Born in New York in 1904, Louis Zukofsky became highly inflenced by the work of Ezra Pound in the 1920s, and later, in the 1930s, became known for his spearheading of the Objectivist poetry movement.
In the tradition of Ezra Pound's epic "poem including history," The Cantos, "A" is a work of rare intensity that stands as one of the epics of American literature—and as what Zukofsky called "a poem of a life." But unlike such epics as Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Virgil’s Aenead, "A" is not a narrative poem. It is pieced together by collage, formal experimentation, and the poet's lived experience—thus, by "a life."
The first seven movements of "A," appeared in Poetry magazine's historic "'Objectivists' 1931," issue, which he edited, via Pound's recommendation. That feature brought together the work of Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakoski, among others, under the same blanket movement. Though, in a 1969 interview, Zukofsky later said:
I used the word "objectivist," and the only reason for using it was Harriet Monroe's insistence when I edited the "objectivist" number of Poetry...
"Well," she told me, "You must have a movement."
I said, "No, some of us are writing to say things simply so that they will affect us as new again."
"Well give it a name."
"All right, let's call it 'Objectivists.'"
...I wouldn't do it today.
"A" is far from being a "simple" work, but Zukofsky's disjunctive verse did prove to be effective and genuinely "new." It has influenced future generations of writers and marks a new stage in the Modernist tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. And despite his small reception, the poet had a huge impact on his own generation as well. Mary Oppen remarks in her autobiography Meaning a Life:
George [Oppen] has said many times, "I can never repay my debt to Zukofsky. He taught me everything."
Zukofsky continued to work on "A" throughout his life, though its final version did not go to the printers until just before his death in 1978. His biographer Mark Scroggins, calls the book "a long poem in as many forms as you can imagine, from Shakespearean sonnets, to letter-perfect canzoni, to phonetic translations from the Hebrew. It's a poem that tracks 50 years in the life of its writer and 50 years of American history."