Hugh Kenner said it was the most hermetic poem in the English language. Robert Creeley called it “art . . . without equal.” My friend Jared White, a poet and a bookseller, calls it the Book Group Killer. James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions Press, called it “a great poem really rolling in all its power and splendor of language”—and yet he declined to publish it. I’m talking, of course, about “A,” Louis Zukofsky’s erstwhile pillar of American Modernist poetry, in and out of print for years but recently reissued by New Directions. The NDP edition is a paperback original with a fine and thorough introduction by the Zukofsky scholar Barry Ahearn. It is the first edition of the full poem to be published by a non-university press (the two previous editions were from the University of California Press in 1978 and Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993) and has a yellowed white cover that seems to say, “This is how discolored with age this book would be if we had published it when we should have.” It is not a handsome look, but it does neatly sum up the problem of approaching “A,” and perhaps Zukofsky in general: how to foment the re-discovery of something that never quite had a proper heyday in the first place? Neither Zukofsky nor “A” has any real claim on the public imagination. Even among poets he doesn’t seem to be much read, discussed, or taught, except by a handful of deeply entrenched partisans. I started to investigate whether—and why—this might be the case, but then I realized that I was squandering a huge opportunity.
more from Justin Taylor at Poetry here.