Brooklyn Boy Makes Good: Charles Reznikoff, the Poet of New York
The Poems of Charles Reznikoff:1918-1975, ed. Seamus Cooney (Boston: Black Sparrow/David Godine, 2005)
The Poems of Charles Reznikoff is necessary reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American poetry. Reznikoff’s astonishingly engaging and quietly powerful work has been steadily gaining a passionate following. This definitive edition of his poems will be welcomed both by old and new readers of his work.
Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1894. His parents came from Russia in the 1890s and he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household. He attended Boy’s High School in Brooklyn. In 1916, he graduated from NYU law school, although, immediately after being admitted to the bar, he rejected the practice of law for the practice of poetry. He lived almost his entire life in New York City. He died in 1976.
Charles Reznikoff is one of the greatest of the second-wave modernist poets who composed in the wake of such first-generation innovators as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Indeed, Reznikoff’s work provides a compelling alternative to both the densely allusive collages of Pound and Eliot and the exhilarating word structures of Stein. Reznikoff’s poetry radicalized William Carlos Williams’s practice of everyday diction and subject matter. His disarming poems, some just a few lines long, present incident after incident, observation after observation, averting commentary or conclusion so as to leave space for the reader to come to terms with the experiences presented, an aesthetic he articulates in a poem from 1934:
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lie
a girder, still itself among the rubbish
With his first book, he introduced cubo-seriality into American poetry: serial poems that have a modular, rather than a sequential, relation to one another. The woven texture of the whole is suggested in a one-line poem from 1920:
The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water.
Reznikoff’s poems are “objectivist” in their emphasis on sincerity and their disavowal of the lyric voicing, qualities that link the work to Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker, who are often called “Objectivists.” Reznikoff’s commitment, throughout his work, is to the neglected, the overlooked, the discounted, and the devalued, as exemplified by this poem (also from 1920):
Her work was to count linings—
the day’s seconds in dozens.
Overall, Reznikoff moved American poetry away from fixed moral and literary values and toward dialogic ethical and aesthetic values, an approach deeply rooted in his compelling realization of a poetics of diasporic Jewish particularism. His platform as a writer of verse, as he once called it, can be summed up in this poem from the years immediately following the Systematic Extermination Process (World War II):
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table
This volume reprints the two-volume 1989 Black Sparrow edition, but the text is reset and repaginated, there are a few corrections, the notes have been revised, there is a new biographical chronology, and Reznikoff’s short and key essay, “First, there is the need” has been appended.
I can only hope that this collection will spur the republication of Reznikoff’s great anti-epic, Testimony. To write this book, Reznikoff spent years in various libraries pouring over trial records from the 1890s and 1900s, selecting a few cases out of each hundred he surveyed and then styling them so as to allow the event itself to speak, as if without interference, without teller. As I wrote in “Reznikoff’s Nearness” (collected in My Way: Speeches and Poems), Testimony is “a chronicle of industrial accidents, do mestic violence, racism. It tells the story of America’s forgotten, those who suffer without redress, without name, without hope; yet the soul of these States is found in books like this; the acknowledgment of these peripheral stories turns a waste land into holy ground.”
For those first encountering Reznikoff, or for old hands, I strongly recommend listening to the audio recording of Reznikoff’s 1974 reading at San Francisco State, available at PennSound (writing.upenn.edu/pennsound). In his moving introduction to the 1974 reading, George Oppen complains about “the length of time it has taken to notice Charles Reznikoff, not that Charles Reznikoff so far as I know cares.” Indeed, faced with the massive indifference of Official Verse Culture, Reznikoff published many of his books by himself, handsetting the type on his own letterpress. But perhaps this is finally the time for Reznikoff to be noticed; if so, that can only be a good sign for our literary culture.
In many ways, Reznikoff is the most immediately accessible of any poet of his generation, indeed of any 20th-century U.S. poet. His work is radically legible but at the same time, like a Zen koan, profoundly elusive. “Near is / And Difficult to grasp,” Hölderlin writes in the opening of “Patmos.” This may be the key to Reznikoff’s elusive legibility. One follows what is happening but it is difficult to grasp why it is significant. Reznikoff’s refusal of formal and metrical conceits and literary as well as historical allusion, his resistance to syntactic opacity, symbolism, and personal confession (and for that matter any marked form of self-expression), and his lucid engagement with everyday life and ordinary people, made his work unacceptable to the taste makers of his time. Indeed, Reznikoff’s work launched a withering assault on the shibboleths of a proper and conventional, a “literary,” poetry.
Reznikoff’s writing proved elusive because it refused the assigned system of values of a culture that annihilates that which it does not acknowledge as valuable. If Reznikoff did not care about his reception, as Oppen suggests, it is because he understood that not being noticed made him all the more able to notice all those things that otherwise pass by unacknowledged.
Oppen says it best: “The proofs in these poems are images, and the images are proofs, and the proofs are overwhelming.”
Charles Bernstein’s most recent books are Pitch of Poetry (2016) and Recalculating (2013), both from the University of Chicago Press. He is the co-editor, with Tracie Morris, of The Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press, 2017). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound.