Art and/as Labor: Some Dialectical Patterns in 'A'-1 through 'A'-10

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 121)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,748 words

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[(essay date summer 1984) In the following essay, Hatlen focuses on the opposition between aesthetics and politics in the first ten sections of "A," arguing that the poem serves as a socialist response to the fascism of Ezra Pound's Cantos.]

That certain dialectical patterns play through all of Louis Zukofsky's poetry, and especially "A," has been suggested by Barry Ahearn: "Zukofsky's works swarm with opposites: objective/subjective, thought/music, autobiography/reticence, and a formula he found in Spinoza, "natura naturans, natura naturata" (nature as creator, nature as created)."1 While Ahearn's list of the opposites in Zukofsky's poetry is useful, it seems to me incomplete, and in this essay I want to focus on a pattern of oppositions missing from Ahearn's list: the conflict between aesthetic experience and political action that plays through the first ten sections of "A".2 "A" is from beginning to end a persistently self-reflexive poem, a poem about poetry, about language--as the raw material of poetry--in general, and about art in general. In the first ten sections of "A", Zukofsky develops a complex counterpoint between his aesthetic commitments and the Marxist political commitments that he maintained from his youth until the 1940s. Some of the political and social concerns evident in "A"-1 through "A"-10 fade in the later movements. The decisive shift seems to come between "A"-10 and "A"-11--almost ten years' time and a major shift in attitude separate these two sections of "A" (although as we shall see, "A"-9 seems designed to bridge this gap). But in this essay I shall focus on the first ten sections of "A"; and in my discussion of these sections of the poem, I shall argue that Zukofsky has here left us one of the most permanently interesting bodies of political poetry written in the first half of this century.

Specifically, I propose that "A"-1 through "A"-10 represents a sustained effort to write, within a poetic mode that derives from Pound, a democratic and socialist response to the elitist and fascist political epic that Pound himself was writing during the 1930s. Yet although he was explicitly and consistently a political poet, the young Zukofsky never sacrificed his art to his politics, and it is the interplay between art and politics in "A"-1 through "A"-10 that I want to trace here. Further, I wish to argue that ultimately Zukofsky finds a way of reconciling art and politics within an explicitly Marxist conception of labor as the distinctively human act by which we collectively transform the world and make it our own. The labor here at issue may include the verbal act by which the poet transforms the world, the physical act by which the worker--as Marx contended--infuses value into material objects, or the political praxis of the social visionary--Lenin is Zukofsky's principal example--who struggles to transform society itself. If all...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420106033