Monday, March 8, 2010

Reznikoff, Part the Third

To read for class on 15 March:

By the Well of Living and Seeing

Jews in Babylonia

Last Poems

Appendix: Obiter Dicta

By Wednesday (hopefully) we'll have copies of Holocaust available, in Janet's mailbox in LA 208.

Don't forget to post by midnight on Sunday, and also, have your project proposal ready.


  1. Within the first page of OBITA DICTA, Reznikoff writes, "By the term 'objectivist,' I suppose a writer may be meant who does not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music. I have tried to write like that."

    We've seen this come to pass time and time again in Reznikoff's poems. The most obvious to point out would be TESTIMONY, where it is as he says, a witness in a court of law. But it's just as true of most of the tiny poems throughout his collected. I think a lot of what happens in the first section of BY THE WELL OF LIVING AND SEEING is perfectly explicative of this. For example, 12 (on 252):

    The dying gull
    alone on a rock,
    wings spread and unable to fly,
    lifting its head--
    now and then--
    with a sharp cry.

    This is explicitly a witnessed account. There isn't an imposition or judgement (except, perhaps, in the ways we've discussed before where certain types of language connote that sort of judgement). Still, this is what was saw and heard. It is how many people (poet and non poet alike) might identify a similar experience, simply lineated for music. It is here, for the reader, to judge.

    I love this idea: the poet as witness, the reader as jury.

    But it doesn't hold true for all R's poems. Just a few down, poem 15 (also on page 252, one of my particular favorites):

    "Ah, the drill
    breaking open the pavement
    and yet again.
    This is the nightingale
    that sings in our streets."

    If it ended at "yet again" then we would have simple witness. But Reznikoff inserts this judgement on the end, tells us what it means to witness the drill on the pavement. He is both witness and jury.

    That said, I'm also curious about how he talks about writing as not being of one's own person, but of the world, and then writes a sequence that is so clearly autobiographical, is so clearly HIS life.

    "I saw that I could use the expensive machinery
    that had cost me four years of hard work at law
    and which I had thought useless for my writing:
    prying sentences open to look at the exact meaning;
    weighing words to choose only those that had meat for my purpose
    and throwing the rest away as empty shells.
    I, too, could scrutinize every word and phrase
    as if in a document or the opinion of a judge
    and listen, as well, for tones and overtones,
    leaving only the pithy, the necessary, the clear and plain." (from EARLY HISTORY OF A WRITER)

    Here, the poem functions as both ars poetica (the way he cuts words and phrases to leave the poem versified when he uses appropriated material), but it's also about him as a person. According to his own previous statement about Objectivism, does it stand? I mean, he is still saying what he saw and heard (is still witness)but it's now of the personal. A witness to his own existence. Curious.

    I think it's also interesting to consider how he says that the versifying is to create music, that music is inherent to the meaning. Even among the examples in this single post it seems as though there are varying degrees. Once again, in the smaller lyrics I see a lot of music. But, in the section from EARLY HISTORY, it seems like prose. I'm not seeing the (particularly the musical) movement into poetry that he discusses in OBITA DICTA. It still reads like prose, in the way he says lineation and punctuation is supposed to move the poem away from it.


  2. Finally, a definition of Objectivist that really makes sense to me: "[a writer] who does not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject matter" (371). Why was it so hard for Zukofsky to just say that? Was he searching for a deeper, broader, tighter meaning? I can't guess.

    I got so much out of the Obiter Dicta. It so happens that Mihai (my husband) is working on a picture of Icarus; I showed him the two Icarus poems, and sure enough the WCW one was the one most like his drawing's intent; he shows only a sad faced man staring at the sky with his body surrounded by bar code, not the wings or the landscape or anything else obvious; he lets the title work. So now I am able to apply Objectivist principles and language to art, if not precisely at least understandably. Oddly, having a visual reference makes it easier for me to enjoy Zukofsky, especially 80 Flowers, even more.

  3. Wow, that was weird, Amber - I've been composing my response long enough that I thought I was going to be the first one to post, and right after I did I discovered you had already said something similar (with much more clarity). whoops.

  4. Amber, I’m glad you’ve brought this up, because I have been thinking about the relationship between prose and poetry in R’s work, considering how “prosey” we could call most of his longer poems, especially sections 16 and 17 of “Early History of a Writer.” When reading this part, it was clear he was writing his ars poetica in poem form, which is something we are familiar with. I think in a way, Z. did the same thing in the second section of “Mantis.” What is different here is that R. is so explicit about his poetics it seems more like a direct statement than a poem, or to me, it seemed like prose.

    I agree there is definitely that direct conflict between what R. is saying about objectivity in poems in Obiter Dicta and what he is doing here. It seems that R. as author is directly involved in the poem here. Initially, I thought that he is acting as judge and jury, but when I was trying to rectify this in my head it seemed more complicated.

    This poem is not about leaves or ambulances or the cityscape, this poem is about an idea, a poetics and his language treats it almost in the same way that he would treat an actual object. The poem is still entirely free of metaphor. It fits his comments in Obiter Dicta: “With respect to direct speech without metaphor or simile… [in reference to Sappho] she writes the kind of poetry that Stevens dreamed of, a poetry that ‘Without evasion by a single metaphor’ sees ‘the very thing itself and nothing else.’” While R.’s “Early History” is personal and he talks about him self, he treats his ideas about poetry as ‘the very thing itself and nothing else.’ You mention that he thinks of poetry not as a thing of one’s own person, free from the poet’s judgment. I think in this poem, because he wanted to talk about his own ideas he had to find a way to treat his ideas as an object as well. So while the poem is about his poetics, the poetics of the poem treats the poetics of the poet as a thing to report directly upon.

    I think you’ve hit a very interesting conflict here, the relationship between poem and prose. If the defining quality of verse is the music (after all, he does say that the purpose of ALL writing is to communicate) how do we approach the first page of Obiter Dicta differently than “Early History” when part of them are almost verbatim? For example, page 328:

    And with the even artificial beat of the old meters,
    I gave up the artifice of rhyme:
    not only because I had the authority of Milton
    and the usage of the Elizabethans in their plays;
    I like a Doric music better.

    And page 371: “And with the regular beat of the old meters, I gave up the artifice of rhyme—except now and than; not only because I had the authority of Milton for this and the usage of the Elizabethans in the plays, but because I liked a Doric music better.” These statements are saying the exact same thing, but one in prose and one in poem. R. mentions Pound’s statement about how a poem is essentially a system of punctuation, which I think you can see here in how some of the transitive words in the prose (“but because”) have been replaced by line breaks. But do we read the poetic form of this statement differently than we read the prose form? Personally, I have trouble thinking of one as more musical than the other, although it shows slightly. Which for me raises some troubling questions: Do the different forms change our understanding of what R is saying? If they essentially don’t, than is poetry just a musical form of prose? What is the purpose of taking this poetic statement and prose-ifying it?

    Robert Frost, when asked to explain a poem, once said “you want me to say it worse?” Is that what R is doing here by turning his ars poetica (the poem) into his ars poetica (the prose), or is he somehow escaping this issue by writing poems and prose whose essential difference is not access by music?

  5. Sorry, that last sentence should be "not access but music."

  6. I believe that quote you put from Early History of a Writer is a flagrant flout of Objectivism on several counts, one as you said, being his obvious insertion of self into the work Two, R. talks about aiming for work that avoids the metaphor/simile. But how does a phrase like "as empty shells" NOT do the work of a simile?

  7. Genna, for me the versification of his ars poetica is not as striking or as useful as the prose, and it bugs me to see, well, I'll just say it: a waste of poetry. I think it undermines his other work - it contradicts his stated philosophy.

  8. Now this distinction between poetry and prose as laid out by Reznikoff and TS Eliot brings to mind the current popularity of prose blocks for poetry. How do we read these differently? Does this form spawn a third kind of reading, especially if we field indications that they are, in fact, poetry, such as the author or the listing on the back, if not the content itself.

    In fact, poetry itself can be the primary indicator; reading a prose poem, there is usually an evident difference content-wise. Poetry set into a prose block can have all the same musical tricks as poetry, and often does. Lineation is NOT the gateway into musicality. It’s more like a signal to look for the qualities of poetry, but after prose became a prominent option in formatting for poetry in English, does this distinction make sense for contemporary approach to poetry? I say “no,” and this even extends back before the contemporary popularity of the prose block for poems.

    Looking at the Roman intellectual Quintilian (writing, I think, around the first century AD), we see an ancient respect for musicality in prose writing. In his essays on the training of an orator, he in fact compares prose and poetry, claiming prose may even be of a higher order, being freer. In a way, it was allowed to be whatever form necessary—the exact right form. Is this not a plug for more available options for the sake of sincerity, as Reznikoff and Zukofsky would consider it? Note that in the classical world, poetry was restricted exclusively to work that prescribed to metrical forms; if it wasn’t in a meter, it wasn’t poetry, but prose could utilize metrical properties without that kind of restriction.

  9. Furthermore, it seems like an easy conclusion that verse makes music, which then makes it poetry. Is he implying that we would read music into something when it’s lineated? Is verse merely an indicator, “Hey, music ahead!” It seems like a method to foreground musicality than musicality itself.

  10. Charles: So I'm clear... I'm not suggesting that poetry can't exist in prose (the prose poem, prose blocks, sentences), nor that lineation is the gateway to musicality (all punctuation has this power, as do words, syntax, etc). I'm only saying that I'm often not getting at the part of R that is moving into that, the music, the poetic.

  11. Also, in response to Amber’s talking about the self and poetry makes me think of a philosophy of the Language Poets, that the poem is devoid of the self. Now, I have a limited understanding of this concept (more overheard than anything), but I wonder about this implication in terms of how Amber tackled Reznikoff’s own life, also implying that it’s something outside of his own person—observer to himself.

    Trying to acquire a distance from one’s own experience like this, seems to work against sincerity as I see it. If you’re merely portraying objects, you’re not really communicating the experience of the objects—you’re always the window through which you experience a world. As a writer you intake information and feed it back, and taking out that step of your experience with them, seems less sincere. This said, I don’t want to imply that “sincerity” simply equals “good,” but it seems that Reznikoff’s poetics do.

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  13. Amber: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply I was disagreeing with your conclusion, but Reznikoff's, especially considering the way he uses that Pound quote about dancing and whatnot (374). IT's as if the creation of poetry is simply by lineating.

  14. Katherine,
    In your first post you quoted the Orbiter Dicta and asked why Z couldn't have just said that. I completely agree with you, but I think he was unable because he, essentially, was coming up with this whole Objectivist thing as he went along. His poetry displayed a significant evolution throughout his career. From 'poem beginning the' all the way to 'gamut' there is a noticeable progression. With Rez, however (and knowing that he was writing before officially being Objectivist), his poems, or at least his form and style, is relatively stagnant. There's no great discernable difference between work from 1919 and work from 1969. For example:

    Stubborn flies buzzing
    in the morning when she wakes.

    The flat roofs, higher, lower,
    chimneys, water-tanks, cornices.
    (pg. 12)

    and the poem Amber cited:

    The dying gull
    alone on a rock,
    wings spread and unable to fly,
    lifting its head--
    now and then--
    with a sharp cry.
    (pg. 252)

    Both employ strict observation, are almost what would have to be called an audible photograph: there is a scene, an image, and object, which is described almost journalistically, and is left with us, the readers, to do with it what we may. The language is bony in both examples, the time of their conception indiscernible. Where is the evolution? How is Rez not considered a one-trick-pony?

  15. I’ve been interested in this talk of poetry versus prose in terms of their respective “musicalities.” Charles brings up a good point, I think, that prose can and does exist as its own music, which is intriguing when we look at certain kinds (especially those of more contemporary ilk) of prose poems. I often find myself more than slightly irritated at a poem that’s formed as a prose block that exhibits characteristics of verse that should (to my mind) be lineated—not to say that prose poems aren’t lineated; they are, in a sense, because some aspects of where to break a line in a prose block can be controlled through justification, margins, etc., and prose poems are certainly aware (most of the time) of how their lineation functions in the larger context of the poem. I’m simply saying here that the concept of lineation between the styles work differently, as opposed to other kinds of texts which don’t consider lineation a factor in their construction. Getting back to my point, though, the fact that I find the intermingling of these styles so initially jarring, something to be corrected, is interesting. When a prose poem is written in short sentences or fragments, with hard punctuation (periods, semicolons, etc., anything that suggests a hard stop or breath…though strangely, dashes don’t work the same way for me, or have the same effect) strewn about liberally, these punctuations tend to strike me as speed bumps in a way, as somewhat clumsy hindrances, places where I stumble and have to keep constantly picking myself back up to move along. I don’t mean to be overly dismissive of this effect, because it can be intentional and interesting in itself if applied in certain contexts, but I am wary of it as a contemporary trope that’s often applied without much thought. I don’t know if others empathize with this reaction, and I’m not sure if it’s detrimental to my point if they don’t, but the fact that I have this response (wanting to somehow straighten out or draw a line between a kind of poetry which “should” be lineated in a more traditional sense and a kind which “should” be formed as prose) seems to suggest that although a significant musical difference exists between the two, it’s a difference of type, not of “musicality” versus “non-musicality.”

  16. I don’t know if I can agree that this definition of Objectivist is the end stop of what the “Objectivists” are doing. To a certain degree, and I believe this has been voiced by others in class, I believe that while these poets were grouped together they inevitably broke off onto their own tangents and while small semblances remained to hold them completely together, I think that sincerity and objectivity wound certain themes within each poets words.

    Also, though, I see why Z. saw R’s poems as objective and tried to show it through him, though I wonder why he falls short in the sincerity calculator.

    Katherine—while you say this undermines his work, is it essential to have a complete knowledge of what he says here, or do you believe that it comes inherent with all the other reading and that his Ars Poetica has, essentially, already been written?

    Brandon—I laughed a little when you called Rez a one-trick-pony. I’m not familiar with enough (any?) scholarship on R. to comment upon it, it would seem to me, though that it adds a new dimension to this question of the use of “prosaic” writing in his Ars Poetica.

    For someone who is so consistent in form and authorship it surprises me to come across a drastic change, and maybe it is because that was the only way he could have wrote it.

    I’m curious if it was a turn off in any case, for anyone, because of how consistent he had been or if it was a relief. Things can blend together esp. in collected works, maybe it doesn't work like this. it didn't disrupt anything for me, but if it is answerable...