The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918 – 1975. Edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow Books, 444 pp., $21.95
Poetic movements come and go and leave in their wake a few historical traces and a few poets whose practice may have been partially shaped by their allegiance. Few have left as interesting a residue as the set of gestures within twentieth century modernism that have been labelled ‘objectivist’. Whereas Modernism proper was Euro-centric, high culture and Right-leaning, the objectivists were urban, American-oriented, and with the exception of Lorine Niedecker in rural Wisconsin, Jewish New Yorkers. The politics are important because they are very much bound up with the aesthetics. George Oppen was a labour organiser and a Communist and gave up poetry for twenty years in favour of social activism. These poets lived their lives on the margins, outside both of academia and the kind of economically successful life which might have rewarded them socially. Charles Reznikoff had a succession of small jobs; Lorine Niedecker washed floors in a hospital; Oppen worked as a cabinet maker in Mexico for twenty years; Louis Zukovsky had a variety of jobs including a stint working on a history of American handicrafts with the Works Projects Administration.
Zukovsky was the animator of objectivism and his role as a kind of mediator of modernism, an important advocate of Pound and Williams as well as of the objectivists, combined with the intelligence and virtuosity of his poetry, has always ensured him his share of critical attention. Reznikoff on the other hand is less well known in the wider world, though Seamus Cooney’s gathering of nearly sixty years of his work should change this. Reznikoff is the kind of poet who can all too easily slip between the cracks because he was content to mine his own corner of the world, and because the poetry and the aesthetic which underlies it are self-effacing. He is supremely a poet of the city, an observer of its scenes and people, a chronicler of the struggles of immigrant Jews in the new world. The poems are full of the kind of precise detailing that is normally reserved for fiction or memoir; they open themselves up fully to the experiences of others, and keep the poet’s self out of the business. As well as his natural affinities with the objectivist principles he has learned from sources as diverse as Whitman, Pound, Goethe, this may have been partly due to his reading of translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. In an essay included by Seamus Cooney he quotes a pamphlet on Japanese art,
‘For Zen, in the search for illumination, that is to say, immediate contact with the essence of the universe. . . puts the strongest emphasis on personal effort and forgetfulness of self.’ (his emphasis)
Reznikoff’s natural sympathy with a self-forgetful poetry that restricted itself to the evidence provided by the world is enhanced by his legal training – poetry was always testimony for him – and his love of walking. Reznikoff walked anything up to twenty miles a day every day of his life and it’s no accident that one of his collections is called ‘Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down’. The New York he saw on his walks fills his poems, but the observation also provided the method: a focus on brief moments in lives and as much as possible releasing the potential of what is seen. This is what he understood by ‘objectivist’.
‘By the term “objectivist”, I suppose a writer may be meant who does not not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law...’
One aspect of this is a kind of deadpan kindly noticing and recording, as in a poem on Cooper Union Library:
Men and women with open books before them --
and never turn a page: come
merely for warmth
The poems are also remarkable for the way in which the city is a continuous living and radiant presence for him; nature is always framed by the human machinery of the city, ‘clouds, piled in rows like merchandise’. Streetlamps, subway stations shine in the poems with the pure force of attention, ‘those little islands of existence which Rezi saw with so much love’, as George Oppen put it:
Coming up from the subway stairs, I thought the moon
only another street-light--
a little crooked.
(Jerusalem the Golden, 20)
Walk about the subway station
in a grove of steel pillars;
how their knobs, the rivet-heads--
unlike those of oaks--
are regularly placed;
how barren the ground is
except here and there on the platform
a flat black fungus
that was chewing-gum.
(Jerusalem the Golden, 18)
If he sees the clouds and the lights he also records how ‘the milliners, tacking bright flowers on straw shapes,/say, glancing out of the window,/ It is going to snow.....’ Reznikoff isn’t a soft-hearted urban pastoralist; there’s always someone working, always a keen sense of the life within the city; factory chimneys are his cedars of Lebanon, and livelihoods are often precarious. The early self-published books are full of vignettes of families on the brink of disaster: this is the New York of immigrant pushcart peddlers, garment makers, boarders and broken English. One offers a version of a family story that had large resonance for Reznikoff – the destruction of his grandfather’s poetry. In the poem, after the unnamed business man dies his children find ‘the manuscript so carefully written and rewritten’, scribble on it and tear it up. ‘At night the mother came home and swept it out.’ That vision of an inner life extinguished may well have intensified the poet’s desire to record the life of his city and his people, almost as if that registering and recording might somehow restore the voice of the lost. And it may have been one of the engines behind the sturdy materiality of the poetry, built up layer by layer like a patiently accumulated testimony.
The work is often arranged into groups of poems where the poems are numbered but usually untitled. These groups often have desultory titles as if any overt principle of organisation from detract from the democracy of the discrete poems. Thus 'A Fourth Group of Verse' (1921) or 'A Fifth Group of Verse' (1927). The former consists of forty eight short poems, scenes of city life and, indirectly, autobiography. Many are memories of childhood:
When I was four years old my mother led me to the park.
The spring sunshine was not too warm. The street was almost empty.
The witch in my fairy-book came walking along.
She stooped to fish some mouldy grapes out of the gutter.
(3, ‘Beggar Woman’, CR 29)
Five simple sentences in four lines, the childlike perception and certainty of the final two lines... The deadpan method of presentation allows for a rich build up of detail, or urban detail in particular, so that the method allows the city to enter and inhabit the poems in a way a more figurative approach might have prevented. There’s a joy in these accumulations, a material denseness as the city unfolds itself in the mind:
After dinner, Sunday afternoons, we boys would walk slowly
to the lots between the streets and the marshes;
and seated under the pale blue sky would watch the ball game--
in a noisy, joyous crowd, lemonade men out in the fringe tinkling their bells beside their yellow carts.
As we walked back, the city stretched its rows of houses across the lots--
light after light, as the lamplighter went his way and women lit the gas
in kitchens to make supper.
(‘A Fourth Group of Verse’, 17)
The lemonade men with their yellow carts, the stretching rows of houses, the lamplighter and the women in the kitchens....it’s an evocative tableau, all the more so for the absence of evaluative commentary.
Swiftly the dawn became day. I went into the street.
Loudly and cheerfully the sparrows chirped.
The street-lamps were still lit, the sky pale and brightening.
Hidden in trees and on the roofs,
loudly and cheerfully the sparrows chirped.
The resolute cheerfulness of tone is also a kind of protective mechanism. The childhood world evoked is often grim – poverty, violence, uncertainty:
His parents had lost their money. They sold the house and were to move away.
He went up to his room for the last time.
The trunk of the tree, branches and twigs were still.
He thought, The tree is symmetrical. . . and whatever grows . . .
in shape. . . and in change during the years. So is my life . . .
and all lives.
He went down the stairs singing happily.
His father said, “There’s so much trouble – and he sings.”
( ‘A Fourth Group of Verse’, 22)
Going down the stairs singing happily might be a figure for what the poems do a lot of. He is not too interested in going beyond the contingent, or in dwelling too long in any particular part of the canvas. He moves swiftly through his subjects, notebook in hand, working quickly and with complete conviction that his kind of attention will yield its own rewards.
His city is a perpetual theatre, where anything can happen, and poetry is always within reach:
What are you doing in our street among the automobiles, horse?
How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
a girder, still itself among the rubbish.
(‘Jerusalem the Golden’, 69)
He stops at the point where a lot of poems might think of beginning, and though the poems are worked and economical they are not concerned with their own perfection; he's quite content to scatter his poems and let the best of them survive if they can
Of all that I have written
you say: "How much was poorly said."
The oak has many acorns
that a single oak might live.
(Just Before the Sun Goes Down, 1)
Maybe one of the most attractive aspects of his work is precisely his preparedess to let it be, to let the city come alive in his alert, amused and humane seeing of it. His habit of constant seeing, constant attentiveness produces an unmissable poetry of the city and this book should ensure that a decent grove of it will live.