20th-century epic is reborn

Louis Zukofsky is probably the most important 20th-century American poet you've never heard of.

He had his 15 minutes of fame in the 1930s, when he founded the "Objectivists" (the quotation marks were part of the name), a group of disparate poets in search of a manifesto.

It didn't matter that they disbanded. Objectivism was anti-poetic from the get-go: If poetry doesn't spring from a poet's subjectivity, it might as well keep silent.

But Zukofsky had plenty to say. About being a poet. About the making of poetry. About his everyday life on the streets of New York.

And he said it in the monumental, modernist epic "'A' " (the quotation marks are also part of the title) —which is back in print, free of its original typos, with a new introduction by scholar Barry Ahearn.

Zukofsky spent nearly half a century working on "'A,' " completing it in 1974, four years before he died.

The poem runs more than 800 pages, and was initially modeled on Ezra Pound's "Cantos," the only other 20th-century epic that bears comparison.

Critic Hugh Kenner called "'A' " "the most hermetic poem in English." But he was wrong.

For what places "'A' " above even the "Cantos" is its surprising accessibility; it can be read on many levels: sentimental or technical, sensational or paternal, political or personal.

All you need to appreciate the poem, Zukofsky said, is a sensitivity to "sight, sound, and intellection."

But sensitivity doesn't sell. And Zukofsky toiled in obscurity most of his life, perfecting his groundbreaking genre: the lyric epic poem.

Make no mistake. "'A' " is complex, framed in 24 musical "movements" that demand close, sustained attention.

But the poem's overarching focus remains fixed on Zukofsky's daily life:

River that must turn full after I stop dying

Song, my song, raise grief to music

Light as my loves' thought, the few sick

So sick of wrangling: thus weeping,

Sounds of light, stay in her keeping

And my son's face — this much for honor

— from "'A'-11"

Zukofsky's river of life did indeed overflow with music; that is the chief organizing principle of the poem.

"'A' " opens with the original performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in 1729, then switches to Carnegie Hall 200 years later, where the work is performed again.

That set piece defines the course of the next 800 pages: "An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music."

Now, in a handsome new edition, we can hear Zukofsky's harmonies as he meant them to be heard — resonant and clear, in epic proportions.