Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2088
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 unites all of Reznikoff’s work, from the early Rhythms published in 1918 up to and through the late volumes Testimony and Holocaust. This minimal use of poetic devices such as rhyme, metaphor, or exaggerated imagery results in a restrained tone that balances irony, sarcasm, and humor with emotional distance. It is particularly apt for the short two- or three-line poem (one of Reznikoff’s trademarks) that combines a wise knowingness and bleak hilarity, as in: “Permit me to warn you/ against this automobile rushing to embrace you/ with outstretched fender.” It also attains a meditative strength, as in: “Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/ a girder, still itself among the rubbish.” Here, the double reading of “still itself” transforms the poem from mere description to enigmatic philosophy.
Such surety of technique makes Reznikoff’s poems radiate with both completeness of finish and mystery, as though their author, while knowing much, says little. Indeed, they sustain an aphoristic or epigrammatic tone, even in poems of great length and over a wide variety of subject matter.
In Reznikoff, this reticence has little to do with modesty. Rather, understatement becomes a device for achieving accurate registration, for giving subjects their due in the reader’s mind by not imposing attitudes or judgments on experience. It is, in its way, a form of humility, a desire, as Reznikoff noted, that “we, whose lives are only a few words” meet in the thing seen not in the personality of the viewer.
Solitude of the moral witness
At the very center of Reznikoff’s writing, concomitant with the objectivity of his technique, is the aloneness of the moral witness, of a deep and abiding solitude that moved C. P. Snow, in commenting on Reznikoff’s work, to regard him as a lonely writer. In Reznikoff, this isolation is less a product of experience than of fundamental choice. As he says of his life in the poem “Autobiography: New York”: “I am alone—and glad to be alone . . . I like the sound of the street—but I, apart and alone,/ beside an open window/ and behind a closed door.” This desire for isolation, for witnessing as from a distance, can be traced back to the traditions embedded in Jewish religious and philosophical works which influenced him. In the Kabbalistic tradition that informs Reznikoff’s work, language, as Gershom Scholem notes, “reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world.” The Kabbalists, Scholem points out, “revel in objective description.” This sacred attitude toward language is manifest in Reznikoff. As he says in one of his poems, “I have learned the Hebrew blessing before eating bread./ Is there no blessing before reading Hebrew?”
Coupled with this respect for language is the influence of Reznikoff’s early legal training on his poetic style. As he relates of his law school days: “I found it delightful . . ./ to use words for their daylight meaning/ and not as prisms/ playing with the rainbows of connotation.” Like Williams, Reznikoff seems to have thoroughly refused the artifice of high style in favor of the “daylight meaning” of words, to produce a style which is at once humane and communicative.
As Reznikoff’s few prose comments on his poetry make clear, craft and technique stem for him from communicative and ethical concerns as opposed to literary ones, and it is this urge to communicate which is his primary motive. One finds in his work that nearly lost sense of the poet as teller of tales as tribal historian. The poet, according to Reznikoff (perhaps in particular the Jewish poet of the People of the Book) stands always with history at his back. For such a poet, the work is not one of self-expression but of a desire to be an agency for those voices lost or denied in time, for individuals caught up in historical forces beyond their control.
Jews in Babylonia
This urge to reclaim in Reznikoff has deeper implications, however, as demonstrated in one of Reznikoff’s longer historical poems, Jews in Babylonia, where a collagist technique initially yokes natural phenomena—the passing of seasons, growth of plants, and the behavior of animals—with simple actions of the biblical tradesmen: “Plane the wood into boards; chisel the stone.” The rhythms here are stately and the imagery peaceful. As the poem continues, however, the harmony begins to come apart. Now there is “A beast with its load/ and a bit in its mouth” and “the horn gores/ the hoof kicks/ the teeth bite.” The shift in tone becomes even more “unnatural”: “The bread has become moldy/ and the dates blown down by the wind . . . the dead woman has forgotten her comb.” The lines become a litany of ruin and decay which has both historical and metaphysical implications: “But where are the dead of the Flood . . . the dead of Nebuchadnezzar?” until finally the images express a kind of visionary chaos where “the hyena will turn into a bat/ and a bat will turn into a thorn,” where what is seen is “the blood of his wounds/ and the tears of her eyes” and “the Angel of Death in time of war/ does not distinguish/ between the righteous and the wicked.”
The effect of this technique is to create something that seems at once cinematic and apocalyptic, forcefully in keeping with the historical situation itself while at the same time suggesting both foreboding and prophecy. In this regard, Reznikoff’s work is no simple addition or nostalgic reminder of the past but, like the songs and poems of the biblical prophets, a potential guide to personal and social action. As he says of his grandfather’s lost poetry in “By the Well of Living and Seeing”: “All the verse he wrote was lost—except for what/ still speaks through me/ as mine.”
Testimony and Holocaust
It is in Reznikoff’s most difficult and controversial works, Testimony and Holocaust, that his sense of historical urgency and the need to testify culminate. In these works, Reznikoff may be said to have created a new poetic form (or as some critics have claimed, absence of form) which is meant to do justice to the full weight of humankind’s inhumanity to humans. In these two works, legal records—American courtroom proceedings in Testimony and the Nuremberg war crimes trials and the accounts of victims and witnesses in the case of Holocaust—are unsparingly worked into verse form, shorn of poetic devices. The author’s hand appears solely in the austere editing and lineation of the historical record. Here, the “poetic” by its very absence in the poetry seems to be both witness and prosecutor, a reminder to the reader not only of the events that have occurred but also the life, grace, and possibility denied by the events. The works curiously penetrate the reader’s consciousness since, by leaving all the individual interpretation, they undermine, in their account of devastating cruelty and horror, the reader’s conventional notions of civilization and culture.
Such penetration, accomplished in such a “hands off” manner, has the further effect of evoking and calling to account the reader’s humanity. It is this effect that gives Reznikoff’s “objectivity” such moral power. This wedding of artistic means and the procedures of the law courts gives Reznikoff’s work a unique contemporaneity, one that honors and respects the individual while in no way striving for egocentric novelty. This is a communitas at its most moving and profound. It can be said of Reznikoff that he is one of the few contemporary poets to have transformed literary artistry into a major historical vision.
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