppering his Yiddish with Arabic and describing a rather stereotypical scene of desert travel, complete with camels and mirages. 14 14 Originally published in In geveb, vol. 2, 79. An English translation of this poem is included in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s anthology Sing, Stranger: A Century of American Yiddish Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 110–112. Yehoash learned Arabic as part of his linguistic studies of the Levant. He traveled to Rehovot in 1914 with the intention of settling there and studied Hebrew and Aramaic. 15 15 He later wrote a book about his travels: Solomon Bloomgarden, Fun nyu-york biz rehoves un tsurik (New York: Oyfgang, 1917). However, with the outbreak of World War I, the political situation grew unstable, and he decided to relocate to Egypt, where he learned Arabic, and translated parts of the Qu’ran into Yiddish. In 1915 he returned to New York. This poem showcases Yehoash’s familiarity with Arabic, including not only many Arabic words but also idioms: in a note, he explains that the title of the poem is the Arabic for “Devil’s Sea,” which means mirage. 16 16 Yehoash, “Bakhr esh-Shaytan,” in In geveb, Vol 2, 79.

As with his renderings of Yehoash’s other writings, Zukofsky alters the poem in interesting ways. The section of the poem Zukofsky translates appears towards the end of the original Yiddish poem, page three of a four-page piece. Zukofsky omits the introductory section, which sets up the scene of a Bedouin crossing the desert with a friend or servant named Saidi, to whom the Bedouin speaker describes the riches of his caravan—ivory from India, silk from Damascus, spice-wood and amber and rosewater—and the mirages in the desert which tempt him.

‏קאַראַװאַנען אין אַ שנור.
‏װײַסע קעמלען, אָנגעלאָדן אױף די האָרבן
מיט מילגרױמען און פֿײגן,
עלפֿנבײן פֿון הינדוסטאַן‏,
סאַמעט־װעבן פֿון דמשׂק,
בשׂמים־האָלטז פֿון אַמבאַר,
רױזנזאַפֿט פֿאַר דער סולטאַנאַ –
דער שײַטאַן לױערט אין די זאַמדן,
דעם בעדוּיִן צו קריגן...

Caravans in a string
White camels, loaded to their humps
With pomegranates and figs,
Ivory from India,
Sandalwood and amber,
Rosewater for the Sultana—
The Shaytan lurks in the sands
To catch the Bedouin. 17 17 Ibid., 79–80. Translation mine.

The first four sections are primarily descriptive, as in the lines above, each ending with a different version of the final line that mentions the threat of the devil lying in wait in the sands: “The Shaytan lurks in the sands/ to catch the Bedouin” in this case. 18 18 “Bakhr Ess-Shaytan,” Sing Stranger, 110. However, the final section becomes more free form as the scene changes from day to night, and the imagery grows notably darker: the Bedouin’s heart is dry, like a dead camel, and his eyes sparkle like a blind dog’s. 19 19 Yehoash, “Bakhr Esh-Shaytan,” In geveb vol. 2, 81. This is Zukofsky’s translation:

And his heart is dry
Like the teeth of a dead camel
But his eyes no longer blink
Not even as a blind dog’s

With the blue night shadows on the road
May his kingdom return to him,
The Bedouin leap again on his asilah
The expanse of heaven hang upon his shoulder
As an embroidered texture,
Behind him on his saddle sit the night
Sing into his ear:

Swifter than a tiger to his prey,
Lighter than the storm-wind, dust, and spray,
The Bedouin bears the Desert-Night,
Big his heart and young with life,
Younger yet his gay, wild wife
The Desert-Night.

Some new trappings for his steed,
All the stars in dowry his meed
From the Desert-Night.

This excerpt demonstrates the way in which Zukofsky draws on the Yiddish sources of his poetry, without the language of the original ever coming to light for the average reader. The Yiddish form is hidden by the cultural content, which refers to Bedouin life using Arabic terminology. The cultural and linguistic cues present in the English translation, from the images of camels and travels through the desert, to the Arabic term asilah, all point in a misleading direction. Moreover, the contemporary cultural assumptions surrounding the Yiddish language (centering around the immigrant experience and the struggle for acceptance in America) do not particularly contribute to the meaning of this section of the poem, which describes Zukofsky’s reaction to the death of Richard Chambers. Yiddish animates this section of the poem without making its presence known, except to those who recognize Yehoash’s poem in English translation—surely a small group.

The hidden layer of Yiddish serves to connect Zukofsky’s modernist poetics to Yehoash’s linguistic research. Far from simply bringing in a glimpse of the exotic East to pique interest along the lines of the Orientalist, Zukofsky incorporates a translation from someone whose studies of Arabic were part of building his own expertise in Biblical history. As mentioned above, Yehoash’s studies of Arabic were part of his exploration of the deep roots of his own culture and its history. Perhaps what piqued Zukofsky’s interest is that Yehoash’s investigation of a collective past brings him into contact with something seemingly quite distant, namely Bedouin literature. Much as Zukofksy brings the classics into dialogue with modern advertising in his poetry, he brings his contemporary intellectual experience into dialogue with Yehoash’s investigations into the roots of the Yiddish language.

The interlinguistic techniques displayed in “Poem Beginning ‘The’” would remain central in Louis Zukofsky’s lengthy poetic career. In his poetry, Zukofsky creates a microcosm of the world as he experiences it, in which the particulars of daily life occupy equal space with academic theories, and his childhood culture of Yiddish poetry and theater enters into dialogue with the high culture he learned at Columbia University. A tightly controlled formal structure holds all of these disparate elements together. Critics of Zukofsky overwhelmingly characterize him as a master of form. 20 20 See Mark Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 312. Like other modernists of the period, Zukofsky was committed to free verse, though his interest in creating rigorous formal structures, as well as his search for a connection to the tradition of Western literature, led him to experiment with older formal structures such as the sonnet as well.

To be sure, Zukofsky would continue to refine his sense of form throughout his poetic career. From his experiments in “Poem Beginning ‘The” with pastiche, quotation, and translation, Zukofsky would move to more rigorous forms in his epic, “A.” This poem, a life’s work begun in 1928, was ultimately published in its entirety in 1978 shortly after the poet’s death. Although the main body of the poem was completed by 1974, Zukofsky spent his final years composing an index for the poem, an effort that may be seen as integral to the writing of the poem, given the author’s extensive use of allusion and quotation. “A” comprises twenty-four movements, each with its own structure and theme (though some movements, such as “A”-7 and “A”-24, reprise pieces from earlier movements in a new form). He experiments throughout with older poetic forms such as the sonnet and the canzone, which Pound had made famous in his Cantos, as well as musical forms such as the fugue, which Zukofsky understood according to Bach’s definition in The Art of the Fugue as resembling “reasonable men in an orderly discussion.” 21 21 Louis Zukofsky, “A-12,” in “A” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 127. Zukofsky reserves an important place for music and sound, those aspects of language that transcend cultural difference.

Although Yiddish literature has often been characterized as the locus of an authentic Jewish culture, presented in opposition to the adulterations of Anglophone American Jewish life, 22 22 See Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 417–59, for the classic presentation of this perspective; Cynthia Ozick mobilizes the idea of Yiddish literature to launch an attack on American Jewish inauthenticity in “Toward a New Yiddish,” in Art and Ardor (New York: Knopf, 1983), 151–77, and many of the essays of Ruth Wisse present a similar perspective. See David Hollinger, In the American Province (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), 70–71, for a contextualized explanation of this approach to Yiddish literature. early Yiddish culture in America drew heavily on many European—and to a lesser degree, non-European—cultures. Socialism, which often advocated for the end of national particularities, contributed to this tendency, as well as the European Haskalah, which supported Jews’ adoption of European culture in order to aid their assimilation into Enlightenment-era Europe. 23 23 See Tony Michaels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009), 41, on how New York Yiddish writers often continued to think of themselves in private as Russian intellectuals; Mikhail Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914 (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002), 122 on the range of influences affecting American Jewish modernists; and Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2002), 361–68 on the importance of the internal cultural diversity of Yiddish and Hebrew literatures in the modern age. Moreover, during this period there existed an often overlooked but thriving industry of Yiddish translations of both literary and theatrical works, whose popularity far eclipsed that of canonical Yiddish literature. 24 24 See Jeffrey Shandler, “On the Frontiers of Ashkenaz: Translating into Yiddish, Then and Now,” Judaism 54, nos. 1-2 (2005): 3–12. All of these diverse movements were held together by the structures of the Yiddish language, which strove to contain them within discrete literary and artistic forms. Similarly, Zukofsky’s poetry uses poetic form to give shape to the chaotic influences that comprised his experience.

One of Zukofsky’s most insightful interpreters, the poet Charles Bernstein, characterizes his departure from the other high modernists in formal terms: “he rejected the major keys for minor chords, universals for particulars, the grandiose for discreteness.” 25 25 Charles Bernstein, “Introduction” in Selected Poems: Louis Zukofsky, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Library of America, 2006), xiii. Bernstein goes on to establish that, starting from his first successful effort, “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” Zukofsky evinces intense interest in the relation of the part to the whole, emphasizing each individual component’s place in a larger context, while taking care that it not be sublimated into an overarching schema that would efface its unique characteristics. Stephen Fredman, in his work on Zukofsky’s poetic school, Objectivism, characterizes his work as similarly diverse in its diction. “In much of his poetry, Zukofsky writes as an aggressively ‘unidiomatic’ speaker of English, choosing words and expressions from the widest possible registers of the language (and using many non-English words as well).” 26 26 Stephen Fredman, A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 132. Fredman goes on to link this openness to the diversity within the English language to Zukofsky’s choice of Yiddish rather than Hebrew as a “linguistic taproot.” 27 27 Ibid., 131. Fredman argues that American Jewish poets of this generation shaped their poetic voices in dialogue with a Jewish language, and while the Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff’s choice of Hebrew led him towards a poetics of concreteness and simplicity, Zukofsky’s choice of Yiddish interpreted the linguistic hybridity of that language as a poetic strategy.

Zukofsky’s poetics derive, at least in part, from the complexity of his experience as a first-generation American. Born to Russian immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1904, he grew up speaking Yiddish with his family. 28 28 Louis Zukofsky, Autobiography (New York: Grossman, 1970), 13. As the youngest child, and the only one born in America, he grew up in a culture far removed from the American mainstream. His older sister, who arrived in America at the age of 16, never bothered to acquire American citizenship, and, according to Celia Zukofsky, never learned more than two words of English. 29 29 Carroll F. Terrell, “Louis Zukofsky: An Eccentric Profile,” in Louis Zukofsky, Man and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1979), 51. His older brother Morris, who was interested in literature himself, introduced Louis to the Yiddish theater and the poetry of Yehoash, both of which would come into play in Zukofsky’s mature poetry. 30 30 Mark Scroggins, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (New York: Shoemaker Hoard, 2007), 17–18. Had Zukofsky gone to New York University, he might have met the originators of the In zikh, or Introspectivist, movement, and become a Yiddish poet. Instead, he went to Columbia, and his introduction to world culture, and encounter with the modernist techniques of Eliot and Pound, led him to join the project of reinvigorating modern English poetics.

Pound was the most significant of these conflicted modernist figures for Zukofsky. Pound gave Zukofsky the opportunity to begin a significant poetic career, printing his first effort, “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” in the journal Exile, and promoting his work to Harriet Monroe, editor of the Chicago literary journal Poetry. Pound’s support played a crucial role in Monroe’s decision to allow Zukofsky to edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry, in which Zukofsky introduced the poetic school of Objectivism. Pound gave Zukofsky continuous and detailed feedback on his early poetry, and, perhaps most significantly, encouraged and guided Zukofsky in establishing relationships with other modernist poets in America. Although these efforts never resulted in the kind of cohesive poetic school that Pound envisioned, Zukofsky’s poetic career benefited greatly from his friendships with poets such as William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Rene Taupin, and Lorine Niedecker. Zukofsky also introduced poets to Pound, notably Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. The two poets conducted a voluminous correspondence throughout their lives, never ceasing communications, despite the significant personal and political differences that divided them. 31 31 Barry Ahearn, Introduction, Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky (New York: New Directions, 1987) xix. Pound’s fame continued to assist Zukofsky even after Pound’s incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s; Zukofsky was able to have his theoretical work Bottom: On Shakespeare published by the University of Texas Press in 1963 in exchange for donating his letters from Pound to the University’s archive. 32 32 Ibid., xviii.

The most significant, and widely discussed, example of the two poets’ consideration of Yiddish comes in 1929, when Zukofsky introduces the poems of Charles Reznikoff to Pound. Pound’s response comes on December 9, 1929, evaluating the work as “very good as far as I’ve got at breakfast.” He goes on to add, “capital in idea that next wave of literature is jewish (obviously) Bloom casting shadow before, prophetic Jim [Joyce] etc. also lack of prose in German due to all idiomatic energy being drawn off into yiddish.” 33 33 Ibid., 26. This exchange reveals the extremely different, almost opposite view the two poets had of Yiddish, despite their similar approaches to poetry and translation. Pound sees Yiddish as an “idiomatic” form of German, which he praises for its vigor while seeing it as inherently distant from the international high culture that Pound saw as his own fraught heritage. This is an ironic and oblivious reaction to Zukofsky’s attempt to introduce him to Charles Reznikoff, who drew on the disciplined, the classical, and the religious tone of Hebrew to inform his English-language poetry. It also departs drastically from Zukofsky’s own view of Yiddish and his translations of it in his work, described above, which draw on the beauty, the optimism, and the multilingualism of Yehoash’s poetry. Pound simply could not see Yiddish (and Hebrew) the way Zukofsky did—as a developed literary language deeply connected to world literature. Pound praised Yiddish—and Jewish literature by extension—for its distance from those very qualities. Though Pound and Zukofsky wrote one another frequently, in this case, as in many others, there was no mutual understanding.

Zukofsky’s relationship with what might seem a more natural community for him, his fellow American Jewish poets, was no less contested. Zukofsky’s famously fraught relationship with the arbiters of American Jewish high culture results primarily from his unorthodox approach to language. This can be seen in his attempts to place his first major critical work, “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Works of Charles Reznikof” (1929) in the Menorah Journal. The process began in 1929, shortly after Zukofsky had begun his correspondence with Pound, and his friendships with Reznikoff and William Carlos Williams. Zukofsky’s attempt to submit his work to the Menorah Journal was no doubt at least partially motivated by the example of Reznikoff, who was a regular contributor. However, the editor, Elliot Cohen, apparently did not think much of Zukofsky’s work. In a 1930 letter to Marie Syrkin, Reznikoff writes, “Sunday night I met Zukofsky […] and read his essay on me called ‘Objectivity and Sincerity’ […] Well, I am sure The Menorah will not take it; for on Saturday Elliot told me that Zukofsky could not write, that he had done a poor piece of translation.” 34 34 Charles Reznikoff, Selected Letters of Charles Reznikoff 1917-1976, ed. Milton Hindus (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 78.

It is fascinating that the Menorah Journal editor considered the piece to be a translation, because in fact it was an original work, composed in English, meant to be the manifesto of a new poetic movement called Objectivism. The manifesto is quite obscure and complex, but does not necessarily convey the foreign to a modern reader. Something about Zukofsky’s literary voice, even when he was attempting to be the most modern, American, and literary version of himself, spoke to his contemporaries of the Old World that they had left behind.

When Zukofsky received the rejection notice, he wrote to Pound that this confirmed his view of the group: “I’d hate to be wrong about my notice of these people in A-4 […] I’ve always avoided them, wished to avoid them, and things seem to be turning out the way I wanted them to.” 35 35 Ahearn, Pound/Zukofsky, 32. Although one may doubt whether Zukofsky is being entirely sincere here, this statement does explain some of Zukofsky’s subsequent turn away from affiliation with the organized Jewish community.

Zukofsky’s mention of “A-4” refers to the fourth “movement” of his epic poem “A,” a kind of shorthand for tension surrounding Jewishness that may have motivated his struggles with Jewish communal life. This section of the poem depicts a generational struggle between a complacent older generation that is both authoritarian and strangely vulnerable, and a younger generation, which strives to express its own sensibility in the face of opposition. The older generation are homeless wanderers, and his description suggests that this generation finds refuge from the dislocations of their environment in tradition, which they carry in their “aged heads.” This characterization not only underlines the tradition’s imminent obsolescence, but also its fragility. This sets us up the main conflict of the poem, which begins in the last lines of the first stanza: “We had a Speech, our children have / evolved a jargon.”

The terms “Speech” and “jargon” have particular resonance in the context of Jewish language politics in this era. Most Yiddish speakers, including such prominent writers as I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, referred to the language as “zhargon” until the Czernowitz language conference of 1908, which cemented the status of Yiddish as a literary language, at least among its supporters. 36 36 Joshua Fishman’s The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) explores its topic partially in terms of the shift from zhargon to Yiddish. A jargon, in the English usage, connotes a hybrid language, without internal coherence, usually ascribed to its speakers’ incompetence in the proper use of language. Zukofsky draws on both the English and Jewish connotations of the word to characterize the younger generation’s language as both hybrid and transgressive of the standards of high culture, whether English or Jewish.

Yiddish itself is a hybrid language, composed of linguistic borrowings from a wide variety of sources held together by a grammatical structure rooted in Middle High German. 37 37 See Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Some commentators, such as Benjamin Harshav, have extrapolated great meaning from the language’s semantic structure, ascribing particular qualities of openness and cultural hybridity to the language and the culture that surrounded it. 38 38 Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Berkeley: Stanford University Press, 1999). Although writers could and did write works in Yiddish that did not express these qualities, the language’s structure would have appealed to Louis Zukofsky in his development of a poetic method that revels in the interplay between languages and cultural registers.

The hybridity of Yiddish is a key element of A-4. One moment in the canto, which initiates a long series of quotations from Yehoash, opens with a few lines that establish the conflict between the generations: “They assail us / ‘Religious, snarling monsters’ –.” 39 39 These lines do not come from Yehoash; Zukofsky makes a clear distinction in his use of single rather than double quotation marks. In stark contrast, in the next lines, he translates a poem from Yehoash written in the style of Japanese poetry, “Shimone-san”: 40 40 Yehoash, In geveb, vol. 1, 69.

And have mouthed a jargon:
“Rain blows, light, on quiet water
I watch the rings spread and travel
Shimaunu-San, Samurai,
When will you come home? –
Shimaunu-San, my clear star.”41

Neither Zukofsky nor Yehoash cite a source for these lines; nevertheless, the poem may be a translation from Japanese. 41 41 Yiddish translators of this period often did not cite their sources carefully, as Rachel Rubenstein discusses in “Going Native, Becoming Modern: American Indians, Walt Whitman, and the Yiddish Poet,” American Quarterly 58, no. 2 (June 2006): 431–53. This may be an original poem written in the style of Japanese poetry, but without referencing a specific work. By quoting Yehoash, Zukofsky creates a dissonance between the elders’ revulsion toward the younger generation’s language implicit in the words “mouthed a jargon,” and the delicate simplicity of Yehoash’s poem. Zukofsky intensifies that simplicity in his translation, eliminating a number of words from the original:

‏דער רעגן בלעזעלט זיך אין שטילן װאַסער,
‏קוק איך װי די רינגען שפּרײַטן זיך פֿונאַנדער: ‏
שימאָנע־סאַן, דו סאַמורײַ בלאַסער,
װען װעסטו קומען פֿון דײַן װײַטער װאַנדער? –
שימאָנע־סאַן, מײַן העלער שטערן... ‏

The rain bubbles on quiet water
I watch the rings spread away from one another
Shimone-san, you pale samurai,
When will you return from your distant travels?
Shimone-san, my bright star. 42 42 Yehoash, In geveb, vol. 1, 69, my translation.

Zukofsky retains important parts of the original, including the mood, meaning, and even the placement of the lines on the page, but he streamlines the language, dropping modifiers such as the Romantic “pale,” and redundant phrases such as “from your distant travels.” In re-interpreting the poem in his translation, Zukofsky enacts the confluence he is proposing between Yiddish poetry and a new modernist American poetry in English, linking Yehoash to the modernist fascination with the perceived simplicity and beauty of Asian languages espoused by writers such as Pound.

Zukofsky quotes Yehoash’s poem in its entirety, ending by attributing the poem to “ – Yehoash.” He underlines his sense of affiliation with the Yiddish poet in the next lines, “Song’s kinship, / The roots we strike.” 43 43 Zukofsky, “A,” 14. In the next few lines, Zukofsky includes a more diverse pastiche of lines from several different Yehoash poems. The three lines immediately following the declaration of Yehoash’s significance are drawn from Yehoash’s poem “Tsvishn beymer” (Among the trees). He borrows his source material from the second and last stanza of this section of Yehoash’s poem, which follows in my translation:

‏טיף אין װאַלד שטײט מײַן געצעלט,
קײנער װעט צו מיר ניט קומען,
װי אַ װעל אַװעקגעשװוּמען
איז די װײַטע, װײַטע װעלט...
שלאָג איך װאָס אַ טאָג אַלץ מערער
טיפֿע װאָרצלען אין דער נידער,
װערן װאָס אַ טאָג אַלץ שװערער
מיט דער זאַפֿט פֿון װאַלד די גלידער –
גרױסע שטערן מײַנע הערער,
גרינע גראָזן מײַנע לידער... ‏

Deep in the woods stands my tent,
No one will come to me,
Like a whale that has swum away
Is the distant, distant world…
Day by day I hammer further
Deep roots below,
Day by day my limbs grow heavier
With the sap of forests—
Great stars my listeners
Green grasses my poems… 44 44 Yehoash, In geveb, vol. 1, 84–85.

This poem excited interest among other Yiddish poets for its attention to the relationship between the poet and the outside world, a subject of considerable interest to the Introspectivist group, which sought to express internal fragmentation by means of fragmented poetic imagery. 45 45 N. B. Minkoff, “Yehoash,” Idishe klasiker poetn: esseyen (Nyu-York: Farlag “Bodn”, 1937), 105. Zukofsky, who went much further than the Introspectivists in his explorations of the relationships between external objects and subjective experience, doubtless also responded to this aspect of the poem.

In “A”-4, Zukofsky condenses the poem and reverses the original order of the quoted lines, as follows:

Heavier from day to day
Grow my limbs with sap of forests
Deep roots hammer lower 46 46 Zukofsky, “A,” 14.

Zukofsky’s modification of the Yiddish original creates a sense of momentum downwards, echoing his earlier characterization of Yehoash as “the roots we strike,” and continuing the image of the tree. In his translation, Zukofsky displays a nuanced understanding of the original as well as a confident re-conceptualization of the poem for his own purposes.

The next lines quoted from Yehoash continue Zukofsky’s association of the Yiddish poet with the image of the sun, which appeared for the first time in “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” as discussed above. Here he draws on Yehoash’s poem “Tsu der zun,” (To the sun), which appears in the second volume of In geveb. Zukofsky again shortens and streamlines the original in this translation. The original reads, with my literal translation:

‏כ׳טו צו דער זון זיך בוקן:
אױפֿן גראָען רוקן
פֿון די בערג װען דו װעסט ליגן,
װעט דיר אױף די שטיגן
פֿון די פֿעלזן נאָכשלײכן מײַן תּפֿילה,
דו גרױסע שטילע
באַשענקערין פֿון מענטש און בױם און זאַמד,
װען דײַן פּנים פֿלאַמט
אין לעצטער רױקײט, לאָז מיר איבער פֿון
דײַן ליכט
אַ פֿונק, אַנטקעגן יעדער שײד װאָס לאַכט
אין פֿינסטערניש, און קעגן יעדער שלאַנג
װאָס קריכט
אױף מיר אין קבֿר פֿון דער נאַכט... ‏

I bow to the sun:
On the gray backs
Of the mountains; if you follow
Along the edges of the rocks
You will find my prayer.
You great, quiet
Bestower of man and tree and sand,
If your face flames
In the last redness, give me of
Your light
A spark, against every demon who laughs
In the darkness, and against every snake
Which crawls
On me in the grave of night. 47 47 Yehoash, In geveb, vol. 2, 35, my translation.

Zukofsky’s translation eliminates many of the specific details of the original poem, rendering it more abstract. He also cuts the last four lines, which significantly alters the poem’s meaning, from a despairing speaker’s longing for transcendence to a more generalized, more primal paen to light.

And to the Sun, I bow.
On the gray mountains,
Where multiply
The stairs of crags, my prayer
Will follow you, still Heir—
Of man and tree and sand,
When your face upon the land
Flames in last redness, allow me of your
light— 48 48 Zukofsky, “A,” 14–15.

Just as in “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” this translation once again makes use of Yehoash’s poetry to summon a sense of hope and optimism, which contrasts here with the older generation’s embittered clinging to an outmoded authority.

The next lines of “A”-4 recall that generation once again: “My father’s precursors / Set masts in dinghies, chanted the Speech.” Here Zukofsky establishes his ties to the older generation more clearly with his characterization of them as “my father’s precursors.” He muddies the waters of affiliation somewhat in the later lines, “Yehoash - / the courses we tide from.” 49 49 Ibid., 15. Both the older generation, possessors of the Speech, and Yehoash, who “mouthed a jargon,” are his predecessors, and in this poem both play a role in creating Zukofsky’s poetry. Although he critiques the older generation for their intolerance, and displays his loyalty to Yehoash in his translations of his poetry, what comes out most clearly in the poem is Zukofsky’s attempt to trace a poetic genealogy for himself within the Jewish tradition, or at least, the tradition of Jewish language. They inevitably share the same tide.

This complex relationship with Yehoash’s poetry demonstrates that for Zukofsky, Yiddish is both a fraught connection to his past and the key to transforming the future. It offers a link to the past, no matter how “degenerate” it may seem to the older generation, and a poetic vision that breaks the boundaries of what has been possible in English. Not bound to a single tradition, incorporating the best works of world literature in conversation with one another, allowing the familiar and the everyday to coexist with the divine, it represents, for Zukofsky, what English literature can and should become. Zukofsky’s translations from Yiddish shed light on his radically open vision for modern American poetics.

Ponichtera, Sarah. “Louis Zukofsky: Building a Poetics of Translation.” In geveb, December 2019:
Ponichtera, Sarah. “Louis Zukofsky: Building a Poetics of Translation.” In geveb (December 2019): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Sarah Ponichtera

Sarah Ponichtera is the Assistant Dean for Special Collections & the Gallery at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.