Joseph Conte: On "Mantis"

Louis Zukofsky's renovation of the sestina began when Ashbery was still a grade-schooler. But in the diachronic record of an eight-hundred-year-old form, Zukofsky's "Mantis" and Ashbery's "Farm Implements" are practically simultaneous events. Both poems pursue a new content suitable to the twisting spiral of the sestina's end-words, a new expression of "la battaglia delli diversi pensieri." Their "discovery" of a postmodern, predetermined form whose shape was familiar to many Renaissance poets in France and Italy has its scientific analogue: Crick and Watson, unveiling the double-helix model of DNA must have seen the resemblance to that ancient timepiece, the hourglass; but their model contained a map of genetic coding, not grains of sand. That Zukofsky intended to write the sestina "anew" is clear from his discussion of the poem with L. S. Dembo:

I suppose there are two types of natures. One is aware of the two-hundred-year-old oak, and it's still alive and it's going to have some use to him; the other one is going to say cut it down and build a supermarket. I'm not inclined to be the latter, nor do I want to imitate a traditional form, but if that thing has lasted for two hundred years and has some merit in it, it is possible I can use it and somehow in transferring it into words--as I said in "Aleatorical indeterminate"--make something new of it. And the same for the form of the sestina. Musicians have done that with fugues.

Zukofsky encounters several hazards in the renovation of poetic form. He does not wish to imitate lamely a traditional form; to do so would be "absolutely useless ... just a facility--like that of Sunday painters." Such was the case in the nineteenth century--a reference to the efforts of Swinburne perhaps--in which the sestina form became mere "wicker-work," "not the form but a Victorian / Stuffing like upholstery." Nor has he any intention of restoring the form to its original condition with period furnishings from the age of Daniel, Petrarch, or Dante. Any sort of restoration attempt would validate the criticism of "the so-called 'modern' [who] will say you cannot write a sestina anymore, that Dante did it and it's dead and gone.... There's no use in writing the same sestina as Dante, because... you couldn't do it, except by copying it word for word and believing it's yours--an extreme case." But neither will Zukofsky relinquish the possibility of the form for the twentieth century--he will not cut down the oak to build "supermarkets." He disagrees with Williams's statement, quoted in "'Mantis,' An Interpretation," that "Our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too regular form." Zukofsky will not join in the modernist rejection of predetermined forms; with the oak already felled by the high modernists, he does not feel compelled to haul out new lumber and build from scratch. His distinction as a postmodernist is that he neither restores nor abandons the old forms of the sestina or the canzone--he renovates the form by "making it new" from the inside out.

[. . .]

The six-page, verse "Interpretation" that accompanies Zukofsky's sestina is a remarkable reassembling of the poem's scaffold; the closed-form poet refuses to stow the construction materials and devices, the evidence of his artifice, after the poem has been made. Step by step, the decisions by which Zukofsky arrives at the necessity of the sestina form for his poem are enumerated. The genesis of this poem is an "incident"--a mantis, lost in the subway, flying at the poet's chest, startling him. Its "inception" is a first draft of twenty-seven words which fail to do more than write up the "ungainliness" of the creature. The incident itself is insufficient, not "all that was happening." There has been a coincidence of "six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening / All immediate, not moved by any transition." These six thoughts are the first indication that the poem will assume the form of a sestina, with its six end-words and six stanzas. Finally, the poet questions:



"(thoughts' torsion)"

la battaglia delli diversi pensieri ...

the battle of diverse thoughts--

The actual twisting

Of many and diverse thoughts

What form should that take?


Zukofsky describes his arrival, after the "incident," after the "inception" of the poem, at the question of an appropriate form. Of course, by citing Dante's description of the sestina, the question contains its own answer. The lyric of a single, concentrated vision is inadequate to express the many and diverse thoughts that the poet, in that one moment, encounters. The "ungainliness" of the mantis is replicated in the twisting of the sestina form itself. But the mantis that is "lost," or contextually displaced, in the subway initiates contextually diverse thoughts on entomology, self-extinction myth, and especially the plight of the poor who find themselves begging in the subways.


One feels in fact inevitably

About the coincidence of the mantis lost in the subway,

About the growing oppression of the poor--

Which is the situation most pertinent to us--,

With the fact of the sestina:

Which together fatally now crop up again

To twist themselves anew

To record not a sestina, post Dante,

Nor even a mantis.


Zukofsky does not want to imitate the traditional form, post-Dante. His renovation of the sestina occurs as the inevitable consequence of two facts: the twisting structure of the poetic form and a new battle of diverse thoughts expressing the most pertinent issue of the day.

Zukofsky's analysis of his poem's content--thoughts' torsion--precedes his identification of the sestina "as the only / Form that will include the most pertinent subject of our day." For Ashbery, as we noted earlier, the elaborate twisting of the sestina form serves as an exploratory probe of the remoter areas of consciousness. In Ashbery, the form generates an appropriate content; in Zukofsky, the content discovers an appropriate form. Despite this difference in craft, neither poet alters the form of the sestina, retaining the outer shell of the structure intact. Both adhere to Dante's description of the shape of the content--notice that Dante's "battaglia" does not specify an appropriate subject but the manner in which content behaves when intimately related to the sestina form. Each poet guts the sestina of traditional amorous or pastoral subjects, introducing a "battaglia nova": in Zukofsky, the coincidence of a mantis lost in the subway and the plight of the urban poor; in Ashbery, the multiple voices in a cosmopolitan blend of high and low culture. But postmodern renovation also involves a new attitude toward predetermined form: Ashbery employs its strictures as an exploratory device, to find "the new" itself; Zukofsky, convinced that a predetermined form can express the most pertinent situations of contemporary life, rejects the modernist view of closed form as a false sense of order and regularity imposed on the (as Pound says in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley") "accelerated grimace" of our age.

Zukofsky's renovation of the sestina form is intended as a refutation of the modernist rejection of predetermined forms, but his assertion of two corollary characteristics of procedural form also identifies his efforts as distinctly postmodern. The first of these characteristics is the predominance of recurrence as both structural device and paradigmatic figure, displacing metaphor. Although most obviously present in predetermined forms, recurrence is significant in all of Zukofsky's work, including "A" and the finite series in All. In fact, Zukofsky ventures to say in an interview, "All art is made, I think, out of recurrence. The point is to have recurrence so that it isn't mere repetition, like Poe's 'Bells, bells, bells, bells.' The idea is to have these recurrences so that they will always turn up as new, 'just' different. Something has happened to the movement or you see the thing 'differently.'" His distinction between static repetition and shifting recurrence is particularly attractive when one considers that the project at hand, the renovation of the sestina, is an attempt to have an old form turn up as new, seen differently. Additionally, Zukofsky is aware that the structure of the sestina exploits recurrence to a degree greater than most poetic forms. When he finally decides on a form for "Mantis," he concludes:


That this thoughts' torsion

Is really a sestina

Carrying subconsciously

Many intellectual and sensual properties of the

                forgetting and remembering Head

One human's intuitive Head


In the sestina, recurrence of the six parole rime enacts the intellectual and sensual properties of the "remembering Head." The shifts in context from one strophe to the next indicate that much is forgotten while much that is new takes the place of the old. The end-words of the sestina avoid static repetition by always turning up in the company of new materials, new contexts; in each strophe, their semantic import and contextual value must be seen differently. Zukofsky examines the role of the end-words:


The sestina, then, the repeated end words

Of the lines' winding around themselves,

Since continuous in the Head, whatever has been read,

                                whatever is heard,

                                        whatever is seen

Perhaps goes back cropping up again with

Inevitable recurrence again in the blood ...


He recognizes that the retrogradatio cruciata motion of the end-words is the most appropriate form in which to express the coincidence of several thoughts' torsion, winding around themselves in the head. But Zukofsky also identifies the sestina and the action of its end-words as the most concentrated example in poetic form of an inevitable recurrence, both intuitive and physiological, structural and figural.

John Taggart, in his discussion of "Mantis," notes one effect of a structured recurrence in the sestina: "All of Zukofsky's rhyme words appear at more than their predetermined end positions throughout the poem.... The result is a heightened fugal complexity of very few words." In fugue structure, a repeated subject is joined by new material. The proliferation of the end-words in "Mantis" indicates an even greater proportion of recurrent material and a greater centripetal force than usual in the sestina. If all art is made of recurrence, Zukofsky is determined to display this property to an undeniable degree in his practice of procedural forms.

An instance in which recurrence demonstrates the ability of the form to record the most pertinent situation of the day occurs in the third strophe. The newsboy who notices the poet's concern for the mantis declares that it is "no use." The boy's resignation--the mantis is "harmless" anyway, as the poor are impotent--and his employment cause the poet to remember something read: "papers make money, makes stone, stone, / Banks." This observation is a condensed version, glossed by Zukofsky in his "Interpretation," of a clever interlocking statement on the economics of the very poor: "Rags make paper, paper makes money, money makes banks, banks make loans, loans make poverty, poverty makes rags." The newsboy is "unable to think beyond" this cyclic repetition that conspires to retain the poorest at the subsistence level. In this manner, Zukofsky claims that the recurrence of the sestina form is quite pertinent to the cycle of poverty, and yet, by its avoidance of exact repetition, by its attempt to see things differently and encourage new modes of thinking about an old problem, the poem may offer some hope to those lost and begging in the subway.

The second distinctly postmodern characteristic of a procedural form which Zukofsky's "Mantis" illustrates is an antagonistic attitude toward symbolism. In his "Interpretation," Zukofsky argues:


But the facts are not a symbol.


There is the difference between that

And a fact (the mantis in the subway)

And all the other facts the mantis sets going about it.


No human being wishes to become

An insect for the sake of a symbol.


The mantis and the poor are coincidental facts that twist themselves together, relationally, within the fact of the sestina form; the mantis is not a symbol for the poor. Such symbolism is antithetical to the form of the sestina. It implies that there is a superficial structure or set of signifiers which momentarily conceals a more important, referential signified. Zukofsky's point throughout his "Interpretation" has been that there is a correlation of the "fact" of the sestina's twisting structure and the "thoughts' torsion" that comprises the poem's content. Recurrence in the sestina presents these coincidental facts in profile, examining their variations and commutations; the symbolic mode insists on an imagination of depth, a hierarchy of issues so large as to squash our poor insect. As Zukofsky says, the mantis sets other facts going about it; it does not "stand for" the poor as if it were a pin in a man's lapel.

The postmodern renovation of closed forms is most obvious in its effect on traditional content: although the structure of the building remains intact, the dumpster on the street is full of old plaster and floorboarding. For poets like Ashbery and Zukofsky, it is easier to displace traditional subjects in the sestina, canzone, and pantoum because they are foreign imports--their continental heritage is considerably devalued in United States currency. But in general, it is easier for the contractor to gut a building than to determine how and with what materials it may be made newly inhabitable. The contemporary function of closed form is the first consideration. Both poets reject the romantic concept of closed form as superimposed upon content: Ashbery is most avant-garde in his use of elaborate forms as exploratory devices to uncover remoter areas of consciousness; Zukofsky considers the twisting form of the sestina and the ungainliness of the mantis to be a coincidence of related facts that find one another. But there is also the furnishing to consider. The absence of rhyme and the predominance of recurrence in these procedural forms allow the poet to displace symbol and metaphor in favor of the commutation of several elements. Ashbery shuffles the several voices of kings and knaves like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer; Zukofsky offers the thoughts' torsion of a mild Marxist economics, entomology, and Melanesian myth. The postmodern renovated form is a paradigmatic structure of repetition and variation, invariably opposed to the symbolic consciousness in which form is a superficial film over the depths of a significant content.


Criticism Overview
Title Joseph Conte: On "Mantis" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joseph Conte Criticism Target Louis Zukofsky
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry
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