Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reznikoff part two

For this week read:

In Memoriam

Separate Way

Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down


Post by Sunday night, happy reading!


  1. Although abbreviated, I think we get a decent look at Reznikoff’s Testimony in this compilation. The vignettes presented to us, taken, as the footnote informs us, from court documents, are very straightforward in their presentation and mimic prose. Knowing that these are based on real events, we would expect that each “story” would be rich in emotional language, but Rexnikoff has decided to present us with nothing but the hard facts of the matter, just as if we were being read back the notes of a court stenographer. This is perhaps an invitation extended to us by Reznikoff to participate in the poetry by evaluating this plainly laid out event with out own emotional response. As an extension of that invitation, Reznikoff has decided to omit the outcome of the events described; there is no mention or hint of a verdict, and leaves us to make the final decisions. These poems seem to uphold Zukofsky’s definitions of objectivity and subjectivity, as they are without metaphor, without the poets interference, and are completely self-contained, allowing the reader to observe these objects in their entirety and contemplate their emotional resonance.

  2. Autobiography: New York and Autobiography: Hollywood are two surprising poems, because they seem very personal. While several of the sections of these poems makes use of the way Reznikoff presents nature images (with the implications left to the reader to infer), there are moments of personal statements. From VI:

    I find myself talking aloud
    as I walk;
    that is bad.
    Only Don Juan would believe
    I am in conversations with the
    snow-covered statues;
    only St.Francis
    that I am talking to the sparrows
    in the naked bushes,
    to the pigeons
    in the snow.

    Reznikoff might be famous for his poems lack of Reznikoff, these two poems come to life percisely when this trend in his poetry fades.

    Both of these poems remind me of haiku series based on the poets wanderings. I wonder how much Japanese poetry Reznikoff would have read, and how much it directly inspired him to write in this style.

  3. Johnathon—there’s even greater sense of self and an “I” in Reznikoff’s poetry even far before that moment. Even considering a lot of the poetry last week, looking at a poem such as “Hellenist” from “Jerusalem the Golden,” you see Reznikoff’s sense of self very strongly.

    Though this week in “Separate Way,” I was struck as to how the “I” gains more agency. Looking at “3,” we get a speaker who actually pelts his enemies (or really the enemies of his people) with seeds. I can’t help but read his intense Jewish identity into this poem, which seems to be where he predominantly gains voice as the speaker and we even see a speaker. He claims the authorship as his concerns move toward the Jewish identity. Even in works like “In Memoriam,” where we have distinct speakers laid out in a sort-of dialogue, we’re much more inclined to see Reznikoff behind it (or at least I am). That said, it seems like subject matter almost works in a way to claim authorship. Is this by the design of the poetry or our own biographical reading?

    _If we get all New-Crit on “In Memoriam,” would we (I) still see Reznikoff, dude at typewriter, behind it?_

    Conversely, in “Testimony,” we have a very different set of concerns and he seems to make every attempt to remove a sense of authorship—Brandon even mentioned court reporting. It works like a report. Now, I wonder if this is by design. Does Reznikoff want to distance himself from his (obvious) concerns regarding violence? And in the reverse, does Reznikoff feel that poetry that tackles his identity and heritage need authorship? Does this kind of topic inherently need authorship?

    On a separate note, I want to return to “Separate Way.” There’s an odd repetition of a few images, but I’ll focus on seeds. In “3,” he’s pelting seeds at the enemies of his people—calling them out very directly (even bringing in an identified “you,” makes the sense of authorship stronger). He’s equating songs with seeds of dandelions—weeds. They’re also a flower. This all seems innocuous and simply good images until you get to the last section of “Epitaphs.” We get some seeds again, but they’re the pomegranate seeds in the Proserpine (Latin for Persephone) story.

    With this image, we get not only sexuality, but also death. Seeds are something sending you to death, much like the clocks; also, the Proserpine story works as a direct explanation of the seasons. I wonder then if the seeds are being equated with clocks in a seasonal sense. At first in “Separate Way,” time is purely a man-made object (described in terms of clocks ticking away). However, if Reznikoff is using this image as the seasons, the clock toward death is also natural.

  4. Brandon, I like what you wrote about Reznikoff's Testimony being straightforward and nothing but the "hard facts." It's a lot like reading American Realist prose (Realism is kind of the end of the Civil War to before WWI, so definitely a tradition that Reznikoff would be aware of, I think). Testimony gets back to what Reznikoff was doing in some of his earlier poetry, like in Poems, where the language is much more human and direct - not the elevated, heavily historical poems of In Memoriam for example.

    We have his concern for the common laborer in Poems, or in the case of Testimony, an everyday person caught up in a crime, and I get the sensation that I'm reading something very intimate and personal, but I'm still an observer, applying all my own emotion and interpretation to the incident. I'm not the man shooting his neighbor, but I'm right next to him on the street and am witnessing this moment when everything in his world changes because he kills someone.

    The Realist text that immediately comes to mind for me is Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis - the plight of the uneducated immigrant worker, the struggle of carrying on regardless of personal feeling. Life in the Iron Mills was intended to wake up the reading audience to the conditions that the poor endured, all without presenting an emotional plea to the reader directly by the author - the facts were allowed to speak for themselves in the framework of the novella. The plea is in the characters themselves. I don't know if Reznikoff intends his Testimony to do any such thing as waking up his audience, but it does that. Instead of the worker's situation (which appears so often in early Reznikoff) we have Testimony's short, almost prosy poems that encapsulate these moments in the lives of nameless men and women, straightforward and almost emotionless - they have a journalistic quality that invites a reader's interpretation and interaction.

    I find myself much more drawn to these little vignettes than to his long and heavy-feeling Israel poems - In Memoriam is not nearly so engaging to me as Banks and Miehle's "pin pool" game and quarrel.

  5. Charles-- I like what you bring up about seeds in Separate Way-- in terms of the Prosperine story, especially. I found this section moving, overall, in the way it deals with the passage of time, of this slowly dying, of change. I believe the seeds relate to the idea of Spring, rebirth, resurrection then.

    Resurrection, or the belief that death is not the end (whether that means afterlife or resurrection) is a significant part of judaism.

    Daniel 12:2 (New International Version)

    2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

    In the poem, R says (in Messianic):

    and, dying,
    wheeled away so swiftly
    you see the sun
    no larger than the evening star,
    their boots shall carry your blood--
    its corpuscles
    that will grow in the sandy lots,
    between the cobblestones of alleys and on the pavement of avenues.

    I think the relationship of seeds and death, this rebirth from the blood of the dying, highlights this idea. Especially considering their proximity.

    And I think its further highlighted when the poem series ends with Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, recited at funerals & services. The poem ends with "to them and to you/life."

    Throughout the poems Reznikoff balances these themes... light and dark, seasons changing, etc.

  6. Initially I was puzzled (and still am, to a degree) by much of Reznikoff’s historically minded poetry ( In Memorium: 1933, as well as other sections from last week’s reading). I found myself trying to reconcile this work with the characteristics that I understand “Objectivism” to entail, characteristics that are relatively easy to spot, or at least pretend to spot, in his shorter poems (things like moments of rested totality, sincerity, etc.)—with some of the longer works, though, I think we have to approach looking for these aspects of Objectivity in a different way. As Charles says regarding “In Memorium,” I think it’s almost a necessity to look at Reznikoff’s authorship of these poems in order to understand how they fit into the philosophy of objectivism. I had to begin by questioning what is gained, both by the poet and the reader, through what is essentially the retelling of a history (religious, political, social, etc.). There are moments in the text (“In Memorium”) that point to Reznikoff’s main concern:

    “so long as Jacob remembers his God…Jerusalem is not taken, nor has Judah perished…”

    “Let other people come as streams / that overflow a valley / and leave dead bodies, uprooted trees and fields of sand; / we Jews are as the dew, / on every blade of grass, / trodden underfoot today / and here tomorrow morning.”

    The concern here seems to be Reznikoff’s remembrance of a collective history, and even more importantly, the insistence on that history. Understanding Reznikoff’s later themes, how the idea of time relates to death, one can arguable say that this focus on one’s history is, in a sense, a way to counteract death. I think of Amber’s observation about this idea of “rebirth from the blood of the dying,” which is echoed in “In Memorium” at the end of section four (even though this section is related through the voice of a Christian, the passage is clearly reflective of Reznikoff’s investment in this problem):

    “We have no need for you / and will not let you go— / what you have gathered / here and in all Christendom / shall be the harvest / your blood shall grow for us / between the cobblestones of our streets.”

  7. Things: I find myself interested in his sequencing. Titles, subtitles, numbers and numerical digits seem to offer insight into what he is doing poetically and how all pieces become and are combined into a whole. Even the titles are separate between italicized pieces and fully capitalized normal font.

    I think the self came out very strong in the section from/of Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down. But the section almost was pointing to it happening—someone was required to make it happen which is a very real claim of authorship.
    I agree with you, K.E. on the pieces in Testimony being a lot more engaging than the historical pieces—or the plays, which have a real sense of place, but come with a repetitive edge to it that doesn’t come in Testimony, which is strange considering it simply reworked transcript from the court documents.
    And regarding Kaddish—he even mentions it later in his work with the marriage of the morning and the mourning song in Holocaust (or perhaps in one of these places), either pointing back here to that proximity and the attainment of balance or reminder of a previously published piece (something he could be sure of!).
    Also Zach: with the concern for a remembrance of a collective history it is imperative to remember that the tongue telling it is changing. I do not think that is paramount—simply we are reading it here, this way, but he is (in a literal sense) translating his heritage along with himself to a new language.

  8. In some cases the emergence of the self, came hand in hand with a sort of self-loathing, either for his identity as an American, for the situation of the Jew. In general, there is a real loneliness happening (even at one point he reaffirms the simple reality that he had to learn to be alone much younger).
    In Autiobiography: New York: II…

    I am alone—
    and glad to be alone;
    I do not like people who walk about
    so late; who walk slowly after midnight
    through the leaves fallen on the sidewalks.
    I do not like
    my own face
    in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
    before the closed stores.