In 1916 the TLS famously wrote: “Imagist poetry fills us with hope; even when it is not very good in itself, it seems to promise a form in which very good poetry could be written.” By as early as 1918 Reznikoff was putting in a claim to have found that form, at least in a few poems, with what’s been called “a kind of Imagism with wheels on” (3). And if Pound had also famously polemicized that “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works” (4), Reznikoff had, by the age of 24, already come up with a decent Image or two, such as in the following poem (again, quoted in its entirety):
How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted,
sure that you would not die with your work unended,
as if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower?
As with the one-liner above, this poem's power rests on a subtly achieved rhythmic and semantic turn. Here, schematically, is the rhythm (/ = stressed syllable; x = unstressed syllable):
/ x x / / x x / x / x
/ x x / x / x x / x / x
x / x / x / x x / / x x / x
The metrical ghost haunting the first two lines is the falling rhythm of dactyls and trochees. The lines are further welded together by the phonic parallels in their final syllables: the modulation of “and” to “-end-” and the repetition of the unstressed but fully pronounced “-ed” endings. In the third line, there is an abrupt switch to iambs (“as if the iron scythe”) and an anapaest (“in the grass”), whose rising feeling is then halted on “stops”, switching back again to a falling rhythm. The line mimes the caesura of death and, well, the whole First World War. As in the seashore poem above, the turn isn’t hammered home with a stanza break, but fused into the unit of the poem.
Reznikoff here pulls off a direct address to tens of millions. And it’s his engagement with and interest in the lives of the people around him that raises his work above purely technical skill. Beside the epitaph, one frequent product of the Reznikoff workshop is the epigram. Here’s “The Old Man”:
The fish has too many bones
and the watermelon too many seeds.
The short-lyric side of Reznikoff’s poetry is very much of its time, in a good sense. Its prototypical imagery is that of the cityscape: cars, streetlights, the New York subway, pigeons. When you see the moon, it’s the moon above Brooklyn. It’s also more than just observation:
Ah, the drill
breaking open the pavement
and yet again.
This is the nightingale
that sings in our streets.
The poem could be read as an expression of irritation, or of resignation. It might be a wistful yearning for pre-industrial times and an ironic criticism of modernity, but it could also be a celebration of that modernity and its energy. Or is it a metaphysical comment on the onward thrust and mutability of existence? Or a writer's joke? The image of the nightingale can't help but recall Keats. In its utter concentration on the Image it allows all these possibilities, without getting fuzzy. It fuses two ages, in fact two modes of thought: modernism and its progenitor, romanticism.
As so often with Reznikoff, the trope is picked up later, sometimes much later (this Collected offers the opportunity to follow the intertextual threads). Here’s one of the final poems:
The police-car's siren
and that's a fire engine.
Our city, too, has its native birds.
The songbird as a concretization of the urban soundscape is one recurring motif in Reznikoff. Another is that of the room lit by a single gas-jet, whose inadequacy in providing light is emblematic of the room-dweller’s poverty. And there’s a strong sense in Reznikoff’s poetry of what socio-economic differences mean in social practice. In one poem a friend breaks off contact with Reznikoff (the autobiographical reference is upfront) because he is unable to repay a loan needed after his father's death, even though Reznikoff has written the debt off (“Early History of a Writer, 14”). A parallel theme is what urban living in general can mean for human relationships: a frequent visitor to the poems is the figure of the old acquaintance, or even close friend, encountered by chance again after many years, who is unable or unwilling to respond to the speaker/poet ‘s greeting (Gabriel, the childhood friend and co-poet in adolescence; or a candy-store owner who’d been generous with sweets to the speaker as a child).
This strand in Reznikoff’s work is nearly all New York-based. If a poet in the Thirties had to be “a bit of a journalist” (Auden), Reznikoff was something of a local reporter, keeping his attention (in his shorter poems) principally on his immediate environment. Indeed, Reznikoff began training as a journalist, only to realize that he was, as he put it, “more concerned with dog bites man than with man bites dog.” In this respect, he resembles William Carlos Williams and contrasts with Auden, the foreign correspondent, who visited Spain, Japan and Germany at key times of conflict.
To pursue the parallels with journalism, Salman Rushdie wrote of the reporter John Pilger that his “strength is his gift for finding the image, the instant, that reveals all: he is a photographer using words instead of a camera.” Applying this description to Reznikoff, the specific photographer who comes to mind as a comparison is Weegee. Another New Yorker with an Eastern European Jewish background and more or less Reznikoff’s contemporary, he was, like the poet, a diehard night-time traveller of the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The parallel here is not with Weegee’s “man-bites-dog” pictures of dead gangsters and celebrity culture but with his images of everyday (or everynight) city life: a bearded old man in an overcoat leading a horse through the snow (“Vegetable Peddler”), children asleep on a fire escape (“Heat Spell”), one woman fixing a hole in the trousers of another, who is still wearing them as she lies belly-down on a beach (“Mending, Coney Island, 1940”).
There is another and formally different strand in Reznikoff's poetry, less photographic, more cinematic in terms of length, if not always method. At a time when other Modernist poets were going hell-for-leather for disjunction, complexity and varying degrees of opacity (Eliot’s Wasteland; Pound’s Cantos; even Williams’ Paterson is pretty opaque at times; not to mention Zukofsky’s “A”), young Charles was writing narrative poems. Not Tennysonian ballads of absconding maidens mind, but docudramas of industrial accidents, or tales of growing up in the antisemitic streets of New York. Though the great Modernist long poems all contain narrative elements, you have to look to a member of an older generation than Eliot, Pound and Williams, namely Yeats, to find a Modernist poet undertaking conventionally narrative projects around this time.
Formally, the long narratives tend to represent the reverse of what is usually known as prose poetry. That term most often denotes a semantically dense text making strong use of metaphor and imagery but dispensing with line breaks. Reznikoff's narratives, however, are typically written in another type of poetry/prose hybrid, a kind of prosaic verse: the linebreaks are there, but the semantics are less dense than in a great deal of poetry.
Two principal themes recur. The first is the life (and frequently death) of the humble citizen: the drudgery of work, cruelty of circumstance, lethality of poverty, but also coincidence, surprise, kindness and beauty. This complex expands upon the typically urban motifs of the shorter poetry, and also displays the empathy for the lives of ordinary people that Reznikoff shared with Williams and which separates them both from Pound and the “Great Man” focus of the Cantos. These poems are based sometimes on the writer’s personal observation of people, objects and events, sometimes on extraneous sources such as legal reports. A second theme, interlinking with the first, revolves around Jewish history and antisemitism. Here too, the sources are both textual and personal, drawing on historical Jewish writings as well as the experience of Reznikoff and his family in early 20th century New York: throwing stones at Jews seems to have been pretty commonplace, at least in certain areas of the city.
Both the autobiographical and the textual sources harbour dangers. The narrative element of autobiography, if prioritized, may override concerns for form and structure. Nor is the turning of exogenous material into a poem easy – compare for example Basil Bunting's failure to achieve structural intensity in “How Duke Valentine Contrived” (from Machiavelli) with his much more successful “Chomei at Toyoma” (from the writings of a twelfth-century Japanese civil servant-turned-hermit). In a review of this Collected in the New Republic, Adam Kirsch argues that more or less the entire strand derived from Jewish history in Reznikoff's work is a failure, though he has some time for the poems based on legal cases (5). Are the narratives the “voluminous works” that Pound disparaged at the expense of the Image?
Sometimes it all works well enough. Take this extract, almost a meta-poem in its own right:
I had been bothered by a secret weariness
with meter and regular stanzas
grown a little stale. The smooth lines and rhymes
seemed to me affected, a false stress on words and syllables—
in the streets in which I walked.
(Early History of a Writer 17)
Note the archetypal Reznikoffism in the collocation of flowers and streets, and the lines of course enact what they’re talking about. And sometimes the techniques fall flat, as in another example from the same autobiographically based sequence, on the friend (also called Charles) unable to give the young Reznikoff back his loan:
Charles did not repay it.
He had better things to do
with what little money he could get.
But the small debt troubled him, perhaps,
because he never came to see me again
and when I went to his home
he was uncomfortable.
(Early History of a Writer 14)
And there is something uncomfortable about these lines in the rhythm and the breaks, and not deliberately so I think. But if this is a case that Reznikoff loses, it’s a case which has had implications. The poetry/prose hybrid, in particular when based on found material, has been productive as a form: see for example Gael Turnbull’s “texturalist” poems, Alice Oswald’s “Dart”, and Giles Goodland’s “Capital” and “A spy in the house of years”. Eliot Weinberger's recent pieces “What I Heard About Iraq” and “Republicans: A Prose Poem” are examples of poetic form combined with a journalistic collation of sources (Weinberger makes explicit acknowledgement of his debt to Reznikoff, with whom he was in contact shortly before Reznikoff’s death in January 1976) (6).
The best of the narratives to my mind is “In Memoriam: 1933”, a poem that Adam Kirsch singles out in his criticism of Reznikoff’s tales from Jewish history. Here the personal experience, fairly baldly presented in poems such as “Early History of a Writer”, finds its objective correlative and is sublimated into the historical reference. Of the longer poems, this one has the most design, balance and compression. Told in many voices, rich with and yet not dependent on literary associations and historical references, it takes up themes of defeat, exile, hope, forced assimilation and cultural homogenization. The poem plays out in a series of conversations, councils, discussions, disputes, historical and religious reflections, the language varying in tone between the speakers (peasants, soldiers, courtiers, monarchs, religious maniacs, the old, the young), catching their social position and attitude.
Its seven sections occur at chronologically ordered points in time. Where there are big temporal and geographical gaps, transitions rope the sections of the poem together. Section 3, which takes place in first century Palestine, closes with an extended reference by one rabbi to “the followers of Jesus”. Section 4, set a millennium later in Central Europe, kicks off with a they-killed-the-Messiah speech by the Monk, a hate-cleric-type figure. Subject (Jesus) and speaker (religious authority) are thus carried over, in an altered form, from one time and place to the next. The transition can also be an abrupt, ironic juxtaposition. Section 5 is a debate on the post-1492 assimilatory policies of the Spanish establishment vis-à-vis Jews. It ends with an expression of determination by the Spanish-Jewish administrator and scholar Abrabanel that the Spanish Jews will flourish elsewhere. The start of the next section, however, begins with a description of Cossack killings of Jews and Poles in 18th century Poland. This also represents a realization of the Monk’s invective in the fourth section.
“In Memoriam…” resonates within itself, surely a structural pre-condition for the longer poem. Speeches state the theme of events to come and recapitulate earlier motifs. Images recur of the loadstone and the captive. The phrase “thousand, and tens of thousands” is used to refer to exiles, who are “particles in the dust of Babylon”, and then later to settlers in Poland, “going about in the dust of summer”. “Sweet water” as an image undergoes a key change from the natural to the artificial: in an early part of the poem it comes from springs, in the final section it’s pumped through pipes. And it’s possible to catch outside echoes, too, of the epic tradition of the Aeneid, the Iliad and Paradise Lost (in the discussions and councils), Macbeth (Act One Scene Two’s “bloody man”, the sergeant who arrives with news of battle), Eliot on a good day (the imagery of rock, dust and wind without the overdose of abstractions) and Milton’s Samson Agonistes (debate and dilemma revolving around enslavement).
For Kirsch, Reznikoff in this poem is “official and hortatory in a way that a poet should never be.” Horace? Marvell? African praise singers? Poets haven’t always been romantically isolated individuals challenging authority. Perhaps it’s the transparent scheme of the poem which bugs Kirsch: no arrival “in media res” here but a snapshot chronology. Nevertheless, and even if each of the sections draws “an obvious parallel with the situation of contemporary American Jewry” (Kirsch again), I’d prefer to see its structural transparency as a facet of what Charles Bernstein calls Reznikoff’s “radical legibility” (7).
Nor is the poem as unambiguous as Kirsch implies. The voices are in conflict with each other. The final section, thematizing emigration to America, seems to me to be a presentation rather than a whole-hearted endorsement of that movement. The resonance of its closing lines derives from the use of modern, mechanical imagery: meanings accrue here that go beyond the immediate subject of relocation as a (hoped-for) end to persecution:
Stay or go;
be still the shining piston
moving heavy wheels;
before whom ocean and the heavens divide:
the steamer seen from the land
but leaves a tide
that washes shores and banks;
the airplane from the ground—
an insect crawling
but filling all the heavens with its drone;
a small cloud
raining its sound
from the wide sky.
That “stay or go” is no exhortation but a dilemma. “In Memoriam: 1933” is a translocal poem, with a foot in the Old and the New Worlds, the distant past and almost-present.
It's in the nature of Collecteds to present not just the fully evolved species but also the intermediary forms. Plenty of the latter are recorded in this volume, for which Reznikoff himself has a retort to the reader:
Of all that I have written
you say: “How much was poorly said.”
The oak has many acorns
that a single oak might live.
From 1918 to 1922 Reznikoff put out a small book of poetry a year, each of which contains at least one classic, but also much that doesn't go far beyond a spare but low-octane Imagism. The wheels aren’t on yet: the metaphors and images are in search of a larger context. It's in 1934 that the sustained quality really kicks in, both with “In Memoriam…” and “Jerusalem the Golden”, the poem sequence that Andrew McAllister chose to represent Reznikoff with in his 1996 Bloodaxe anthology, “The Objectivists.”
Most of Reznikoff's output was at least initially self-published. One reason for this is provided, perhaps a little too apocryphally, by the well-rehearsed story of how Reznikoff’s maternal grandfather died in Tsarist Russia while far from home. His belongings were returned to his widow, who found among them writings in a language she did not understand (they were poems in Hebrew) and, fearing they contained subversive sentiments that might endanger the family, consigned them to the flames and oblivion. Just after Reznikoff's death in 1976, Black Sparrow published his Complete Poems in two volumes: this new edition is essentially a collation of the two, but including variants from earlier versions of the poems and a prose excursus found among Reznikoff's papers after his death, stating his poetics and possibly intended to be used at readings.
Reznikoff’s poetry shouldn’t really need much explanation. Why isn’t his reputation higher? Those on the more avant-garde side of things pay him some attention because Zukofsky hauled him on board Objectivism. But it’s Zukofsky and Oppen, among the Objectivists, who tend to arouse more interest. Could it be that Reznikoff is just a bit too, well, accessible? His verse doesn’t follow the trajectory of Pound, Zukofsky and to an extent Williams, all of whose late work becomes ever denser and more demanding of the reader’s sympathy and time. Echoing the “plain sunlight of the cases” that Reznikoff found in his law studies (Early History of a Writer 16), Stephen Fredman, reviewing this book in “Shofar”, wrote: “It may be that for some this unblinking light is blinding” (8). And for all the parallels and comparisons that can be drawn with his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Reznikoff’s work nevertheless lives up to Bunting’s view of what constitutes a decent poem: “… what matters about it is not what it has in common with others of its kind, but what is singularly its own.”