Friday, January 04, 2008
The Great World Small
More of Poetry 35:7, this time Charles Reznikoff, who might be considered the Objectivist par excellence. At least Zukofsky seems to have considered him so, considering that the founding document of Objectivism, the essay “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff,” included in the appendix of the special Poetry issue & from which Zukofsky coined the term “Objectivism” when called upon by the editor Harriet Monroe to come up w/a label for the movement, takes Reznikoff as the exemplar.
As with many of the Objectivists, Reznikoff had an interesting life—not interesting as in you could make a movie out of it, but interesting as a writer’s life, more specifically, as an example of someone who maintained the life of a writer despite deriving no income from it and having no audience. As with most of the Objectivists, an audience finally showed up at the very end of his life and seems to be steadily increasing since his death.
The work itself is a supreme example of Modernist concision, but without any of the referential obscurantism of Zukofsky. Which is not to say that it isn’t baffling: though all of the references may be clear, the poems eschew narrative frames that would explain the importance of the presented scenes, and there is to a degree perhaps unmatched by an other practitioner of vers libre a fearless refusal to distinguish itself from prose by any means other than the unjustified right margin. Reznikoff is not the greatest poet of all time, but represents an idiom developed to its highest level, which is a great accomplishment. And given the importance of his themes—history, religion, life in the city—, he is a poet certainly deserving of a wider audience.
Reznikoff, born in 1894, in New York City to Russian Jewish parents, started writing poetry in high school. He seems to have from the start dedicated himself fully to writing, making minimal compromises to the necessities of earning a living. For example, after graduating from high school at sixteen, he went to study journalism at the University of Missouri with the idea that it would be a way to keep writing, but he dropped out shortly, because, as he says, he “found out that journalism is more concerned with news than with writing and that I—to use the old adage—was more concerned with dog bites man than with man bites dog.”
Such dedication to writing is in itself not unusual, but few writers have worked so hard and long at it with so little response or reward. As a teenager, Reznikoff sent poems to the various little journals of the time, and he had some poems accepted a couple of times. But when the editors changed the poems, making them more like ordinary verse, and when he found that they were not picking what he thought were his best poems, Reznikoff peremptorily stopped the practice. It is as even the slightest consideration of an audience, of its demands, would distract him from his work. So Reznikoff wrote on his own, published his own books, some of them by his own hand. At one point with Zukofsky and the Oppens he helps run a small press, but he is not published by a commercial house until New Directions puts out By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse in 1962.
While in high school, Reznikoff modernized himself after reading the early examples of imagist free verse published in the little journals. The presentation of the solitary image, such as this example that Oppen isolates, “Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies / a girder, still itself among the rubbish,” at times resembles haiku, such as in this example that would seem to also deliberately echo Pound:
The plebian leaves of the trees
are all over the wet sidewalk;
but what are you doing here,
In the short lyrics, the images are observational, anecdotes from his life, but never personal. For Reznikoff the parts are always connected to something larger:
on the bookcase ticks,
the watch on the table ticks—
these busy insects
are eating away my world.
In addition to writing many short lyrics, Reznikoff also applied this spare style to larger narratives. There are many extended memoir accounts, but there are also verse translations of other texts, mainly passages from the Torah, and assorted accounts from U.S. legal records and the Holocaust. “Translations” perhaps overstates the case. These poems are more like redactions, w/the sources pared down, condensed, and occasional word substitutions for felicity’s sake (I hope to say more about this soon in a post about Modernist/Postmodernist plagiarism & the rhetorical problem of invention).
The Torah sections are mostly chronicles and reveal Reznikoff’s obsession with originary violence. The description of the demise of Saul’s sons, carried out by those who wish to curry favor with David, the new king, comes across as something from The Sopranos. But the most brutal of Reznikoff’s work are the various volumes of his Testimony, unfortunately out of print.
After coming home from Missouri, Reznikoff moved back in with his parents, helping out some with the family’s shop, but at some point he gives in to their demands to make something of himself. Thus he goes to the NYU law school, which had night classes for working men. Actually practicing law turned out to be too onerous (having extended family members for clients did not work out), so Reznikoff ended up as an editor for a law encyclopedia. In this work he came across the National Reporter System, a number of regional journals that presented accounts of appellate cases. It was the short narrative accounts of various incidents that fascinated him. He began to collect them, eventually working them up into three manuscripts, two of which were published in his lifetime.
Reading through these books is hard work. They are a relentless account of random brutality in the rapidly industrializing United States at the previous turn of the century:
Williams — a Negro — Davis, Sweeney, and Robb
were in a saloon together. Williams was talking to Davis
when Sweeney jerked off Williams’ hat
tearing a piece out of the brim.
Sweeney and Williams were having words about this
when Robb stepped up and found fault with Williams
for wrangling with a white man.
The Negro said nothing to Robb
and was backing away
when Robb stabbed him twice with a dirk.
Some of the violence is more purely mechanical, such as in a poem that concludes thus:
Soon afterwards the wheels of the machine
became clogged with an ear of corn
and in trying to push the ear towards the knives
her hand was drawn in, one of her fingers torn off
and the rest of her hand mangled.
With the poems of Testimony, Reznikoff discovers another provenance for a kind of imagism, more specifically, the famous writing workshop injunction to “show, not tell.” As he himself puts it,
By the term ‘objectivist’ I suppose a writer may be meant who does not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music. Now suppose in a court of law, you are testifying in a negligence case. You cannot get up on the stand and say, “The man was negligent.” That’s a conclusion of fact. What you’d be compelled to say is how the man acted. Did he stop before he crossed the street? Did he look? The judges of whether he is negligent or not are the jury in that case and the judges of what you say as a poet are the readers. That is, there is an analogy between testimony in the courts and the testimony of a poet.
As Benjamin Watson puts it, Reznikoff saw “the National Reporter System as a repository, an archive of human voices representing the experience of millions, but buried in law offices and law libraries where no one ever thought of listening to them. His purpose in Testimony would be the humble one of allowing those voices to be heard.” All of his poetry does this same work, of showing the small facts, from the tiny visual details of life in the city to the individual moments of atrocity of the life of a nation, that make up the great work.
I’d just like to praise Reznikoff. I used to have several of his books, and somewhere along the way I lost them. I need to get them again.
When poetry-folk look back, I think they’ll thank the avants for returning us to Zukofsky and Reznikoff. While I find Ron Silliman’s avant VS SoQ binary too often simplistic, it’s obvious that, if you went around to creative writing programs throughout the country, more young poets will be taking Sharon Olds as a model than taking Reznikoff. Even fine poets like Heather McHugh don’t help matters: her *Best American Poetry* collection pretends that poets like Charles Bernstein or Bob Perelman or Nate Mackey didn’t publish this year.
Back to the post: I love the idea of this repository of human voices. Reznikoff is important to me precisely because he adapts the modernist practice of sampling chunks of others’ texts without playing a scholarly game of *Clue*. Pound and Eliot force the reader to care more about where the material originates than what the material is doing in the new text. Their allusions are like hyperlinks, weaving the World Text back together again. Reznikoff’s materials are transformed into stand-alones, stones, gems. His poems aren’t fragments, which would imply bits of some larger structure, but things in themselves. I suppose it’s the WC Williams influence (and it’s how Williams uses such materials in *Paterson*).
We’d want to put Muriel Rukeyser’s *Book of the Dead* in this conversation. And here’s Michael Davison on “documentary culture”:
There’s a new edition available of the Collected Poems, and the Holocaust book is also available. I have made enquiries as to a possible reissue of Testimony & will forward the results.
I agree heartily w/just about everything you say here. I will look into the Rukeyser. You know, I’ve got Nick Tosche’s Where Dead Voices Gather on call from the library. I wonder if I’d be able to tie it all in together.
Lawrence, you might also be interested in a recent extension of Reznikoff’s *Testimony*. Jena Osman, a poet who teaches at Temple, wrote a poem entitled “A Real Life Drama,” which uses only language she gathered from Supreme Court transcripts. You can find excerpts at Buffalo: