Poetic correspondence. The letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky

Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky, edited by Barry Ahearn. New York: New Directions. 255 pp. $38.50. IN 1927, an aspiring young poet from New York sent some of his work to Ezra Pound, then 42, who had settled in Rapallo, Italy, and from there edited the aptly named literary journal Exile. At the time, Pound vied with E.E. Cummings as the most famous American poet. He had no rivals for flamboyance.

The younger man was Louis Zukofsky, who, at 23, had published little and hoped to publish more. What he wanted from Pound was encouragement, publication, publicity, introduction, and friendship. He wanted a mentor. Most definitely, he wanted a literary father.

Pound, on his side, wanted an heir. And not just one: many. He saw in Zukofsky an energetic and determined writer who, Pound decided, could help to kindle the renaissance that he believed American cultural life so desperately needed. Pound would help Zukofsky publish. Zukofsky would be Pound's agent across the Atlantic. It was a friendship that began in hope and optimism.

Within months of their first exchange of letters, Pound began to instruct Zukofsky on his ``private life.''

In the spring of 1928, he urged Zukofsky to ``stir up ole Bill Willyums'' and by summer, Pound decided that Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams should start up ``some sort of gang to INSIST on interesting stuff (books) being pubd. promptly, and distributed properly....'' They should meet at Williams's Rutherford, N.J., home or, even better, at ``some cheap restaurant'' where they could dine every week (no women allowed, Pound cautioned, to avoid distraction). They needed to get access to journals. They needed to find just the right members for their revolutionary inner circle. Zukofsky took up Pound's suggestion with enthusiasm. Williams, Cummings, perhaps (targeting Pound's caveat) Marianne Moore, could be invited.

And as for the younger writers, Zukofsky hoped that he could persuade his former Columbia University classmate Whittaker Chambers to join, and John Gassner, and Meyer Schapiro. Not only would they meet, but they would publish, too. Zukofsky suggested expensive, limited editions of the group's works. Pound assured him that one volume would be the poems of L.Z. ``when ready.''

As the years went by, however, the renaissance seemed less and less likely to occur. Zukofsky took on the tasks of mailing books and transmitting news; Pound commented on Zukofsky's massive work-in-progress, ``A.'' Among Zukofsky's problems, Pound said, was the burden he bore of ``coming after T.S.E. [Eliot] me an' Bill [William Carlos Williams],'' a different burden, Pound thought, from his own descendance from Yeats. ``Praps best for you not to worry about it at all, and cease considering it a problem,'' he advised in 1930. All the same, he wrote a decade later: ``The test of poetry IZ: 1. can EZ read it? 2/ can he read it with approval and/or pleasure?''

Even if Pound approved of Zukofsky's work, though, he had only limited influence on its publication. He managed to persuade Harriet Monroe to allow Zukofsky to edit a special issue of Poetry, and when it appeared in 1931, Zukofsky, along with his fellow poets (who called themselves Objectivists), gained some recognition. But Zukofsky was becoming increasingly bitter about America's failure to celebrate its poets, and his hopes for realizing Pound's renaissance all but faded.

In 1933, Zukofsky finally gathered enough money to travel to Italy to meet Pound. He found a middle-aged man, hoary and opinionated, insisting on an economic theory that seemed erratic and eccentric. Zukofsky returned home to a country racked by economic despair; Pound stayed in Italy and extolled Mussolini and the Fascists.

Yet Zukofsky remained a loyal ``sonny'' to his ``papa'' because of his belief in Pound's extraordinary genius, his commitment to his art, his passion. Refusing to write about politics, Zukofsky continued his correspondence with a man he felt was misguided but well meaning. ``As for yr anti-semitism,'' he wrote in 1939, ``I believe you're no more anti- than Marx himself, tho' the cluttered mess of the rest of yr. economic & political thinking makes it appear so.''

There was no renaissance for either man. Zukofsky spent his life teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Pound was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

In the end, their roles became reversed: Pound lost faith in his work. Zukofsky provided encouragement: ``...when I can't read myself,'' he told Pound, ``...I can still read ol' Ez ... the song carries along, yours always right.''

These letters, ably edited and annotated, may be difficult for the lay reader to wade through. But those who do will discover in the correspondence a chronicle of an intense literary friendship and a sad, even tragic, episode of our literary past.

Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.

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