Thanks to the Dictionary (1961)


Comens, Bruce. Apocalypse and After: Modern Strategy and Postmodern Tactics in Pound, Williams and Zukofsky. U of Alabama Press, 1995. 148-151.

Quartermain, Peter. “Writing and Authority in Zukofsky’s Thanks to the Dictionary.” In Scroggins (1997): 154-174. Rpt. Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde (2013): 69-86.

Sloboda, Nicholas. “Introducing the Ludic: The Poetics of Play in Louis Zukofsky’s Fiction.” English Studies in Canada 23.2 (1997): 201-215.

Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. “Louis Zukofsky.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 22.3 (2002): 13-20.

Watten, Barrett. “New Meaning and Poetic Vocabulary: From Coleridge to Jackson Mac Low.” Poetics Today 18.2 (1997): 147-186. Rpt. Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003): 1-44.


According to Quartermain, LZ primarily worked on this “novel” from July 1932 to Dec. 1934, although he continued to do some tinkering until 16 August 1939 when he settled on the sequential order (158-159). However, as with other works from this period, it would not be until 1959 before the work partially saw print in Combustion 10 (May) and then appeared complete in the volume of his short fiction, It Was (Kyoto, Japan: Origin Press, 1961). “Song 28” (“’Specifically, a writer of music’”) in 55 Poems (1941) is clearly part of or grew out of the “Thanks to the Dictionary” project (CSP 61-64).


Chronological list of non-book publication of selections from “Thanks to the Dictionary” as follows:

1959     from Thanks to the Dictionary. Combustion 10 (May): 8-9 [from David and Michal: from “The twelve peers of France” to “I have been outspoken” (276-277) and from “She stood among the very numerous” to “…but she had become numberless” (279-280); from David and Bath-sheba: from “An aside of Bath-sheba sitting” to “from my being here, —our love again” (281-282)].

1968     from Thanks to the Dictionary. Buffalo, NY: The Galley Upstairs Press [a broadside with two brief quotations lineated and dated 1932: from “A visitor making a visit” to “It has become visitatorial” (273) and from “My three unequal and dissimilar axes” to “let’s make it liquid” (270)].
from Thanks to the Dictionary. Monks Pond 2 (Summer): 1-2 [Preface and from Young David: from “Not otherwise provided for” to “identical as their composition” (265-267)].


“Thanks to the Dictionary” was constructed primarily from the Biblical story of David and improvisations out of the dictionary. According to Quartermain the basic method seems to have involved rolling dice to determine a page of the dictionary (the definition for dice appears at 284) and then writing out of or with the words and definitions found on the designated page(s), which is why clusters of curious words beginning with similar letters appear in a given paragraph or passage. In most passages it is quite easy to figure out where in the dictionary LZ worked from. However, it is obvious some pages were not chosen randomly, such as the “Preface” (265), which works from the first page of the dictionary, and the opening paragraph of “Degrees” (284) where the page containing the definition for “dictionary” is used. Also, the manner or style of the sections is various and does not in all case appear to lean heavily on the dictionary and presumably other materials that interested LZ have made their way into the text as well. For a discussion of LZ’s method in writing “Thanks to the Dictionary,” see Quartermain 160-163, who states that LZ used two different dictionaries: Funk & Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary (1930) and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1917).


Note on the Text: There are two distinct printings of the Dalkey Archive edition of Collected Fiction (1990), which effects some of the pagination, although there is no indication of the difference in the later reset printing. In both printings, Little is photostatted from the original Grossman publication (1970), while the additional stories collected as It Was were first set in a different and somewhat unsightly type, which apparently is why the latter was reset to make a more uniform looking volume in 1997. As a result, the pagination is the same for Little, but different for the other stories. In the notes below I give references to both printings, the first referring to the 1997 printing currently in print. In the paperback editions, the earlier printing has an all-white cover with a full front cover photo of LZ, while the 1997 printing has a mostly black cover with the photo of LZ reduced and cropped.


Notes to Thanks to the Dictionary


The following notes make no attempt to identify most of the dictionary words and definitions LZ incorporated (but see first note), although some attempt to do that can be found in the notes to “Song 28.”


265/270   “A”…: aside from “a” being the obvious place to start a work composed with the dictionary, the opening sentences of the Preface allude to LZ’s ongoing “A”. “My sawhorses” refers to “A”-7, which LZ recognized as a breakthrough poem in terms of liberating his language from referentiality. Mention of “An” perhaps anticipates LZ’s plan to begin the later movements of “A” with “an,” which although he would not put it into practice until 1964 with “A”-14, he already had in mind as early as 1930 (see EP/LZ 80).
          For some idea of LZ’s procedure, we can draw out various terms and definitions that appear in the “Preface,” where he is obviously working from the first page of the dictionary. “a” can mean: one, any, some, each and obviously because “an” before a vowel. As a prefix “a-“ can mean: in the act of. As an abbreviation “a” can mean: afternoon, year (L. anno or annus), acre, among many other possibilities. According to Funk & Wagnalls:
aback can mean: aloof.
aasvogel n. A vulture.
Ab (or Av) Eleventh month in the Jewish calendar during which is the fasting day to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, corresponding to July/August.
Aaron’s rod 1 The rod cast by Aaron before the Pharaoh, which became a serpent (Ex. vii 9-15), and later blossomed (Num. xvii 8). 2 Archit. A rod-shaped molding, ornamented with sprouting leaves or with a single serpent twined about it. 3 A plant that flowers on long stems, as the mullein.

265/270   David: the Biblical account of David appears intermittently throughout “Thanks to the Dictionary.” At 285-290, LZ gives a summary version of the David’s life condensed from the King James version, but elsewhere he imaginatively elaborates details of his own.

266/271   sakkiyeks: a sakkiyek (usually spelled sakiyeh) is a large wheel with earthen jars attached to pick up and empty water for irrigation purposes used in Egypt.

267/272   Joseph Deniker 1852 — French anthropologist…: (1852-1918) French naturalist and anthropologist, best known for his efforts to map European races, and credited with originating the racial designation “nordic”—although he intended it merely as a descriptive category, others would read racist arguments into it.

268/273   flow: that which flows…: when LZ sent EP some sections of The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire, the latter complained in a 6 Dec. 1932 that the text did not “flow,” to which LZ responded with this passage (see EP/LZ 137-139).

269/274   sixth tone of the diatonic scale: that is, the musical tone or note of A in the natural diatonic scale of C.

269/274   Le Voyage de M. Perrichon: a 1860 farce by Eugène Labiche and Edouard Martin.

270/276   Clotho: in Greek mythology the youngest of the three Fates who spins the threads of life.

273/279   Réaumur: René Antoine Ferchaut de Réaumur (1683-1757), inventor of a thermometer scale used in the 18th century that set the freezing point of water at 0 and the boiling point at 80.

275/281   rolled one part on another…: from definition for “convolute.”

275/281   The convulsive spasms, the Jansenists ascribed to supernatural influence emanating from the tomb of François de Paris, have thrown their last at St. Médard: François de Paris (1690-1727), French theologian who supported the Jansenists, and on his death his grave at St Médard became a place of pilgrimage and wonder-working. The definition from which this is derived is probably “convulsionary.”

275/281   the combination of nervous impulses in motor centers…: from definition of “coordination.”

276/282   The twelve peers of France, celebrated in the Charlemagne romances…: douzepers 1 In medieval legend, the twelve knights of Charlemagne. 2 In French history, the twelve chief spiritual and temporal peers.
dovetail  A manner of joining boards, timbers, etc., by interlocking wedge-shaped tenors and spaces; the joints so made.
dovecote  A structure for housing domestic pigeons.
cushat is a ringdove or woodpigeon.
doucet Obs. 1 A sweet pastry. 2 A dowcet.
dowcet One of the testicles of a hart or stag.
down 1 A hill having a broad, treeless, grass-grown top, also, the open space on its top. 2 pl. Turf-covered, undulating tracts of upland. 3 A dune.
downcomer 1 The pipe which receives the outpourings from the eaves of a roof, leader. 2 A pipe in a mine which conveys combustible gasses downward. 3 A circulating tube in water-tube boilers.
dovekie 1 the little auk, an arctic bird about 7 ½ inches long, black above and white below.
dowry 1 The property a wife brings to her husband in marriage. 2 Anciently a reward paid for a wife, Gen. xxxiv.
dowle A fiber of down, one of the filaments which make up the blade of a feather.

279/285   And live in those “historical processes” when “twenty years are but as one day…: from 9 April 1863 letter Marx wrote to Engels: “In such great developments twenty years are but as one day—and then may come days which are the concentrated essence of twenty years” (qtd. by Lenin, “Teachings of Karl Marx,” which LZ used in “A”.8.58.14f).

279/285   “the free development of each the condition for the free development of all”: Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, concluding sentence of Part II: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (trans. Samuel Moore).

280/286   They could sing Canticles. Or, they could dispense with, “Lord, now lettest thou”—: the Canticle of Canticles is the Song of Solomon. The quotation is from Luke 2:29-32: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”

281/281   Ulotrichi: the division of mankind which embraces the races having woolly or crispy hair (WD).

282/288   Askja: volcano in Iceland, there was a major eruption in 1875.

284/290   Degrees: referring to the Songs of Degrees, Psalms 120-134, attributed to David. LZ later gathered a group of poems under the title, “Songs of Degrees” (CSP 144-152); see also “A”-12.171.13 and “A”-14.316.11-12.

284/291   Dick, bunting; dicky, bib or a small bird: a dicky is a false front to a blouse or shirt, such as with a tuxedo, as well as meaning a small bird. As a nickname, Dicky designates Richard Chambers or Ricky, who is elegized in “A”-3; the last line of that movement (3.11.2) also makes the connection with a small bird.

284/291   Knowledge is but Sorrow’s spy. The lark takes this window for the east: from poems by Sir William Davenant (1606-1668), poet, playwright, godson of Shakespeare, Poet Laureate and adapter of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including a collaboration with John Dryden on The Tempest. The first line will be picked up again with further quotations from Davenant at the bottom of 290.
From “To a Mistress Dying”:
Since Knowledge is but Sorrow’s spy,
It is not safe to know.
From “Song”:
The lark now leaves his wat’ry nest,
   And climbing shakes his dewy wings.
He takes this window for the East,
   And to implore your light he sings
Awake, awake! the morn will never rise
Till she can dress her beauty at your eyes.

285/291   He was ruddy, cunning in playing…: through 290 gives an account of David’s life, which is condensed directly from the King James version of I Samuel 16-I Kings 2, plus further details from I Chronicles 3-29 on 290 (from “All the sons of David…Solomon yet young, the work great”).

290/297   Singers with instruments of musick, psalteries…: this and the following sentence from I Chronicles 15:16 and 15:22. A slightly abridged version of these two sentences appeared among the “Other Comments” appended to the original version of “A Statement for Poetry (1950)” (Prep+ 223); the latter qtd. “A”-12.145-22-24.

290/298   Knowledge is but sorrow’s spy…: this paragraph consists entirely of quotations from the poems and songs of Sir William Davenant; see note at 284 where the first and last quotations are identified:
From a song (sung by Viola) from The Law Against Lovers (1673), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure:
Wake all the dead! What ho! What ho!
How soundly they sleep whose pillows lie low!
They mind not poor lovers who walk above
On the decks of the world in storms of love.
From the poem ”To the Queen”:
You that are more than our discreeter fear
Dares praise, with such full art, what make you here!
Here, where the summer is so little seen,
That leaves, her cheapest wealth, scarce reach at green;
You come, as if the silver planet were
Misled a while from her much injured sphere;
And, t’ease the travels of her beams to-night,
In this small lanthorn would contract her light.

293/300   Volapük: or “world language” was the first major effort to create an international language. Invented in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a priest who claimed the idea came to him in a dream from God, the movement initially had some success, but was soon subsumed by Esperanto.

293/300   voix celeste: < Fr. heavenly voice, an organ stop that produces a gentle tremolo effect (AHD), traditionally taken to be evocative of angelic singing.