Charles Reznikoff Essay - Reznikoff, Charles

Reznikoff, Charles

Reznikoff, Charles 1894–1976

An American poet, novelist, translator, and legal editor, Reznikoff was primarily known as an Objectivist poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36; obituary, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

What has Charles Reznikoff in common with Rod Carew, star second-baseman of the Minnesota Twins? Just this: both are excellent all-around players who (possibly because, with admirable restraint, they don't always go for the fences) are relatively unsung, despite batting averages that annually approach .400. Like only a handful of modern poets—Yeats comes quickest to mind—the eighty-one year old Reznikoff has not merely sustained his gifts over a blessedly long career, but he actually seems to improve with age, to "develop" his vision and his scope with an integrity and drive that should warm the hearts of any English department. Yet most of Reznikoff's many books were first published at his own expense, and until very recently, it has only been at odd times, here and there, that he has received a portion of the recognition that is unquestionably his due. At those times, his name has been rightfully invoked on behalf of a number of movements and causes: Reznikoff is an Objectivist, an urban poet, an Old Testament prophet, "the dean of Jewish-American poets": he is all these things, and yet his authentic and original voice makes such classifications seem somehow beside the point. Since World War I, when his first writings appeared, Reznikoff has spoken with a true seriousness the more poignant because of its capacity for irony, and with a degree of human sympathy that is quite remarkable among American poets, historically and currently, who are likely to be so obsessed with self that often, when they introduce the other, it is for the purpose of swallowing him whole. (p. 37)

Reznikoff builds both [Testimony and Holocaust] like the lawyer he was trained to be, sure of his jury's ability to infer from the evidence an understanding of a reality which, in the case of Holocaust, contradicts the very faculty of understanding. Narratives are presented here with the denuded style, the seemingly aloof understatement, and the brutally straightforward prosaicism required by the intensity of the horror at the heart of this darkness…. (p. 38)

[The] Objectivist injunction is to let reality speak for itself, to state the externals of a thing or event, and leave unspoken (or edit out) the emotions, which—if the poet be a good enough reporter—the reader may be counted on to provide for himself. It has always been Reznikoff's special enterprise to jolt the epiphanous moment from its too-familiar surroundings; [in Holocaust] he means to rouse from the anesthesia of sentimental generalization, and from the sedation of cliches, a pain that inheres (and remains) in specifics of time and place….

Reznikoff opens the mouth of suffering and makes it quiver with the voice of survival, a voice capable of the real and tough affirmation implicit in the struggle not at all to sweeten up the story while making it "literature". (p. 39)

David Lehman, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1976.

Charles Reznikoff's spare lines have been with us longer than most poets influenced by him have been alive. Eighty-one years old when he died in January, a central figure and elder statesman of that group of poets labelled "objectivist," he remained austerely beyond fashion, committed as ever to that which Louis Zukofsky noted about his work in Poetry magazine in 1931, "the sincerity which has seen, considered and weighed."

For Reznikoff, the poem attains to the condition of the photograph rather than the lyric—the photograph, in the words of Walter Benjamin, as the "posthumous moment," the moment rescued from time. In Reznikoff, the uttered image is something other than a symbol; it becomes a kind of window framing actual particularities and occasions, realized so authentically that they resonate with an enormous life of associations beyond the image's frame. This preciseness of realization, at root a refusal to sentimentalize its subject matter, makes of Reznikoff, among other things, our quintessential urban poet. Through his work we come to know a certain life intimately, a history, usage, custom, even religious and exalted moments with barely a rhetorical gesture. This objective mastery, apparent in even his earliest work,… has produced a body of poems remarkable for the unobtrusive manner in which they operate. Thus … [there may be] a reticence which has less to do with modesty than with accurate registration, metaphor being made so much a part of the observation we hardly notice the shift in the level of discourse. This simultaneity of judgment and tact is a form of humility, a desire that "we," as Reznikoff notes, "whose lives are only a few words," meet in the thing seen and not in the personality of the seer.

At the center of Reznikoff's writing, concomitant with this seeing for oneself, is the aloneness of the moral witness, a solitude having little to do with the "alienation" normally ascribed to Jewish writers. In Reznikoff, this isolation seems less a product of experience than of insistence and fundamental choice…. It is a choice referring back to a deeper set of traditions, traditions embedded in Jewish religious and philosophical themes, and their influence can be felt not only in the content of much of Reznikoff's poetry but also in its form. The attitude it displays toward language is close to (and may well be derived from) the cabalists, those compilers and annotators of the Jewish mystical tradition who, as the scholar Gershom Scholem noted, "revel in objective description" and who feel that language "reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world." There is, in Reznikoff, an awe and wonder at the power of language….

No other poet, it strikes me, with perhaps the exception of Williams, has more thoroughly refused the artifices of style and chosen to let words have "their daylight meanings," to speak first of all, humanely and communicatively.

This restraint of Reznikoff's before the possibilities of language seems at once spiritually felt and, paradoxically, modern. It is a modernity diverging sharply from the subjectivity of much contemporary verse practice, particularly from the more popular surrealistic and confessional modes, yet it is astonishing in its power to do justice, exact justice, to contemporary life….

In Reznikoff, [his] power to invoke the humanity of the reader seems ultimately in the service of prophecy and vision….

At times mordant and witty, at times grave, Reznikoff's work achieved that vantage between objective and subjective worlds, between instruction and pleasure, the mark of moral vision…. So rare and precious a vision we are in great need of; it remains with us in his work.

Michael Heller, "Charles Reznikoff, 1894–1976," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1976, p. 47.

Although a curt, imagistic method persists in Reznikoff's early poetry, a different manner gradually emerges and comes to dominate his work. Behind this manner is a strong narrative drive. At first, as in the 1920 poem "Ghetto Funeral," nothing is explicit. There are hints of a story line concerning a man who has committed suicide and his wife before and after her widowhood, but the narrative direction is purposely suppressed in order that the intense experiences of the individuals involved can be evoked. They are not actually described, but merely characterized. These poems are less precise, looser than the imagist poems. They tend toward vagueness.

In the fourth section of the collected poems [Poems 1918–1936], which contains writings from 1921, there is a group of poems, originally entitled "Jews," which presents a series of short character sketches implying a group history transcending individual lives. Thus, although each individual character is presented in a given situation—the young woman maneuvered into an unfortunate marriage in "Provided For," or the man making plans for a son he does not know is dead in "A Son with a Future"—together the poems create a little history of the immigrant Jewish community. Individual story is subordinate to a larger implied historical narrative. This direction becomes more obvious in By The Waters of Manhattan, published in 1929, where the implied narrative is more widely cultural, being based upon the Old Testament as conveyed through first-person addresses in the voices of "Israel," "King David," and others.

Reznikoff's poetry never fully succeeds. There are too many short poems that are speciously alert, like this one.

      My hair was caught in the wheels of a clock
      and torn from my head: see, I am bald!

Though he is more successful in the poems that include an implied story or history, these works lack lyric intensity and, like the In Memoriam poems of 1933–34, sound more like translations than original compositions. One has the feeling that words are being marshalled into rhetorical position to do battle, not gathered together for mutual stimulation.

Charles Reznikoff's poetry, despite its strengths, suffers from a division between lyric and narrative impulses. (pp. 85-6)

John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.