Louis Zukofsky, who grew up in New York and attended Columbia University (GSAS'24), was a poets' poet. A pioneer of experimental verse in the 1920s and 1930s, he was not widely recognized outside a small circle of literati, including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He would become better known for his influence on other poets, such the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, also a Columbia alumnus. But recognition of Zukofsky's work has grown significantly over the decades, and a major international gathering of poets and scholars, hosted by Barnard College and Columbia University , will celebrate his centennial at a conference on Sept. 17-19.
Participants will include such influential poets as Robert Creeley, who will give the opening address on Sept. 17, as well as Marjorie Perloff and Jerome Rothenberg, leading scholars and critics, and Zukofsky's major translator into French, Serge Gavronsky, a French professor at Barnard. Gavronsky, along with Michael Golston, an assistant professor of English at Columbia , and Charles Bernstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania , organized the conference.
"Zukofsky inspired a generation of poets, although his own work during his lifetime was obscured and neglected," Gavronsky said. "William Carlos Williams called him 'the most important and the most neglected poet of our time,' and I think this is quite true. His work should be better known, and we hope this centennial conference will expand his devotees."
After he graduated from Columbia (where his best friend was Whitaker Chambers, the accuser of Alger Hiss), Zukofsky began teaching and writing in the ornately lyrical and challenging style that came to be called Objectivism, establishing him as revolutionary.
"His impact on the art is only now being realized," Golston said. "It is appropriate for his alma mater to honor and pay critical respect to this important poet and illustrious alumnus."
By the time he left Columbia , Zukofsky had studied with some of the University's most prominent scholars, including the poet Mark Van Doren, the philosopher John Dewey, and the novelist John Erskine.
Born of Lithuanian Jewish parents, he grew up speaking Yiddish. He befriended Ezra Pound, who promoted Zukofsky's early work, and they remained friends throughout their lives, in spite of the pain that Pound's anti-Semitic views and mental instability caused for Zukofsky. He defended Pound, even after his conviction for treason during World War II.
In his early years, Zukofsky was a committed Marxist, but he moved away from the Communist Party beginning in the early 1930s.
He edited the 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry, in which he both coined the term and defined the two main characteristics of Objectivist poetry as sincerity and clarification. Besides William Carlos Williams, other poets associated with this group included Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi and Kenneth Rexroth.
Zukofsky wrote fiction, essays and criticism as well as working as a translator. His major work was the long poem titled A, which he began in 1927 and worked on until his death in 1978. The resonance of music in his work reflects the importance of Zukofsky's collaborations with his wife, Celia, a professional musician. Their son Paul Zukofsky is a noted violinist.