The following is from a talk I gave on Louis Zukofsky's "'Mantis', An Interpretation" in relation to Dante's The New Life and sestina for the "Stone Lady" at NYU's campus in Florence, Italy. The limits of my thinking in the talk, intended for students unfamiliar with Zukofsky if not also Dante, led me back to a place of debate about the use of "shock tactics" and propaganda during the 30s.
Pseudo-neurological and undoubtedly mystical, "'Mantis', An Interpretation" presents us with a version of surrealism. Like the surrealists, Zukofsky also tries to account for 'unconscious' processes, where the composition of his own poem resembles a form of 'automatic writing'. Whereas in both Dante and elsewhere in Zukofsky the visual is often primary, here movement is most important. The poet is a sleepwalker rather than a clairvoyant. Zukofsky’s sestina is more about the movement of the lines—a somatic intention—rather than something seen (imagist) or imagined (symbolist). The imaginary depends on something deeply felt or sensed in the following of the line itself through “thought’s torsion” coordinated with “pulse’s witness.”
The poem that results qualifies as “sincere” in Zukofsky’s (and perhaps also Dante’s) sense of this term. Sincere as in that which is without ornament, that which is communicated directly through the sensuous artifice of language. Sincere also as that which in the Latin is “without wax,” which doesn’t attempt a perfect resemblance so much as an adequate record of something experienced. What is at stake is feeling, a faithfulness to the force of one’s feelings as they partake of revolutionary forces.
The plot thickens where Zukofsky describes a state in which facts twist themselves “anew” to record neither a sestina nor even a mantis. The problem in the case of the sestina is that Zukofsky does not care where the form originates, so much as how it is applied. Ironically he quotes Williams’ dictum “—Our world will not stand it, the implications of too regular a form,” proving the quaintness of modern dictates about form faced with sociopolitical exigency. The point is not representation, but a kind of appropriation without model. Forget allegory; what Zukosfky seems to want is the chance to view a new world, however microscopically, through composition; a world in which the poor are no longer poor, however idealistic this may sound. Form itself, rather than the symbolism of the mantis, will prove a portal to conditions of possibility this new world seems to demand. Despite a “grave of verse,” which is to say the baggage of existing forms going back 649 years, the facticity of the mantis is less described by what it represents than the processes of feeling and reflection that it initializes. This is its “unreality,” which Zukosfky distinguishes from “falsity.” That it sets in motion the vision of a world within the world. And this is what offers Zukofsky his much desired alibi (perhaps the primary reason for his writing the interpretation?): that the insect or any element of the imaginary for that matter can never stand for the experiential suffering of others.
Nor is the mantis a purely Romantic figure, and perhaps this is where Zukofsky most departs from Dante and Pound alike, but Dante most of all. The mantis is what can start historical processes, by which Zukofsky means revolutionary consciousness, the consciousness that the world can be different. What is at stake is the individual’s consciousness of other beings, which curiously he achieves through self-disgust—repulsion and repuls[e]ion. “The poor’s separateness bringing self-disgust.” As in Dante’s The New Life and sestina for the Stone Lady, the poet is transformed towards a divine or larger (social) consciousness through fear and trembling. As in the sonic "ballistics" of Dada or the cinema that the German philosopher Walter Benjamin describes, the poet wakes through "shock effects"--a series of shocks that must be assimilated or sublimated by unconsciousness processes. This leads to a reordering of the collective, a collective defined by a discourse of the senses. The mantis is what not only inspires a vision through its revulsion, not unlike the Stone Lady; it is what asserts its content through distraction. We are “spiritual automatons” (Gilles Deleuze's preferred term for the viewer of Sergei Eisenstein's cinema) and we are ready to be beheaded. History, in the end, is a blind or blank spot where discursive accounts of history would otherwise appear. Dialectics brought to a standstill through the poem's re/composition.