Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455
Born in a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn and ultimately to live most of his life in New York City, Charles Reznikoff drew, for all his writing, on the very circumstances and surroundings of his life. Like his near-contemporary, William Carlos Williams, the “local” was to be the source of all that was universal in his work. Reznikoff sought out his poems not only in the lives of those around him, in the newly immigrant populations seething in the New York streets, but also in the European and biblical histories and even the customs that these immigrant groups had brought with them to the New World.
Graduating from a high school in Brooklyn, Reznikoff spent a year at the new School of Journalism of the University of Missouri but returned to New York to enter the New York University Law School, a decisive move for both his livelihood and his poetry. The influence of his legal training and his work in law were to affect his notions of poetry profoundly; his love of “the daylight meaning of words,” as he put it in one of his autobiographical poems, stemmed from this education, and it was this sense of language that, from the beginning, Reznikoff developed into one of the most unusual and moving bodies of contemporary poetry. Reznikoff actually practiced law only briefly; he worked a number of years for Corpus Juris, the legal encyclopedia, however, and maintained his interest in the law throughout his entire career.
Except for short sojourns elsewhere, Reznikoff lived and worked in New York City. One three-year period, however, was spent in Hollywood working for a film producer; this visit was the source of some of Reznikoff’s wittiest verse and furnished the background for his novel The Manner “Music.” On his return to New York from Hollywood, Reznikoff took up freelance writing, editing, and translating.
Reznikoff was one of the city’s great walkers; late in his life, he would still stroll for miles on foot through the city’s parks and streets. In this regard, he was close to the boulevardiers and flâneurs of nineteenth century Paris so aptly described by Walter Benjamin. Like them, he was attracted to the anonymity of the solitary walker, to the possibility of a simultaneous distance and engagement. Out of such walks, Reznikoff fashioned an extraordinary body of poetry, one which only now after his death is receiving adequate critical attention. From younger poets and from those poets around him, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and William Carlos Williams, attention had been there from the beginning. Reznikoff had early discovered something new and of major importance in the writing of poetry and stayed with it, despite neglect, throughout his long and fruitful life.
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