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Mark Scroggins on "Mantis"

"Mantis," like so much of Zukofsky’s work, both reflects his tuition in the "school of Pound" and demonstrates the extent to which he brings a self-consciousness beyond Pound's to that tradition. Like Pound's "Sestina: Altaforte," "Mantis" is a sestina, a seven-stanza poem in a form invented by Dante's "miglior fabbro," the Troubadour Arnaut Daniel. The requirements of the form are clearly specified and rigorously bind the poet. There is no conventional rhyme, but the line-end words of the first six-line stanza are reshuffled in each succeeding stanza until the sixth, when they reach the limit of their combinatory possibilities (the limit, that is, given the pattern of recombination that the form prescribes): a further combination would result in the repetition of the order of the first stanza. The sixth stanza is followed by a three-line coda, the commiato or congedo (or tornada), in which all six of the key words reappear, half in line-end positions and half somewhere within the lines. The beginning of this movement can be seen in the first two stanzas of "Mantis."

[. . . .]

Zukofsky's lines, though they are by no means blank verse, have approximately ten syllables each. The sestina form works to impose an extraordinary constraint on his semantic choice, on what Jakobson would call the "axis of selection": out of the approximately 390 syllables of the poem, over 10 percent (forty-two) are predetermined to be the six key words: "leaves," "poor," "it," "you," "lost," and "stone." An additional syntactic constraint is exerted by the relatively determined grammatical nature of half of these words; whereas "leaves" and "stone" can be either noun or verb and "poor" can be either adjective or noun, there is no such flexibility in constructing syntactic patterns around "it," "you," and "lost."

In choosing to write his "Altaforte" as a sestina, Pound is engaging in his favored activity of renovating the voices of the past (in this case the Provençal figure Bertran de Born) by reimagining them in English--but in foreign, archaic poetic forms. The sestina is a useful formal measure here because of its inherent association with Provençal verse, and by choosing the most vivid words possible as his line-ends ("peace," "music," "clash," "opposing," "crimson," and "rejoicing"), Pound can emphasize the violence and turbulence both of his persona and of the era in which he lives: "Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife," he notes, and asks his readers to judge, "Have I dug him up again?" (Personae 26). The sestina form, as well, mimes Bertran's obsessive nature through its constant repetitions. Zukofsky's poem, in contrast to Pound's historical enterprise, is involved with immediate events and contemporary society: the poet's chance encounter with a praying mantis in a subway station becomes the trigger for an exploration of the economic situation of the day (1934), a meditation that culminates in the coda with an impassioned address to the insect and a call to arms of the proletariat:

Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves
The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone
And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!

Notwithstanding the affective power of the poem itself, and Zukofsky's obvious mastery of the sestina form (one evidence of the formal facility so overwhelmingly present in the double canzone of "A"-9), "Mantis" would stand only as a tour de force--another vaguely dilettantish effort by a contemporary poet to breathe life into an exotic form--were it not for the poem that follows it: "Mantis," An Interpretation." This commentary, over three times as long as "Mantis" itself, attempts to justify Zukofsky's choice of the sestina form as a necessary compositional measure rather than a sterile formal exercise or reactionary gesture away from free verse. The dialectic of poetic history is marked by such retrograde gestures, the most famous of which is perhaps Pound's and Eliot's adoption, in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and in the "quatrain" poems of Poems (1920), of a fairly rigid, rhymed quatrain form. As Pound puts it, "two authors, neither engaged in picking the other's pocket, decided that the dilutation of vers libre, Amygism, Lee Masterism, general floppiness had gone too far and that some counter-current must be set going.... Remedy prescribed "Émaux et Camées" (or the Bay State Hymn Book). Rhyme and regular strophes" (quoted in Espey 25). Zukofsky at no point implies that his poem represents such a retrenchment, but even as "An Interpretation" ingeniously pleads on behalf of the ostensibly retrograde form of "Mantis," it makes evident an interesting and deep-seated contradiction within Zukofsky's very conception of the relationship of form and content, an ultimately insurmountable contradiction between the Romantic ideology of "organic form" and Zukofsky's own specifically modernist formal self-consciousness.

"An Interpretation" makes its argument on two levels that coexist uneasily. On the one hand it argues that the sestina, which Zukofsky characterizes in Dante's words as "la battaglia delli diversi pensieri ... / the battle of diverse thoughts" (CSP 68), bears an isomorphic relationship to "The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts" evoked in the poet's mind by his experience of seeing the mantis. The relationship of form and content, then, is an organic one, and the sestina form itself is implicit in the manner in which the poet's insights appear to him:

        this thoughts' torsion
Is really a sestina
Carrying subconsciously
Many intellectual and sensual properties
        of the forgetting and remembering Head

This is the New Critical Fallacy of Imitative Form with a vengeance, such a stance anticipates Robert Creeley's famous dictum, relayed through Olson's "Projective Verse" essay, that "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT" (Human Universe 52). But as well as anticipating the critical dogmas of the "New American Poetry," Zukofsky here strongly echoes the Romantic doctrine of organic form, most memorably stated in America by Emerson and Whitman. In "The Poet," Emerson writes, "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,--a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing" (450). And Whitman, in the preface to the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass, argues that "the poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity.... The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form" (11). The sestina, in the light of this tradition and of Zukofsky's own comments, is not a frame to be filled but a "force" (like the fugue) that compels and shapes the writing: "as an experiment, the sestina would be wicker-work-- /As a force, one would lie to one's feelings not to use it" (CSP 69).

The sestina "Mantis," however, with over one-tenth of its words determined by its form, is certainly no Song of Myself in terms of formal license. Zukofsky, writing "An Interpretation," is fully aware that the sestina form, no matter how strikingly closely it may seem to model the "torsion" of the poet's thoughts, is at the same time an artificial form that bears with it a history of invention and usage. Zukofsky comments acidly on the most immediately pre-modernist appearance of the sestina--its adoption in English by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite poets:

What is most significant
Perhaps is that C-- and S-- and X-- of the 19th century
Used the "form"--not the form but a Victorian
Stuffing like upholstery
For parlor polish. . .

This is the dilettantish use of the sestina that Zukofsky is anxious to disclaim--the sestina as "wicker-work" on which to hang already digested observation or rhetoric. What he does claim is that his own choice of the sestina, however organic or natural the form might seem for the thoughts he wishes to embody, is--however paradoxically--conditioned as well by the sestina's history and prior use.

A short way into "An Interpretation," Zukofsky records his first attempt to "write up" the mantis, twenty-seven words of undistinguished free verse:

"The mantis opened its body
It had been lost in the subway
It steadied against the drafts
It looked up--
Begging eyes--

It flew at my chest"

But the poet finds this unsatisfactory, initially because "The ungainliness / of the creature needs stating," and these six lines have not accomplished that goal: they are not ungainly but merely flat. Given the mental impetus of the poem—"Thoughts'--two or three or five or / Six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening / All immediate, not moved by any transition"--the question in the poet's mind becomes "what should be the form / Which the ungainliness already suggested / Should take?" The form that immediately occurs to Zukofsky (in his own account) is the sestina, a form that mirrors "Inevitable recurrence again in the blood / Where the spaces of verse are not visual / But a movement." The sestina suggests itself not because of but despite its usage by the nineteenth-century poets. For Zukofsky, the preeminent practitioner of the sestina is of course Dante himself, whose Vita Nuova is cited at the beginning of "An Interpretation, " and whose sestina "Al poco giorno" is quoted toward the end: "com'huom pietra sott' erba / as one should hide a stone in grass." Dante's sestina represents for Zukofsky the perfect marriage of form and content, the poem's thought inseparable from the complex structuring in which it is embodied, as opposed to the "wicker-work" or "Victorian / Stuffing" of nineteenth-century English sestinas. Viewed in this historical perspective, the sestina is not a form per se but a force, a "fact" among other facts motivating and contributing to the writing:

[. . . .]

The poem aims to "record" neither a "sestina" nor a "mantis" but to embody a set of "facts" In the poet's mind, among which are his experience in the subway station, his firsthand or otherwise knowledge of the plight of the poor, and the poetic use-value of the sestina form.

The answer to the question "Is the poem then, a sestina / Or not a sestina?" must then be both yes and no. It is yes, in the most basic sense, in that the turnings and "torsions" of the poem's language, reflecting the "twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts," assume the seven-stanza pattern of recurrences identified with Daniel's and Dante's works. The answer is no in that the poem is not an exercise, an experiment, or a virtuosic display ("The word sestina has been / Taken out of the original title") in which the poet's primary aim is precisely to write a sestina, to produce a poem in a given form. On a certain level, Zukofsky has inherited the sestina form from Dante, and from all other practitioners of the form who have preceded him. But he refuses to take this inheritance for granted, to accept it as a given (just as, one might argue, he refuses to accept the English language as merely an inheritance). Joseph Conte's allegory of the postmodern sestina is interesting; he proposes that Zukofsky's and John Ashbery's uses of the form resemble yuppie renovations of Victorian brownstone houses, in which only the shells of the houses remain intact, the interiors now containing "new hardwood, track lighting, framed lithographs, Boston ferns, and Italian furniture" (167). I propose an allegory more in line with the actual practices of postmodern architecture: by writing "Mantis" as a sestina, Zukofsky is, as it were, reinventing the brownstone-building, in the form of the old, a new house that by its very existence critiques the old, functioning as an ironic commentary. Like Borges's Pierre Menard, a modern writer who schools himself to write--not rewrite--a chapter of Don Quixote, in the process recognizing the innumerable cultural forces that contributed to Cervantes' masterwork (Labyrinths 36-44), Zukofsky reinvents the sestina by recognizing in his own "thoughts' torsion" pressures identical to those that led Dante to write "Al poco giorno."

Such a reading, however, verges on mere apologetics. In all probability, "`Mantis,’ An Interpretation" bears the same relationship to Zukofsky's poem "Mantis" as Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" does to its author's wildly popular "The Raven." (With the crucial difference, of course, that Zukofsky is not attempting a money-making follow-up to a popular and profitable literary "hit," as was Poe.) Even if one were not to question the good faith of Zukofsky's description of how he arrived at the sestina form, it is extremely difficult to reconcile the competing claims of the sestina as an inevitable, organic outgrowth of the poet's thoughts and the sestina as a historically specific form, bearing with it a history of usage. Zukofsky can only imagine the compositional process that led Dante to write his sestinas; to claim that they are organic outgrowths of Dante's thought processes is to apply a historically posterior ideology of form--Romantic organicism--to a medieval composition for which it is, to say the least, ill-fitted. The compositional processes Dante himself describes in Vita Nuova, for instance, certainly bear little resemblance to what Zukofsky talks about.

By examining "Mantis" itself, and Zukofsky's account of his poem, one begins to see how Zukofsky's ideology of form is inseparable from his ideology of information, the knowledge that the poem embodies and transmits to the reader. The "torsion" exemplified by the twistings and repetitions of the poem's six key words, a fairly mechanical species of counterpointing, is itself counterpointed by the poem's movement among the various themes and quanta of information in the poet's mind. In "An Interpretation," Zukofsky provides something of a gloss on some of these data:

For example--
line 1--entomology
line 9--biology
lines 10 and 11--the even rhythm of riding underground....
[. . . .]
and naturally the coda which is the
only thing that can sum up the
jumble of order in the lines weaving

What the poem accomplishes is the "weaving" together of a number of diverse perceptions and knowledges, ranging from the immediate experiences of the senses, to a more theoretical perception of economic realities, to recondite mythical and ethnological data of the sort one finds so often invoked in The Cantos and in "A". The ultimate form that this weaving together takes is that of the sestina--not the sestina as an available form but the sestina as an inevitable outgrowth of the patterns in the poet's mind. The form is neither symbolic nor primarily mimetic but a structure in itself, a structure whose pattern is the pattern of the thoughts held in relation in the poet's "one head":

Nor is the coincidence
Of the last four lines
But the simultaneous,
The diaphanous, historical
in one head.

As I have intimated, for Zukofsky poetic form is the primary incarnation of poetic knowledge. In this light, the sestina form of "Mantis" conveys to its reader an immediate knowledge of how various "historic and contemporary particulars" in the poet's mind are related one to another. One such particular, of course, is the literary-historical and human use-value of the form itself, both the uses made of it by Dante and Daniel and the more meretricious exploitations of nineteenth-century English poets. Implicit in the fact that "Mantis" takes the form of a sestina is Zukofsky's intuition that the form, even in 1934, is more than "Victorian / Stuffing like upholstery". If one regards the sestina as a structural force, a formal principle like the sonata or the fugue rather than a fixed form like the sonnet (or the limerick), then one can, according to Zukofsky, write a sestina with the same emotional authenticity and immediacy that he ascribes to Dante. The sestina binds the "particulars" of the poem--the poet's confrontation with the mantis, his conversation with the newsboy, his awareness of the plight of the poor in depression-era New York, his conviction that a proletarian uprising is the only possible solution to the economic situation, and so forth--into a "rested totality," a musical form in which these particulars may resonate both in turn and simultaneously in a reader's mind, imparting to that reader a knowledge that goes beyond that of elements presented sequentially to a knowledge of the relationships of those particulars with one another.

Whatever the historical accuracy of the compositional process delineated in "An Interpretation," what is crucial here is the argument that Zukofsky mounts concerning the relationship of form and content in his poem, a position represented also, as we have seen, in other poems, such as "The lines of this new song." Emerson's comments concerning "metres" and "metre-making argument" are fundamental to the formal history of American poetry, and the argument of "An Interpretation" is squarely in line with Emerson's sense that poetic form cannot be simply received, inherited, or accepted but must be motivated by and rooted in the poem's argument. "An Interpretation" advances and further develops Zukofsky's long-standing conviction that the poem's form, while in some sense historically determined and therefore given, cannot bear a merely coincidental relationship with what one might (reductively) call the poem's meaning. The knowledge that the poem bears is a function of its relational structure rather than its referential reach. This position, at least, is not diminished by the glaring self-contradiction of Zukofsky's argument. Although the organicism of "An Interpretation" belongs to an ideology of form fundamentally at odds with the very formal structure it aims to explain--the sestina of "Mantis"--the Objectivist rhetoric that characterizes the poem in terms of its structure, rather than its emotive movement, retains its explanatory and descriptive force.


The preceding chapters have explored Zukofsky's attitudes toward and treatments of traditional philosophical approaches to the question of human knowledge, that whole branch of philosophy we know as epistemology. This book has also examined the fundamental formalism of Zukofsky's work and how that formalism is bound up with both the concept of music and specific musiclike forms. In these discussions I have implied that for Zukofsky, the very particular knowledge to which poetry gives us access is somehow a function of its relationship with form and music. How then might one finally assess this relationship obtaining among music, poetry, and what one might somewhat awkwardly call "poetic" or "musical" knowledge? Once again, we return to Pater's claim in The Renaissance that "All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music" and to Pound's repetition of that claim in his Gaudier-Brzeska (82, 120). The latter work is a central document in understanding both Pound's own poetics and the whole "constructivist" strain of modernism (Marjorie Perloff's term). "One uses form," Pound writes, "as a musician uses sound. One does not imitate the wood dove, or at least one does not confine oneself to the imitation of wood-doves, one combines and arranges one's sound or one's forms into Bach fugues or into arrangements of colour, or into ‘planes in relation’" (Gaudier-Brzeska 125). Pound, in the context of his homage to the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, is here speaking mainly of the visual and plastic arts, but the application of his rhetoric to the art of poetry should be evident. As Anthony Woodward puts it, music is crucial for Pound because, as the "least obviously mimetic of the arts," it is "a useful analogy for a literary artist bent on breaking with conventions of rhetorical progression and logical development" (21). For Pound, musical form provides a "useful analogy" for poetic form, just as the forms of painting and sculpture provide (somewhat less) useful analogies. Pound is usually too canny to represent the relationship between poetry and music as one of Pater's Anders-streben--that of one medium attempting to attain the condition of another. He seems to fall into this trap at one point in Gaudier-Brzeska, where he distinguishes between "lyric" and "imagistic" poetry: "There is a sort of poetry where music, sheer melody, seems as if it were just bursting into speech. There is another sort of poetry where painting or sculpture seems as if it were just coming over into speech" (Gaudier-Brzeska 82). The key word in this passage, however, is "seems"; the Anders-streben here suggested is a moment in the reader's reception of the work rather than a constitutive principle of the poem itself, or an element in the poet's compositional process. The manner in which Pound draws the distinction among phanopœic, melopœic, and logopœic "kinds of poetry" makes it evident that musical (and pictorial) qualities in verse are potentialities inherent within the system of the language game itself rather than borrowings from other media.

In this light it becomes clear that Pater's "condition of music" represents for Pound not the interpenetration of two separate media but an ideal marriage of form and matter. As Pater writes,

That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation--that the mere matter of a picture, the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a landscape--should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling, should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees. (Renaissance 95)

In the portion of "An Objective" originally published in An "Objectivists"Anthology, Zukofsky describes poetry in terms that directly echo Pater's: 'The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention" (P 18). The Paterian ideal, one might argue, is the ultimate origin not only of the Objectivist conception of the poem as object, "the arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure" (P 13), but of Yeats's 1936 formulation of poetic form as "full, sphere-like, single" (Later Essays 193) and of the New Critical paradigm of the poem as a self-contained, self-sufficient artistic construct not to be reduced by the heresy of paraphrase to a mere instrument of communication. As Cleanth Brooks writes, the poem's experience is communicable, if "we can come to know the poem as an object.... But the poet is most truthfully described as a poietes or maker, not as an expositor or communicator" (Well Wrought Urn 75). Zukofsky's critical writings and poetic practice constantly stress his similar conviction that the poem is not an outpouring or an expression but a made thing, a fundamentally formal construct, a language system whose very essence lies in the fact of its structure. This is not at all a revolutionary insight, of course, but it is one of the insights that most powerfully informs Pound's renovation of poetry in English: "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave" (Cantos 518) is a statement that fully encompasses the gravity involved in violating a poetic form so long established that its formal, artificial nature has been completely elided by the ideology of its naturalness, a seeming closeness to spoken English that somehow erases the form's artifactuality and renders it a neutral container for the lofty (or lowly) sentiments expressed by and the actions rendered within the poem (see Easthope).

To take Pater's "condition of music" as the ideal model of poetry's form/content relationship, however, as both Pound and Zukofsky do, in a crucial way simply repeats the gesture of Immanuel Kant's aesthetics. According to Jerome McGann, Kantian philosophy removes poetry from the business of truth telling and installs it in a purely aesthetic sphere. "According to classical tradition," McGann writes,

poetry's ends were to please and instruct; Kant's aesthetic deliberately counters that position by removing instruction, or truth, from the realm of art and poetry. The modern uneasiness with "didactic" and "moral" poetry takes its origin in the Kantian view, which, as is well known, was formulated as a response and solution to the epistemological crisis generated by the rise and development of positive science. Kant's aesthetic is an effort to establish, in noncognitive sphere of reality, an accessible Form of ultimate order. (Social Values 36)

As McGann argues in a more recent essay, the Kantian aesthetic not only dispossesses poetry of its didactic, teaching function but problematizes its relationship to an extrapoetic world:

The Kantian compromise, which "saved" the possibility of poetry by severing it from any obligations to referential truth, can now be seen as a clear signal that poetic discourse had come to face a deep cultural crisis. Poetry after Kant might look to have only the truth of its inner coherence. Being, however--as Coleridge said—"vitally metaphorical," its correspondence-truth was undermined. It could no longer easily lay claim to a relation (however ideal) between res and verba. Once a linguistic tool designed for "pleasure and instruction," poetry in the modern world thereby lost much of its teaching authority. At best it could be seen as a stately pleasure dome or Derridean jouissance, at worst an irrelevance or distraction. (Black Riders 122)

Pater's "condition of music," then, as applied by Pound and Zukofsky to poetry, would seem to represent the single most totalizing statement possible of this Kantian dilemma. And the conception of "poetic knowledge" that I have here outlined would seem simply to repeat the gesture that McGann indicts, the sequestering of the poem as an autotelic object, existing in a realm above that of human intercourse, whether interpersonal or political.

What "news," then (using Williams's term), can poetry bring us? And can poetry tell us anything other than its own endless formal tale--especially such a poetry as Zukofsky's, constantly weaving and woven up into its own self-mythologizing of musical form and musical analogy? On the one hand, one might praise a modernist poetics such as Zukofsky's for reopening poetry to a whole range of discursive modes that the dominance of the Romantic lyric had denied it--in Perloff’s words, such modes as "narrative and didacticism, the serious and the comic, verse and prose" (Dance 181). Taking such a critical approach, one which refuses to accept the last century-and-a-half’s common knowledge as to what constitutes the "proper" mode of poetry, one can argue that Zukofsky's poems do indeed fulfill the Augustan ethic of simultaneous pleasure and instruction and that they do so precisely through their formally musical structuring. Such structuring is motivated in large part by Zukofsky's relationship to actual music, a relationship much more intimate and committed than either Pater's or Pound's, for not only does Zukofsky see a necessary historical link between music and poetry, but he views a musical impulse as integrally bound up with the formal impulse basic to poetry itself. This is clear not only in his description of the poem as "a context associated with 'musical' shape" (P 16) but extends as well to the more overtly analogical uses he makes of specific musical forms in structuring his poems and to his broader conception of the poem as operating through sets of musically counterpointed themes and images. Zukofsky's concurrent stress on the informational aspect of poetry is integrated with his notion of the poem as musical context: just as a listener derives a knowledge of a musical composition's structure from listening, the most immediate knowledge a reader derives from a poem is of the poem's own formal movement. But since words, unlike musical notes, carry with them "communicative reference" (P 16), the reader gains a knowledge that goes beyond the pure form of music, even as it is embodied in that form. This knowledge is deeper and more immediate than the knowledge communicated through less overtly formal uses of language, since it is embodied not in the conceptual abstractions of a gas age but in the sensuous particulars of an objectified poem. Zukofsky's epistemology, which always stresses immediate sensory perception, reaches its fullest development in his conception of the poem as a musically structured artifact--a mode of language that conveys its information in an objectlike, tangible form.

The poem, then, is more than the sum of its form and its content. A poem such as "Mantis," for instance, goes beyond simply communicating an intimate knowledge of how the rhyme words of a sestina weave themselves back and forth in a pleasurable manner; "Mantis" also communicates more than a bare relation of the poet's encounter with an insect in a subway station and a few impressions of the plight of the poor in Depression-era America. The poem, so to speak, gives pleasure and instructs through the synthesis of its pleasurable form and its instructive matter. Abstractions, in this poetry, are conveyed through tangible particulars, and when abstractions do appear--the rather bald "the poor" is perhaps the most obvious example--they are integrated into an objectlike, musical whole, a shape that can achieve "rested totality" in its reader's mind. Zukofsky's musical analogies provide the basis for the tangible wholes of his poems, thereby providing a shape in which the poet can embody extrapoetic truth, whether that truth concerns the Passaic Textile Strike ("During the Passaic Strike of 1926," CSP 26), a statue by the sculptor Zadkine ("for Zadkine," CSP 90), or a far more complexly woven congeries of political, cultural, and scientific informations ("A"-8, for instance).

From Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Copyright © 1998 by The University of Alabama Press.

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