Suffering the Peculiar Fate of Being a Poet’s Poet

The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918-1975

Edited by Seamus Cooney

David R. Godine, 400 pages. $21.95.

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Charles Reznikoff, who was born to Russian parents in Brooklyn in 1894 and lived the bulk of his life in Manhattan, suffered the peculiar fate of being a poet’s poet: He was well respected and little known.

Not surprisingly, he often told the story of his grandfather, a diligent, if unpublished, Hebrew poet. The man died while traveling within the Pale, and his widow, unable to read her husband’s poems and afraid that they might contain some treason against the tsar, figured that she had to make a choice between her children’s safety and their father’s verses. So she burned the poems. This avoidable disaster left an odd but irrevocable mark on Reznikoff’s work. Although he was remarkable in his apparent lack of ambition, Reznikoff took great care to make sure that his writings found their way into books, even if he had to set the type himself. And the glamour of Hebrew — a pure language, a holy language, a language of powerful concision — guided his very American poems.

Seamus Cooney’s welcome edition of the “Complete Poems” allows us to take the measure of Reznikoff’s achievement. At its best, Reznikoff’s poetry is marked by intricate, unobtrusive balances and a deceptive clarity. Here is one version of his family romance:

My grandfather, dead long before I was born,

died among strangers; and all the verse he wrote

was lost—

except for what

still speaks through me

as mine.

The simplicity here is deceptive, because the poem’s claim of affiliation — that Reznikoff is giving voice to his grandfather’s poetry — is so striking and so emotionally true that it can easily blind the reader to the fact that it is quite literally not true at all.

Reznikoff’s act of reclamation, however strongly desired, is impossible. The grandfather’s poems were written in Hebrew and, as the line breaks make clear, they were all lost. Nevertheless, the poet’s sheer will is strong enough to carry him — and the reader — through. This poem also plays nicely with the old Greek notion of inspiration. Here, neither the muse nor the god speaks through the poet. Rather, he gives voice to tradition itself in the person of the unknown grandfather.

If Reznikoff is claiming a place in a Jewish continuum, he is also clearly breaking — or seeming to break — with the Anglo-American literary past. It is easy to forget the amount of thought and energy it took to write with such apparent immediacy when Reznikoff started publishing at the end of the First World War. He became known in the early 1930s as a member of the so-called Objectivist group — a loose gang of mostly male, mostly Jewish, and mostly leftist followers and friends of Ezra Pound. These poets, who included William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, wanted to clear poetry of all the flummery of late-Victorian versifying while avoiding Whitman’s windy attitudes. For Reznikoff, objectivism meant concentrating not on feeling but on the mind’s reflection on what is seen and what is heard. Because he was trained as a lawyer, Reznikoff likened poetry to forensic testimony: “Evidence… cannot state conclusions of fact.… The conclusions of fact are for the jury — and, let us add in our case, for the reader.”

Like the other Objectivists, Reznikoff is careful to present the jury of his readers with precise accounts of the city: “Stubborn flies buzzing/in the morning when she wakes./The flat roofs, higher, lower,/chimneys, water-tanks, cornices.” What makes Reznikoff different from other poets in this highly visual vein, though, is that his series of short stanzas and poems often contain highly condensed little narratives, as in this vignette from Reznikoff’s first book: “Her work was to count linings—/the day’s seconds in dozens.”

At moments like this, the importance of his reading in Hebrew (a language he did not learn until his 20s) becomes clear. Although it is easy to hear echoes of haiku and of ancient Greek poetry in Reznikoff’s work (and he did claim both as influences), Reznikoff clearly looked to biblical narrative as a model for his concise storytelling. Like the Bible, his brief tales are evocative because so many of the conclusions of fact have indeed been left out. (If the Bible had included these conclusions, there would be no call for the wonderful extremities of Midrash.)

In the end, no other Modernist poet is as interested in the shadings of narrative as Reznikoff. His great anti-epic, “Testimony,” which took more than three decades to write, strings together unrelated short accounts, taken from trials between 1880 and 1915, of treachery, perfidy and sheer bad luck. As a compilation, “Testimony” is a hard and heart-wrenching read, in no small part because its fierce and relentless condensations do not allow even a glimmer of redemption.

Reznikoff’s investment in Hebrew went beyond his identification with his grandfather and his own fascination with biblical concision. He published a number of his poems in the Menorah Journal. He was closely tied to the Menorah movement, which in the first decades of the 20th century promoted “Jewish humanism” among college-educated Jews in order to ensure the survival of “Hebraic culture and ideals” in America. In this context, Hebrew — the dream of the language if not the actual language itself — became the focus of a particular form of cultural Zionism to which Reznikoff clearly subscribed. While Reznikoff can claim that the “Hebrew of your poets, Zion/is like oil upon a burn,” he still writes in English. Rather grandiosely, he imagines himself as Solomon, marrying the “speech of strangers,” despite his love for his Shulamite, the language of the Song of Songs.

This is an odd image and betrays an equally odd sense of guilt. Perhaps as an act of atonement, Reznikoff wrote a number of poems — sometimes based on the Bible, sometimes based on incidents in Jewish history — that celebrate Jewish tenacity. They are not particularly successful. Without the conflict between conciseness and emotion, without the tension between Biblical terseness and modern complexity, Reznikoff’s poetry becomes distressingly flat. It is not bad, just boring.

In an odd way, Reznikoff’s contradictions become his signature. An avant-garde Modernist who was nonetheless committed to resolute clarity; an abstemious, even prissy, bohemian who dedicated his life to the perfections of style so that he could do justice to the grittier aspects of the 20th century, he is nowhere more riven than in his various attempts to write English as if it were Hebrew, that is, to both fulfill and escape his grandfather’s destiny.

This story "Suffering the Peculiar Fate of Being a Poet’s Poet" was written by David Kaufmann.

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