Under pressure from Monroe to declare himself part of a new “movement” in poetry, Louis Zukofsky coined the term “Objectivist.” Later, he admitted that the term was unfortunate; at the very least, it has been confusing to readers and critics who interpret objectivity as an indication that reality will be rendered undistorted by the poet’s personality. Zukofsky did aim at such objective honesty or “care for the detail,” as he put it, but he emphasized that being an Objectivist meant that the poet created a poem as an object, in much the same way that a builder constructs a house or a carpenter, a cabinet. These two aims—an objective rendering of reality and the creation of the poem as object—give Zukofsky’s poetry its distinction.
The prevailing metaphor throughout Zukofsky’s work is the correspondence between the ego and the sense of sight: “I” equals “eye” in his poetry and the terms are often playfully interchanged, as in the poems “I’s (pronounced eyes)” or “After I’s.” Similarly, “see” becomes “sea” or even the letter c and “sight” is transformed into “cite.” Like Benedictus de Spinoza (who figures in his works along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aristotle), Zukofsky was a lens-grinder; but Zukofsky’s lenses were organic and his method of sharpening them was an ever closer examination of objects. Just as the objective lens of a microscope is the one in closest proximity to the object being studied, so Zukofsky as Objectivist attempted to apprehend objects directly and report on his findings.
Zukofsky believed that an object must be examined for its “qualities,” and once these qualities are recognized, the observer can go no further in his understanding of the object. The object exists in itself and is not dependent on the observer for its existence. It is not the observer’s function to postulate theories about the object, to explain, embellish, or comment on it. He merely bears witness to its reality. Only by placing the object in the context of the poem can the poet use the object to communicate something of his own reality. In a poem, juxtapositions imply connections, transitions, and relationships between objects. The poet does not editorialize. “Writing presents the finished matter, it does not comment,” Zukofsky wrote in A Test of Poetry.
In his concern for precise language to express visual perception and to render faithfully the qualities of an object, Zukofsky follows Pound’s statements about Imagism: “Direct treatment of the ’thing’” using “no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Poetry, 1912). Zukofsky, however, shared Williams’s concern that Imagism, in the years since Pound first promoted the movement, had deteriorated into impressionistic free verse, lacking form. “The Objectivist theory was this,” Williams explained in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951), “We had had ’Imagism’ . . . which ran quickly out. That, though it had been useful in ridding the field of verbiage, had no formal necessity implicit in it.” The poem, he went on, “is an object, an object that in itself formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes.”
Zukofsky also believed that the poem’s form was one with its meaning. The objects, or elements, of the composition should take their meaning from their placement in the structure. The poet should not intrude his personality into the poem with what Zukofsky called predatory intent: the use of decorative adjectives or adverbs, and especially the use of transitional passages or devices which might explain a poem’s interior logic. In Poem Beginning “The,” for example, each line is numbered, but the numbers do not imply sequence. “Poetry convinces not by argument,” Zukofsky wrote, “but by the form it creates to carry its content.”
Reporting about an object, Zukofsky’s initial perception undergoes transformation into poetry. “Hi, Kuh” was Zukofsky’s response to the billboard advertisement for Elsie, the Borden dairy company’s cow. The advertisement showed “gold’n bees” which appeared to the eyes of the poet as eyes, and then when the astigmatic and myopic Zukofsky removed his glasses, they appeared as the shimmering windows of a skyscraper. “Hi, Kuh” also reminds the reader that the poet’s “I” was moved to think of a haiku, with the last unexpected word elevating the meaning of the poem beyond that of a bystander commenting on a billboard. Zukofsky does not explain the thought process that led from Elsie the cow to the towering emblem of the city; he presents, flatly, objects that are assembled to reveal his meaning.
“Mantis” gives a more elaborate example of Zukofsky’s method. The poem begins with a vivid description of a praying mantis encountered in a subway car. Gradually, the incongruity of the object in its surroundings, and its obvious helplessness, leads the poet to thoughts of a similar incongruity: the poor, who are helpless, alone, segregated from society, and as terrified as the mantis of an environment over which they have no control. “Mantis” was written as a sestina, a form Zukofsky rarely used, and one he knew was considered obsolete and archaic by many of his...
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The events that Louis Zukofsky relates in his sestina “Mantis” can be seen as simple and concrete. Yet, there is an underlying meaning in his words, a critique of society and its people's place in it. In this essay, I will attempt to realize and then rationalize this meaning by analysis of the symbolism and use of language as they relate to the state of civilized society during the time Zukofsky wrote the poem.
At its most basic level, “Mantis”, as I said before, is a very simple poem. The narrator describes a Praying Mantis lost and lonely in a big city. It has found
its way into a subway station where it sits and rests and ponders its next move among the homeless people of that city. A paperboy passes and does not give much notice to the insect. The Mantis then alights upon the chest of the unnamed narrator/observer and makes its way out, away from the cramped, dangerous subway platform.
When looking beneath the surface and examining the symbolism of this poem, there lies hidden a subject that was preeminent in the days of Zukofsky and is still rather preeminent in the present day. This is the ravages of the Capitalist system. His poem reflects upon the effects of differentiation between classes. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has led to reverence of those on the up and up but social and political alienation of those that have hit the bottom. Those that have been on the giving end of a capitalist society have been virtually sucked dry of monetary assets but are nonetheless forced to subsist in a civilization that condemns them for it.
The first stanza focuses less on the mantis itself and instead lays out the narrators uncertainty concerning if there is a solution to such a problem and if there are means for such a problem to be solved. “I who can not bear to look, cannot touch” seems to say that there is little that he can do. But the afflicted, both the mantis and its representation of the poor, are equally powerless. “You can -but no one sees you steadying lost in the cars drafts on the lit subway stone” The mantis is there and it has little power to change its situation. It is just a weak little insect surrounded by things that are too powerful to overcome.
The second stanza questions the mantis’ very presence. It is out of place in a large, bustling subway station where much money is being made. What is the
mantis here for? There is no use for it. There are only large beings that “may trample you” and no sustenance, “the shops’ crowds a jam with no flies in it”. The alienation continues. The mantis, the poor, is alone in a world that has no room or place for it, who, by merely being present, is threatened at every turn.
The newsboy in the third stanza is a representation of the capitalist society and the mantis‘ separation from that society. A young boy, having been one myself, is fascinated by insects and, seeing one in the hustle of a subway station is the most likely to be oblivious to all distractions and pay attention to such a creature. But, instead the boy is immersed in the pursuit of financial gain. He has forgotten what it was to care about such unimportant things as a mantis in a subway station much as the society has forgotten the poor, those outside the circle of market relationships. The poor do not have the ability to compete with a capitalist market in the offering of goods or services. He merely exists. As a mantis, small and alone on a subway platform, doing no good to anyone. As a poor man, by putting no sort of substantial money flow into the economy. What does a business do when you cannot buy it or sell it anything? It goes elsewhere.
Now, the mantis leaps onto the narrators chest. The narrator expresses repulsion at first. Zukofsky uses that image of the mantis jumping onto his chest to mimic those same feelings that society has for the poor. He means to express here, and throughout the piece through the use of a little bug, that the level of regard the poor control is no higher than that of insects.
The end of this fourth stanza and the rest of those following are an assurance to the mantis that a change can occur, that the mantis can get itself out of this subway, it does not need to be degraded and demoralized any more. Zukofsky says “I am old as the globe, it is my old shoe, yours” as if to explain that the mantis, those that are poor, are the same as everyone else, has been on the Earth just as long and they too wear shoes.
Zukofsky appeals to the mantis to take whatever necessary steps are needed to free itself from its subterranean confines. And by freeing itself from those confines and communicating what it has witnessed in the subway station, a complete and total degradation, it can unite the “armies of the poor…stone on stone and build the new world in your eyes, save it!”.
Here, in Zukofsky’s poem, part of the reason for writing this becomes clear. The last stanzas, and really the whole poem, were concocted to help the reader to be aware of these problems, to be aware that the poor are being treated like dirt everyday for no reason other than they have been held down against their will by a system that they cannot control. But, if communication of this alienation is made, if the mantis learns from its experiences in the subway station, it can share that knowledge with all its little mantis friends. When all the little mantis’ unite “stone on stone”, mantis on mantis, in communication, Zukofsky seems to think that a new utopian mantis society will form. They will build “the new world” in the eyes of those that see the equality and do not want to judge simply by size, of body in the case of the Mantis, and of wallet in the case of the poor.
It is clear how Zukofsky used symbolism to represent the degradation of those that have lost in a capitalist society. The message that he wanted to present, that of unifying as the first step towards a utopian, capitalism-free society, is clear. What is not clear is why he would want to present a problem of such significance through hidden meanings that can be extracted only after repeated “close readings”. Was he scared of the repercussions of someone high up on the capitalist food chain when they found out about his anti-establishment thinking? Does he perhaps have a strange disease that only allows him to communicate through vague symbolism? Or is he a twisted little man that is delights in perplexing college students everywhere by expressing his superior intellect? Those are the only questions I still have.