Kenneth Burke, Louis Zukofsky, and the Comic Framing of “A”-23

I presented the following paper at the “Rhetorical Approaches to Literature” panel during the 2012 PAMLA Conference in Seattle, Washington. Since I’ll soon be presenting at this year’s conference in San Diego (November 1-3, 2013), I thought now might be a good time to look back at one of my first attempts at a “rhetoricized” reading of avant-garde writing.

Despite their mutual friendships and well-documented correspondence with William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Burke and Louis Zukofsky are rarely mentioned together in contemporary scholarship. On one hand, this oversight seems entirely appropriate: only two letters between Burke and Zukofsky—both from July of 1960—are archived at Penn State, and Burke mentions Zukofsky’s magnum opus “A” in his correspondence with Williams exactly once (Williams, Burke, and East 213-16). On the other hand, the harsh judgment Burke passes on Zukofsky’s work in his letter to Williams seems to cry out for further investigation. “In any case, I agree with you,” Burke declares. “[H]e writes an honest line. . . . But jeez, if you don’t consider pp. 112-17 absolutely hideous, then prithee learn me!” (215).

What, then, are we to make of Burke’s rather violent rejection of Zukofsky’s work—especially when Williams, whom Burke deeply admired, held his poetic protégé in such high regard? How might we begin to reconcile Burke’s concerns over certain portions of “A” with his approval of Zukofsky’s “honest lines”? And what was it about Zukofsky’s poetics in particular that evoked such a strong reaction from a man whose notion of poetry required “experimentally wrenching apart all those molecular combinations of adjective and noun, substantive and verb, which still remain with us” (Permanence and Change 119)?

In addressing these questions, I want to approach the issue from two sides at once. By isolating two key terms from Burke’s work in the 1930s—“categorical expectation” in Counter-Statement and the “comic frame” in Attitudes Toward History—I will attempt to summarize Burke’s early conception of the relationship between literature and rhetoric while also suggesting a Burkean explanation for his disgust with the initial sections of Zukofsky’s “A”. At the same time, however, I want to read a later, more mature section of “A” (“A”-23) to demonstrate how the same work that contained such “hideous” lines can also be understood as an application of Burke’s terminology—a paradox, if you will, of poetic substance. By engaging this paradox via the Burkean dialectic—which Timothy Crusius has defined simply as “use and study of terminologies” (183)—my paper seeks similarities that ‘transcend’ the two thinkers’ vocabularies via a common (but concealed) understanding of the tripartite relationship between art, life, and rhetoric. My hope is that, in focusing on the previously unacknowledged link between Burke’s criticism and Zukofsky’s poetry, I can demonstrate how Burke’s early literary theory remains an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the nexus of art and rhetoric in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

* * *

In Burke’s first book of criticism, Counter-Statement (CS), the young rhetorician lays out a surprisingly traditional system of literary analysis that focuses more on aesthetic notions of form and eloquence than on rhetoric per se. When the term “rhetoric” is finally addressed, however, Burke makes a subtle yet radical break with the aesthetes and chooses instead to chart a course of his own. “The reader of modern prose,” Burke begins,

is ever on guard against “rhetoric,” yet the word, by lexicographer’s definition, refers but to “the use of language in such a way as to produce a desired impression upon the hearer or reader.” . . . In accordance with the definition we have cited, effective literature could be nothing else but rhetoric: thus the resistance to rhetoric qua rhetoric must be due to a faulty diagnosis. (210)

If the rejection of rhetoric is, as Burke suggests here, the result of a “faulty diagnosis” on the part of the reigning literary-cultural establishment, then the concluding section of Counter-Statement represents an attempt to “cure” this malady and rehabilitate rhetoric’s place in the aesthetic realm. Burke attempts this via his discussion of conventional forms and the power of those “categorical expectations” which attend them (204).

Throughout Counter-Statement, conventional forms are treated in the same way we now treat genres—as methods of artistic expression that have been normalized over time. In “Lexicon Rhetoricæ,” Burke defines form as “an arousing and fulfillment of desires” (124), and conventional form as “a form [that] appeals as form . . . [that can] be sought for itself” (126). As forms become more and more conventional, readers become more and more attuned to the “categorical expectations” these forms elicit, and these expectations serve to further solidify the form’s conventionality. At this point, Burke still sounds remarkably similar to Arnold, Eliot, and other cultural elitists whose searches for “the best of what is known and thought in the world” (Arnold 712) have almost always prized excellence over originality. Yet in the closing pages of “Applications of the Terminology,” Burke appears to reverse this order by lauding the “innovator” who risks “disappointing the expectations of his audience” in the search for new methods and forms of communication (204). This search is essentially rhetorical in nature because the only compelling reason an artist has for taking on the risk of innovation is the potential benefit of producing new effects in her readers—in other words, engaging in rhetorical interactions with her audience. Only by continually manipulating the categorical expectations of an audience, Burke maintains, can artists maintain a “maximum of formal and Symbolic ‘charge’” in their work (211), and this requires that they “must temporarily at least violate the principles of conventional form, must risk seeming ‘unnatural’ until the present decrees as to the ‘natural’ are undone.”

Louis Zukofsky’s epic poem “A”—a work he began with “A”-1 in 1928 and (finally) concluded with “A”-24 in 1968—stretches Burke’s notion of the “innovator” to its breaking point. More than merely “disappointing” his readers’ expectations, Zukofsky openly preys upon them, experimenting with line breaks, stanza formation, images and diagrams, white space, and typography to achieve the kind of “formal and Symbolic charge” Burke discusses in Counter-Statement. The final section of “A”, in fact, is a 250-page musical drama consisting of two acts, nine scenes, and its own index; the work is not, as one might surmise, a text of which Matthew Arnold would have approved. That said, it is important for readers approaching Zukofsky for the first time to understand that the experimentations in “A” are neither decorative nor combative. As a poetic innovator, Zukofsky is forced to play a double rhetorical role: his deviations from conventional form must be dramatic enough to convince readers that they should abandon their old ways in favor of his, but they must also be subtle enough that readers trained in the old ways do not dismiss his project out of hand. His radical “procedures,” in Burke’s words, may “be viewed as an oddity, as peripheral, [only] on the chance that other men may eventually join him and by their convergence make such procedures the ‘norm’” (CS 212). An innovation to which readers shut their eyes and stop their ears is surely the weakest rhetoric of all.

This, I contend, at least partly explains Burke’s curious reaction to Zukofsky’s early work in his letter to William Carlos Williams. Despite his affection for Williams and many other avant-garde writers in the 1930s, Burke’s personal aesthetic—his own “categorical expectations” for poetry—were exceeded by Zukofsky’s innovations. In Counter-Statement, Burke allows that the power of these expectations over readers “may be so imperious that [the reader] will condemn the slighting of [the expectations] even in an author who is aiming at different effects” (204), and it appears that Zukofsky, in his rush to overthrow the symbols of poetic authority in the late 1920s, made it difficult for Burke to see the value in his new approach to the printed page. Burke the theorist would certainly have been open to Zukofsky’s experiments with the poetic form, but this does not mean that Burke the reader felt compelled to enjoy them. Even the most “honest lines” can be “hideous” sometimes, and Zukofsky simply pushed the envelope more than Burke—and many other readers—were willing to allow.

But why would Zukofsky want to do this? Why would any poet, for that matter, given the possibility that the reading public might turn away in shock, horror, or disbelief? As Tim Woods discusses in The Poetics of the Limit, Zukofsky embraced an experimental poetics because he felt an ethical imperative to connect with readers in ways that remained unavailable in more traditional poetic forms. Zukofsky’s innovations serve a highly controlled and ultimately rhetorical purpose: namely, to draw the reader into a closer relationship with the text by displacing meaning from its assumed position within words and re-establishing it in the liminal space between author, text, and reader. Quoting from Woods:

By not conforming to the conventional typography of the printed page with its close print, quickly organized as compact units of exchangeable meaning, Zukofsky highlights how meaning arrives after a process of material engagement with a text. . . . Meaning is literally—or letterally—drawn out, extended beyond the boundaries of the conventional page and typographical framework. (178)

As meaning extends beyond the page, it necessarily encroaches upon the position of the reader and begins to function rhetorically as a means of eliciting a response or reaction—or, in Burke’s words, “produc[ing] a desired impression upon the hearer or reader” (CS 210). Again, this move must be carefully constructed so as to challenge but not confront the reader’s categorical expectations, and Zukofsky’s “A” constantly walks a fine line between these two extremes. As the poet himself states in the first section of “A”-23:

                        tongues commonly inaccurate talk viable

one to one, ear to

eye loving song greater than

anything  (537)

The tongue’s “inaccurate” speech may fail to signify in a referential or Saussurean manner, but this does not mean that his words are doomed to fail as communicative acts. This kind of “talk” remains “viable” when it becomes embedded in a system of pairs, embedded in a dialectical system in which “one” can communicate with another “one” in much the same way that our ears communicate with our eyes—through the synesthetic translation of sensory data from one medium to another. The pun on the word “eye” completes this brief depiction of dialectical transcendence by suggesting song as a kind of “representative anecdote” for human communication; the eyes work to translate a musical score—which, in itself, can make no sound—into a delightful melody for the ears—which, in itself, cannot be seen. Despite the difficulty of his lines, Zukofksy’s profession of love for music above all else suggests that “A” should not be read as a closed system of hermetic self-referentiality that will forever remain unintelligible, but rather as an invitation to discourse that will ultimately reward any reader willing to open her mind to new forms of communication.

At this point, a second fundamental parallel to Burke’s early literary criticism arises. In his 1937 work Attitudes Toward History, Burke introduces the concept of frames of acceptance, which he defines as “the more or less organized system[s] of meanings by which a thinking man gauges his historical situation and adopts a role with relation to it” (ATH 5). As humans, we view the world through our frames of acceptance, and the semi-permeable borders of these frames determine which values, events, or experiences we can “accept” as part of our worldview, and which ones we must reject because of their antithetical—or, in the Burkean terminology, their “impious” (PC 80)—nature. Essentially, frames of acceptance enable us to determine what goes with what; they constitute a normative hermeneutics whereby we order the terms of our experience according to the most basic “yes/no” or “accept/reject” binaries. As necessary as they are dangerous, frames of acceptance represent the quintessential double-edged sword: their borders must be established somewhere, so in admitting certain kinds of experience, they must always deny certain other kinds of experience at the same time.

Burke’s attempt to mitigate the damage created by our frames of acceptance is rooted in his understanding of ancient comedies, works in which a playwright “warns against the dangers of pride” by shifting his focus “from crime to stupidity” (ATH 41). A truly “comic” frame, then, involves an identification with the character of the fool and an understanding that, despite our best efforts, we too could always be mistaken. “When you add that people are necessarily mistaken,” Burke argues, “that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle” (41). By realizing that we could always be wrong, we (hopefully) become more interested in understanding how and why we make mistakes in the first place. This burgeoning interest in the root causes or motives behind our mistakes impels us to seek similar information about other positions in the world, even positions which would typically reside outside the border of our frame of acceptance. Rather than dismiss this position out of hand, Burke hopes that our attention to the comic frame encourages us to better understand the position—as well as our own—in a human(e) quest to develop a “maximum consciousness” regarding the acts of ourselves and others (171). The comic frame, then, is an opening to difference as a result of appreciating the similarities we share with others in the world.

Nowhere is this “maximum consciousness” of shared similarities more on display than in Zukofsky’s “A”. The poem’s rhetorical nature—its insistent need to read and be read by an audience as a way of co-determining its meaning—cannot help but invite as much participation, cooperation, and understanding as possible. Without it, the poem slips into meaninglessness and hermetic abstraction. The closing lines of “A”-23 practically cry out for communion, for the reader to join Zukofsky in celebrating their shared sense of history:

since Eden gardens labor, For

series distributes harmonies, attraction Governs

destinies. Histories dye the streets:

intimate whispers magnanimity flourishes: doubts’

passionate Judgment, passion the task.



and dissonances only of degree, never-

Unfinished hairlike water of notes

vital free as Itself—impossible’s

sort-of think-cramp work x: moonwort:

music, thought, drama, story, poem

parks’ sunburst—animals, grace notes—

z-sited path are but us.  (563)

Yes, this might be a strange sort of communion; asking readers to work through twenty-four sections and more than 800 pages of text written in this manner places quite a strain on the poet-reader relationship. But, as Mark Scroggins suggests, this strain is necessary if Zukofsky is to challenge the categorical expectations of readers thoroughly versed in traditional (i.e., Romantic) notions of poetry as the unified and exclusive representation of a poet’s thoughts or emotions. Instead, Zukofsky’s poem “stands as a fundamentally democratic text, one that solicits a proactive participation on the part of its readers, thereby working to dismantle any model of the poem’s meaning as verbal commodity passed from poet/producer to reader/consumer” (Scroggins 252). A truly “comic frame,” Zukofsky’s “A”-23 foregrounds the poet’s fallibility and invites the reader to participate in a thorough—if at times maddening—investigation of the root causes or motives underlying this instability. By dislocating poetic meaning, Zukofsky has also managed to dislocate poetic authority. In Burkean terms, the poet’s “insight contains its own special kind of blindness” (ATH 41), and the only way for Zukofsky to regain his sight is for the poem to be opened up comically as an invitation to collective, cooperative world building.

* * *

Where, then, does this leave us? Unfortunately, I think it leaves us pretty close to where we began, marveling at the dismay Burke expressed to William Carlos Williams regarding Zukofsky’s early work. The “comic” connection between critic and poet merits a more thorough analysis than I have had the time to make here; their texts resist paraphrase and brief quotation, and the links that I have suggested—those of “categorical expectations” and the “comic frame”—represent little more than two possible starting points for further study of the overlap the men share. Looking ahead to such work, I think the key term in any future inquiries into Burke and Zukofsky should be ethics—the ethical imperative for a poetics that operates in both the aesthetic and the social realms. As Charles Bernstein argues in “The Practice of Poetics”:

Social poetics, like what Kenneth Burke calls ‘sociological criticism,’ begins with a conception of the poem as an action to be read in relation to its social motivation, not its intention. . . . Social poetics acknowledges the agency of a work of art, not simply its historicity, where agency is recognized in the work’s response to particular conditions. (79)

What still surprises me about Burke’s reaction to Zukofsky is that, for two thinkers approaching the problematic relationship between art and society from a similar position of “social poetics,” Burke struggled to recognize this similarity for what it was: a “comic corrective” (ATH 166) to the particular conditions of American life in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet even if Burke failed to see this connection, I hope that I have been able to show how his terminology remains invaluable for understanding both why this miscommunication might have occurred and how Zukofsky’s later work attempts to overcome these issues.


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” 1864. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2010. 695-714. Print.

Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

—. Counter-Statement. 1931. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Scroggins, Mark. “Obscurity, Solipsism, and Community in ‘A’-23.” Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998. 226-56. Print.

Williams, William Carlos, Kenneth Burke, and James H. East. The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina P, 2003. Print.

Woods, Tim. The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

Zukofsky, Louis. “A”. 1978. New York: New Directions Books, 2011. Print.

[Image via Poetry Foundation]


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