Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Charles Reznikoff

Reading assignments from
The Poems of Charles Reznikoff
(ed. Seamus Cooney):


Rhythms II


A Fifth Group of Verse


Jerusalem the Golden


  1. I finished the early Reznikoff reading & found myself struck by these tiny poems of his, almost fragments, highly imagistic. But as much as I enjoyed them, I found myself somewhat amused by the fact that this is the man Zukofsky seemed to admire above all else. I expected more similarities between the two poetries than seems to exist at the moment. Reznikoff seems more akin to HD, or, even more specifically, Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro.”

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    & then this one from Reznikoff:

    15, from POEMS

    A slender tree, alone in the fields,
    Between the roofs of the town and the woods like a low hill.

    In the open
    The birds are faintly overheard.



    A star rides the twilight now,
    All heaven to itself.

    In A RETROSPECT, Pound says:

    1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.
    2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
    3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

    It’s difficult not to see these things in play in Reznikoff’s poetry. Of course, as we said in class, Zukofsky’s rules of Objectivism bears a striking resemblance to Pound’s own rules.

    All three examples are grounded in the object, avoid abstraction, are concise, arguably aware of the musical phrase. (I would argue as much, anyway, though I’m not there is any quantitative way to measure it.)

    One would think this could sterilize a poem, but what actually seems to happen is that the poem spreads outward—not etymologically, as in Zukofsky, but in that “feeling” way that we discussed. There is something extraordinarily human. Perhaps it’s the direct invocation of something like “heaven” grounded in watching twilight. Or the faint birdsong reminiscent of Keats’ Nightingale, & the sense of loss in not being able to fully hear that song.

    I was, however, finding myself less compelled by his longer pieces, & I wonder how that overwhelming knack for the perfect, simple, concise poem extends into the longer poem… how it ends up prosaic. How the image seems almost altogether lost.

    I also find myself wondering, especially considering their differences, how Reznikoff ends up being the poet to which Zukofsky seems to admire most.

  2. Amber: I wonder about Zukofsky’s admiration of Reznikoff as well, but I also think that we’re a little tainted by having read his work from much later right before jumping way back in time. Thinking about Zukofsky’s early poems from things like “29 Poems” and “29 Songs,” the relationship seems more evident—Louis was more imagistic then, I think. That said, I’d agree with your observation in a different regard, that of rhyme. Reznikoff got rid of his rhymes early, it seems (or at least downsized their prevalence), whereas Zukofsky’s formal constructions seemed to flourish as Reznikoff moved toward imagistic kinds of concerns.

    Speaking of rhyme, I’m extremely curious about his use of rhyme and his quick disregard for it into “Rhythms II.” Considering his use of rhyme is very formal in Rhythms, when he seems to completely shuck it off in Rythms II, it seems pretty jarring (probably artificially so because we’re reading this back to back in a collected works volume). This in mind, he even used it as a very striking tool in a couple instances, looking at “4” in Rhythms, the rhyme of the second and third line build even more of a pause before “vault” than a line break might—an extra built-in emphasis tool.

    Also to Amber: I wonder about that same sense of imagism extending to a long poem—it does become prose, but then why does the fragmented version make it so much more poemy. It may even be the fragmentary nature. Say, a longer piece that appears to have fragmentary language pulls off its length while remaining stuck to the image.

  3. Also, another contrast to Zukofsky is his attempt to invite us to read his poetry.

    It seems often that when reading a book of poems, the first poem in the book sets up the reading. The same logic applies for listening to an album. In fact, I’ve heard a poetry teacher and a music critic separately say that the opener often teaches you how to read the book/listen to the album.

    That said, Reznikoff does this like it’s a check-box requirement for a body of poems, especially evident in these first few books (chapbooks?) in the collected. Perhaps you could view this as a needless tic or workmanlike (the experience of the poems should be self-evident or something like that), BUT it works so strongly, making his concerns so evident, even complicating them.

    Initially, he seems to be setting up his urban concerns in Rhythms and Rhythms II very directly by setting; a similar move occurs in Poems, but we don’t explicitly see a city landscape described in a clash with a country landscape. This is a lot more subtle in Rhythms’ opening poem, but describing the stars as “hidden,” even while the lights are out hints at how stars cease being visible at night in the city. Similarly, he tackles the act of writing poetry as a Jewish man, engaging with another’s literature and language—slowly understanding it—in Jerusalem the Golden,

    His concerns become most complex in A Fifth Group of Verse, introducing dialogues as poems in the interaction of the first two poems before the dialogue comes in. First, he places this value on silence—Reznikoff wants to stay quiet, maybe even as an observer of these dialogues. The poet removes himself, as it were. Then, as he closes the second poem, Reznikoff writes, “how shall I hope that He will listen to me?” He has this longing to be listened to, but he places this in opposition with a value of silence. That said, this value is monetary (“legal tender”)—silence is being commoditized. He wants to be heard, but apparently being loud won’t get him anywhere in this capital-based world. All this sets up a commentary that seems to reflect directly on the dialogue—I’m not entirely sure how though. (Anyone have any ideas?)

    All this in mind, how is it that Reznikoff (at least this early stuff) makes a gesture at invitation—Zukofsky (while apparently frustrated by accessibility issues), on the other had, doesn’t seem to make adjustments when confronted with being accessible. In fact, he seems to become more guarded.

  4. Charles- I’m rather interested in your look at Reznikoff’s use of conversation in A Fifth Group of Verse. I feel like the move to into and out of conversation in this work warrants more conversation.

    In the first two sections (poems?), the sense on conversation doesn’t really come through, but he is saying a lot about speech: “keep watch upon my tongue:/ silence is legal tender everywhere” and “I hope that He will listen to me?” As you said Charles, it introduces silence as some form of commodity and speech as a short of gesture with the risk of failure, hence Reznikoff’s question at the end of 2. We see him setting up a dichotomy between speech and silence in the first sections, when the next couple of sections are full of chatter.

    Sections three and four read more like the script of a play (“A”-24 anyone?), but there are some interesting things going on here. We see verbal speech between Margaret and her friend in 3-I and then written communication in 3-II. Does Reznikoff equate the two? The language seems similar, although 3-I deals with commodity (i.e. silence according to section 1) and the second with death, which seems to tie in with the concern of time in section 2. So we see the structure beginning to reflect back on itself here.

    When we get to section 4 we have a different set of characters, all women. I got the sense that all these women were speaking in a whisper, perhaps from the fact that their subject is death or from the gossipy nature of their conversations. These women all seem anonymous, recalling “A”-1, the sections of these poems seem like bits of conversations overheard.

    The play aspect is abandoned after poem 4, but we do run into more seemingly self conscious looks at voice/silence: “I leap before the ark, I sing;/ I seem to walk but I dance about,/ you think me silent but I shout,” “How difficult for me is Hebrew:/ even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun/is foreign. How far I have been exiled, Zion,” and “I have leant the Hebrew blessing before eating bread;/is there no blessing before reading Hebrew.”

    It seems like Reznikoff is concerned with what it means to have language, speech and silence and in some way he seems exiled from all of them. I’m not sure if this answers your question about silence as a commodity, but I do think that Reznikoff’s concern with these things suggests something (although I am not sure what) about how he relates to language and how we are supposed to do so in his poetry.

  5. Reznikoff seems to be working with similar poetics (the early short works of both of these poets seem centered around sound and interlocking structure, while the long poems are making use of old sources). Reznikoof, it seems, is doing this is a more conventional way.

    The poems of Rhythms, as the name implies, are almost musical, using meter and rhyme to create poems that read like little ditties. The rhyme, however, is almost doggeral, as in 1 and 13 ROMANCE. And while both Zukofsky and Reznikoff are short and terce, Reznikoff is using recognizable syntax and diction while Zukofsky's poems went far (perhaps too far) away from word order and the using of linking articles. I think this says much about what the two of them valued as poets: Reznikoff is interested in the way music is present in natural speech while Zukofsky is more interested in finding and combining words for their sonic quality (which is at odds with the commonalities of speech).

    Reznikoff's Israel is his interpretation of the latter half of the Book of Genesis. The prose section 75 and the verse section 79 JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN use various sources, from the Bible and from philosophers Marx and Spinoza. These are not use in the same way Zukofsky used texts in his early poems. Rather than a collage of different texts used to bring about a single voice that was beyond the voices of the originals, Reznikoff reinterpreted texts. This is a more traditional way of dealing with older works, where the task of the poet is to filter the past through their contemporary consciousness. Zukofsky was working in a more avant garde mode.

    This may be alittle too personal, but I respect and value Zukofsky's early works more than these works by Reznikoff; Reznikoff is more readible, is comprehensible, but when I finish reading one of his poems, it doesn't particularly resonate with me. Some of the segments of Jerusalem stick in my mind, as well as one moment in Israel (The section taken from Pontifar's wife's perspective), but the small poems don't hold the weight that I think small poems need to. It reminds me of "As the Bell Rings", a collection of 10-15 second shorts created for the Disney Channel To fill commercial breaks. The poems are clever, but without depth these poems are forgotten by the time another Cheetos ad takes up the screen.

  6. Haiku might be a good framework in which to approach these poems (although I don't know how influencial Japanese poetry would have been to Reznikoff). Rhythms II 13 THE PARK IN WINTER seems to illustrate this:

    It rains.
    The elms curve into clouds of twigs.
    Lawns are empty.

    All the poem presents is the nature image of a single moment, but this image can be extended into higher and more universal orders in ways that defy simple description.

  7. I want to bring to attention the use of echoes to the classics - from Greek to medieval. I loved the reference in Rhythm I: 8

    I met in a merchant's place
    lithe body and flowerlike face.

    Through the woods I had looked for her
    and beside the waves.

    He has gone looking for death by beauty (Diana was a goddess-huntress who famously killed Acteon for gazing upon her) where she was traditionally found, in wild places; and found her either for sale or frequenting a place where things are for sale - and since he's telling us about it, we can infer that he survived the meeting. That was a devastating passage, for me. We look for our death, and she isn't interested in killing us? Horrible. A few lines later, we have the crows croaking (nod to Twa Corbies).

    by 10 on page 20 in Poems, when the streetlight goes out and "darkness jumped like a black cat on his chest" I was reminded of Eliot's yellow smoke that slides along the street in Prufrock.

    What I love about these little nods is that they are the most modest, quiet, affectionate nod - not the screaming "look at me, I read the classics" I've become used to.

  8. biblical/ classical has seven very complicated tenses and modern only has past present and future and imperative so four. also I little complicated. [E-mail regarding tenses in Hebrew]

    Will post more later.

  9. hey check out Farquahar, I knew he sounded familiar. I had my Restoration comedies mixed up - he was a real guy, and this was his story:


  10. I think that rested totality is a good way beginning point for Reznikoff. It is amusing to me that in the Objectivist copy of Poetry was a close reading of Reznikoff that almost made the insistence be that Reznikoff was in some ways the leader of the movement--or at least the spring board. Though, Zukofsky clearly set up the framework for the edition to be published.

    I think the simplicity of small poems in some ways makes it simpler to be sincere and objective. This is possibly why Zukofsky says that all of R's poems have a high level of sincerity in them, but lack objectivity. There is sincerity in the poems that are quoted and it is easy to recognize that because of the inherent simplicity.

    Like our exploration of the first draft of the poem April, and what it later became--the transition was one of diminishing proportions and each paragraph can essentially become its own poem. It does not limit the poem itself, but does limit the amount of mistakes that are possible to let by. Later R starts working toward larger poems, and he writes some larger ones intermitten within our reading, however, these small pieces work perfectly and it is no surprise to me that Z chose to do a reading of R for his magazine edition, even though I am not sure which poems he chose.

  11. Interesting note: I thought the story of an old Hebrew poet being in Rs family and never publishing his work and after his death it all being burned is an interesting thing to read and does not surprise me--I accept this as a good reason to publish (self-publish) poems for the purpose of the future, though it seems sort of high-hatted.