We know that Zukofsky was deeply influenced by Marx at the time of writing "Mantis." His relationship to Marx's thought, however, was marked by a dialectical dilemma of the very sort that Marx himself invokes in his famous aphorism concerning the philosopher whose job is no longer to describe the world but to change it. The dilemma, as it arises in Zukofsky, concerns, of course, the question of the poet's role as either reflector of the world or as instrument of change. Written during a period when most Marxist-oriented poets were following the mandate of a "socialist realist" poetry for the masses, "Mantis," far from being a piece of propaganda or a purely Marxist "proof," is an example of Zukofsky's poetics at work--especially as given in statements like "An Objective." That is, the poem itself appears to be governed by a poetics of open and unfinished composition, one that cannot be tamed to a philosophical conception. Such a poetics is clearly enjoined in Zukofsky's epigraph from the Latin to "Mantis, An Interpretation," that "names are sequent to the things named," and in Zukofsky's use, almost as a litany of Dante's and Cavalcanti's sense of poetry, of "la battalgia degli diversi pensieri," "the battle of diverse thoughts," "thought's torsion."
Like Crane's The Bridge, Zukofsky's poem, too, is a drama of the struggle of myth over and against the word. The utopocalyptic "moment" of the poem, the pressures brought to bear on poetic composition, here concerns not only the political status of the poem or poet, but the nature of words in relation to art and reality, especially as a totalized worldview, one form of which is Marxism's attempts to subordinate all human activity to its categories and analyses.
In a sense, Zukofsky's poem reminds us of the antagonism between high modernist art and the impulse to provide meaningful social commentary. "The growing oppression of the poor," Zukofsky writes in the "Interpretation," "is the situation most pertinent to us." If this is so, then, for poets of the thirties, as I have described above, the condition of this oppression is bound up, not only in external political relations about which one could propagandize via one's poetry, but in the very nature of poetic activity. The poem tries, on one level, to resolve these tensions. It is part formal plaint for the poor, as in the sestina's last lines, unmistakably hortatory, which read: "Fly Mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes. Save it!" At the same time, much of its modernist tendencies and idiosyncracies, its obeisance to "making it new," are contained in the "Interpretation," the "open-form explanation" that partly explicates the sestina while reminding us that "our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too-regular form."
Now you will recall that Zukofsky elsewhere has stated that the poem has a function--is a "job," as he puts it. In this case, the job of the poem is not only a call to alleviate the condition of the poor, but, as I believe the "Interpretation" makes clear, to resist the strictures which a purely sociopolitical view would impose on the poem. To do this, Zukofsky must honor and be faithful to the starting point of the incident that, in effect, generated the poem, the gratuitous occasion of the mantis in the subway, an occasion that sets into motion ("movement") a series of thoughts and associations creating an order of relations faithful to the initial experience and contrary to the expected usages of the incident as symbolical ("no human being wishes to become / An insect for the sake of a symbol") of the poor's oppression or of the demonization of capital. In other words, the poem’s turn is to be toward "an incident, compelling any writing" rather than the typical politicized use of language as propaganda or "message." By staying with "thought's torsions" wherever they will lead, Zukofsky places his trust, not in political rhetoric, but in something having "enough worth if the emotions can equate it," in this case, from "Provencal myth" to "airships" or comments by the "British Admiralty." "Mantis," in effect, offers its own felt series of interrelationships, a counter-continuity, one not made up of Marxist analyses but of intuitive connections established by having been faithful, as Zukofsky insists, to the "original shock still persisting." This is not so much a new making as a constant desiring, beyond a political schema, to be in touch with a social world. "So that," Zukofsky writes
the invoked collective
Does not subdue the senses' awareness,
The longing for touch to an idea, or
To a use function of the material:
The original emotion remaining,
like the collective,
Unprompted, real, as propaganda.
In effect, Zukofsky is trying here to find a way of refusing the hard conceptualizations of ideology and theory, so that he may return the act of poem-making to something that is simultaneously open-ended and analytical--not so much to deny his own Marxist insights as to prevent any "philosophy" from having a hegemonic hold over existence. Because the world in its entirety is beyond a single conception, so the poem must find its own unified form. The complexity of that form demands that the poem strive, as Zukofsky says in the brilliant final strophe of "Mantis" to hold "the simultaneous, / the diaphanous, historical / in one head."