“Objectivists” 1927-1934 Section 7 - Notes Contents

Section 7 - Charles Reznikoff

I. Biography

Charles Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1894, the son, like Zukofsky, of Jewish immigrants. He had wanted to be a writer since high school, and so in 1910 and 1911 he attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He decided not to study there when he found that the school was “mostly interested in news” and did not share his interest in good writing. “And then one day passing N. Y. U. Law School I remembered that Heine had studied law and Goethe had studied law, so that seemed to be fine.”1 He did exceptionally well, even though he wanted to quit and devote his energy to writing. He was admitted to the bar in 1916 and at his father’s urging began a practice, which the war gave him a convenient excuse to drop. The war was over, however, before he could serve.2 After this he worked for his father as a salesman of hats, a job that gave him room and time to continue writing. He never returned to the practice of law, but in 1928 he started working for the American Law Book Company revising legal definitions for Corpus Juris.

Reznikoff’s pattern of avoiding commitment to anything that did not serve his art was vital to his growth as a writer—a necessity in a time when society was insensitive to the needs and the lessons of writers. This pattern, however, must be compared with the importance to Reznikoff of the life around him. Matters pertaining to the sale and manufacture of hats and to the legal problems of the poor occur in his work. His experience living and working in the poorest neighborhoods of the city gave him an understanding of the pleasures and the sufferings of common people, and his training as a lawyer served his discipline as a poet in relating his experience and understanding. George Oppen said that “Charles felt later that the training of law book definitions, which requires great exactitude and great compression of language . . . was an enormous benefit to him.”3 Reznikoff’s work for the American Law Book Company also brought him the legal records from which he drew for the composition of Testimony (1934) and his later volumes of similar material.

Reznikoff was 18 and in law school in 1913 when Pound published “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” in Poetry. When asked whether in those years he were reading or involved with the Imagists, Reznikoff stated that he thought “the first two Cantos” of Pound “have a magnificence, and his translations especially. But all the people I know who were interested in writing were also very much moved by his prose articles in Poetry.” These critical articles “very much influenced” Reznikoff, who “found them just right—just the facts stated as a witness would state them in a courtroom trial.” Pound confirmed the viability of Reznikoff’s application to his writing of the limitations of court testimony. “Testimony” is an avoidance of conclusion and inference, an emphasis on the facts:

Say a person is suing for injuries, and the defense is that he was negligent in crossing the street. The witness isn’t allowed to go on the stand and say, “Yes, he was very careless” or “He was very careful.” He’s got to say just what he did in order that the jury or the judge may determine whether he was careful or careless.

Yet Reznikoff was not limited in the effects of his writing to the tense formality of the courtroom. His work was always motivated by a passion which he strove to produce for his readers: “You start with something that moves you and you state it as simply and as directly as possible, without saying you’re moved, but in such a way that the reader will also be moved by it. This is the way I try to write.”4

In “Early History of a Writer,” Reznikoff remembered how, during his study of the law, Imagisme influenced his writing:

The Doric order of classical architecture, unlike the Corinthian, was characterized by simplicity of form.

On 27 October 1917 he submitted a collection of poems to Harriet Monroe, who selected two, titled “Futility” and “The Dead,” but did not publish them.

Now Poetry (Chicago) had a great reputation, and Harriet Monroe, who was the editor selected my things. But a year went by and they weren’t printed—and I had sent her, among other things, something that I thought the best of them, and that she rejected. So, since I was expecting to get into the Army—I’m talking now of 1918—I thought I’d just privately print what I had that I liked, and I did. I got out a book called Rhythms.6

Reznikoff withdrew his poems from Poetry on 4 May 1918, and Rhythms was printed in Brooklyn by the De Vinne Press by July 1918.7 This little pamphlet contained, in twenty-four pages sewn into a red paper cover, a group of twenty-three poems.

It was such a relief to get it out of my way, to feel that I didn’t have to rely on anybody—even someone as good as Harriet Monroe—that I did it again the second year. . . .

I liked that privately printed way. I managed to get it off my chest and start on something else.8

Reznikoff had Rhythms II printed at his own expense by June 1919 at the same press and some were stitched into the same cover with Rhythms. It contained twenty-three poems in twenty-three pages. The next year, Samuel Roth at the New York Poetry Book Shop published Reznikoff’s Poems in an edition of 250. This book contained forty-eight pages divided into three groups, the first two comprised of the poems of the first two books, revised and reordered, recording Reznikoff’s increasing poetic acumen, and the third comprised of thirty-nine new poems. In this publication the poems were not printed one to a page as in the first two, and were separated by large initial capital letters.

In 1921, Reznikoff, again at his own expense, published Uriel Accosta: A Play and A Fourth Group of Verse, in which were fifty-one new poems. In 1922, he published Chatterton, The Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis: Three Plays, and in 1923, Coral and Captive Israel, two more plays. Reznikoff recalled:

But privately printing became rather expensive because I had more work to print, so I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to buy a printing press and do my own printing. I went to a school where they teach people how to set type, and I bought a press that you worked by a treadle, and set it up in the basement of my father’s house.9

In 1927, Reznikoff “set the type by hand and did the presswork” (thus read his colophons) for 375 copies of Five Groups of Verse, which was a revision of the four groups already published plus a fifth group of twenty poems, and 400 copies of Nine Plays, including in addition to those already printed Abram in Egypt, Rashi, and Genesis. And in 1929 Reznikoff printed another, the first and only in what was to have been an annual series, By the Waters of Manhattan: An Annual, which consisted of memoirs adapted from his mother’s Yiddish, a long, somewhat autobiographical story of Joel Stein’s success with a Greenwich Village bookshop, and “Editing and Glosses,” a group of dramatic interpretations and condensations of portions of the Old Testament in verse.

To the fact that Reznikoff labored patiently in the production of these nine books should be added the fact that they sold poorly or not at all; Reznikoff gave away most of them. Zukofsky and the Oppens were among the very few who appreciated Reznikoff’s work in his own time. George and Mary expressed their debt to Reznikoff during an interview in 1976. George said:

But Rezzy—I really think we learned almost everything from Reznikoff. Certainly we learned to understand that city. We called on Reznikoff—I’m not sure that it was by his suggestion—we called on him regularly once a week.

George was inspired by the complex of Reznikoff’s neglect, his commitment to poetry, and his law experience:

Charles felt that all the poetry benefitted by his law experience. And Charles chose that. He knew he faced a long neglect and he knew that he had to earn a living. And he set himself—I believe I’m following almost his words—to find the work which he could do and would infringe least on his poetry or conflict least with his poetry. There’s a wonderful poem of his—all these things we learned from him —how to work, too, we learned. There’s a poem of his which describes his revelation of the task of work and the way to do it, watching a secretary where he sat somewhere waiting for a job interview . . . he saw the young woman beginning it with a huge heap of papers to transcribe them on the typewriter, and saw that she didn’t look at the heap of what was left—she just started. And Charles was just starting.

These were the foundations of the political relation of one “Objectivist” to his place and its populace. Oppen continued:

As for Charles’ politics, he wouldn’t have discussed it with us much. But Charles’ sense—of course you hear the populist base there—but the sense of himself as a small Jewish man in the city, walking, a very small man, this modest not really modest man, his head absolutely full of history, of centuries upon centuries of history, an eye where there wouldn’t have been an eye, an eye to see with . . .10

Reznikoff bore unselfish and sympathetic witness to the city in which his intelligence and care, his historical perspective and keen awareness, seemed, perhaps, to matter little.

II. Five Groups of Verse

Five Groups of Verse, the collected edition of Reznikoff’s verse to 1927, stood as the record of Reznikoff’s growth and achievement when the “Objectivists” were considering what could be done about the conditions which Pound had argued were damaging to vie literaire. It was the primary subject of Zukofsky’s essay providing critical definition of the group (see Section 8). For this edition, Reznikoff had revised and reordered the four groups from Rhythms, Rhythms II, Poems, and Uriel Accosta and A Fourth Group of Verse and added a fifth group of new poems.11

First Group

Reznikoff’s first group of verse, revised from Rhythms of 1918 and the first group in Poems of 1920, consists of nineteen poems composed in irregularly metered, usually rhymed verse. The first poem reads:

If the effect of the rhyme and meter is awkward, it is appropriately so. The persona’s desperate struggle for recognition could not be expressed with grace. All we can ask of any liberty is that it be meaningful, and so too of any constraint. The syllable-count and the end-rhymes are like the doors of the houses of the blocks on which our hero beats his fists. Only the pivotal strophe is free of the pattern: “The comforting / winds are still.”

Reznikoff’s concern with maintaining a diction which relates to things of universal significance did not at this point in his career (1918) concentrate entirely on things of indisputable existence. The common virtue of stars, lights, houses, fists, doors, steps, floors, and street is lost on the comic generality of chaos, stumble, void, tumble. Revision subsequent to 1918 omitted only a minor redundance: in 1918 the final strophe began “The wandering body / Break into dust.” And yet the poem’s bleak sentiment, expressing the bitterness of a man for whom humility is necessary but not easy, is characteristic of Reznikoff. Never sure of salvation, nor of literary immortality, only the wind which blew his work away was comforting.

Not every poem in the first group is spoiled by comic generalities and rhymes. Reznikoff could find desolations appropriate also to free verse, for example:

Even a consolation:

But of course this consolation is deceptive. Messalina, the third wife of the emperor Claudius, used her influence over Claudius to gratify her lust and avarice. The encyclopedia says that “by procuring in A.D. 42 the unjust death of Appius Silanus, who had slighted her advances, she greatly contributed to the mutual suspicion between Claudius and the senate and to what may almost be called a reign of terror.” She was eventually executed, age 26, in A.D. 48, for bigamy.15

Poems eleven, thirteen, and fourteen refer explicitly to World War I, and the fact that nearly every poem deals in some way with death may be attributed in good part to the depression of wartime. Yet, as in the Messalina poem, in most of these poems, the depression is quiet enough to impart an undertone of wit. The poems have a wry twist that one might expect if the only sign of life were bleakness. There is something redeeming about “the silent rounds of mice and roaches”; they are of an order beyond the shopgirls’ drudgery and the machinery of contemporary life. And there is certain grace and nobility in Reznikoff’s Messalina; she is of an order beyond man’s casual perception. Desperation, drudgery, depression, weariness, and death brought suddenly to light may have a vividness like great beauty to open one’s eyes.

Reznikoff’s irony is improved by his revisions subsequent to 1918. The superb deadpan of the second line in the following poem:

was originally over-weighted by tragic commentary:

Gone is the heavily symbolic interpretive drama of Death with that capital “D.” Gone, too, is “tower on tower behind the bridge arose / The buildings * * * tall white towers / Agleam with lights.” This was too redundant, too rhetorical. Reznikoff became more confident that his virtues lie in understatement or meiosis, in the tacit understanding of facts. The proper noun “Manhattan” is enough to complement the insignificance of one dead man. And one dead man is enough to evoke the pathos and the pitifulness of death. In poem fourteen, “killed” was originally “spilled.” The fact is simpler and more vivid than the poetic euphemism.18 In places Reznikoff omitted redundancies: “A fleet of ships at anchor” becomes “a fleet at anchor,” and “The rain is over, the wet pavement shines / With sunlight” became “The rain is over, the wet pavement shines.”19 In the 10th poem, he omitted superfluous modifiers: “A great wind” becomes a “a wind,” and “the thickly frosted panes” became, simply, “the frosted panes”; “Only the sun, again, like the lidless eye of God” became “Only, a lidless eye, the sun again”; with God, he discarded data which was not of the immediate experience: “Tomorrow long clouds shutting out the day / And maybe snow or thick rain dropping heavily.”20

Yet Reznikoff was not too specific. So the second poem, originally beginning with the line “In this room once belonging to me,” began in 1920 and thereafter with the second line:

The rhythm and the repetition of the vision of the walking dead is enough without further rhyme to convey the circularity of this depression. Along the same line, Reznikoff made the poem not more general but more generic, less dependent on the proper circumstances of its creation, when he came to revise this poem of 1918:

Reznikoff omitted the title in 1920 and the second line in 1927. Thus the poem can stand independent of the reader’s sentiment toward the particular person Gaudier-Brzeska and the particular manner of his death, and independent of the associations dependent on Ezra Pound’s 1916 memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska. If the poem works, it should apply to everyone killed with their work unended. As Zukofsky wrote, “the fact that it was originally an epitaph for Gaudier Brzeska may compel the attention of a few, but adds nothing to the poem as object.”23

If the poem depends entirely on knowledge of its proper allusions, then it is a failure. Only the irony of the Messalina poem is lost by not knowing who she is, but in the following prose-poem, omitted after 1918, one is lost entirely without knowing at least what Vashti is to Queen Esther:

Queen Esther said to herself What is there to fear? We move in our orbits like the stars.

But in the night looking at the black fields and river she could not help thinking of Vashti’s white cheeks hollowed like shel1s.24

The reference is of course the book of Esther in the Bible, but Zukofsky singled this out as his example of the “symboliste semi-allegorical gleam” which Reznikoff “deliberately avoided.”25 The poem depends almost entirely on knowing that Vashti was queen before Esther and deposed for a minor disobedience of the king, and that Esther saved her people the Jews by disobeying the king in a greater matter. For Zukofsky, these allusions render the poem obscure enough to approach the symboliste realm in which all meaning is private, of which one glimpses, as Pound explained in Gaudier-Brzeska, only metonymic symbols.26 Pound set the “Objectivist” standard for the use of symbols when he wrote that the proper symbol is a natural object which makes sense to those who do not understand it as a symbol.27 For those who do not know the Bible, Vashti is only someone whose “white cheeks” are “hollowed like shells.”

Second Group

Reznikoff’s second group of verse, revised from Rhythms II of 1919 and the second group in Poems of 1920, consists of twenty-two poems in free verse. It is free of the first group’s impersistent rhyme and omnipresent mention of death.

There are a few poems of lonely desolation. The first poem is a complaint about a cold wind; in the third the protagonist knocks at a door from which his friends have, without telling him, moved; the eleventh describes the grave’s reward for a woman who “worked patiently” for her children; and the fifteenth, title and one line, presents the signs of an epidemic:

But there are also poems of a quiet joy in things. In the fourth poem, although the moon might at first be hidden, she shows herself warm and open: “Surely I saw her, / broad-bosomed and golden, / coming toward us.”29 And Reznikoff was consoled in the eighth poem by remembering “women at windows in still streets, / or women reading, a glow on resting hands”; in the nineteenth by the arrival in the hall of a woman “sudden as a rainbow”; and in the twenty-second by a clear night sky and “Far off / a white horse / in the green gloom / of the meadow.”30 The evocative qualities of these natural objects do not detract from their matter-of-factness. The wind, the door, the grave, and the streamers of crepe, as well as the moon, the glow on resting hands, the hall, and the white horse have in them emotional valences which suggest their circumstances as surely as if Reznikoff had detailed in each poem all the impressions at the moment of his mind and all his senses. One does not doubt that these objects were encountered by Reznikoff in his life. Things are “images,” which as Oppen said are accounts of the poet’s perception and tests of sincerity.31 The existence and Reznikoff’s experience of these objects are indisputable. Moreover, each in some essential aspect was vivid enough to have had its moment carried by Reznikoff from his private experience into the public experience of the poem.

When asked where his poems came from, Reznikoff spoke of having been first moved by an experience. Here he was asked about how the city is manifest in his work:

Well, since I was born in a city, in a great city and grew up in it, most of the emotional impressions I get are from things I’ve seen in the city. They may or may not be beautiful, they may on the contrary be ugly, but these are impressions, just as I think is true of all the great natural poets. Generally they came from a country background, and naturally they were moved by the things they had seen. Except, to my surprise, Wordsworth has a magnificent sonnet on walking on Westminster, on the bridge there. But he’s moved by the setting because he’s so surprised by the beauty. But generally I write about things that move me, and they’re generally about the city.32

A moving experience is what Oppen calls a “moment of conviction” it is a moment in which you can not deny the existence of an object, having been moved by it.33

A feature new to Reznikoff’s second group was his third-person descriptions of living people whom he had obseved from the streets of the city. For example, the fifth poem:

In addition, the seventh and ninth poems present a “Scrubwoman” and “The Idiot,” whose pathetic idiosyncracies are given without comment. These people are not in the service of any authorial mood. Reznikoff has simply put them down as he saw them, as, in a sense, they were.

The most extensive act of revision of the 1919 group condensed the first of two of the following poems in 1920 into the third and in 1927 the fourth:

The images present the poignant beauty that Reznikoff identified with a certain woman. The first poem presents the woman by swan and snow; the second presents the woman by swan and curtain. Reznikoff realized these things together form a complex of coherent associations, and that with their juxtaposition nothing further needed to be said. Accordingly, in 1920, he wove together these four elements from thirteen lines into one poem of eight lines, omitting from the first poem two lines describing her face and from the second two lines remembering her in a house under great trees. These lines present elements which are either inessential or already suggested by what remains. Reznikoff did not need, for example, to say she is dressed in white, since only white things realize her beauty. Further, in 1927, he realized that he did not have to describe the shaded and still lake, since that was already suggested by a swan in the trees’ shadow beating the water.

Also in 1927 Reznikoff buried two of the poem’s three similes. He realized that it was unnecessary to tie together with that particular poetic device elements which he encountered already together, elements which in their natural juxtapositions of mind and nature moved him to strong feeling. As Zukofsky wrote, ’Like’s have often been seen together, or have been strongly felt together.”36 Similes suggest artifice, and the realization of these similarities required no artifice.

Third Group

Reznikoff’s third group of verse, revised from the third and final group in Poems of 1920, consists of thirty poems, and is distinguished from the previous groups by evidences of a growing narrative ability.

We still see a few of Reznikoff’s elegant descriptions, which, like Japanese brushwork, reveal subtle beauties of form in two strokes:

And we still see short poems which capture more than the moment, suggesting as much about New York City of 1920 as might volumes of psychological, sociological, and economic treatises:

But here and there we see longer lines and rhythms embracing more extended actions:

Among these short narratives are two poems, “Nightmares” 1 and 2, which Reznikoff omitted from the 1927 collection, probably because they were too symboliste: their narrative intent originated in the psyche, so that the existence of the terrifying old man, the lame beggar, the girl of twelve, and the laughing man is not indisputab1e.40

Chief among the short narratives in the third group of verse are four poems which in 1920 were grouped under a common title: “Four of Us,” presumably, four Jews who lived in the ghettos of New York City at the time. The first of these, the tenth in this group, is an account of the life and death of a man who came to America from a Russian town in which he was the chief clerk in a big store. He came to American in order that his older children “might study and the boys be free from army service, but now they had to work to support him, his wife and his younger children, because his own business was a failure:

Left in the house alone, “the first warm day of spring,” and feeling forgotten and useless:

Reznikoff’s testimony is always enriched by a sense of its tragedy, even if at first it only deepens the irony of the fact that a man’s death means “no more than if he were a sparrow.” Reznikoff never tells you what to feel; he never comments. If his poem works, then you feel as he felt, seeing what he saw. The great difference between the accounts of suicides in these groups is the result of a narrative technique that is able to suggest more than what might at that moment reach the senses of observer. Reznikoff is now able to control, as if they were concrete and present facts, the regretful and bitter imagination of past and offstage circumstances; he is able to weave them without flaw into his presentation of window-b1ind, stove, coat, floor, gas, and rubber tube, without unnecessary facts, without redundance, without interpretation.

In the 1920 version of the poem described above, the man, realizing it is the first warm day of spring by the oblongs of sunlight on the wooden floor, opens a window.

Reznikoff revised this passage for the 1927 collection to present the details more directly:

He does not need to say the sunlight showed these things. Suffice to say the sunlight fell on them. And he does not need to explain that the outer circumstances of this man reflected the inner like symbols.

Fourth Group

Reznikoff’s fourth group of verse, revised from Uriel Accosta: A P1ay and A Fourth Group of Verse of 1921, consists of forty-eight poems.

The presence of Reznikoff’s first verse drama in the original volume with this group suggests a comparison between Reznikoff’s narrative poems and his dramatic verse. Their similarity rests more on the nature of Reznikoff’s verse than on his narrative techniques. For example, from “Uriel Accosta”:

And from the fourth group:

In both these passages we find long lines comprising slow rhythms carefully interrupted by syntactic pauses. At the end of each line one is likely to rest while getting breath for the next, whether it ends the sentence or not. Reznikoff’s rhythms inhere in the thoughts they express. “After dinner, Sunday afternoons, we boys would walk slowly”—the slowness of their walk is paced by the speaker’s memory of that slowness. “They stood tiptoe and stuck their noses up for air,” pausing for breath, “But still the tide came up,” giving the reader time to acknowledge this new element, the tide, “and so they drowned.” The sentence ends with the line to emphasize the final word. Then follows the point of the story—one sentence on a single line.

The diction in both play and poem is not “poetic,” neither archaic nor in any other way obscure or unusual. There is nothing to interfere with the immediate apprehension of the object, and the object is not superficial. After the publication of By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse in 1962, when Reznikoff began to give public readings, George Oppen was one of those who advised Reznikoff to tone down his delivery.46 He had been making the gestures and verbal postures of a nineteenth-century rhetorician. But even afterwards, his stress and intonation were spirited and emphatic, as if he were arguing the poem as a case before a jury. To hear this opens one’s ears to the potential energy, to the depth of feeling and the deftness of movement lying near the calm surface of his verse.

Most of the forty-eight poems in this group extend the idea of “Four of Us” to present the lives of those whom Reznikoff best knew and understood. In 1921, twenty-seven of them were grouped under a common title, “Jews.”47 The tones of these vignettes is unique for the individual presented in each: in the twentieth, the touching satisfaction of a boy’s private freedom set against his public persecution; in the twenty-first, the deep seriousness of Grandfather’s misery caused by anti-semitical incidents, and in the twenty-second, the wry sympathy with a boy’s retreat from sickness and family misfortune by identifying with a tree. And these lives are not all moved by the mystery of misfortune. In the twenty-sixth, we experience the quiet joy of sensual pleasure; in the forty-seventh, the comic and coarse energy of the shoemaker’s wife; and in the forty-eighth the invigorating reassurance of shoes newly cobbled and blacked. Most of this group, however, deals with the misfortune typical of the people in New York City’s Jewish ghettos. Here is a stepmother’s misguided discouragement of a young girl’s desire to better herself; here is the tragic failure of a man to live up to the expectations of his father and friends; here is the sad loneliness of a bumbling, sick, ugly, and inarticulate blacksmith; and there is Reznikoff’s own experience as a young lawyer with the petty squabbles of the people. The range and depth of Reznikoff’s attention and understanding evince a man whose craftsmanship is a truly admirable as his human sympathy. Zukofsky wrote:

Yet the lives of Reznikoff’s people slowly occur in the sincerity of the craft with which he has chosen to subdue them. One returns in the end not to the aging girl at the window, nor to “her aunt and the man,” but to the sincerity which has seen, considered, and weighed the tone these things have when rendered in only necessary words.48

For this reason his people live in one’s memory far beyond what the sparcity of his verse might lead you to expect.

Fifth Group

Reznikoff’s fifth group of verse, completing Five Groups of Verse of 1927, consists of twenty poems including two short dramatic pieces and one Biblical monologue. This group lacks the wit of the previous groups, and sometimes the careful craftsmanship. For example, the thirteenth poem:

The commenting last line here is uncharacteristic of Reznikoff’s best work. That the disorder does not touch them is enough indication of “their beauty,” and that they will be cut down is enough indication that it “cannot save them.” It would have been better to have omitted the title and the words “lead nowhere: / it,” “are thrown,” and “The disorder,” which only interpret the facts presented.

Two fine poems of the group are about Reznikoff’s study of the Hebrew:

In both, the wit underlines the pathos, which aptly reflects the pain of exile and the desire for reunion. The final poem in the group is a monologue in the character of Samuel, who was the first Jewish prophet after Moses and who had incredible influence over Israel. Samuel expresses his unswerving strength against change and chance. These sentiments no doubt were a consolation to Reznikoff, who in 1927 was 33 years old and at least 35 years from recognition as a poet:

Reznikoff’s stand against neglect, his relation to the place and its populace to which he bore honest and compassionate witness, his sensitivity to moments of tragedy and beauty, and his concern for his younger colleagues. The principles implicit in his work, in his omission of interpretation, redundance, and rhetoric, and in his restoration of meaning to natural objects of common significance, objects whose actual existence had moved Reznikoff to strong feeling, are the definitive principles of “Objectivism.”