Commentary Magazine

The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 edited by Seamus Cooney

<p><em>The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975</em><br />
edited by Seamus Cooney<br />
<em>Black Sparrow. 400 pp. $45.00 (hardcover), $21.95 (paperback)</em></p>
<p>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&#39;s or early 50&#39;s, he wrote:</p>
<p>I have neither the time nor the<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;weaving skill, perhaps,<br />
for the intricate medallions the<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;Persians know;<br />
my rugs are the barbaric fire-<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;worshipper&#39;s:<br />
how blue the waters flow,<br />
how red the fiery sun,<br />
how brilliant a green the grass is,<br />
how blinding white the snow.</p>
<p>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 &ldquo;medallion&rdquo; is odd; but &ldquo;barbaric,&rdquo; though consistent with &ldquo;fire-worshipper,&rdquo; is precisely what this poem is not. On the contrary, it is as well-behaved as a quiet schoolchild.</p>
<p>For those, like myself, whose appreciation of Reznikoff is limited, lines like these help to explain why. It is not just that their &ldquo;barbarism&rdquo; remains an empty pledge. (When Walt Whitman, the first major English-language poet to break with metrical verse, promised his readers a &ldquo;barbaric yawp,&rdquo; 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 &ldquo;blue,&rdquo; a sun that is &ldquo;fiery red,&rdquo; grass that is &ldquo;brilliant green,&rdquo; snow that is &ldquo;blinding white&rdquo;: nowhere is there a single fresh or individuated perception to make us feel that the poet has carefully looked at any of these things.</p>
<p>This may be because Reznikoff was in fact not a very close observer of the ordinary realities he wished to celebrate. But in addition, his very determination to appear natural at all costs was constricting. He and his fellow &ldquo;Objectivists,&rdquo; to use the name given in the 1920&#39;s to a group of American poets that included William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, wanted their poetry to be a camera, so to speak, that photographed the world as it was. In this they were a part of the great modernist rebellion against the mannerism of much late-19th-century aesthetics. Bauhaus architecture, atonal music, severely geometrical abstract painting&mdash;all sought in their different ways to do away with frills and enhancements by creating art out of only the most basic forms and materials.</p>
<p>Yet in poetry, as elsewhere, to make a fetish of naturalness can lead to a renunciation of art itself. Although it may be more &ldquo;natural&rdquo; to speak of a &ldquo;fiery red sun&rdquo; than of a &ldquo;torrent salmon sun,&rdquo; as Dylan Thomas does in one of his poems (who on earth would ever &ldquo;naturally&rdquo; call anything &ldquo;torrent salmon&rdquo;?), the latter phrase affects us as the former does not, evoking a sun never seen by us before and linking it metaphorically with the fish in the sea and the flow of the tide, together with which it is racing tumultuously toward the day&#39;s end. For a poet to avoid all metaphor on principle, as the Objectivists tried to do, because metaphor takes its eye off the object of description onto something hidden from sight, is like a traveler avoiding all suitcases because they contain clothing that cannot be seen. To travel so light is encumbering.</p>
<p>At their most &ldquo;natural,&rdquo; Reznikoff&#39;s poems cease being poetry entirely. Consider this street scene in New York, the city in which he lived nearly his entire life:</p>
<p>The face of the old woman<br />
sitting alone on a park bench<br />
is suddenly flushed<br />
and she begins to curse and<br />
<p>I can understand the horns of<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;the automobiles<br />
screaming at each other<br />
as they stream out of the park<br />
into the crowded street:<br />
but, sitting alone on a park<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;bench,<br />
at whom is she screaming?</p>
<p>As a vignette of urban alienation, in which cars that &ldquo;scream&rdquo; independently of their drivers communicate better than does a crazed, lonely woman, this is nicely recorded. But it would make no difference if it appeared as prose. The reason is that the element of rhythm, which despite the lack of meter is to be found in &ldquo;I have neither the time nor the weaving skills,&rdquo; is entirely missing here. And while a poem can exist without metaphor, meter, rhyme, alliteration, or wordplay, all of which have served as primary or secondary principles of organization in some traditions of poetry and not in others, it cannot exist without rhythm. That is the point at which it collapses into prose.</p>
<p>There is nothing arbitrary about such an assertion. It is simply to point out that poetry, all over the world, originated in song, which is an intrinsically rhythmic activity. (In some languages, such as Hebrew, the word for &ldquo;poem&rdquo; and &ldquo;song&rdquo; is the same to this day.) All human activity&mdash;vocal, motoric, sexual&mdash;becomes increasingly rhythmic as it grows more excited, and poetry, even after being separated from its musical roots, remains language intensified to a higher pitch of excitement than that of ordinary speech or writing. No rhythm, no excitement; no excitement, no poetry.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>Which is not to say that Reznikoff cannot sometimes be very good. Here is one time that he is:</p>
<p>Put it down in your ledger<br />
among the profits of this day:<br />
the dark uncertain path of the<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;wind<br />
on the bright water;<br />
snow on the yellow branches of<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;the sycamore.</p>
<p>Why is this real poetry? Well, in the first place, it is rhythmic; in fact, in places it scans almost metrically, with its two quick opening, anapestic lines that slow down gravely with the three consecutive stressed syllables of &ldquo;dark uncertain.&rdquo; (It is the anapests that ingeniously force us to stress the &ldquo;un-&rdquo; of &ldquo;uncertain,&rdquo; which we would not do in ordinary speech.)</p>
<p>Second, Reznikoff&#39;s Objectivist principles notwithstanding, it has a metaphor that packs it with meaning: the poet compares himself to a bookkeeper who counts not money but rather profoundly experienced moments as the measure of a day&#39;s worth, thus telling us implicitly of his belief that such moments are the real purpose of living. Third, there is the unexpected deflection of color in the last line: prepared for the whiteness of the snow, we get instead the yellow of sycamore&mdash;a delicate touch not only because white on yellow is an unusual combination, but because, whereas we all remember the color of snow, we do not all remember the color of sycamore bark.</p>
<p>And lastly, coming back to it again, &ldquo;the dark uncertain path of the wind/on the bright water&rdquo; is quite marvelous: those three straight stresses&mdash;amid which the dark, doubting &ldquo;un-&rdquo; of &ldquo;uncertain,&rdquo; standing at the poem&#39;s exact midpoint, bears its weight like a fulcrum&mdash;make us actually feel the erratic wind as it gusts now this way, now that. We may even be forgiven for thinking that it is the poet&#39;s subtle metaphor for life itself.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>In a word, Reznikoff is at his best when, while keeping his quiet, understated tone, he disobeys his own rigorously ascetic rules. Now and then he even naughtily permits himself to indulge in a forbidden rhyme. Here is a fine little love poem that ends with one:</p>
<p>You tell me that you write only a<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;little now.<br />
I wrote this a year or two ago<br />
about a girl whose stories I had<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;read and wished to meet:<br />
<em>The traveler<br />
whom a bird&#39;s notes surprise<br />
&mdash;his eyes<br />
search the trees</em>.<br />
And when I met her she was plain enough.<br />
So is the nightingale, they say&mdash;<br />
and I am glad that you do not<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;belong<br />
to those whose beauty is all song.</p>
<p>Often his strongest poems have a haiku-like quality, which is not surprising when one considers the influence on the Objectivists, via Pound and the Imagists, of Chinese and Japanese verse. One goes:</p>
<p>You must not suppose<br />
that all who live on Fifth Avenue<br />
are happy: I have heard the gulls<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;screaming<br />
from the reservoir in Central Park.</p>
<p>(Does the speaker himself live on Fifth Avenue, overlooking the park? Would he, too, like to scream like a gull?)</p>
<p>Others, actually haiku-like in form, have a mordant wit:</p>
<p>Horsefly,<br />
on the window of the automobile<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;agency:<br />
you&#39;re out of business now.</p>
<p>Splat! Or:</p>
<p>Permit me to warn you<br />
against this automobile rushing<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;to embrace you<br />
with outstretched fender.</p>
<p>I like that. It is actually less Japanese than Roman in tone, almost like an epigram by Martial. And so much politer than shouting, &ldquo;Watch out for that car!&rdquo;</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>Reznikoff has the reputation of being the most &ldquo;Jewish&rdquo; of prominent American Jewish poets (as a prose writer, which he was too, he stands out less in this respect), and the amount of verse that he devoted to expressly Jewish subject matter is indeed large. The son of immigrant parents from Russia, he wrote several long autobiographical sequences dealing with his New York Jewish childhood and adolescence. And as the husband of the Zionist writer and activist Marie Syrkin, his Jewishness, which otherwise might not have concerned him as much, was something he kept coming back to.</p>
<p>And yet, as Robert Alter remarked in a 1977 essay on Reznikoff,
<sup><a name="1" href="#1.1">1</a></sup> when it came to &ldquo;conquering [this concern] for his own imaginative purposes,&rdquo; he did not enjoy &ldquo;any imposing success.&rdquo; This is putting it rather charitably, for Reznikoff&#39;s &ldquo;Jewish&rdquo; poetry is on the whole distinctly second-rate. No doubt there was something inherently incongruous about a poet whose forte was shutter-quick snapshots trying to tackle the grand themes of Jewish history and identity. The main solution he came up with for dealing with this problem was a curious one, but, though it is possible to grasp its logic, it cannot be said to have worked very well.</p>
<p>Essentially, this solution was to take Jewish texts&mdash;the Bible, the Midrash, the prayer book, the Haggadah&mdash;and retell or paraphrase them in Reznikoff&#39;s own poetic style. Thus, for example, a long poem entitled &ldquo;A Short History of Israel&rdquo; begins with a reference to Abraham, segues to Jacob, and then to Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt:</p>
<p>The prince who once left an<br /> 
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;ancient city<br />
for the sands in which there were<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;only snakes and lizards,<br />
the vulture and the owl&mdash;wilder<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;ness that led to wilderness&mdash;<br />
has become this stranger,<br />
whose pillow is a stone,<br />
who leads a flock from well to<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;well,<br />
no faster than the lambs can walk,<br />
afraid<br />
of those whose water and whose<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;land it is;</p>
<p>. . .<br /><br />
the servant who once served a<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;master well&mdash;<br />
Potiphar and Pharaoh&mdash;has<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;become a tribesman with<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;matted hair,<br />
this slave, the son of a slave;<br />
a desert fox<br />
become a faithless dog, fawning,<br />
upon the sleek Egyptian for a<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;fish,<br />
afraid,<br />
and snarling at the whip,<br />
that lifts him from his sleep.</p>
<p>This sort of enterprise is pointless. It is one thing to observe a street or a lake, and then, using a kind of poetic shorthand, to sketch it in verse; it is another to versify the book of Genesis as if it were a street or a lake. As Alter puts it, &ldquo;The problem is that while this technique can yield a chaste precision and suggestiveness when focused on the immediate data of the writer&#39;s own experience, its application to [sacred] historical documents may lead to a kind of helplessness.&rdquo; Commenting on sacred texts is an essential Jewish activity; making do with condensing and rephrasing them is to acknowledge that as a commentator one has nothing to say. Why would anyone want to read an Objectivist abridgement of the Bible?</p>
<p>In general, Reznikoff seems to read Jewish history by the light of the tough Lower East Side streets he grew up on. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he reads those streets, in the light of Jewish history, as a story of attacks on Jews and of Jewish efforts, sometimes heroic and sometimes not, to stand up to them. In one of his autobiographical passages (put by me into a prose format from which, I daresay, no reader could guess that it had been printed as poetry or succeed in restoring its original line arrangement), he writes:</p>
<p>I saw him walking along slowly at night, holding a tray of candy and chewing-gum: a Jewish boy of fifteen or sixteen with large black eyes and a gentle face. He sidled into a saloon and must have been ordered away, because he came out promptly through the swinging doors.</p>
<p>I wondered what he was doing far from a Jewish neighborhood. (I knew the side streets and the roughs standing about on the corners and stoops.) What a prize this shambling boy with his tray! I stepped up to warn him against leaving the brightly-lit avenue. He listened, eyed me steadily, and walked on calmly. I looked at him in astonishment and thought: has nothing frightened you? Neither the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, by the Romans, by the Crusaders? No pogrom in Russia; no Nazi death-camp in Germany? How can you still go about so calmly?</p>
<p>It is all one: the biblical Jacob fearful of the local inhabitants, the Israelite slave cringing from the Egyptian, the Jewish victim of the Crusaders, the inmate of the Nazi death camps, the frightened child on the streets of Manhattan. Understandable in a Jewish poet who grew up in an America far more anti-Semitic than it is today, and who reached poetic maturity in the period of the Holocaust, this is nevertheless not a very interesting perspective.</p>
<p>And so one is left in the end with a handful of short poems&mdash;there are perhaps ten or fifteen of them in this collected voulme&mdash;that have come out of the dark room, as it were, to make one exclaim, &ldquo;Yes, it&#39;s perfect! The light is right, the composition is right, the shutter was snapped at just the right moment.&rdquo; This may not sound like much, but in fact it is a great deal. No anthology of American poetry should be without Reznikoff&#39;s &ldquo;Put it down in your ledger&rdquo; or &ldquo;You tell me that you write only a little now.&rdquo; These are poems that will last. How many poets of his or any generation have done as well?</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />


1 “Poet of Exile,” COMMENTARY, February 1977.


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.

Pin It on Pinterest