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Formalism as Mysticism: Reading Jewish American Poets Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff

Xavier Kalck
p. 117-132


La tradition moderniste américaine telle qu’elle nous apparaît aujourd’hui offre un panorama dont la richesse le dispute à la dispersion. Au sein de ce modernisme, les poètes objectivistes traversent le vingtième siècle depuis des parcours hautement dissemblables. Pourtant, la critique les rassemble de plus en plus comme poètes juifs américains de l’entre-deux-guerres. A travers cette désignation aux contours souvent flous, le formalisme du dernier vingtième siècle se réinvente aux sources identitaires présumées des précurseurs qu’il se désigne. Appuyé par l’étude des textes de Louis Zukofsky et de Charles Reznikoff, cet article se propose d’envisager les problèmes méthodologiques que posent les notions de mysticisme et de formalisme lorsqu’elles se superposent.

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1This paper looks at the overlap between mysticism and formalism, and the methodological problems that ensue when this occurs, looking at the work of Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. As “objectivists”, their work has been said to be patterned after Jewish culture, Judaism, Jewishness, and other denominations for that denomination. In spite of the presence of that tradition, we are not accustomed to think of these second-wave modernist poets as traditionalists. Rather, they exemplify American modernist poetry’s twice-removed heteronomy, seeking formal remedies in pre-eighteenth century English-language poetry as well as in non-English literary tradition. Although the displacement of authority one enables when resorting to the exoticism of remote times or places is no new strategy in itself for an avant-garde trying to better the instruction offered by its present circumstances, second-wave American modernists and poets of the Pound era at large faced the daunting task of using that two-edged exoticism, both past and foreign, and still producing a domestic idiom that would pass the test of their own indigenous perceptions.

  • 1 On this topic, for an overview of present dilemmas, see for instance Timothy Yu, “Ron Silliman and (...)

2As in due course it became a tradition itself, retrospective accounts have increasingly studied the modernist vernacular through the particulars of ethnicity or identity, in the hope of putting forth some definitive statement which would, almost tautologically, allow one to identify what the period meant. As Rachel Blau Du Plessis tells us, when she asked Robert Creeley once in the nineteen-eighties “why, in his view, the Objectivists were so under-known and so under-acknowledged”, his response was, “Anti-Semitism” (Miller Morris 201). However sketchy, Creeley’s reply ought not to be forgotten when making the case that ethnicity or identity has merely become the new authenticity,1 the narrative that would be the connective glue to the disjunctive collage. Nonetheless, we do need to let go of narrowly periodizing or strictly radicality-promoting readings of second-wave modernists that invoke Judaism as a vague and all too convenient notion. In fact, re-reading the objectivists may turn out to be a crucial step in debunking the underlying mysticism in formalist critical readings of 20th century American poetry.

3For excessive belief in the virtues of form for form’s sake has resulted in many combined deceptions. First, when praising second-wave modernists such as the objectivists for distancing themselves from Eliot’s Gentile tradition, the gist of the argument has focused historically on these poets’ American anchorage, politically on their revolutionary concerns, and ethnically on their Jewish heritage. Consequently, aesthetic readings have emphasized the achievement of a new Coherent American Splendor (Gelpi), philosophical ones have celebrated their Marxist materiality, and cultural ones have reclaimed their minority status. Yet all these point in the same direction: they are all restrictively formal. The search for Painterly Abstractions (Altieri) will make the case for American poetic visual arts to the detriment of idiom-based designs. Finding Frankfurt school logic in U.S. poetry causes a commodification of poetic labor congealed for its dialectical value. Reading Jewishness as disruptively dialectal oddly underplays how richly traditional Judaism equally is and was for these poets.

4One of the well-known tenants of Judaism is, as we know, the rejection of idolatry. All three deceptive directions I have just listed have it in common that they point towards idolatry, yet all originate in a desire to dispel false idols. Passion for the visual composition on the page was first a means to avoid the logocentric fallacies of the mind’s eye. Waxing theoretical allowed for a refurbishing of the Romantic wish for a “philosophical song” in a new revolutionary age, against the presumed immediacies of soulfulness. Listening for non-English, non-Puritan identities meant making room for these Jewish poets who had—and have—been all but de-anthologized. Still, this idolatry paradox is quite real, and perhaps more so regarding what I propose to call formalism as mysticism.

5Now there is nothing wrong with mysticism, if by mysticism we understand something along the lines of Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good”, as Gershom Scholem recommends we understand the term (Scholem 1995, 36). In other words, mysticism in general calls to mind various ecstatic experiences of mystical unions such as “the fundamental experience of the inner self which enters into immediate contact with God or the metaphysical Reality” (Scholem 1995, 36). In this sense indeed, “[t]here is no mysticism as such, there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system, Christian, Islamic, Jewish mysticism and so on” (Scholem 1995, 38). In its derogatory sense, mysticism simply connotes vague and obscure beliefs that are being made conveniently inaccessible to our better judgment.

6My reasons for using such an unwieldy term are encapsulated in the type of formalist mysticism I would like to address, which is best summarized as follows:

Meaning is expelled from the world, because the idea of a meaningful world is taken to be idolatry. The stripping of meaning from the world, on the grounds that the idea of meaning is a superstitious fiction, only promotes a rival superstition, which is that our own activity is the source of all meaning. Veneration of nature is replaced by veneration of production, and of the dead product, the system of disenchanted reason. (Jarvis 68)

  • 2 See Jameson, Frederic, “The Ideology of the Text”.

7This renewed form of idolatry among formalists has already been scrutinized.2 What interests me particularly here is the mystical irony, as it were, that is to be found at work in formalist hubris when directed at, or claiming to stem from Judaism.

  • 3 Think of Jerome Rothenberg’s often quoted phrase, “All poets are Jews”. Yet I do not consider Rothe (...)

8One says text, procedure, language, letters, numbers, or word versus voice, under the general assumption that one is thus choosing Hebraism against Hellenism. But when one takes a closer look at the cultural-ethnic justification, what should have been sobering has proven but another form of intoxication. Mixing secular and Biblical poetics while under the influence of the usual stereotypes about the Book-driven people sometimes comes very close to making bookishness itself a racial slur.3 Specific parallels between Judaism and second-wave modernist poetics go untold, unless as with Reznikoff, the topic is thematically inescapable, while clashing discrepancies are not allowed to come disrupt the identificatory narrative being put forward. For Jewishness, however one may choose to define it—which alone would require an entire library of debates—when used as a critical literary prism, is not exactly a handy set of tools. The amusing quote from Kafka on the back cover of Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris’s precious collection, entitled Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, summarizes the problem well enough: “What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!” Which is why I shall not venture into these matters on those terms. What I would like to sketch out in this paper is a middle-ground between sometimes exclusionary matters of identity and often decontextualized problems of form, focusing on the work of two renowned Jewish objectivists, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. Far from any notion of a “religious” reading of these poets’ works—whatever that would specifically mean—I would like to show how Biblical influences help us re-contextualize their poems.

9Zukofsky is often labeled the proto-language poet, which is a reconstruction, not a chronological account, and the reason why it is best to start with him. Michael Heller warns against this retrospective inclusion in “Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words”:

Freed from the need to trade coarsely in representation, freed from time and place, the poem can be handed over to method. Now this triumph over the real has led, in imitation of the auto industry, to a certain planned obsolescence of poetic form. Poetic form no longer has what Louis Zukofsky once described as a “job” to do; it has become an end in itself, a reduction of poetic tradition. (Heller 209)

10Whereas Zukofsky’s insistence on poetic craft has in itself been a way for some to claim lineage, Zukofsky’s “job” cannot be said to translate directly into method. Certainly, “A”- 6 reads:

Particular: Every fall season, every spring, he needs
                                                             a new coat
                            He loses his job —
Poetry? it has something to do with his writing of
(Zukofsky 1993, 26)

11Not only is the job in question not poetry (he loses a job, yet goes on writing poetry), but Zukofsky’s work is indeed never “freed from time and place”. The continuous passing of time, its wear and tear translating into the need for a new coat—which may well evoke putting a new layer upon a revised text—is equated with timing the speaker’s life itself in “A”. Now take the more delicate question of literary enjoyment, which along with craft will be mentioned as inspirational in Zukofsky. Is Heller wrong in writing the following?

For what happens in some “language-centered” writing is not so much that we are freed but that we are severed from even considering the social meaning of freedom by being delivered into the polymorphic pleasures of the non-referential—plaisirs du texte indeed, but privatized and unavailable for the social agenda which many of the language poets claim, lies at the base of their work. (Heller 217)

  • 4 Mottram is especially relevant in making clear that Zukofsky’s famous Spinozian “labor as creator/l (...)

12One may object that Zukofsky defines poetry, in his preface to A Test of Poetry, as “the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection”, and that he insists that poetry, like anything else, “is after all for interested people” (Zukofsky 2000, xi). In fact, Eric Mottram has shown how Zukofsky’s concern for a pleasurable form is worth debating, for it clashes with some of the political ambitions in his work, or at least among critics seeking to endow his work with political value. Writing that “[t]he clarity of Zukofsky’s music leaves too much of the intellectual and emotional information at the mercy of musically-controlled syntax and measure” (Mottram 95), Mottram reminds us that “A-7 may be a high point of musical organization but it is alarming to find ‘Brother, we want a meal’ simply as part of poetic pattern (1928-30)” (Mottram 94).4 Yet Zukofsky’s music, as it happens, has been understood as the very place where “the intellectual and emotional information” is to be found. This conundrum is a resounding example of one of the most recent contradictions in contemporary criticism involved in poetry, by which I mean the shared interest in the materiality of printed texts, as well as the performing of poems as sound. Recording may seem to make the contradiction disappear: media-centered writing has simply evolved with the media. Some have even confessed, like Charles Bernstein, “so yes, I do fetishize the acoustic inscription of the poet’s voice, or at least I take it as aesthetically significant” (Perloff Dworkin 144). The implications of that fetishism and aestheticizing of acoustic imprints should not be minimized. They reveal some of the changes in the ongoing professionalization of poetry in the context of important evolutions taking place in publishing—audio and video performance representing a key turning-point in the transformations of authorship in the early 21st century—which also testify to a reactivation of the mythical belief in a golden age of poetry when poem, song and dance were one, be it under the guise of digitalized futurity.

13But Zukofsky’s music is not “an end in itself” (Heller 209), notwithstanding its overreaching and reductive nature sometimes as conceit, despite some of Zukofsky’s own critical statements. What Zukofsky’s music has come to illustrate is the shift from, or confusion between, structural and cultural approaches to poetry. The mathematical rigor of fugue-like compositions reinvented and deformed as poetic constraints serve as counterpoint to the assimilatory disassembling of common speech that is so recognizable in Zukofsky’s patterns. Bach or Brooklyn, so to speak, meter or mother (tongue), or is it both at once?

14Bernstein’s praise of Zukofsky’s Poem Beginning “The” and of Zukofsky’s “Brooklynese” translations (Perloff Dworkin 147) as “anti-assimilationist, not to say dissident, anti-absorptive both cultural and poetically” (148), would be a good example. For is this not, to some extent, a variation on Pound’s highly questionable praise of Reznikoff’s work in a letter to Zukofsky, talking about the “lack of prose in German due to all idiomatic energy being drawn off into Yiddish” (Ahearn 26-7)? The idea of Jews sucking out the life force of German language—rife with anti-Semitic undertones—seems merely inverted in praising a purported Yiddish creolization of English. On the contrary, I would argue that Zukofsky is equally, if not more, an avid assimilationist, while at the same time, his apparent disengagement from traditional Judaism should not hide the profound echoes between his work and that tradition.

15Consider how “A”-4 is being read, where Zukofsky voices his concerns about the status of Yiddish as jargon for English ears (already vivid in his Poem Beginning “The”), of English as jargon for Yiddish ears, and soon of Hebrew as jargon as well for the assimilated Jew. As Stephen Fredman wrote, the “jargon (Yiddish) that Zukofsky flings back into the faces of his elders at the Menorah Journal [who had rejected a contribution by Zukofsky] consists of an imitation-Japanese poem in the mode of Pound’s Cathay (1915)” (Fredman 131). Fredman concludes: “He selects Yiddish over Hebrew because, unlike Reznikoff and the Menorah writers, he no longer seeks a way to become American while remaining Jewish; instead, Zukofsky looks toward the lively, cosmopolitan, secular, politically engaged culture of Yiddish” (131). According to Fredman, this is a way for Zukofsky to embrace modernist innovations across the globe thanks to Yiddish’s “porosity with respect to other languages” (131). So that in the end, Zukofsky “turns English into a kind of Yiddish, a language that resists fusion of its elements and maintains its separateness” (132), contrary to Reznikoff’s sense of “a lost patrimony” (133). The idea of Zukofsky’s supposed Yiddishization of English as prototypically experimental may be quite seductive, it should not divert our attention either from the influence of Hebrew, as the language of the scriptures and as the language of its hermeneutic tradition, or from the fact that wishing to turn English into a form Yiddish still means relinquishing Yiddish in favor of English, which did not go without saying in early twentieth-century New York.

16Turning English into a kind of Yiddish, thus turning upside down the process of linguistic assimilation, may only be entertained as a construction—a productive one for Zukofsky surely, but a construction nonetheless. For Zukofsky’s position remains through and through an American one. His marked dissatisfaction with the Menorah Journal, his complicated and ambivalent position as a Jew in his correspondence with Pound at the end of the twenties, to use but these two examples, make Zukofsky’s relation with Yiddish a difficult one to assess. For if Zukofsky’s social, economic and intellectual progress connects him to the Haskalah—late nineteenth century Eastern European Jewish enlightenment—Zukofsky’s ancestry and his educational background look towards Hasidism.

  • 5 Haskalah proponents.
  • 6 For in-depth discussion of these two groups, see Hellerstein’s and Bachman’s contributions in Radic (...)

17Besides, is Yiddish in and of itself “naturally” and necessarily more idiomatically Jewish? Though the topic is too large even to summarize, a few reminders may be in order. To begin to answer that question, or even begin to ask it properly, one would need to account for the historical trajectories of “Westjuden” versus “Ostjuden”, which tell very different tales of linguistic confrontations and language strategies. We would have to look at what Yiddish meant for the young maskilim,5 since Jewish intellectual, cultural and political leaders, though proficient in the languages spoken at the various European universities, resorted to Yiddish as a key incentive to mobilize the people—for speaking Yiddish was as much a cultural as it was a social marker. This is true all the way to the Bund, and Vladimir Medem’s clash with Lenin on the national basis for international political forces. Medem had to learn Yiddish to write in Der Minsker Arbeter, the Minsk underground Bund organ (Ertel 29). As Jeffrey Shandler underlines, “Jewish political polemicist Nathan Birnbaum, the Bundist ideologist Vladimir Medem, and the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich were all Jews who did not learn Yiddish as their mother tongue but mastered it later in life” (Shandler 190). We would also have to account for Yiddish poetry in New York at the time, namely the competing Yunge poets and the Inzikh poets.6 Last, one should bear in mind the passionate linguistic disputes that took place within Zionism in the early twentieth century, from the first international Yiddish conference of 1908 at Czernowits to the work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the rise of Modern Hebrew.

  • 7 Which is why Norman Finkelstein’s opening remarks in Scroggins’ Upper Limit Music, “When we conside (...)

18A native speaker of Yiddish, Zukofsky sought to enter English letters, translating Yiddish poet Yehoash into English. For no matter how disruptive his translations, transliterations or multilingual poetics, his work is done in English, a crucial choice for a young Jewish New York poet at the time.7 The index to “A” references only three occurrences under “Yiddish”, after the cautionary distancing parenthesis “(quoted and translated)” (“A” 826). In comparison, “Hebrew” gets three mentions as well, while “Jew”, the Gentile English identity name-tag, gets twenty-one—the poet reaching maturity and assimilated adulthood, one would venture.

19The choice of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, heard April 5 1928 at Carnegie Hall, to open and be the key recurrent motif in “A”, much like Zukofsky’s later focus on Shakespeare in Bottom: On Shakespeare, point in the same direction: both are major cultural figures of Gentile Western European culture, both explicitly viewed as having fathered literature or music. As for its religious connotations, the Passion itself, heard upon the first night of Passover 1928—Zukofsky writes flippantly “It was also Passover” in “A”-1 (Zukofsky 1993, 3), begins to make some sense as Passover, and not Easter. The celebration of God passing over the houses of the Israelites, sparing the first-born, and leading his people out of Egypt is bitterly echoed in Zukofsky’s passing over into English language, literature and culture. Yet this passing over is inseparable from a form of passing down, even as the poet passes himself off as a non-Jew. The reader’s first response to the unmediated opening of “A” is one of surprise and wonder, a premise that the poem repeats as its point of origin recurs. So that the reader could very well ask: why that night? Why is this night so different from all other nights? Such is the opening question traditionally asked by the youngest child at the Passover Seder, followed by the four questions which introduce the ensuing reading of the Haggadah, passing down the tradition. After all, opening on Bach phonetically echoes the introductory prayer that would begin in Hebrew with that same syllable, in barukh ata Adonai, blessed are you, Lord. The first line of “A”, “A/Round of fiddles playing Bach” (Zukofsky 1993, 1) would sound very different with that apocopic transliteration of barukh in mind. We may then infer that instead of believing Zukofsky chose Yiddish over Hebrew, it would be more accurate to say that he chose English over Yiddish, against the background of a Hebrew-based Judaic tradition. After all, we should bear in mind that the Passion in question was written in Bach’s Lutheran German, itself a vernacular translation of the Latin gospels.

20Establishing these genealogical details is essential, for Zukofsky’s efforts in pushing the idiom to its furthest recesses cannot be formally transferred or abstracted from his own linguistic and textual self. Norman Finkelstein writes, “[…] the designifying practices of traditional Jewish textuality function as a means of self-determination: language may be regarded as indeterminate, but that indeterminacy renews, rather than disperses, the unique meaning of each individual” (Miller Morris 232). Zukofsky’s is indeed a poetics of self-determinacy.

  • 8 See Prepositions+, 193-202.

21Generalizations about Charles Reznikoff’s relation to Judaism have also clouded our relation to his poetry. When presenting Reznikoff, whose work supplied Zukofsky with the examples for his seminal 1930 essay8, some, like John Martone, have gone as far as to claim that in Reznikoff’s hands, “the Talmud becomes a manifesto of the avant-garde” (Martone 71). Others, like Bernstein, have sought to formalize Judaism into poetic practice, speaking of “Jewish forms (not just themes): the idea of Jewish holiness (blessedness): in the detail, the everyday: every activity, every moment, holy” (DuPlessis Quartermain 223). Many have said there were two Reznikoffs: on the one hand the objectivist urban New York poet, the daring precursor of found text composition with his book Testimony, and the translator psalmist compiler on the other—as if there were “a split between Jewish content and an incompatible (because rhetorically ineffectual) Objectivist style” (DuPlessis Quartermain 195). This apparent contradiction, which Finkelstein has admirably demonstrated was really a productive and dialectical tension, shows that though there may sometimes seem to be a common denominator in the attention to particulars among objectivists or objectivism related poets, one should be careful not to forget the implications of that specific tension. Finkelstein is right to insist that the idea of “[m]odernism’s antagonism to elaborate rhetoric and the concomitant emphasis on the direct, unadorned image promised writers like the Objectivists a linguistic newness that was, strange as it may seem, still in keeping with certain Jewish principles” (DuPlessis Quartermain 195). Yet there is no actual homogeneity in that restricted sense within the invention of the quotidian, or the ordinary, or the detail among poets too often lumped together when discussing these matters like Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein. Consider this classic epigram from Reznikoff:

Rooted among roofs, their smoke among the clouds,
factory chimneys—our cedars of Lebanon.
(Reznikoff 1976, 115)

22The dash in the second of these lines, from Reznikoff’s 1934 Jerusalem the Golden, delineates the two sides of the issue. One reading would have us see those factory chimneys as our very own cedars of Lebanon—no less holy than the cedars of which the house of David was made (1 Chronicles 17:1). The possessive “our” could, in such a case, be heard as “are”. Yet this would be a surprisingly uneventful reading of these two lines. For not only may the final remark ring as a biting comment, but “our” answers the previous “their” as though illustrating an actual separation—their factory chimneys, with their smoke among the clouds, are nothing like our cedars of Lebanon. The introductory words in the poem, “Rooted among roofs”, would then literally picture an up-rooted exilic world, possibly also inverted and up side down, not the immigrant’s dream but the factory worker’s clouded reality. In systematically praising Reznikoff’s sense of detail as holy, one takes out the element of social critique involved in the poem. Not that it must be read only as a warning for gullible Jews seeking a better future in the Promised Land. The parallelism between the three stresses of “our cedars of Lebanon” and the three stresses of “their smoke among the clouds”, after the comma as well as after the dash, seem to indicate that we must we choose between these two competing interpretations, or articulate the two in one. Finkelstein argues convincingly that this poem conveys “both loss and recovery” (DuPlessis Quartermain 201). To answer this question, we need to take into account the implications of the rejection of idolatry in Judaism. Levinas wrote: “This, then, is the eternal seductiveness of paganism, beyond the infantilism of idolatry, which long ago was surpassed. The Sacred filtering into the world—Judaism is perhaps no more than the negation of all that” (Levinas 232). Though Levinas is here distancing himself with Heidegger’s sense of place, the point is a decisive one, clearer perhaps in the exegesis that follows:

Oh! Tamarisk planted by Abraham at Beer-sheba! One of the rare ‘individual’ trees planted in the Bible, which appear in all its freshness and colour to charm the imagination in the midst of so much peregrination, across so much desert. But take care! The Talmud is perhaps afraid that we let ourselves be carried away by the song […]. It wrests us from our dreams: Tamarisk is an acronym; the three letters needed to write the word in Hebrew are the initials used for Food, Drink and Shelter, three things necessary to man which man offers to man. (Levinas 233)

23In reading Reznikoff, one is tempted to make a similar error. Seeing that the Judaic materials—for lack of a better word—filter into the world and into the words of the New York poet, one may be tempted to simply mistake Judaism for the Revelation, and assume that what is filtering is the sacred. Levinas’s tamarisk and Reznikoff’s cedars of Lebanon then serve a common purpose: neither allows one to “be carried away by the song”. Reznikoff is always careful to articulate the chasm that prevents an idolatrous reading from taking hold. Consider this last example:

All day the pavement has been black
with rain, but in our warm brightly-lit
room, Praise God,
I kept saying to myself,
and saying not a word,
Amen, you answered. (Reznikoff 1976, 119)

24The powerful image of seclusion within a dark urban desert conveyed in these few lines is only balanced by a silent answer from within a closed-in space. The dialogue with God takes place thanks to an artificial light, providing brightness in an otherwise rainy, black city. The repeatedly chiastic structure combines revealing pairs: “day” and “lit” vs. “black” and “rain”; “God” and “I” vs. “room” and “myself” alone in it; “word” and “Amen” vs. “saying” and “answered”. In this highly introspective poem, the outside day is obscured, and the self is the room one may find for praying. But that prayer immediately folds back onto itself, as the I merges with the words, as the voice never belongs to a subjectivized self, but is equated with prayer alone. So that instead of being built upon a simple antithesis, with the ominous outside world pitted against the warm bright inside of the self’s little room, the poem’s subject disappears into the prayer’s silently spoken words. This type of performative praise is both vividly part of world’s details and entirely aimed at baring the world of any of the paraphernalia of religiosity.

25On the contrary, when Bernstein discusses Reznikoff and goes back to Scholem’s notion of language, in the Kabbalah, as a reflection of the architecture of creation, does he forget that what Scholem has in mind is not language but Hebrew and the sacred text? Which begs the question, to put it very bluntly in Zukofskian terms: can the design of Hebrew be transferred to English-language poetry? For all his interest in the Hebrew Bible, Reznikoff’s answer is no. His sense of the commonplace should not be overemphasized to the point where one sacralizes any piece of ephemera. This would turn the poems over to idolatry, as though his apparent iconoclastic retelling of tradition should promptly be tamed as a form of divinity-infused realism.

26So what are the characteristic features of formalism as mysticism, if we are to avoid idolizing language and the real? In the end, the idea of formalism as mysticism may be understood as follows, along two competing lines. Formalizing mysticism by abstracting features that belong to sacred texts into literary devices. Mysticizing formalism when infusing poetic detail with the aura of religious hermeneutics. While critical accounts of Reznikoff and Zukofsky’s works epitomize much of this redoubled confusion within the critical clerisy, they were both acutely aware of their own positions and inscriptions both as Jews and as poets. Our critical consensus rests on such an instantiation of language as the substance of all our dealings that we seem to have forgotten what William Blake had warned us against, when he pointed out that priesthood began when “choosing forms of worship from poetic tales” (Blake 91).

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-----, Prepositions +: The Collected Critical Essays, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, [1948] 2000.

-----, A Test of Poetry [1948], Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

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1 On this topic, for an overview of present dilemmas, see for instance Timothy Yu, “Ron Silliman and the Ethnicization of the Avant-Garde”.

2 See Jameson, Frederic, “The Ideology of the Text”.

3 Think of Jerome Rothenberg’s often quoted phrase, “All poets are Jews”. Yet I do not consider Rothenberg’s work here, which comes much later. What I mean to challenge are assumptions made from such a perspective as Rothenberg’s, but applied to poets from the first half of the century. For a discussion of Rothenberg’s use of those sources, see Christine A. Meilicke’s Jerome Rothenberg’s Experimental Poetry and Jewish Tradition.

4 Mottram is especially relevant in making clear that Zukofsky’s famous Spinozian “labor as creator/labor as creature” from “A”-6, which has so often been read as electing labor as paramount, could also be though of as its exact opposite: presenting labor in the terms of Spinoza’s nature risks if not a naturalization of labor, at least a dangerous conflation of nature and/as human society.

5 Haskalah proponents.

6 For in-depth discussion of these two groups, see Hellerstein’s and Bachman’s contributions in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture.

7 Which is why Norman Finkelstein’s opening remarks in Scroggins’ Upper Limit Music, “When we consider the aesthetics of the Jewish-American modernists, whether they wrote in Yiddish or English […]” (Scroggins 65 my emphasis) seem strikingly anachronistic, no matter how illuminating the rest of the piece. The choice was a meaningful one.

8 See Prepositions+, 193-202.

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Bibliographical reference

Xavier Kalck, « Formalism as Mysticism: Reading Jewish American Poets Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 117-132.

Electronic reference

Xavier Kalck, « Formalism as Mysticism: Reading Jewish American Poets Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 13 December 2013, connection on 17 August 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Xavier Kalck

Université Paris-Sorbonne.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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