The correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky is remarkable for its endurance and balance. The two poets met through Ezra Pound in 1928, and continued their friendship in letters (and visits) until Williams’s death in 1963. Though Williams was 21 years older than Zukofsky—they were 45 and 24 on their first meeting in New York—this was no impediment to their friendship. Nor did Williams dominate the relationship with his greater recognition or fall into a role as mentor to Zukofsky. The two poets settled immediately into a peer exchange of work and philosophies that was enormously influential to both.
In fact it is stunning to see Williams begin to trust Zukofsky’s editorial suggestions nearly immediately, given that Williams had already published Al Qye Qyuere!, Kora in Hell, Spring and All, The Great American Novel and other books, and was developing a singular reputation as an American innovator. Zukofsky was an able reader, though a few times his criticism chafed—“Dear Louis: Excellent criticism, hard enough at times—but salutary. Hell, who’s a poet? Christ knows no one is—mostly.” “Dear Louis: Whether or not what I say to you is worth a good God damn at least I’m pulling no punches. Same to you. Perhaps by kicking the bloody shit out of each other, if we’re able, we may get a hell of a lot further than we ever have in the past.” Zukofsky’s suggestions helped shape much of Williams’s work, especially The Wedge (1944). “I want to tell you that with your assistance I have succeeded in cutting 33 pages from the script I sent you…. It is now getting to be a book, one that I cannot read without a slight choking from the cumulative effect—almost as much from your arrangements of the individual pieces as from their separate virtues…. I have adopted almost all your suggestions though not quite all. Almost all have resulted in improvements to the text…. You really got to me that time. I’ve been troubled, upset, thrown off my balance—but instructed. I needed a good hot iron shoved into me for I was a little lost. A splendid lesson….I think even you will be surprised when the thing is finally put into shape. I’m going to dedicate it to you.” At one point (in 1943) Williams even asked Zukofsky to be his literary executor.
The other side of the exchange was perhaps less fruitful, though Zukofsky is never anything but diplomatic, receptive, warm to Williams’s suggestions, and contemporary critics see Williams’s influence on Zukofsky’s work. Nevertheless, it was a feature of their 35 year relationship that Williams struggled with Zukofsky’s avant-garde, next-generation modernism. His criticism often resembled target practice, and began with certain caveats. “Well do I know that the best work is very hard indeed to see, by which I mean really to see. It is new and simple and offers no explanation of itself. Ones eyes have to grow accustomed to it, have to be built up to it slowly or they will see nothing at all.” (1929) “I enjoyed it greatly without understanding every detail to be sure and yet it did appear to me and impress me as a whole, one perfectly understandable ideogram which is the last significance of form.” (1941) “I’m still puzzled by anything but your simplest propositions. When your construction becomes in any way complicated I am left flat on my back gasping for air. No light…. But the positive thing about that is that you never and I mean never relent.” (1958)
Their exchanges are salted with bits of their lives—the death of parents, Zukofsky’s marriage and the birth of his son Paul, Paul’s Carnegie Hall performances as a violin prodigy, Williams’s sons’ (and grandchildren’s) comings and goings—to college, to war, to work. And the modernists are present here. Ezra Pound in all his best and worst gets bandied about with some grim pleasure (“Pound has gone nuts, without a doubt. I shall pay no more attention to him.” [WCW, 1935]). All the major figures of the modern literary movement make appearances—George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Marianne Moore (“Marianne was BEAUTIFUL! I found myself drifting off into the trance which only beauty creates, more than once. Floss agrees. There is a quality there which is unspeakably elevating—through all her frail pretences of being this or that by God, she IS. The modern Andromeda”), Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Burke, Yvor Winters, Norine Neidecker, Ford Maddox Ford, the despised T. S. Eliot, along with the Objectivist issue of Poetry, WCW’s magazine Contact, and the short-lived Objectivist Press. Williams’s letters sketch the birth and rise of New Directions Press, and Zukofsky makes mention of his late, 1950s popularity with the beat poets in San Francisco and publisher Cid Corman. And William’s medical practice, his life with Flossie and occasional references to his wandering eye, Zukofsky’s happy domestic life and his battle to make enough money to support himself, create an enduring backdrop for the passing decades.
It was just one shared project and a mutual friend, this time a composer and not a poet, that threatened the Williams-Zukofsky friendship in 1934-35. Williams had undertaken to write an opera based on the life of George Washington. Through Zukofsky he met Tibor Serly, a violinist and composer who agreed to write the score. But the demands of such an unfamiliar genre, their contrary visions, and William’s growing mania to complete the opera, eventually drove the project into the ground. The pace of letters between Zukofsky and Williams slowed considerably, even stopped for several months. Afterward, Williams said, “Every year we’re different men, Louis, wiser, I hope, if every year shorn somewhat closer to the hide in the matter of what genius we had. Maybe that’s a good thing. I think that in our friendship there’s much more to come and I for one am in a better position to appreciate it today than I was yesterday. We were too damned close together for a while. That’s no good. The most any one can do is to be a kind of mirror for the other. And the mirror had better be a clear one, not a tinted one, just clear.”