Poet of Exile
Impossible to communicate anything but particulars—historical and contemporary things, human beings as things, their instrumentalities of capillaries and veins binding up and bound up with events and contingencies.
—Louis Zukofsky, “An Objective” (1930).
When Charles Reznikoff died in January 1976, at the age of eighty-one, he had only recently begun to be generally recognized as an important American poet of the mid-century decades. Until the New Directions selection of his poems in 1962, By the Waters of Manhattan, all of the dozen volumes of verse he had up to then produced had been published privately—some actually set in type by the poet himself—or by the small Objectivist Press, “an organization of writers,” as its jacket blurb, written by Reznikoff, announced, “who are publishing their own work and that of other writers whose work ought to be read.” After the focus of activity in the Objectivist group (to which we shall return) during the 30′s, Reznikoff receded as a visible presence in American poetry, and I would suppose that for the next two decades he figured in most readers’ minds, if at all, as a culturally pious Jewish genre poet, his verse on topics of Jewish history and on biblical or rabbinic motifs appearing in periodicals like the Menorah Journal, the Jewish Frontier (which he edited from 1955), Midstream, and COMMENTARY.
The New Directions selection in 1962 seems to have signaled the re-emergence into the light of critical esteem not only of Reznikoff but of the other Objectivists as well. When, for example, Contemporary Literature, between 1967 and 1970, conducted a series of eight interviews with American poets of stature, half of them turned out to be Objectivists, including, of course, Reznikoff. In a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (October 1, 1976), the poet, Anne Stevenson, actually described Reznikoff as “one of the finest writers of his generation,” on a par with and in certain respects even superior to William Carlos Williams. The first volume of an edition of his complete poetry, handsomely printed and edited with scrupulous care and tact by Seamus Cooney, was published in the year of the poet’s death,1 so Reznikoff’s long inaccessible work is at last available in an attractive and readable format.
The literary enterprise of Charles Reznikoff is an instructive test-case for the whole phenomenon of American Jewish writing because no one has gone farther than he in the explicit effort to be both a conscious Jewish writer and an emphatically American one. His parents were immigrants from Russia who worked in the garment industry; he grew up in Brooklyn and more briefly on the East Side with the usual passive knowledge of Yiddish and no instruction in Hebrew—he would first acquire the elements of that language only when he was in his thirties. After completing a law degree, he began working at a series of odd jobs, for a while in business, then, steadily, in literature, as a researcher, editor, translator, freelance writer. He moved through the Greenwich Village literary bohemia of the 20′s, sat, sometimes sympathetically, on the sidelines of the radicalism of the 30′s, but was also a member of the Menorah Journal circle in its heyday during these years, was preoccupied with Jewish themes—at first chiefly in his verse plays rather than in his poems—from his early twenties, and finally was bound to Jewish institutional life through his Labor Zionist commitments, his marriage to the Zionist writer Marie Syrkin, his undertaking of projects of historical research and historical fiction for the Jewish Publication Society, his acute concern for the collective fate of the Jews after 1933.
Apart from a sojourn in Hollywood at the beginning of the 40′s, Reznikoff remained a lifelong New Yorker, and New York, the Jews, and America are the three matrices of his poetry, both early and late. When he identified his writing in a note for a 1970 London anthology, Contemporary Poets, these are the terms he chose: “‘Objectivist,’ images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse; words pithy and plain; without the artifice of regular meters; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban.” The relationship among these three chief themes deserves some reflection, and, still more crucial for an assessment of Reznikoff is the question of how the Objectivist method, here succinctly described, lends itself to an imaginative engagement in these three realms of experience.
The Objectivists, as wavering and elusive as their collective character may have been, were the closest thing to a modernist movement in poetry that America produced—especially if one considers that the other obvious candidate, Imagism, was, after all, an Anglo-American, partly trans-Atlantic, phenomenon. Pound and the Imagists were the chief inspiration of the Objectivists, but in contrast to the Imagist world of visual surfaces, “the mind,” as William Carlos Williams later put it, “rather than the unsupported eye entered the picture.”2 The five poets most frequently identified with the group are Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Reznikoff, and William Carlos Williams. All but Williams were Jews, and all but Williams and Reznikoff were Communists, but neither Marxism nor Jewishness had any impress on their aesthetic ideology. Zukofsky seems to have been the organizer and promoter, and behind him, Pound, from abroad, the tutelary spirit. It was Pound who persuaded Harriet Monroe to devote a special issue of Poetry in 1931 to the Objectivists, with Zukofsky as guest-editor, and three years later Pound was listed, with Williams and Zukofsky, on the Advisory Board of the newly launched Objectivist Press. (There is, of course, an irony in Pound’s involvement with all these offshoots of the Jewish immigrant milieu, but it would appear that Pound was, in diametric contrast to Eliot, an ideological anti-Semite but not a social one. In 1948, Zukofsky vehemently defended him, claiming that Pound had never exhibited the slightest personal anti-Jewish sentiments, and that his ideological aberrations would in time prove to be only an odd footnote to his great contribution to poetry.)
The term “Objectivist” was apparently invented by Zukofsky, without consultation with the others, for the purposes of the special issue of Poetry, borrowing from the Sixth Movement (1930) of his lifelong, Canto-like poem, “A”: “An objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,/An objective—nature as creator—desire for what is objectively perfect.” The meanings rippling out from the word were abundant enough for everyone to find something on which to float his own poetic aspirations. In addition to the two notions suggested in these lines, of the poem as a polished focusing lens and the poem as a rigorous reenactment of the objective world, there is at least one further meaning attached to the term by the poets, the idea of the poem as a constructed thing: “[Objectivism] recognizes the poem, apart from its meaning, to be an object to be dealt with as such” (Williams). Zukofsky did not help to clarify matters much in the manifesto he appended to the February 1931 issue of Poetry, compounded as it was of ellipses, private references, and other strategies of aggressive bewilderment. (“I confess,” Reznikoff said in his 1968 interview, “that I could not follow all that Zukofsky had to say about ‘objectification,’ or, for that matter, ‘sincerity’”—though it was Reznikoff’s poetry that served as the principal exhibit of the Zukofsky essay!) These arts of bewilderment are precisely the recurrent characteristics of Zukofsky’s heavily allusive, syntactically sliding, punning, self-reflexive poetry, so that for a clear practical demonstration of the Objectivist program, one must look elsewhere—most particularly, I think, to the shorter poems of Reznikoff and Williams.
A few illustrations will be helpful. Here is one poem from a group of seven called “After Rain,” which appears in Jerusalem the Golden (1934), in many ways Reznikoff’s strongest single volume:
The morning light
is dim and blue—
the silent light
but now begins
the slight yet multitudinous
noise of rain.
The debt to Imagism is clear in the careful visual definition of the poem and in its compact, beautifully crafted simplicity. The Objectivist reach beyond Imagist limits is marked by the strategic little explosion of “multitudinous”—a word that in its polysyllabic Latinity breaks the sequence of iambic music, tumbles the discourse from sight into sound with a nice onomatopoeic effect, and, above all, by the slight surprise of its application as a modifier of “noise,” intimates a configuration of the perceiving mind, perhaps an incipient personification, in what might otherwise seem a pure representation of sensory experience.
Occasionally, Reznikoff’s short poems do seem entirely Imagist, haiku-like pieces of two or three lines that achieve painterly effects, stress primary colors, showing a fondness for fog scenes and moments of transition from sun to rain or rain to sun. More typically, however, the presence of the reflective observer is felt in the details chosen and in the way they are rendered, and is sometimes made explicit with a first-person pronoun. The process in which personal revelation quietly unfolds from scenic details is particularly evident in the last four lines of the following poem, also from Jerusalem the Golden:
The river is like a lake this morning
for quiet—image of houses and green bank.
A barge is lying at a dock;
nothing moves but the crane
emptying the cargo.
The dark green hill,
the sunset, staining the river—
quiet as a lake;
the tree beside me
covered with white blossoms
that cover but cannot hide
the black gnarled branches.
One is reminded here, as in so many of Reznikoff’s poems, of William Carlos Williams’s evocations of a paysage moralisé from the finely attentive rendering of visual detail. (In many of the instances where there are close parallels, the Reznikoff poem is the earlier one, but in any case there is little evidence that one poet actually influenced the other.) Let me cite just one analogous poem by Williams to illustrate the affinities between the two. A brief piece from the group, “The Descent of Winter,” it also focuses on branches in seasonal transition, defined by a special quality of atmosphere, in order to intimate a personal apprehension of existence:
in this strong light
the leafless beechtree
shines like a cloud
it seems to glow
with a soft stript light
over the brittle
But there are
on second look
a few yellow leaves
just one here one there
Reznikoff, I suspect, would have chosen to write the second stanza without the line, “of love,” preferring more frequently than Williams to convey such attitudes not by naming them but through the rendering of objective details—like those three consecutive stresses which communicate the ugly insistent presence of “black gnarled branches” beneath the white blossoms. In any case, the similarity in general poetic strategy is apparent, a similarity that extends (though not in this particular poem by Williams) to the creation of a wholly unironic urban pastoral mode. In this Reznikoff poem, the crane and barge are perfectly harmonized with the quiet river and green hill. Elsewhere, shining pavements, motor cars, even sewers emptying into glistening rivers and rats creeping through heaps of cans, are integrated with white gulls floating on blue water, the gloom of woods, and other idyllic elements deployed in painterly compositions. In some of these pastoral pieces, the poet taking spiritual stock of his experience enters into the foreground of the perceived scene, but even in these cases the subtle power of delicate intimation is not lost. Here, for example, is a five-line poem from Inscriptions: 1944-1956 (1959):
Put it down in your ledger
among the profits of this day:
the dark uncertain path of the wind
on the bright water;
snow on the yellow branches of the sycamore.
The last three lines alone might be an Imagist poem. It is the ruminative presence in the first two lines that makes the whole an Objectivist piece in a characteristic Reznikoff inflection.
These scrupulously fashioned short poems in the Objectivist manner reveal Reznikoff in the fullest command of his art. The more striking of them—and there are many which could be called that—seem to me quite as fine as anything of the sort that Williams wrote. To these one must add his brief narrative vignettes, mostly of urban and proletarian lives, in which the Objectivist procedures of restraint, seeming impassivity, and precise specification are transferred from nature to the sphere of human actions, with a resultant flatness at times, but also at times with stark effectiveness.
But if these various Objectivist poems mark the height of Reznikoff’s achievement, what of his persistent effort to be a Jewish poet? Here some observations are in order about the relation of Objectivist poetry to time, and on Reznikoff’s own involvement with the idea of the past. The characteristically Objectivist poem is tightly locked into the moment of experience that it enacts—almost to the same extent as the painted canvases it frequently invokes lexically and by analogies of composition. The Objectivist concentration on the present moment is of course not an isolated instance in the poetry of our century. We should hardly be surprised that some of the most representative projects of modernist verse reflect a breakdown of tradition and the loss of a sense of collective experience, or that the return to tradition after the Imagist experiment of poets like Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky should often prove to be a self-conscious scissors-and-paste operation of learned citation and pastiche rather than. an organic continuation of the tradition. Most of Reznikoff’s Objectivist poems are suffused with presentness, and at times he takes positive comfort in that fact, as in this piece from “Autobiography: Hollywood” (in Going To and Fro Walking Up and Down, 1941):
I like this secret walking
in the fog;
among the bushes
thick with drops;
the solid path invisible
a rod away—
and only the narrow present is alive.
More than a decade later, in Inscriptions, he provides a gloss on this idea in a four-line aphorism which suggests that the only certain identity, the only ontological security he can hope to enjoy, is in the present time and place, the blessed realm of the known and the determinate:
The dogs that walk with me are Now and Here
and a third dog I do not trust at all,
for he would lead me far into the past
and there I’d lose myself: his name is If.
Reznikoff’s imagination operated on the present moment—which like other modern writers he often felt as a kind of haven in the flux of time—with exquisite poise. What is remarkable is that he nevertheless was preoccupied with the past, felt driven as a Jew to make raid after raid upon it along varying avenues of attack—without, however, any imposing success in conquering it for his imaginative purposes. The same volume in which “I like this secret walking” appears, begins with a sequence of poems entitled “A Short History of Israel: Notes and Glosses.” The first long segment of this sequence evinces many of the characteristic faults of Reznikoff’s self-consciously Jewish writing. In this historical panorama, Objectivist restraint gives way to “epic” catalogues in which damask, furs, and spice, olive trees, fig trees, and vineyards, figure with a heavy abundance and obviousness. Though such materials are deployed with a craftsman’s sense of dramatic appropriateness, there is something inert about the poem as a whole. The chief problem is that this is not the past imaginatively recovered but a series of frozen formulas traditionally associated with the past, the past abstracted into its most familiar literary mediations. And the conception of the Jews themselves is distinctly apologetic—this was, we should keep in mind, 1941—expressed in the anaphoric oratorical rhetoric that apologetics invites: “Among men who gorge and swill/ and sleep in their vomit,/ be temperate and clean; among men who lust and whore/ be true;/ among men in armor/ be men of peace;/ . . . among men who torture/ be Jews.”
On occasion, Reznikoff exhibits an acute consciousness of having embarked on a radically contradictory enterprise: to “objectify” in poetry the impelling spirit of a body of historical experience from which he himself, standing on the other side of the chasm of modernity, is alienated. In the concluding poem of “A Short History of Israel,” he muses over the very different sense of existence from his own that his grandfathers possessed, living out each act of their lives within a finely-meshed frame of law, in the sight of God: “their past was still the present and the present/ a dread future’s./ But I am private as an animal.” What introduces a split in Reznikoff’s work between a personal poetry of perfect authenticity and a public voice that does not always carry conviction is his repeated uneasiness with being “private as an animal.” The need to break out of that privacy into a large historical realm of collective experience moved him to anomalous poetic strategies, at times seemed to encourage the expression of a second self cruder in sensibility, less resistant to the temptations of the obvious gesture.
The end of the poem just cited offers a minor but symptomatic instance of this mechanism. After defining his own private, present-bound condition over against his ancestors’ existence as part of a historical continuum, the speaker goes on to resolve, “I will fast for you, Judah,/ and be silent for you/ and wake in the night for you. . . .” I am not, of course, questioning the sincerity of the resolution: it is an understandable and indeed admirable resolution for any Jewish writer to be making in that first year of mass killings as the Einsatzgruppen swept eastward. The problem is rather with the imaginative realization of the resolution, which is no more than a rehearsal of ritual gestures, literal and stylistic, a piece of willed piety, the intervention of a kind of poetic superego rather than the expression of an integrated poetic self.
As early as 1921, Reznikoff was engaged with the passion of an autodidact in discovering the Jewish past, and the American past as well, and, with true autodidact intentness, was already trying to make a reckoning with the past, invoking its testimony—a favorite title-word for him—in his writing. His verse plays (collected in Nine Plays, 1927) are all based on historical themes, and their subjects constitute a ranging survey of the possibilities of Jewish history and, more fragmentarily, of American history, with dramatic studies of Abraham, Herod, Rashi, Uriel Acosta, Lewis and Clark, Nat Turner, John Brown.
The dramatic genre was clearly not congenial to Reznikoff. These plays, which are sequences of short scenes with little dramatic tension, are not really workable as theater, and the vaguely heightened, unprepossessing verse in which they are cast does not make them viable as poems. The young Reznikoff, already a highly accomplished poet in his pieces based on personal perception, was artistically thwarted by the historical subjects he sought so ardently to embrace. At its worst, as in the play, “Genesis,” this poetry is little more than a versified rewording of the sources or a regrettable embellishment of them. When, for example, the annunciating angel tells the childless Abram, “Your spark/ Will light a fire that shall burn/ Through every nation,/ And its sparks shall be seeds of fire,” the weight and dignity of the actual biblical promise are dissipated by this translation into conventional Romantic imagery, and the verse itself, as elsewhere in Reznikoff’s treatment of historical topics, swells to the pomp and ceremony of the text for a cantata. If the Objectivist poet, in Hugh Kenner’s fine phrase, “is the geometer of minima,” it was Reznikoff’s quandary that he was also impelled as a Jewish poet to be a chronometer of millennia, and for that difficult role he struggled to find an appropriate poetic idiom.
The complementary opposite of this effort to work up an exalted poetic vision of the past was a technique of textually incorporating the past with the most limited intervention of the poet. Beginning in the 20′s, Reznikoff repeatedly experimented with assembling collages from the sources, using mainly the Authorized Version of the Bible and, occasionally, the available English translations of the Mishnah and Talmud. It is technically interesting to see how he constructs a readable narrative poem by stringing together a careful selection of biblical verses, only occasionally modified, and laid out on the page as free verse, but his retelling in this fashion of Genesis and Exodus, the David story, the life and prophecies of Jeremiah, is less an imaginative achievement than the affirmation of a need to lay claim to the past, to take possession of it in his writing through the simple act of rehearsing it as English verse. His two collages of rabbinic texts, “Palestine Under the Romans” (1936) and the longer “Jews in Babylonia” (1969), are more like original poems because, instead of being anthologies of verses reproducing a familiar story-line, they are collocations of disparate legal and legendary phrases whose concrete language, reassembled in perpetually surprising combinations of fragments, becomes a bold imagery that evokes a whole ancient milieu.
Such felicitous moments of responsiveness to antecedents are rare, however. Reznikoff was fascinated and bedeviled by the past, and he often seemed uncertain as to whether he should be exorcising it, integrating it into his vision, celebrating it, or perhaps perpetuating it for future readers as a kind of curse. The first half of his autobiographical novel, By the Waters of Manhattan (1930), is an account of his mother’s girlhood in Russia and her early years in America, apparently more or less dictated to him by her, and thus conveyed in a flat, almost affectless prose. The whole section is neither inherently novelistic nor instructively relevant to the account of the dreamy, poetically inclined young man who is the protagonist of this particular novel, but it would seem that Reznikoff could not conceive of telling his own story without including an elaborate report of origins. Later, as though still pondering what might be made out of these origins, he reproduced the entire first half of the novel as the first of three sections in Family Chronicle (1963), only transposing the narrative from third to first person in order to make it an integral unit in the tale of his parents’ movement from shtetl poverty to the sweatshop, boom and bust of the New York needle trade.
In the final decade of his life, Reznikoff returned twice, and at greater length than ever before, to the strategy of textually incorporating the past as verse, first in the two volumes, Testimony: The United States 1885-1890: Recitative (1965) and Testimony . . . 1891-1900 (1968), and then in his last book, Holocaust (1975).3 Both poems—at this point one hesitates a little about using that word—are versifications of documents, in the case of Testimony, legal and newspaper accounts of the period, in the case of Holocaust, the records of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. There is no commentary, no framing or transition devices, no embellishment, only a bearing witness by laying out the language of the documents, with unobtrusive changes, in the typographical and rhythmic emphases of free verse. From one point of view, this is the ultimate Objectivist treatment of the past, perfectly conforming to the definition Reznikoff proposed in his 1968 interview: “By the term ‘objectivist’ I suppose a writer may be meant who does 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; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject-matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music.” The problem is that while this technique can yield a chaste precision and suggestiveness when focused on the immediate data of the writer’s own experience, its application to historical documents may lead to a kind of helplessness in the face of the raw data of history. When, moreover, on the large scale of these two long poems, the poet is choosing not a gull or a river-rat or a passing cloud to bear witness but a series of publicly recorded incidents, his bias of selection may betray him in more senses than one. These are disturbing poems, less for what they reveal about American history and the program of genocide, which is all too well known, than for what they reveal about the state of the poet’s mind.
Testimony is an assemblage of narrative vignettes that almost invariably repeat the same pattern: an anecdotal situation is swiftly defined, then in the last two or three lines, the poem mechanically snaps shut with the same hard bite of disaster on some sort of killing, mutilation, ghastly accident, or brutal deception. One hardly wants to contest the presence of virulent strains of violence in American culture, or argue the fact that workers in the expanding phase of the Industrial Revolution were subject to terribly harsh and dangerous conditions. In Testimony, however, the selection of material and the technique of terse deadpan presentation allow nothing but bleak calamity to exist in late 19th-century America. This is not, I think, the reflection of any 60′s radical view of America but of a mind that had brooded much on American history and had finally come to be obsessed with its destructiveness, mesmerized by images of maiming and killing.
Holocaust bears exactly the same relation to recent Jewish history, where the obsession has a justification of epic scale. I suppose Reznikoff had some conscious notion, in selecting and versifying these documents, of providing “testimony” of the Nazi horrors for future generations, for readers he imagines to be so removed from the subject that he feels obliged to explain in a note what S.S. means, or that Jude is German for Jew. These very documents have been widely disseminated in print, anthologized, included in college textbooks, repeatedly discussed, and it is hard to see what is gained by setting them in verse. The poem is one long, unrelieved catalogue of unspeakable torture, degradation, and murder. (One might usefully compare it with Reznikoff’s historical novel, The Lionhearted, 1944, which recounts in grisly detail the slaughter of English Jewry at the time of the Third Crusade. There the writer tries to set against his piling-on of horrors a final ringing Jewish affirmation, using the hortatory rhetoric we have observed elsewhere. But as if in the end sensing that such flourishes were no way of coming to terms with a calamitous history, he finally turned to the grimly uncompromising approach of Holocaust.) Symptomatically, even a section at the end of the book entitled “Escapes” proves to be mainly about failed escapes, still another series of horrible deaths in infinite variations of cruelty.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the Holocaust was any less ghastly than Reznikoff’s version of it, only that there is finally a numbing pointlessness in the constant repetition of savagery and murder without the slightest interpretative response on the part of the poet, without the slightest intimation of historical options beyond or after genocide. One is ultimately led to suspect that this is an extended exercise in masochism conducted under the cover of an act of testimony. History, it would seem, had become a hypnotic vision of unrestrained murderous impulse for the poet: the ultimate breakdown of his whole problematic relation to the past is starkly evident in the flattened landscapes of disaster that take the place of round imagined worlds in these two long poems of his old age.
In all these respects, then, the past proved to be a trap for Reznikoff, but, in fairness, one must also say that there are numerous brief moments in his poetry when the involvement with Jewish antecedents introduces a background of imaginative depth to the enclosed composition of the Objectivist poem. If his affirmations of Jewish allegiance sometimes have a hollow public ring, one hears an authentic resonance in his confessions of personal estrangement from the tradition he would have liked to continue. He is supremely a poet of exile because he frequently senses in his own loving attachment to his chosen medium, the American language, an irreversible abandonment of his Hebrew forebears. The idea of Hebrew, a powerful nostalgia for Hebrew, haunts his poetry (of Yiddish, virtually his native language, no mention is made). A 1927 poem summarizes this feeling:
How difficult for me is Hebrew:
even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
is foreign. How far have I been exiled, Zion.
And in the same vein, the poem he set at the head of Jerusalem the Golden begins, “The Hebrew of your poets, Zion,/ is like oil upon a burn,/ cool as oil,” and concludes with this wry commentary on himself as an English poet: “Like Solomon,/ I have married and married the speech of strangers;/ none are like you, Shulamite.” Reznikoff was imaginatively at home in American culture, enthusiastically devoted to it, at the center in his generation of poetic experiment in this country. Yet there was a residue of consciousness which did not allow him to sit altogether comfortably in the American scene, and this may well be his most deeply Jewish characteristic.
If Jewishness for Reznikoff is before all else a consciousness of loss, it is also on occasion an imaginative resource, and that is especially evident in the interplay between biblical allusions and personal experience in his poetry. Even in confessing his estrangement from Hebrew origins, he metaphorically invokes, as we have just seen, Solomon and the Song of Songs, shuttling between biblical texts to express his own condition with an almost midrashic deftness. Some of his poems on explicit biblical subjects are not mosaics of verses but vigorous new versions of biblical figures, meaningfully linked with the modern condition out of which the poet writes. A line from a striking early poem of this sort, “Samuel,” says a good deal about Reznikoff: “I think in psalms, my mind a psalter.” If the Objectivist ideal was to introduce the mind of the poet into the visual scene, this poet’s mind was often teeming with remembered biblical images and phrases, which could become apertures in the present time and place looking out on large temporal and cultural perspectives. In one poem a rainstorm merges with Noah’s deluge; elsewhere a lovely summer moon recalls the ancient Israelite idolatry of the moon-goddess and Jeremiah’s stern warnings; or again, still more erotically, the naked moon transforms the speaker in another poem into a David gazing at Bathsheba bathing. At some of its high points Reznikoff’s verse focuses its meanings through the kind of imaginative intimacy with the Bible that has been rare in English since the great Protestant poets of the 17th century like Henry Vaughan, the Milton of the sonnets, and above all George Herbert. Thus, in an Objectivist rendering of a budding tree, from Jerusalem the Golden, the poet’s mind is in fact a psalter, crystallizing his perception of the present through a musing upon Psalm 90:
This tree in the twilit street—
the pods hang from its bare symmetrical branches
but if, like God, a century were to us
the twinkling of an eye,
we should see the frenzy of growth.
Ultimately, the sense of exclusion from the continuity of Jewish history of which Reznikoff wrote so plangently was not absolute: if you can talk about being in exile with such feeling, that may mean that at least some small part of you belongs, after all, to a realm of rootedness against which the condition of exile is defined. Reznikoff was not an observant Jew and not in any strict sense a religious poet, but the theological perspectives and the ethical values of the tradition he so esteemed do exert pressure at many points in his work, and there are moments when the poet seems to have genuinely assimilated traditional values consonant with his own instead of just ritually affirming them. The still, small reflective voice, hushed with humility, of some of the Psalms and of certain texts from the liturgy, was probably closest to his own, and on occasion he could use it to speak poignantly, as in his cycle, “Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays,” and some of the related poems that appear with it in Inscriptions. A poem entitled “Epilogue” from his last collection of short verse, By the Well of Living and Seeing (1969), is a perfect expression of this voice, an apt illustration of Reznikoff speaking as a Jewish poet not in the forensic sweep of a historical gesture but in his fundamental feeling for existence. The poem distills a personal meaning from Ecclesiastes 11:7 (“And the light is sweet, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun”); from the traditional birkhot ha-nehenin, the formulas by which a Jew daily blesses what he enjoys in this world; and perhaps also from the Psalmist’s sense of human transience. For a moment, the gap closed between his own English and that remembered Hebrew cool as oil on a burn, and with a language wholly his own but also the tradition’s, he could sum up his sense of life:
in the light of the sun and at the sight of the
and in all the delights of the senses and the mind;
in my eyesight, blurred as it is,
and my knowledge, slight though it is,
and my life, brief though it was.
1 Poems 1918-1936, edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow Press, paperback, 222 pp., $4.00. A second volume is scheduled for publication soon.
2 Williams's article, “Objectivism,” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger, 1965.
3 Black Sparrow Press, 111 pp., paperback, $4.00.