“The Poem of a Life,” Mark Scroggins’s terrific new biography, never strays far from Zukofsky the poet. Though he treats all of Zukofsky’s writing respectfully, Scroggins, who teaches literature at Florida Atlantic University, keeps his focus on “A,” the first seven parts of which were published in 1932. Free of megalomania, touchingly invested in his wife’s work as a composer and in the care of his son, Paul, now a pre-eminent violinist (both of whom contributed, Celia substantially, to “A”), Zukofsky nevertheless uncompromisingly devoted himself to the composition of his enormous poem. His reputation rests today partly in the hands of the so-called Language poets, who find in Zukofsky’s brilliant subversions of syntax, word games and indeterminacy (his poem, after all, is called “A,” not “The”) an augury of their own methods. But “A” is not about anything as simple as “language” or “life”: it is a poem about working on “A” — about the daily elations and impediments of an artist who sought, over the course of decades, to make something really hard really good. Since it takes its own composition as the measure of living, it is a more personal poem, and often a more moving one, than either of its main models, Pound’s “Cantos” or William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson."A lot to be talked about in the piece--we're at a third reception-moment for Zukofsky (a fourth, maybe? A new one, anyway), and it's quite fascinating to watch the terms of debate laid out here. (Ain't it good to know, for example, that language and life are "simple"?)
Still, hats off to Mark, to Zuk, and to Chiasson for his praise of them both!