- The Zukofsky Era: Modernity, Margins, and the Avant-Garde by Ruth Jennison
In this book, Ruth Jennison makes an uncompromising case for the political incisiveness of objectivist poets in the late 1920s and 1930s, and she supports her claim with illuminating close readings backed by fluent Marxist historiography and critical geography. Her primary texts are limited to three poets’ early work; she examines George Oppen’s Discrete Series, four early Lorine Niedecker pieces, passages from Louis Zukofsky’s “A” −6, −8, and −9, his “’Mantis,’” and a few of his shorter poems. This exclusive focus on the early period of objectivism, along with the fact that two of the Niedecker pieces only recently emerged from the archives, might suggest that we should take The Zukofsky Era as a project of scholarly recovery, but that would not be accurate. Jennison does not place an overlooked Zukofsky era back into the historical record; she posits it as an exemplary poetico-political condition with ongoing transformative potential.
The large ambition of The Zukofsky Era is obvious from its title, which insists on a comparison to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. The differences between the two scholars are obvious. Kenner is an encyclopedic raconteur, anti-theoretical, clinching arguments via palpable details; Jennison is a committed theorist, beginning her book with “the key concepts of materialist aesthetics—the tyranny of the commodity form; the text (and its producer) as an active mediation of a history that precedes it; the contest between the intra- and international uneven spaces of [End Page 145] capital” (2), and concluding it with several “maxims” (202). Nevertheless, Jennison and Kenner share a fundamental trait: imperiousness toward history. It takes chutzpah to posit an era.
Kenner recounted Pound’s importance to the early careers of Eliot, Williams, and Joyce, and his analysis has resonated influentially for decades; this resonance can make the Pound era seem a normative historical descriptor. In order to refocus the partiality of his account, we need to recall how dexterously he sidesteps Pound’s politics. Jennison’s historical selectivity is more exposed; there are no equivalents of Ulysses or The Waste Land to buttress her claims, and for those familiar with the standard accounts of objectivism, of its purportedly small cultural impact in the early 1930s and deep obscurity over the next few decades, the notion of a Zukofsky era will be seem surprising indeed.
For Jennison, however, an era is “a way of speaking about history; it is not an empirically verifiable Linnean taxonomy.” In fact, any of its moments can have “the potential to generate alternative historical narratives striving toward the transformation of the present” (10). Such a view allows Jennison multiple temporal perspectives. She will place objectivism in the empirical 1930s: “Objectivism’s numbers included Jews, Yiddish speakers, feminists, working-class women and men, rural dwellers, Communists, and first-generation immigrants. Existence on these margins provided the foundational texture for Objectivists’ lived experience of the ‘immense force-field’ of 1930s America” (1). Then again, she will place objectivism in a transhistorical critical continuum: “Objectivist poetry elaborates in aesthetic terms the economic and social concepts of twentieth- and twenty-first-century political economists of uneven development . . . from Leon Trotsky to David Harvey” (29). Jennison presents her own critical observation as a quasi-historical occurrence when she cites an argument between Zukofsky and Pound over the commodity status of labor; Jennison argues that a 1931 exchange of letters reveals “the epistemological break within modernism that signaled the beginning of the Zukofsky era” (104). In a concluding passage, the Zukofsky era loses all temporal dimension when Jennison refers to it as “a site for the acquisition and practice of revolutionary literacy” (203).
Jennison keeps this pedagogical site free of ambiguities, but in so doing she severely streamlines standard accounts of objectivism. She does not mention less political poets like Charles Reznikoff or Basil Bunting, both of whom were in the “Objectivists 1931” issue of Poetry; nor does she mention the fact that Zukofsky’s contribution to that same issue, his...