Aural Invention as Floral Splendor: Louis Zukofsky's Vision of Natural Beauty in 80 Flowers

Leon Lewis | February 2008

Leon Lewis


The central issue of the poems in 80 Flowers is whether, within the dense thicket of his language, the beauty of a flower and the instinctive emotional response that it engenders still bloom in Zukofsky's depictions?

As a culmination to a life in language, Louis Zukofsky, in consort with his wife Celia, composed a catalogue of floral splendor from December 1974 to January 1978. 80 Flowers was originally planned to commemorate Zukofsky's eightieth birthday in 1984. With characteristic energy and total absorption in a project, he started with envisioning it in 1968, in the conclusion of his evolving personal epic "A." Zukofsky accumulated his ideas, as he customarily did, in his black notebook, and the manuscript was published, earlier than planned, in June 1978. Zukofsky had died the previous month. Adhering to a very specific plan involving an intricate formal structure, 80 Flowers was designed as eighty-one eight line poems including an epigraph, each line containing five words but often stretched by compound-hyphenated word combinations, with the nominal flower designating the direction of the poem. In September 1974, Zukofsky initiated the project with the notebook entry:

Plan: Beginning at 70 to finish for my 80th birthday a book of songs called 80 Flowers.1

The original edition consisted of eighty copies, initialed and numbered by Celia Zukofsky. It was offered at a prepublication price of $150 from the Steinhour Press in New York, quite costly at the time but in retrospect a bargain in terms of the volume's current value. Monetary limitations, however, had nothing to do with the book's reception, since even those who knew and admired Zukofsky's writing felt, like Guy Davenport (who had called Zukofsky "a poet's poet's poet"), that "his final work is, so far, perfectly impenetrable,"2 and if there was a kind of common critical consensus beyond those, who like Davenport knew Zukofsky's work, it was epitomized by Elliot Weinberger's almost despairing observation in 1983 that 80 Flowers consisted of "an impossible density that few will ever attempt to penetrate."3

It was this attitude that Michele J. Leggott attempted to confront and diminish with her indispensable pioneering study Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers from The Johns Hopkins University Press in 1989. Leggott recognized the ways in which Zukofsky's various interests and preoccupations coalesced in the preparation of 80 Flowers, but rather than seeing this as an impossible impediment, she regarded them as objects of fascination which required some elucidation—in some cases, considerable elucidation—but were neither impregnable barriers nor impossible obstacles. Writing with the specialist in mind and an evident command of Zukofsky's subjects and themes, she explained in great detail and with impressive clarity the ways in which classical motifs, Shakespearean elements, numerical arrangements, and a consuming passion for linguistic interactions were regathered by the poet in a reflective voyage through the primary concerns of his previous work. As Zukofsky put it, the poems would be "growing out of and condensing my previous books, "A", All, arise, Bottom: On Shakespeare, Catullus, Little etc."4 Or in Leggott's terms, "the real point of aligning "A"-24 with the Flowers is to indicate that "A", though complete, is not ended; the ongoing music will be a descant of praise on everything that goes before it."5

In spite of her contention (referring to Zukofsky's notebook notations) "The system, once grasped, is easy enough to follow," Leggott acknowledges that "There is a lot going on here, some of it accessible by associational music, some of it by scrutiny of the Notes and Drafts, some of it inaccessible."6 This mood of uncertainty even among initiates, as in the leading Zukofsky scholar Mark Scroggins's comment that "-the sublimely dense "A"-22-23" and 80 Flowers are the works that most perplex the casual reader," while understandable, may have operated as a counter-productive warning rather than an acceptance of manageable difficulties.7 As much as a full-scale reading of 80 Flowers will profit from Leggott's study as Ulysses is illuminated by the Gilbert-Gorman schema that Joyce eventually provided, individual poems can stand separately as sources of poetic delight and wisdom. The fact that they are readily available only in the version of 80 Flowers that is included with Complete Short Poetry: Louis Zukofsky (1991), very rarely appearing as a selection in any anthology, has hidden them, if inadvertantly, so that Zukofsky's work is generally removed further from view than most writers whose reputation and influence among American poets is as impressive as his.8 A reading of three poems which Leggott does not work with in much detail—Dahlia (#47), Pussy Willow (#9), Raspberry (#72), a flower, a tree, a bush—offer both individual poetic pleasure and some strategies that might permit further readings of other individual poems as well as the entire collection.

While nominally about flowers, Zukofsky has a full range of plants, including weeds, in his gaze, and had thought about a succeeding volume to be called 90 Trees as a continuance. Leggott emphasizes the vital importance of sound—"the complicated verse of the Flowers"—for Zukofsky, ("Think what Zukofsky, reading out loud, or to himself, must have got from them"), and closely examines "the endlessly kinetic lines"in her focus on technique, but recognizes "the beauty of it is in the listening and the looking."9 The poem "Dahlia," which Zukofsky wrote during the days September 17 to September 25 in 1976, and which he dedicated to "Rosh Hashana," the celebration of the New Year, 5737 in the ancient Hebrew calendar, shows how important the act of seeing was for Zukofsky, and functions as an illustration of his way of looking at the subjects of the poems, wherein what Leggott calls his "visual strategies come into play."10 Ezra Pound had written a limerick that was published in The European in 1959 which asserted:

This is the grave of old Zuk
who wasn't really a crook
but who died of persistence
in that non-existence
which consists in refusing to LOOK.11

Zukofsky's four-decade long relationship with Pound (mostly epistolary) survived Pound's blind descent into the toxic swamp of facist stupidity, while thriving in their high-spirited, unrestricted discussions of literature. His inclination toward a mental manipulation beyond Pound's focus on the primacy of the image was often at the source of their aesthetic conversation, but Zukofsky didn't reject Pound or his ideas no matter how much he disagreed with him. In Prepositions (1981), Zukofsky reflected, "I wrote 500 pages about Shakespeare just to say one thing, the natural human eye is OK, but it's that erring brain that is no good."12 For 80 Flowers, Zukofsky wanted to reduce the possibility for error, and saw that factual precision would be one way to accomplish this without restricting the natural operation of the eye.

The details of the dedication are not incidental; nothing in Zukovsky's work ever is. The Zukofskys had moved from their apartment on Central Park South in Manhattan to Port Jefferson, forty miles east of New York City on the north shore of Long Island, where Celia had started a garden that contained many of the flowers that Zukofsky was contemplating. His method in preparation was to combine the intense study of a subject (botany) with careful scrutiny of an object (individual flowers), in a fashion roughly parallel to his precepts on "Objectivism." With his characteristic penchant for plunging into learned texts, he consulted two venerable treatises on plants, Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening, Horticulture and Landscape Design by Norman Taylor (1961) and Merritt Lyndon Fernald's 8th edition of Gray's Manual of Botany (1950). With their authority as a foundation, he felt ready to respond to every aspect of the flowers as they occurred to him. The dates of composition are in concert with the late-summer blooming of dahlias in the Northeast, and the reference to the Jewish New Year typical of his awareness without special treatment of his parent's Lithuanian-Jewish heritage. Zukofsky continually mingled the immediate circumstances of his life with the full scale of the erudite, often recondite play of his mind, so that political and social matters (The fall of Paris in "A"-10; the war in Vietnam in "A"-17) would be juxtaposed with the personal, particularly the growth and education of his son Paul, a classical violinist. "Dahlia" is an expression of inquiry, moving out of thoughts arising in regard to both his extensive study of botanical data and his intensive meditation on the plant's appearance, leading to a compact linguistic portrait of considerable depth and dimension. Robert Creeley, one of the poets of the next generation who constituted the audience that Zukofsky had feared his work would never reach, evokes the ethos of 80 Flowers as "so quiet, yet dense with concentration" in his Foreword to the edition of Complete Short Poetry (1991), the only place where 80 Flowers is to be found in libraries.


Interest grows not knowing dahlia
what color blossoms dividing tubers
eyes upward toward the old stems
assure curled in white-tipped purple
moonrays or all-white glass-mask disks
roses cannot excel you thornless
pleasing comeling birds black-eyed susan
dahlia year's-heads income the same13

(Louis Zukofsky © Paul Zukofsky. This poem may not be reproduced, quoted, or used in any manner whatsoever without the explicit and specific permission of the copyright holder.)

One of the most striking, as well as unsettling aspects of Zukofsky's poetry, is his determination to break the chains of familiar syntactical structure. His poems are an illustration of Creeley's precept "that there's an appropriate way of saying something inherent in the thing to be said" carried to its furthest limits—and beyond them—in accord with Creeley's own inclination "to know what did the possibilities of coherence have other than what was previously the case."14 As Sandra Kumamoto Stanley puts it, "Zukofsky has taken very familiar words and defamiliarized them, unmooring us from any anchor of complacent preconceptions" to challenge and enthrall the reader simultaneously.15 While not turning the page into a complete cartographic grid as E. E. Cummings did, Zukofsky employed its entire field at times, placing words in space to maximize the ways in which location and line length, in conjunction with unrestricted punctuation, could direct and control meaning. As he stated, among many similar observations, "Typography, certainly if print and the arrangement of it will help tell how the voice should sound." In 80 Flowers, Zukofsky chose to dispense with punctuation entirely except for the use of hyphens to enlarge a word without literally violating his five-word principle. Each poem groups words in a tight block, beginning with a capital letter, keeping the left margin straight, permitting the right margin to vary infinitely. The line breaks, however, are neither restrictive nor directive, and only partially influence the rhythmic flow. The only device which Zukofsky utilizes is italic type, which occurs frequently, especially for nouns. The central issue of the poems in 80 Flowers is whether, within the dense thicket of his language, the beauty of a flower and the instinctive emotional response that it engenders still bloom in Zukofsky's depictions?

"Dahlia" opens as if in response to Pound's critique, the poet—"not knowing"—is increasingly drawn to the flower by what he sees as new and unfamiliar, curiosity leading to close observation. The second line's "what color blossoms" is both a question and an assertion, an anticipation of an image dependent on the appearance of the color and shape of the plant, while "dividing tubers" is the basic method of propagation, and a way to determine the color by cross-breeding. The act of observation, "eyes upward," is expressed in a parallel of positions, the poet looking upward as the plant progresses, the progress of the plant itself described as an incidence of uplift, or upward life. The fourth line begins to develop the portrait of the plant, the word "assure" an indication of his confidence in an ability to convey the essence of the plant in lyric language, as well as a sonic suggestion of coloration in a characteristic doubling. The two vivid images of petals, "curled in white-tipped/moonrays or all-white glass-mask disks," are drawn from data joined to the power of the "natural human eye" in operation. One of the most common varieties of Dahlia is called "Light of the Moon," another "Baby Rose," leading to the shift from descriptive observation to reactive assessment as the poet exuberantly declares "roses cannot excel you," adding a degree of personification through direct address, reinforced by the adjectivial chain "thornless/pleasing comeling." The word "comeling," a neo-coinage, extends the qualities of comely into an active adverb, implying a motion that continues to the end of the poem. Lines seven and eight are the most abstract part of the poem, as the angle of vision widens to include other aspects of the environment before the repetition of the name, "dahlia," permits a turn toward the reflective. Zukofsky's term "year's-heads" recaptures the cyclical sense of the dedication to the New Year, while "income the same" reinforces the feeling of an eternal process glimpsed in one of its more profound forms, as well as echoing the sound of "comeling."

An examination of the visual dimensions of the poem should not detract from the stress on sound that is a vital factor in Zukofsky's work. The intricate organization of the early sections of "A" which Scroggins describes as "informed throughout by the formal analogy of the musical fugue and the themes and lyrics of Bach's St.Mathew Passion;" the setting by Celia Zukofsky (a pianist) of "A"-24, the concluding movement, as "Celia's L.Z. Masque," which arranged Zukofsky's writing, poetry, and prose as a four-part counterpoint to some Handel harpsichord compositions; Zukofsky's well-known gloss on his own preoccupation in "A"-12 that his poetic was bound by:

An integral
Lower limit speech
Upper limit music16

are among the more prominent examples of the evidence of a persistent musical motivation in Zukofsky's poetry. One way to see how this applies to 80 Flowers is to note the manner in which vocal tone is a central consideration, as in the singing signature of "Crocus" which begins "Hear it tease," and includes a chorus in midpoem, "look o/into scaleless bulbs," or the opening of "Dogwood" with an imitation of the cuckoo's call "Coo-saw" which establishes a woodland setting. "Pussy Willow," which Leggott locates as "unmistakably a spring poem," is patterned as a traditional lyric, with its musical features more explicitly demonstrative than most of the other poems. Zukofsky is not reducing the visual aspect, as the poem begins "A look at it hale," but the sound/sense fusion is particularly forceful.

Pussy Willow

A look at it hale
looking airs fragile bud green
looks thru catkin borne erect
bract flowers naked gold before
leaves unfold full osiers cure
headaches weaving lancets white gray
bark with thyme blown seacoast
basket the life pussy willow17

(Louis Zukofsky © Paul Zukofsky. This poem may not be reproduced, quoted, or used in any manner whatsoever without the explicit and specific permission of the copyright holder.)

Zukofsky did not provide a dedication for "Pussy Willow," but the dates of composition—"11-29 Apr. 1975"—confirm Leggott's description. She identifies Zukofsky's focus on the initial appearance of the "gold of willow catkins flowers," which appear before the transformation to green leaves and their resolution into gray buds, as a take on the Latin treatise of Theophrastus (370–ca. 285 B.C.), a friend of Plato, whose Enquiry into Plants was translated in 1916 by Arthur Hort with a note about sentences that are "highly compressed and elliptical," which Leggott likens to Zukofsky's own style.18 The Latin root for the species, Salix discolor, means "two-colored," and Leggott points out that the Latin salio literally means "to spring, bound or leap." The "naked gold" recalls Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay," which states that "Nature's first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold"—a parallel to Zukofsky's sense of the transitory, temporary "fragile" aspect of the first appearance of the season. The differences between Frost's typical tight meter and Zukofsky's singular use of measure are at the core of the song that constitutes Zukofsky's poem.

The triad "look/looking/looks" moves the poem through time, from the first glance, to a prolonged observation, and then to a reflective summation, while the repetition sets a sound pattern of increasing attention that complements the process of seeing. The word "hale" applies to the flower and to the mood of the observer energized by the new growth, an image of creative force "borne erect" in the catkin which Leggott calls "young female" to indicate fertility. The active "looking" leads to the idea of progression, the plant rising in the air, the poet's saying an airing or outward expression of inner thoughts. The word "naked" re-emphasizes the idea of birth, and the idea of looking "thru" is an interesting, if unintentional, echo of Dylan Thomas's "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," another poem about gestation. The close placing of bud/borne/bract shifts the song from the flow of the liquid "L" to the more compact, abrupt, emphatic "B." The atypical use of rhyme at the center of the poem—"naked gold/before leaves unfold" surrounded by "flowers" and "full"—carries the melody, which moves through the last four lines on an image of medical propensity. These lines pivot on the word "osiers," which refers to the "rodlike twigs used in basketry" (as defined by the Ameican Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) common to many species of willows. From the vivid image of the willow's first appearance, Zukofsky has moved to a contemplative assessment of utility, the plant's capacity to serve as a carrier for objects and to provide relief from headaches, the two functions, held in a "basket" of twigs. The word "lancets" continues the medical motif, recalling the British medical journal The Lancet, the surgical procedure of lancing, and perhaps a resemblance to the lanceolate leaf shape, a long leaf tapering at the end like the willow twig. The mingling of the herb thyme—which Zukofsky addresses individually in a later poem that depends on the homonymanal association with time—here reflects another part of Celia's garden plan, as well as the wind from the north shore blowing across Long Island sound, while the continued occurrence of words with a heavy "B" maintains the brusque, wind-expressive sound pattern Zukofsky has developed. The last four words of the closing line, "the life pussy willow" recalls the "hale" of the first line as an indication of the renewal of life that has always been one of the most encouraging signs of spring, and the placement of the last word, "willow," was a fond nod towards the Zukofsky apartment on Willow Street in Brooklyn where they lived for many years.


Thimbleberry redcap odor art whose
cow'd thorn-pang'd hammer-finger unhooks palmate
fill loss-afar empty-cup eaten wild-native
rose-flower'd mated with other brambles
seeded-pulp dewberry plethoric blackberry drunk-red
boysenberry loganberries phenomenal such-of-you tastier
scent a rick case global-peat-cranberry
whortleberry twain huckleberry flatulence th'raspberry19

(Louis Zukofsky © Paul Zukofsky. This poem may not be reproduced, quoted, or used in any manner whatsoever without the explicit and specific permission of the copyright holder.)

Prior to the appearance of Raspberry (#72), Zukofsky wrote about berries in Bayberry (#22), which is replete with what Leggott calls "Shakespearean nods" and Chokeberry (#50), which he compares to a "wild black cherry."20 The paucity of berry-bearing plants in the collection may have led to a feast or plenitude of berries in Raspberry, which includes eight other berries before wrapping up the poem with its name-sake. In his "Process Notes," Zukofsky explains that while his own plant flowered July 18, a neighbor had given him a cultivated raspberry cane which the Zukofskys had planted September 21, and which was thriving on September 26. Leggott says, "Zukofsky obviously took this as an auspicious sign and settled his raspberry poem on the new plant" and calls the poem "a tangle of compounds" which make up "a veritable feast for the senses."21 It is also a transformative exercise that, in characteristic fashion, augments the initial visual appeal of the plant with a form of language dependent on its name, building an architecture of associative sounds on the rugged rasp that denotes a sharp grinding orgrating which Zukofsky presents not as unpleasant but as a version of autumnal music with a distinctive baroque bent. The "thorn-pang'd hammer-finger" is like a stroke on a harpsichord, the repetition of berry functions as a form of punctuation that gives the onrushing line a moment of pause, the regular appearance of double-compound words (one of the most elastic extensions of the five-word model in the collection) echoes the tonic/dominant mode of composers like Vivaldi or Scarlatti.

The resistance to linguistic confinement is another aspect of Zukofsky's avid interest in exploring without restriction the limitless nature of language.

The propulsive or percussive sound pattern of the poem is marked by a series of qualifiers that expand the aurality of the raspberry through its first five lines. Beginning with its appearance as seen from above—"Thimbleberry redcap"—the whole plant is encompassed in a complex image that originates as the "hammer-finger" lifts a berry through thorns, the palm of the hand filling, the remnant of the berry an "empty-cup," the food available to the gardener or to wild visitors to the garden, the plant vigorous amidst the profusion of plants ("other brambles") in the autumn garden as the last vestiges of its bloom are reduced to "seeded pulp." The long single-syllable pulp frames this section of the poem which was begun with its title, the twin p's as posts. The remainder of the poem is a riff on berries, their abundance ("plethoric" as in plethora) a source of delight for the poet who regards this as a phenomenon, that word itself a reference to the names of berries that surround it. The pace of the poem is markedly slower now, as fits a more meditative perspective which expands beyond the poet's garden to a planetary consciousness, literally "global" with references to the "peat" of European agriculture, and the "cranberry" that evokes the Thanksgiving feast of late-Autumn. As Leggott points out, Zukofsky playfully puns on the author's name—"twain huckleberry" and his most famous character—before returning to the rasping sound—"flatulence"—that is a somewhat coarse though possible consequence of an over-consumption of this sumptuous food. Considering Zukofsky's long life in Brooklyn, he might also have been thinking of the derisive snarls—"th'raspberry"—directed by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers towards the opposition, the umpires, or even their own players in moments of failure.

The richness of meaning and feeling available in "Raspberry" for the reader ready to "perceive structures" (as Scroggins defines Zukofsky's own method) is not restricted by those elements which may require further attention, and which then still may not submit to a complete comprehension. While this could be a source of dissatisfaction, it could also be an inducement to remain with the poem, or return to it. There is a continuing inducement to think along such lines as: Who does Zukofsky have in mind in his address "such-of-you?" Celia, the reader, his son Paul, someone else entirely, the berry itself? And "tastier" than what "scent?" Is this a reflection of the "odor" of the first line? And is "a rick case" some kind of carrier, or a manner of storage? Or...?

The resistance to linguistic confinement is another aspect of Zukofsky's avid interest in exploring without restriction the limitless nature of language.

Scroggins feels that Leggott's study, "painstaking, careful, and sometimes revelatory," as valuable as it is, assumes that Zukofsky's poetry is "irredeemably hermetic... a direct function of the reader's lack of information." He is concerned that an acceptance of this position has been part of the assumption that it is "a poetry restricted to a tiny coterie of initiates." Against this, he advocates "a construction of meaning" as "a word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase process rather than the usual automatic process by which a reader proceeds confidently down a syntagmatic string." Nonetheless, he also admits that there are "devices that alienate us from Zukofsky's poetry... his maddeningly complex and often indeterminate syntax."22 The apparent contradictions inherent in Scroggins's observations are always going to be a factor in terms of the reception that Zukofsky's poetry receives. However, they are also at the heart of the appeal that it has. The choice of flowers as subject suggest that Zukofsky, always unwilling (and unable) to adjust his poetics, recognized that the universal appeal of the garden-formal and wild-gave him a common point of interest with a wide range of readers. The blend of the exceptionally intellectual and the essentially emotional has, as Creeley puts it, "roots of a literal kind" in Zukofsky's art.23 An "echo of all, himself" is the way Creeley describes the poems of 80 Flowers, poems that those who share with Zukofsky a love of language and fascination with the forms of nature might also find as a source of unusual pleasure, particularly if one also is not made too uncomfortable by the"maddeningly complex"—indeed, if one shares with Zukofsky a kind of idiosyncratic delight in its exploration.


Leon Lewis is a professor of film and literature at Appalachian State University. His recent publications include Eccentric Individuality in William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man, E. T., Doctor Rat, and Other Works of Fantasy and Fiction (2002). He is the editor of Robert M. Young: Essays On The Films (2005), and the translator of Gilbert Michlin's Of No Interest to the Nation: A Jewish Family in France, 1925-1945 (2004).


  1. Michele Leggott, Reading Zukofsky's Eighty Flowers, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1989), 12.
  2. Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1987), 109.
  3. Elliot Weinberger, "At the Death of Kenneth Rexroth," Sagetribe 2, Number 3, (Winter, 1983), 51.
  4. Leggott, 12.
  5. Ibid., 72.
  6. Ibid., 8, 74.
  7. Mark Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1998), 13.
  8. Louis Zukofsky, Complete Short Poetry, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991). The only edition of Zukofsky's poetry currently in print is the Library of America American Poets Project volume edited by Charles Bernstein, Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2006), which contains nine poems from 80 Flowers, including "Raspberry."
  9. Leggott, 357, 358.
  10. Ibid., 357.
  11. Sandra Kumamoto Stanley, Louis Zukofsky and the Transformation of a Modern American Poetics, (The University of California Press Berkeley, 1994), 87.
  12. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions, (The University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981), 170.
  13. Complete Short Poetry, 340.
  14. Robert Creeley, The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from The New York Quarterly, (Doubleday and Company, New York: 1974), 203.
  15. Stanley, 95.
  16. Barry Ahearn, Zukofsy's "A": An Introduction, (The University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983), 208.
  17. Complete Short Poetry, 327.
  18. Leggott, 395, n. 10.
  19. Complete Short Poetry, 349.
  20. Ibid., 341.
  21. Leggott, 271.
  22. Scroggins, 230-231.23.
  23. Robert Creeley, "Foreword," Complete Short Poetry, xiii.

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