The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 edited by Seamus Cooney
Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) described his own poetry, which has undergone something of a revival in recent years and is now available in this revised edition of a 1989 volume, as well as did anyone. In a short poem composed in the late 1940’s or early 50’s, he wrote: I have neither the time nor the weaving skill, perhaps, for the intricate medallions the Persians know; my rugs are the barbaric fire- worshipper’s: how blue the waters flow, how red the fiery sun, how brilliant a green the grass is, how blinding white the snow.
This is a fairly typical Reznikoff poem: transparent in meaning, simple in its choice of words, free of metaphor, lacking regular meter, and yet here and there with the ability to surprise. To call a Persian carpet a “medallion” is odd; but “barbaric,” though consistent with “fire-worshipper,” is precisely what this poem is not. On the contrary, it is as well-behaved as a quiet schoolchild. For those, like myself, whose appreciation of Reznikoff is limited, lines like these help to explain why. It is not just that their “barbarism” remains an empty pledge. (When Walt Whitman, the first major English-language poet to break with metrical verse, promised his readers a “barbaric yawp,” he yawped.) It is that, although they speak of embracing immediacy and stating simple things keenly felt and observed as opposed to the artificial and contrived, they have not a keen but rather a dull edge. Water that is merely “blue,” a sun that is “fiery red,” grass that is “brilliant green,” snow that is “blinding white”: nowhere is there a single fresh or individuated perception to make us feel that the poet has carefully looked at any of these things.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.