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’.

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