Poet at the Automat

Eliot Weinberger writes about Charles Reznikoff

Charles Reznikoff may be the most elusive poet in American poetry and his book-length Testimony the most elusive long poem of modernism. He is remembered as a kind of New York saint, an urban Emily Dickinson: the unknown poet, walking the city streets, writing intense, seemingly matter-of-fact lyrics about things he saw and heard. And then, in the last decades of his life, devoting himself to two obsessional projects: the more than five hundred pages of Testimony, drawn from turn-of-the-century American court cases, and the hundred pages of Holocaust, taken from the transcripts of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. Certainly the outlines of both the poet’s life and the poems’ processes are plain enough, but the rest tends to be filled in with negatives: all the things the poet didn’t do and all the things the poems aren’t.

Reznikoff, born in New York in 1894, graduated from NYU law school in 1916 and passed the bar exam, but only briefly practised, preferring to become a salesman for his father’s hat business. (He said much later that law was too much work for a poet, whereas he could write his poems in the hours spent waiting in Macy’s for the buyer to show up.) After that business collapsed, he held random jobs throughout his life: writer of entries for a legal encyclopedia, Corpus Juris; managing editor of the Jewish Frontier; editor of the papers of the lawyer and civil rights activist Louis Marshall; co-author of a history of the Jews of Charleston and an unfinished history of the Jews of Cleveland. His one extended stay outside New York City – he never left the US – was the three years he spent in the 1930s in Hollywood as an assistant to his old friend, the producer Albert Lewin. Given a huge office at Paramount Pictures, he had little to do and wrote poems about watching the flies on his desk.

In the late 1920s he met two younger poets, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. The three, all Jewish New Yorkers, shared an admiration for Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and a belief, along with Williams, that American modernism should be relocated from Paris and London to the US. Asked to edit an issue of Poetry in 1931, Zukofsky put them together, along with Williams, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting, Kenneth Rexroth and a stylistically random collection of others (including the young Whittaker Chambers), under the rubric of ‘Objectivists’. His manifesto in the issue was called ‘Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff’. (Typical of Reznikoff’s fate and Zukofsky’s personality, when the essay was reprinted decades later, Zukofsky omitted Reznikoff entirely.) In 1934, the three poets pooled their resources to create the Objectivist Press in order to publish themselves and Williams. The press didn’t last long, but the label stuck, although the poetry of the three had little in common. Reznikoff may have been the only one to take the name seriously. Nearly forty years later, when asked to describe his poetry for the reference book Contemporary Poets, he wrote (in its entirety):

‘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 metres; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban.

Until his mid-sixties, he published nearly all his books himself, setting the type for many of them on a printing press in his parents’ basement. For 18 of those years, there were no books of poetry at all. He received few reviews, most of them terrible. His first review said that he ‘annoys and bewilders’; his second called the poems ‘sordid, with an emphasis on the sore’. The third, by Malcolm Cowley, said that he was ‘astigmatic’, ‘an ecstatic with a defect in his voice, who stammers at the moment of greatest feeling’. A line in Cowley’s review – ‘He is unable to focus, and lines of splendid verse are lost to sight among low heaps of rubbish’ – may have led to one of Reznikoff’s best-known short poems:

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
a girder, still itself among the rubbish.

It was a poem, Oppen often said, that ran through his mind over and over again when he was trapped in a foxhole among dead and wounded comrades in the Second World War. Oppen, tellingly, always misquoted the last word as ‘rubble’.

In 1962, New Directions, in collaboration with the San Francisco Review (run by Oppen’s sister, June Degnan), published By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse. Reznikoff’s first visible book of poetry, it had an odd introduction by C.P. Snow, then famous as a social critic, who, ‘as far as a Gentile can judge’, found the work had ‘overtones of extraordinary unfamiliarity’. Three years later, the two publishers brought out the first volume of Testimony. In Poetry, Hayden Carruth – who had praised By the Waters – wrote: ‘I don’t see the point in it.’ Surprisingly jingoistic, he claimed that the ‘material – all ugly, brutal, and inhumane … is one of relentless, absorbing, cold, bitter contempt: contempt for the society in question’. Both books sold poorly; the ND-SFR collaboration ended; Reznikoff went back to printing his own books.

But in the 1960s the Objectivists emerged from their decades of near-total obscurity, like a council of wise elders suddenly among us. Oppen and Rakosi returned after their long silences; Zukofsky was published by major presses; Bunting produced his masterpiece, Briggflatts; in Wisconsin, the reclusive Lorine Niedecker was writing her best work. And Reznikoff was with them. There were readings, interviews, a prize or two. In 1974, the Black Sparrow Press began a programme of bringing all of Reznikoff’s poetry back into print. He died in 1976, at the age of 81, having just revised the proofs of a two-volume Collected Poems.

There was the legend of Reznikoff, the invisible poet, walking twenty miles a day in New York City, writing down his observations in a little notebook, meeting cronies who never knew he was a writer at the Automat, publishing his own books of perfect poems for more than fifty years. A sweet, elderly man who was maddeningly self-deprecating. George and Mary Oppen told me about a reading in Michigan, at the end of which the audience was on its feet, wildly cheering. Rezi, as they called him, was heard to mumble: ‘I hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time.’

And yet, because of his collaborations from the 1920s to the 1950s as editor and writer for such magazines as the Menorah Journal and the Jewish Frontier, he believed himself part of a milieu – if not exactly part of the crowd – of Upper West Side Jewish intellectuals. He had a very long marriage, though much of it spent apart, with Marie Syrkin, the dynamic journalist, academician and Zionist activist (she was Golda Meir’s best friend and a primary mentor to the young men who took over the New Republic in the 1970s). Reznikoff refused to accompany her on her many trips to postwar Europe, Palestine, and later Israel – explaining that he hadn’t finished exploring Central Park – but happily went to the meetings and fundraising dinners, content, as he said many times, to sit at a table below while his wife sat on the dais. He was a frequent guest at the extravagant Hollywood and New York homes of the Lewins, where he is known to have dined with George Cukor, Nazimova, Djuna Barnes and no doubt many others; he chatted with Greta Garbo on the street. He was perhaps most in his element at the Automat, but he also inhabited, however peripherally, Hollywood and Jewish high societies. Most of all, this kind, self-effacing man spent most of the last decades of his life in the systematic investigation of humanity at its worst: Testimony and Holocaust. It’s too easy to call them the products of rage, inaccurate to attribute any politics or reflection on human nature to them. The fact is we will never know why these books were written, only how.

Testimony began in the 1930s as a book of prose, based on the 19th-century legal documents Reznikoff was reading for Corpus Juris, and other historical documents. Probably inspired by Williams’s In the American Grain (1925), and by John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer in the same year as well as the first two volumes of his USA trilogy (1930 and 1932), it was written at a time when there was a preoccupation with telling the ‘American story’ and the conviction that some kind of documentary narrative was the way to tell it. (Reznikoff’s original title was My Country ’Tis of Thee, which was not necessarily ironic.) Given that it has only three sections – ‘Southerners and Slaves’, ‘Sailing Ships and Steamers’, and ‘East and West’ – it appears to be the beginning of a much larger panorama. Its most uncharacteristic piece, the prose poem ‘Rivers and Seas, Harbours and Ports’, is an extraordinary reverie around the words and images of a vanished maritime world. It was unlike anything Reznikoff wrote before or after; a road not taken in his work:

a cargo of sandalwood at the Fiji Islands and at Guam a quantity of beech de mer, betel nuts, and deer horns; ivory rings for martingales; a cargo of copper ore, shipped in Chile; sperm and whale oil, sperm candles and whalebone; pigs of copper; six seroons of indigo; pigs of lead, moys of salt, and frails of raisins; seal skins, prime fur and pup skins, from seals taken at the Falkland Islands; a cargo of tea, fresh, prime, and of the finest chop, quarter chests of tea, hyson skin and congo, with the present of a shawl from the hong merchant in Canton; cases, trunks, bales, casks, kegs and bundles

The book was published in 1934 by the Objectivist Press with an introduction by Kenneth Burke, and has been scandalously out of print since. (The copy I own came from the library of William Carlos Williams; when I bought it, the pages were uncut.)

Sometime in the 1950s, he returned to Testimony, this time confining himself to legal cases of criminality and negligence and writing it as poetry. The project was divided into four chronological periods (1885-1890, 1891-1900, 1901-1910, 1911-1915), in turn divided into three geographical areas (North, South, West), which contained subcategories – some critics have read them as serial poems – such as ‘Machine Age’, ‘Domestic Scenes’, ‘Property’, ‘Railroads’, ‘Negroes’, ‘Sounds and Smells’, ‘Social Life’, ‘Children’ and so on, most of which are repeated throughout the book. As far as I know, no one has investigated Testimony’s structure in search of determining patterns.

His research for Testimony was almost unimaginable. The known source for one of the short poems alone is a court transcript that runs to a hundred pages. As he said in an interview, ‘I might go through a volume of a thousand pages and find just one case from which to take the facts and rearrange them so as to be interesting … I don’t know how many thousands of volumes I went through, and all I could manage to get out of it were these poems.’ (Characteristically, he adds: ‘And in looking through the book I might throw out some of them.’) He frequently said that his original inspiration was, remarkably, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925, the same year as the Williams and Dos Passos books). But where Dreiser had expanded a single case into a massive novel, Reznikoff condensed massive documents into brief poems:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back
she asked him where the child was.
He replied: ‘Out there – in the water.’
He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said: ‘O John, don’t!’
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.

These are notably crimes without punishment: we never learn how the judge or jury ruled in the case. The legal arguments are not represented. In some poems we have the scene of the crime without the crime itself. There is no commentary or rumination or metaphorical imagery; larger conclusions are not drawn. Testimony, as a cantata or mass, is a ‘recitative’ – the book’s subtitle – with no chorales.

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What Reznikoff liked about courtroom testimony, he said, was that what matters is the facts of the case, what the witness saw and heard, not the witness’s feelings about, or interpretations of, those facts. It was his ideal for poetry. He often cited some lines from the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai (which he found in A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang): ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’ His aim in Testimony was to create a ‘mood or feeling’ by the ‘selection’ and ‘arrangement’ of the facts, as well as by the ‘rhythm of the words’. (Despite Carruth’s claim that ‘this is not poetry at all, but prose printed in irregular lines,’ the poems tend to have cleverly hidden internal rhymes and assonances.) Curiously, the closest thing to Testimony in literature – there are certainly no American poems remotely like it – may be the Icelandic sagas Reznikoff loved: scenes of sheer human drama presented in the most unadorned of narratives:

The young man had been at work during the day
clearing land about their home:
it was a small, one-storey log house
reached by a bypath from the road,
among some small jack pine and scrub oak brush.
The house was lighted by two small windows:
one on the north and one to the east.

His wife – a young woman of sixteen
who had been engaged to be married to a neighbour,
a man of sixty,
before she married Peter –
lighted the lamp
and spread a light meal on the table –
bread and milk. The meal over,
Peter took his accordion from the shelf

and sitting right opposite the window to the east
played ‘Home, Sweet Home’.
He had just finished playing it
when a shot was fired from the outside.
Several buckshot pierced his head
and death was so sudden
he still sat upright in his chair
with the accordion in his hands.

Reznikoff is sometimes considered a precursor of the current vogue for ‘appropriated’ or ‘found’ poetry – the copying of texts, often of extreme banality, verbatim. He occasionally used a few words or a bit of local speech from the courtroom transcripts, but mainly what he ‘found’ were the facts, which he then wrote up in his own way. The poems are not pastiches; the original manuscripts of Testimony are covered with revisions. Reznikoff’s personality bears some resemblance to Bartleby, but he was no scrivener.

Testimony is indeed an American panorama: the cases come from every state of the union and are full of things indigenous in north, south and west. The passion of the crimes is universal; the accounts of racism (against ‘Negroes’, Chinese, Mexicans) are regional; the industrial accidents, derived from negligence lawsuits, are fixed in their historical moment. Yet there is a classicism about it: Reznikoff considered himself a Hellenist, influenced by both the lyrics of the Greek Anthology and the tragic dramas. In Testimony, the machines are the gods, enacting their inexplicable acts of vengeance on the hapless humans, many of them children:

All revolving shafts are dangerous
but a vertical shaft,
neither boxed nor guarded against,
most dangerous.

The girl’s work for the company was changed
to sweeping the floors:
among other places the floor of a room

where the shaft in a passageway –
between the wall and a machine –
ran from the floor to the ceiling.
In sweeping around it one morning
her apron was caught
and drawn about the shaft
and she was whirled around
striking the wall and machinery.

In the poems, the machines are usually described in detail, but the people are often nameless and nearly always featureless. They are merely actors in some unportrayed greater drama at the moment when their particular fates are sealed. And in these testimonies without judgments, their fates belong to perhaps the deepest substratum of this obsessional project: the Jewish narrative of suffering without redemption, epitomised, of course, by the Book of Job. From Testimony, Reznikoff would go on, near the end of his life, to the transcripts of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials to create an even more devastating book, Holocaust, which recounts scenes from the Final Solution without comment and without the rhetoric of outrage:

They gathered some twenty Hasidic Jews from their homes,
in the robes these wear,
wearing their prayer shawls, too,
and holding prayer books in their hands.
They were led up a hill.
Here they were told to chant their prayers
and raise their hands for help to God
and, as they did so,
the officers poured kerosene under them
and set it on fire.

The 25-year-old Lionel Trilling, who probably met Reznikoff through his college friend Zukofsky, reviewing Reznikoff’s one commercial publication, the 1930 novel of a Jewish immigrant, also called By the Waters of Manhattan, wrote: ‘It has a quality of privacy which is startling. It has been written by a mind that, at once shy and unabashed, stays with itself, and, unintimidated by stale ways of seeing, makes public objects fresh in the freshness of its privacy.’ Reznikoff had a lifelong preoccupation with Jewish history and themes, but almost never attended a synagogue. He spent decades investigating crimes of social injustice, but expressed no political beliefs. He read very little contemporary American poetry, preferring the poets of the Greek Anthology or classical China. He once said, of something he had seen in a magazine: ‘When I read a poem like this, I turn the page.’

Eliot Weinberger’s essay is adapted from his introduction to a forthcoming reissue of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.