Charles Reznikoff Essay - Critical Essays


Of all the poets loosely gathered under the Objectivist label coined by Zukofsky for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in 1931, none seems to have been quite as “objective” as Charles Reznikoff. In him, legal training and the moral imperative of the Jew as a historical witness combine with the Objectivist and Imagist principles, which guided such writers as Williams and Zukofsky, to produce a body of poetry distinguished by its clarity, judgment, and tact. This notion of witness or bystander, of someone who is at the scene of events but not of the events themselves, is implicit in all of Reznikoff’s work. Such titles as By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse, Testimony, Separate Ways, Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down, and By the Well of Living and Seeing are indicative of a poetic stance that was to be, as Reznikoff once put it, “content at the periphery of such wonder.” This wonder was to embrace both the urban experience, in particular its relation to the life of newly immigrant Jews, but also to range across such topics as early Jewish history, legal proceedings in nineteenth and twentieth century America, and the Holocaust.

The urban environment

Reznikoff’s stance is not so much concerned with a conventional sense of poetic distance or with irony per se as with precision of realization. The modern city, the source of much of Reznikoff’s most memorable work, is for him a place one continually passes through, a locus of large anonymous forces encountered tangentially yet which overshadow and overwhelm the experience of the city inhabitant. The truths of the city are multiple, highly individualized, and—in Reznikoff—caught not as part of some grand design but as minor resistance to its forces. Victories and defeats occur not in the towers and offices of government but in street corner and kitchen tableaux in which individual fate is registered. Thus, in his work, the urban environment and the lives caught up in the vast workings of the city and of history tend to remain resolutely what they are, to resist being read analogically or symbolically. The poems hover on the edge of factual materiality with few gestures toward the literary; yet their construction has a cleanliness and freshness found in few other contemporaries. One goes to Reznikoff’s work not only for its poetic beauty and its surety of language but also for its historical testimony.

Imagism vs. image

Reznikoff began to publish his work in 1918, when the traditionalist devices of fixed meter and rhyme were already under attack from the modernism of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. However, Reznikoff was not to traffic in the obviously unconventional or extreme writing of the early twentieth century avant-grade. Even the Imagist movement, which certainly influenced Reznikoff and to which he pays homage, was refined and transmuted by him into something that would not be particularly recognizable to the founders of the movement. The “image” of the Imagists was something decidedly literary, something used for its allusive or symbolic effect, whereas in Reznikoff it becomes a construction, made out of observation and precise detail, concerned primarily to render a datum.

This “nonliterary” use of the image characterizes all of Reznikoff’s work. His poems strike the reader almost as a kind of low-key reportage, making use of proselike speech rhythms and barely discernible shifts in discourse from statement to simile or metaphor, as in this early example: “Suddenly we noticed we were in darkness/ So we went into the house and lit the lamp/ And sat around, dark spaces about a sun.” This shorn-down language inhabits a number of linguistic realms at once; the datum and its meaning for the poet are so inextricably linked that the usual suspension of belief or accounting for poetic license no longer applies. The poetry has about it a “documentary” effect, one that is both tactful and powerful by virtue of its being stripped, it would seem, of any attempt by the poet to persuade.

Reznikoff’s poetry can be likened to the photograph, something profoundly and intimately linked to the visible world, and yet, by virtue of the camera angle or constraint of the frame, necessarily and profoundly something selected. Like photographs, in which what is beyond the frame may be hinted at by that which is included, Reznikoff’s poems, while framing actual particularities and occasions, resonate with a life of associations far beyond the frame of the image which the language constructs. This image, less metaphoric than informative, becomes a possibility for emotional response but not an occasion for dictating it. If through Reznikoff one sees or knows a certain life intimately, a history, custom or usage, it is because in his work the lyricist and the chronicler are joined with minimal rhetorical flourish.


This poetic technique, which Reznikoff called “recitative,” stresses the evidential or communicative aspect of language over the figurative; it...

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