Charles Reznikoff Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to poetry, Charles Reznikoff (REHZ-nih-kahf) wrote fiction and verse drama and was active as a translator, historian, and editor. His novels include By the Waters of Manhattan (1930), a title Reznikoff also used for a later collection of his poetry, and The Manner “Music” (1977). The novels, as well as his historical work such as Early History of a Sewing Machine Operator (1936), are, like his poetry, sharply observed but detached, nearly autobiographical accounts and impressions of family and working life. Although thematically much of his fiction may be compared with the “proletarian” literature of the 1930’s, its spareness and restraint give it a highly individual stamp. Reznikoff also wrote a historical novel, The Lionhearted (1944), which portrays the fate of English Jewry during the reign of Richard the Lionhearted.

Reznikoff’s verse plays, such as Uriel Accosta: A Play and a Fourth Group of Verse (1921) and “Chatterton,” “The Black Death,” and “Meriwether Lewis”: Three Plays (1922), extend his interest in the individual in history along dramatic lines. The plays make use of choruslike recitations both to convey offstage occurrence and to develop character much in the manner of the classical theater.

Reznikoff was the editor of the collected papers of Louis Marshall and a translator of two volumes of Yiddish stories and history. Much of his work in law was in writing and editing for the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris. His few prose comments on the art of writing poetry are contained in a slim volume of prose titled First, There Is the Need (1977).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

A rubric for Charles Reznikoff’s career might well read: early, nearly precocious development; late recognition. Reznikoff, without ever seeking to be unique, was one of the twentieth century’s most original writers, virtually with the publication of his first work. His abandonment, as early as 1918, of the verse conventions of late nineteenth century poetry and his utilization of proselike rhythms anticipate a kind of American plainsong that is to be found in the work of the most diverse poets writing today. Reznikoff, in reinventing the image as an element of realist rather than symbolic notation, also made a significant contribution to the notion of imagery as the cornerstone of the modern poem.

His highly unconventional and imaginative use of historical materials sets him off from the vogues of confessional and psychological poetry, but only in his later years did literary critics begin to appreciate the unprecedented and original manner in which Reznikoff brought history, both contemporary and biblical, alive. In 1971, he was the recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Fredman, Stephen. A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. An analysis of the poetry of Reznikoff and objectivity in literature. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Gefin, Laszlo K. Ideogram: History of a Poetic Method. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. Gefin cites Reznikoff as one of the poets who use the synthetical or ideogrammatic method in their poetry. He sees this composition as an “aesthetic form extending from a postlogical and even posthumanist consciousness.” In the chapter titled “Sincerity and Objectification,” Gefin remarks on the influence of Chinese poetry on Reznikoff and, at the same time, calls him the “Giacometti of poetry,” because he pares down his words to bare essentials.

Heller, Michael. “Reznikoff’s Modernity.” American Book Review 2 (July/August, 1980): 3. Reviews a number of Reznikoff’s works in the light of modernism. States that this poet stands out in the continuity of his work rather than the more usual modernist discontinuity. Admires Reznikoff’s restraint and his ability to allow readers to come to their own conclusions.

Hindus, Milton. Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1984. A full-length study,...

(The entire section is 463 words.)