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'Unadorned Art in Praise of the World': That's what Charles Reznikoff did

July 13, 2006 By:
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Of the great modernist poets -- meaning artists of the stature of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams -- one of the least recognizable figures must be Charles Reznikoff. Even more than 30 years after his death, he is known only to poetry connoisseurs and certain scholars. That may always be the case, because of the nature of his poetry and the demands it places upon the reader. And it may continue to be so, despite the fact that the adventurous and estimable David Godine publishers, through its Black Sparrow imprint, has reissued in paper The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975, the most complete picture we have of this gifted artist.

Because of Reznikoff's obscurity, a certain amount of biographical information is necessary to understand his position in modern literature and what he faced as an artist throughout his life. One of the most complete pictures we have is critic Milton Hindus' essay in the book The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals, edited by Carole S. Kessner back in 1994. (For a more detailed analysis, there is Stephen Fredman's critical study A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry, published by the University of Chicago Press five years ago.)

Hindus' essay begins with a summation of Reznikoff's life -- he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 31, 1894 -- and what has happened to his work and legacy since his death in 1976 at age 82.

Hindus argues that the arts have their saints, and Reznikoff was one of them. The child of Russian immigrants, he rebelled against his parents' old world ways. He realized that education would provide an avenue to success, was a bright student and was accepted into college before he was 16. Knowing that he wanted to be a writer, he left New York, attracted by a new department at the University of Missouri: a school of journalism.

But after a year of study, he realized he'd made a mistake and returned to Brooklyn, not with a sense of defeat (since he'd managed to write what Hindus calls "a good deal of competent if not creditable verse"), but with considerable disillusionment about journalism. Faced with having to make a living, he decided to enter the family's millinery business. In time, he understood that economic instability made a profession a wiser road to follow. After toying with the idea of taking a doctorate in history and entering academia, he decided to pursue a law degree. He eventually graduated second in his class at New York University, and was one of the youngest to pass the bar.

But it turned out he was no more suited to arguing the law than for gathering news. The outbreak of the first World War put his plans on hold. He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps, yet the conflict was over before he could be shipped overseas. He continued to write poetry during this period, but was again faced with the need to find a way to survive economically. For a time, he worked for a publication called Corpus Juris, "described as an 'encyclopedia of law for lawyers,' " but his editor had to let him go because he was far too slow and far too meticulous -- unable to know when to let copy go and get it to the printers.

As Reznikoff struggled through this series of jobs, Hindus tells us that he was also trying his hand at different poetic forms, as well as at "autobiography, fiction, translations from German, and commissioned histories of American Jewish communities." He also edited two volumes of the papers of lawyer and Jewish communal leader Louis Marshall. And he accomplished all this in relative obscurity, without the benefit of an audience. Still, he persisted with his work. (An audience of modest size is only now beginning to make its way to his poetry.)

Hindus makes it clear that it was a difficult balancing act, both to write -- to kept some sense of himself as an independent artist -- and to struggle to make money. He quotes one of Reznikoff's poems to this effect taken from A Fifth Group of Verse:

After I had worked all day at what I earn my living,
I was tired. Now my own work has lost another day,
I thought, but began slowly,
and slowly my strength came back to me.
Surely, the tide comes in twice a day.

When Hindus turns to the poetry, he notes that Reznikoff always attempted compositions of varying lengths, but that his most natural expression was the brief, almost haiku-like form, stretched a bit as in the above example. "He consciously aims at communication with a maximum of transparency, clarity and concentration."

Reznikoff is a modernist -- famous for being difficult, complicated writers -- not because his poems are oblique in method or meaning. He is an astonishingly clear poet, using simple words drawn together in comprehensible phrases. Rather, it is the compression in his work that brings us up short -- and that he appears to omit all traces of emotion. Everything is in the words, and if we are to understand him, we are forced back upon them, and them alone.

In addition, he often refused to name individual poems (they are assigned numbers instead), and then he stacked them up, one upon the other, like cords of wood. There is often no ostensible connection between or among these poems, except that they are written by the same artist -- and from one to the next, they almost always vary in subject. This technique again throws us back upon the words and what they alone convey.

'Soul of the Immigrant Experience'

Few books have jacket copy that is in any way usable -- it functions as little more than a form of advertising -- but the copy on this new Godine edition is not only of help but deftly expressed.

The text states that Reznikoff was "a blood-and-bone New Yorker, a collector of images and stories who walked the city from the Bronx to the Battery and breathed the soul of the Jewish immigrant experience into a lifetime of poetry. He wrote personal memoirs, family history and tenement tales in verse. He wrote narrative poems based on Old Testament sources. Above all, he wrote spare, intensely visual, epigrammatic poems, a kind of urban haiku. The language of these short poems is as plain as bread and salt, their imagery as crisp and unambiguous as a Charles Sheeler photograph. But their meaning is only hinted at: it is there in the selection of details, and in the music of the verse.

"Reznikoff was sincere and objective, a poet of great feeling who strove to honor the world by describing it precisely. He also strove to keep his feelings out of his poetry. He did not confess, he did not pose, he did not cultivate a myth of himself. Instead he created art -- an unadorned art in praise of the world that God and men have made -- and invited readers to bring their own feelings to it."

His work stirred other poets deeply, as in this tribute from May Swenson: "Reznikoff's poems [are] concerned solely with lucidity of vision. Naked of ornament, clean of illusion, they show us 'the iron scythe in the grass that stops for no flower.' "

And George Oppen his fellow Imagist (along with Louis Zukowsky) wrote the following in honor of Reznikoff's passing. It stands as both a memorial and poetic commentary -- while also managing to be a pure reflection of the Reznikoff "style":

In Memoriam
Charles Reznikoff

who wrote
in the great world

small for this is a way

to enter
the light on the kitchen

tables wide-

spread as the mountains'
light this is

heroic this is
the poem

to write

in the great
world small.

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