Charles Reznikoff: A Biographical Essay by Milton Hindus
Reznikoff was born on August 30, 1894, in Brooklyn., New York, and more particularly in what he describes in his Early History of a Writer (1969) as the Jewish Ghetto of Brownsville. His parents, who are depicted in his Family Chronicle (1963) were Sarah Yetta (Wolwovsky) Reznikoff and Nathan Reznikoff, immigrant Jews who had come to the United States from Russia some years before his birth. They had fled, like so many others, the pogroms that had followed the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. His mother was born in Elizavetgrad, the daughter of Ezekiel and Hannah Wolwovsky. Reznikoff's name in Hebrew memorialized this material grandfather, and he comments on the difference between his names in Hebrew and in English in some learned lines alluding to Biblical custom still observed by Orthodox Jews but apparently not by Reznikoff's parents:
Because, the first-born, I was not redeemed,
I belong to my Lord, not to myself or you;
by my name in English, I am one of His house,
one of the carles--a Charles, a churl;
and by my name in Hebrew which is Ezekiel
(Whom God strengthened)
my strength, such as it is, is His.
Grandfather Ezekiel, according to family tradition, had also been a poet, but his verses in Hebrew had been lost, for he had made his living as a peddler and had died on one of his trips far from home. When his clothes and other possessions at the time of his death were returned to his widow, she found among them the manuscript of poems in a language she could not understand. Fearing that the words might contain subversive sentiments that might endanger the whole family, she destroyed the manuscript. It was this sad story that prompted Reznikoff's decision to see to it that his own work was printed, even if he had to do it himself. He was not going to leave his brain-children (the only ones he had in his life) to the care of his family or friends. It is ironic, therefore, that as much as he published in the course of his long life (some of it with his own hands on a heavy press which he installed in the basement of his parents' house in Brooklyn) he should yet have left one of his more interesting and personal prose works, The Manner Music, to be discovered and printed after his death by the last patron he had found in the person of John Martin, who became his publisher during his last years. Why he never submitted this novel, so far as is known, to a publisher remains a mystery. Perhaps it was too personal, and he did not wish to hurt the feelings of people who might recognize themselves in it. Perhaps he did not yet regard the work as finished to his own satisfaction. Whatever the reason, the fact is that he did leave an unpublished manuscript at his death, like his grandfather. Fortunately it has survived and tells us much not told elsewhere about how he felt about himself, his work, and the times in which he lived, especially the period of the great Depression of the 1930s.
During Reznikoff's childhood he witnessed the arrival from Russia of his paternal grandparents and of other relatives whom his pioneering father and mother had left behind in Russia and who had struggled to make a tolerable life there before emigrating to the United States. Most of these immigrants seemed to be escaping from something in the old country rather than seeking something in the new one. For the older and more rigid ones among them, the new land proved a trial of a different kind from the one they had left. This was especially true of the religiously observant whose appearance aroused the hostility of the younger generation in the lower class Gentile neighborhood in which the Reznikoffs had eventually settled before the grandparents arrived:
Among their children, if not among themselves,
the hatred for Israel smoldered,
sending out a tongue of flame now and then
at an unlucky Jew driving his wagon through the street to or from Brownsville
or at a Jewish passer-by who had blundered into the neighborhood.
In this account written in his 75th year, Reznikoff still remembered his experience as a schoolboy being "baited by boys of all sizes,/from those well on in their teens/to those who seemed just about able to toddle./Sooner or later, a stone would be shied at me/or a bit of garbage flung into my face."
Long afterwards I remembered one white-haired Irish child,
a little boy with a red face,
who could hardly have been more than six or seven
or who was remarkably undersized
passing and passing again, as I tried sitting on the stoop
before I knew the neighborhood,
and chanting at me with a tireless anger that surprised me
The child's sister, sixteen or so and home from her job just then,
egged him on,
hatred in her pallid face
and in the eyes that were too bright
as if I were somehow to blame for her unhappiness.
His diminutive grandfather (a foot shorter than the grandmother whose posture was that of a grenadier) fared even worse. One traumatic incident on the holiest day of the Jewish year is described in gruesome detail. Returning from the synagogue to break their fast, when everyone is hurrying home as quickly as possible, his grandfather and his uncle seemed to be inordinately delayed. The two had gone to pray in Brownsville more than a mile away, and so the family was not at first too concerned, but as darkness fell and the stars came out, Charles worried and went out to meet them. He saw his grandfather coming down the street with tears streaming from his eyes, unable to answer the question "Where's uncle?" The latter came into sight "without his new hat and the blood running down his face/from a gash on his forehead. . . ." After the wound was washed and bandaged, they told their story. They had been set upon by a gang of ruffians while passing a saloon. A little boy had first provoked them with a stick that he was brandishing, and when the uncle responded by taking the stick away from him, one of the older boys clouted him over the head and sent him sprawling into the gutter.
My grandmother was muttering that this country
was no better than Russia after all;
and my parents and I felt ashamed
as if somehow we were to blame,
and we tried to explain that what had happened was unusual,
that only the neighborhood we lived in was like that,
and what a wonderful country this was
that all our love for it and our praise
was not unmerited.
But this incident was not the only one of its kind, nor was this the only neighborhood in which his grandfather encountered racial violence. And despite the grandson's enthusiasm for the country in which he was born, he too felt constantly harassed as a Jew as he was growing up in the first decade of the twentieth century. He tried to escape from the hostile neighborhood in which he was living into the atmosphere of the school where he was studying, but he soon found prejudice following him even into this sanctuary:
The dislike of Jews, however, that was in certain streets of Brooklyn,
was in the classrooms, too,
and sometimes, when Jewish pupils forgot about it
or mistook some careless geniality for friendliness,
they suddenly found, like people who live over a geological fault,
how uncertain the ground was.
While not an exceptionally brilliant student (especially when it came to mathematics) Reznikoff soon proved himself to be a precocious one, graduating from grammar school when he was eleven, three years ahead of his class. But he was not intensely competitive and therefore, not surprisingly, he was not among the chief prize winners at the graduation. As an old man, he still remembered how he had "felt discredited" because he had failed to carry off the gold medal "which some unkindly soul had offered to make us all, except the winner, unhappy." The refusal to be competitive explains much, I think, about Reznikoff's life and work. It may explain why he never practiced law, after a brief trial of it, despite the fact that he had been graduated second in his class from law school. It certainly explains why his most oft-quoted reticent utterances in verse were recommendations of the joys of a simple, uncompetitive life in which one was content to do one's work ably and to enjoy to the full nature and everyday life as it presents itself to every one of us. Here is the prayer of triumph that he offers:
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring
Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
This seems to be a suitable democratic thanksgiving for a world that is inclusive rather than exclusive, a world whose center is to be found everywhere and whose circumference can be drawn nowhere.
The refusal to become competitive also explains his delight in the discovery of writing, which for him from the beginning was a solitary activity that was an end-in-itself. He seems never to have expected (or let himself be troubled at not receiving) much of a response to his "letter to the world." He did take the trouble in most cases of getting his work into print, but circulation, as he tells us, was another matter. It would have to take care of itself, and the lack of it never affected his pleasure in the writing itself. It was no idle boast when he tells us that he was glad to be free of the drive of more ambitious, competitive souls for either name or money. The work itself "was the thing" and that he was fortunate in sincerely feeling this is evident from how well the work was always done by him.
His chief joys very early were walking, reading and writing, and he found a couple of like-minded friends, not in high school but in one of the small "settlement houses" which were a feature of immigrant life in the city in the early decades of the twentieth century. These friends were the children of Hungarian Jews, one of them, the son of a storekeeper and tenement house landlord who was fairly well-to-do, the other stemming from much poorer people, who lived in a dingy flat in a tenement on the lower east side where the parents slept in a bedroom that had neither door nor window.
They would discuss the poetry of the 1890s, concentrating on the work of Francis Thompson, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson, all of whom were still considered to be too new to be studied in their literature courses in school. The boys, all still in their early teens (Reznikoff was graduated from high school at fifteen), felt proud and superior because of this extra-curricular reading and because they themselves were now writing verse in conventional romantic forms like the sonnet "and the French confectionary Austin Dobson--for one--was good at." On weekends, the three friends would explore the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, hoping for fresh discoveries there of the kind they had read about. They knew that less than half a century ago, Rossetti or Swinburne (who was still alive) had stumbled on the treasure of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat in just such a carton of cheap remaindered books as they were now looking at.
Sometimes he and one of his friends attempted to meet certain literary challenges that had become part of romantic legend. They had read that Keats and Leigh Hunt had undertaken to write sonnets on a given theme in a specified period of time and that Keats, under this pressure, had succeeded in producing his great sonnet on the grasshopper and the cricket ("The poetry of earth is never dead") which was now in the anthologies. His friend finished first and his poem was clever and fantastic and not to Reznikoff's taste at all, while the more deliberate Charles produced something altogether more weighty which his friend confessed he liked and which he himself felt highly satisfied with. It was in some such moment perhaps that the conviction was born in him that he was destined to become a poet. The moment must have resembled one beautifully described by Proust (occurring around the same age) when he wrote down his initial impressions of the moving spires of Martinville and felt as elated as "a hen that has just laid an egg."
In 1910, Reznikoff had to choose a college to go to, and like many another New Yorker chose one as far away from the city and his parents as he could go. Regarding himself as a writer, he was attracted to the newly established School of Journalism at The University of Missouri. There he contributed light verse regularly to the school magazine, but it soon became apparent to him that Journalism was not the way he wanted to earn his living. The journalist was interested above all in the news of the day (ephemeral by its very nature) and relatively indifferent to the process of writing itself, while his priorities were precisely the opposite. He was interested in writing and virtually indifferent to the news of the day. In the language of the man he was to choose soon as his first literary mentor, Ezra Pound, Reznikoff seems to have grasped at once that his own interest was above all in "the news that stays news." When I asked him once, on a public occasion, to define the difference between literature and journalism, he replied with a parable. The old-fashioned editor, he said, used to instruct the fledgling reporter in how to distinguish "usable" news by telling him that if a dog bit a man it was no news but that if a man bit a dog, it most emphatically was news. Journalism was interested above all in the unusual, the improbable, the sensational, the melodramatic event. Literature, while it did not necessarily exclude such highly charged and colored material from its range of interests, insisted on its independence of such material. Literature was capable of making something out of nothing (indeed, it was Flaubert's dream to write a work "about nothing at all"); it was capable of making interesting (by the quality of its style, by its manner, by its emphasis, by the purity and freshness of its language, by the depth of its feeling or thought) the most commonplace and least exciting or unusual occurrences: for example, a walk around the park in which nothing of moment had happened. If Reznikoff's early verse showed the impress of Pound and Imagism, his prose was marked by the influence of Joyce, who had been able to make a very great deal out of Mr. Bloom's ordinary day as he struggled to make his living (while enjoying life as much as he could) amidst the drabness of Dublin.
The same man, of course, might be a working journalist and a literary artist (Whitman or Dreiser or Stephen Crane, for example, at various periods of their lives), but there was no mistaking the difference in these roles or in the results achieved in each. Stephen Crane, whose naturalistic philosophy with its emphasis on the role of accident in an inhospitable universe, seems to have much in common with that of Reznikoff, reported immediately to his newspaper the details of the shipwreck he was in while on his way to cover the war in Cuba, but it was not until months afterwards that he finished writing his great story The Open Boat, which wrenched an aesthetic shape out of the chaotic events he had experienced by concentrating the reader's attention upon a single unified sequence of incidents resulting from the disaster, the struggle of four men to survive. The journalistic report had been transmitted at once to the world waiting for news of what had happened. The literary artifact was composed with great care and subjected to much self-criticism (Crane even went to the length of showing his "story" to the other survivors and asking them for suggestions). Writing the definitive account of his experience "in tranquility" (as Wordsworth would have it), Crane strove mightily to recapture all the emotional nuances of what he had gone through and to interpret the meaning or "message" which might be gathered from his experience for other thoughtful and sensitive men.
Reznikoff returned from the Middle West less than a year later in search of some new professional goal. He seems to have thought for a time of embarking on a course of study that would lead to a doctorate in history. History was a lifelong interest of his and he did skillful work in it that won the approval of professional historians. In collaboration with Uriah Engelmann he wrote a history of the Jews of Charleston, South Carolina; he edited two volumes of the public papers of Louis Marshall; he translated from the German I. J. Benjamin's account of his travels to various Jewish communities of the United States just before the Civil War. But this was not till many years later. In the meantime, he worked as a salesman in his parents' hat-manufacturing business. In the fall of 1912, he decided to enroll in The Law School of New York University. Three years later, he was graduated second in his class and in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, was called to the Bar of the State of New York. But scholarship in the law interested him more than the practice of it. He continued to take postgraduate courses at The Law School of Columbia University, where in 1918 he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps in preparation for being sent overseas to join the American Expeditionary Force fighting in France. But the war was over before he could go overseas and the greatest effect the war had upon him was to prompt his decision to have his own first collection of verse, Rhythms, printed at his own expense. What truly interested him was his own writing, which unfortunately was never to become a lucrative activity. As for what he calls the "unpleasant work" which people in our society who are not independently wealthy have to do for a living, he for a long time preferred to do the kind of menial work for his parents which he felt to be in the least conflict with his intellectual labors. Perhaps he was a little like those ancient and medieval Jewish sages and scholars who, in deference to long tradition and custom, would not be paid for sharing their wisdom or learning in the scriptures but were expected to serve the community in some humble physical calling. (One of the most famous of the old Rabbis is supposed to have been a water-carrier.) Or perhaps Reznikoff was simply drawn into an American literary tradition (represented, among others, by Whitman, Dickinson and Thoreau) in which writers either would not or could not acquire the skills needed to bring their products successfully to market, or if they had mastered such skills at the outset (as is the case with Melville) seemed to lose them later or as they grew older. The list of Reznikoffs published works (whether by himself or others) sufficiently proves his industry and devotion to his own writing. What else he did to earn money--selling hats for his parents, doing research for organizations, translating books, helping to edit a magazine, or being a general factotum for a friend, Albert Lewin, who was a successful Hollywood film producer--was more or less a matter of chance and largely indifferent to him.
His training in the law, whatever other use he may have made of it, exerted a decisive influence upon his conception of the role of the writer as an impartial and restrained witness to the life of his time and also upon his ability to criticize his own writing and upon the objectivity with which he regarded it. In studying law, he tells us, he had acquired the invaluable habit of
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.
His great advantage over other writers from the beginning was in his singular lack of vanity. He was in no hurry to see his work in print in the most prestigious place then open to poets--Harriet Monroe's Chicago Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. When Miss Monroe accepted two of his poems, he was not so overwhelmed that he could not see their faults, and he continued to work on revising them, particularly after they were severely criticized by a friend who was studying Shakespeare with Kittredge at Harvard. The editor, on the other hand, was not receptive to the changes he wished to make before his poems saw the light of print, she told him that in the effort to improve them he had spoiled them. In turn, she suggested some changes of her own which he would not accept. Eventually, he asked that the poems be returned to him and he then decided to have them printed privately in the form he liked best. In this decision he was influenced no doubt by the fate that had overtaken many promising young artists during the war (notably Pound's friend Gaudier Brzeska, about whom Reznikoff wrote some lines). Lest he too perish with "his work unended," he would put into print whatever little of his own work had survived his ruthless determination to
... 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 the plain.
Studying law did more than merely chasten Reznikoff's style, it stirred him to reflect upon the contrast presented between the sanctuary of the quiet classroom or study and what Wordsworth had once described as "the sad music of humanity." Outside the sheltering walls he could hear:
the noise of the street . . . far way
ten stories below;
far way, too, the worry and noise of my parents' shop;
before me was all that was left of eager argument and eager parties,
now merely names that might just as well have been,
and in the talk of the law students, often were,
single letters of the alphabet:
all the blood--the heartache and the heartening gone out of the words
and only, as a pattern for thinking,
the cool bones of the judge's reasoning.
The sharp contrast between everyday reality and the privileged sanctuary of the intellectual life cured him of his admiration for the romantic sentiments and the soft suggestive imprecise verbiage which conveyed them in the poetry of the Nineties and of the Symbolist movement that he had once tried to imitate. Instead of outworn and affected poetical styles, he learned now to appreciate:
the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.
... I found it delightful
to bathe in the clear waters of reason,
to use words for their daylight meaning
and not as prisms
playing with the rainbows of connotations ...
... I felt no regret for the glittering words I had played with
and only pleasure to be working with ideas
of rights and wrongs and their elements,
and of justice between men in their intricate affairs.
There may have been something else which contributed to Reznikoff's appreciation of the law he was studying, and that was his neglect up to that point of the positive meaning of his Jewish heritage (in spite of all the anti-Semitic contretemps he had encountered in early life, both he and his brother, who was to become a physician, were neglectful of Jewish tradition without opposition from the parents). As he was preparing to leave home for the University of Missouri, his grandfather, who would die before Charles' return, embraced him tenderly and with tears:
perhaps, because in spite of all the learning I had acquired in high school,
I knew not a single word of the Torah
and was going out into the world
with none of the accumulated wisdom of my people to guide me,
with no prayers with which to talk to the God of my people,
for it is not easy to be a Jew or, perhaps, a man
doomed by his ignorance to stumble and blunder.
Reznikoff's study of the law of the United States seems to have become for him a substitute for the Jewish patrimony of knowledge of the sacred law which he had rejected when he was too young. The idealization of law itself can be heard in the eloquent conclusion of his little "play" (really more of a poem than a play) about the famous medieval Hebrew scholar and commentator on the Bible, Rashi:
Jacob is like the stars
Which rise to their station,
Which the winds cannot blow away
Nor clouds extinguish,
But we become names upon gravestones and upon books,
Our desire for the law an inheritance
Among our grandsons.
It was good to labor, and after labor
It is good to rest.
In his very first year at law school, he had felt that, rightly looked at, the law was something greater than a merely useful instrument of society. Its ultimate purposes were imaginatively far reaching and could be properly grasped perhaps only by a poet:
The law that we studied
was not always the actual law
of judges or statutes
but an ideal
from which new branches were ever springing
as society became complicated
and the new rights of its individuals clear.
In 1919, Reznikoff printed privately another selection of his poems entitled Rhythms II. It is not clear how much, if any, attention his first two little books received; before the end of his life, however, they had become prized collectors' items. That they caught at least one pair of discerning eyes at the time of their appearance is indicated by the fact that, in 1920, the first volume of his poems appeared under modest but commercial auspices. The publisher was Samuel Roth, a bookseller who owned The Poetry Book Shop in Greenwich Village. Roth (who was destined to enter American judicial, if not literary, history, as a result of the U. S. Supreme Court's 1957 decision defining the boundaries of what it is permissible to print without being charged with pornography) wrote a memoir in prison in 1930 in which he indicated that, despite his personal enthusiasm for Reznikoff's work, the book he had published enjoyed only an insignificant sale. Roth's opinion of the poet could not have been expressed in more hyperbolic terms: "I have for a long time been under the impression that in his way [Reznikoff] was doing the only fruitful literary work in America. . . . Indeed, he forms today, in my vision, a solitary lagoon on the vast empty sea of American literary enterprise." One writes in such tones perhaps only when one is conscious of being more or less isolated in his opinion. Yet these words indicate Reznikoff's ability from the outset to compensate for his lack of widespread appeal to a large audience by a gift of inspiring a happy few sympathetically attuned to him with an almost limitless enthusiasm.
In 1921, Reznikoff published Uriel Accosta: A Play and A Fourth Group of Verse, followed in 1922 by the playlets (inspired by the examples he had seen on the American stage of contemporary German Expressionist Drama being produced under the Weimar Republic) Chatterton, The Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis. In 1923, his plays Coral and Captive Israel were published (it should be understood that all of these "plays" are so concise that nine of them were eventually collected into one small book).
In 1928, he went to work for Corpus Juris, an encyclopaedia of law for lawyers, and though this job at last utilized his legal training, he seems to have found it at first nearly as burdensome as selling hats for his parents. Eventually, however, he was able to find through this hackwork the materials for his major work Testimony, and the technique developed there was also applied to his very late work Holocaust. Throughout his life Reznikoff had to wrestle with the problem of having to make a living while continuing to write as he pleased. The difficulty was that of combining his vocation with his avocation, which ideally, according to a figure by Robert Frost, should be "like two eyes which make one in sight." Every genuine writer must find his own way of coping with. the problem; Reznikoff's solution is alluded to in the following five lines:
After I had worked all day at what I earn my living,
I was tired. Now my work has lost another day
I thought, but began slowly,
and slowly my strength came back to me.
Surely the tide comes in twice a day.
These lines seem to me to say much about life in our time, as it presents itself to the vast majority of people--not only to artists, but perhaps especially to them--and it holds out a hope, however tentatively, that one may learn to master its conditions. Reznikoff was far from being alone in his dilemma; two other poets who shared it with him were William Carlos Williams, who had to combine a busy medical practice with his compulsion to write, and Wallace Stevens, who had to learn to cope with the still greater challenges of a career in business while writing prolifically.
In 1929, his thirty-fifth year ("nel mezzo del cammin"), Reznikoff printed a miscellany (which he hoped would be only the first of an annual one thereafter) with a striking title-story, By the Waters of Manhattan. This piece of prose attracted more attention than any of his poems had done, and in 1930 the publisher Charles Boni offered the public a short novel by Reznikoff with the same title and an Introduction by the well-known anthologist Louis Untermeyer. The title By the Waters of Manhattan so pleased Reznikoff and his publishers that it was to be used a third time in 1962 for the book of his selected poems issued by New Directions.
The novel in 1930 scored something of a succés destime. Leonard Ehrlich, the author of a well-known novel during the Depression about John Brown called God's Angry Man, reviewed it favorably in The Saturday Heritage of Literature. And a young Lionel Trilling wrote of it in The Menorah Journal: "Mr. Reznikoffs work is remarkable and original in American literature" and attributed the impression it made on him to its prose style, which he described as "of the greatest delicacy and distinction." Despite such admiration, the novel failed to make any signal impact on the public. The great success of 1930, which made use in more highly colored, sensational, journalistic fashion, of impressions of life among the Jewish poor similar to those of Reznikoff, was Michael Gold's Jews Without Money. It was this crude book, rather than Reznikoff's aesthetically refined study, which took not only the fancy of the book-buying public but of a prestigious critic like Edmund Wilson. The threat of revolution seemed to be very much in the air at the time, and Michael Gold's proletarian violence was more attuned to its mood than Reznikoff's philosophical detachment. The news he brought so quietly might indeed "stay news" longer, but for the moment readers preferred the melodrama of ephemeral headlines to it.
In 1930, Reznikoff married the writer and editor Marie Syrkin, an accomplished poet of a traditional kind herself who appreciated Reznikoff's work (particularly the earlier imagistic phase of it) and whose memoir of the Hollywood period of his life appears elsewhere in this book. And in 1931, Reznikoff reached the culmination of the first part of his career through the strenuous critical promotion of Louis Zukofsky, who was ten years younger than Reznikoff but had known and admired his work for some time. According to Mary Oppen's autobiographical Meaning A Life (1978), her husband George Oppen, Zukofsky, and Reznikoff were all known to each other by 1928.
In 1934 The Objectivist Press published no less than three titles by Reznikoff: In Memoriam: 1933, Jerusalem the Golden, and the initial installment of Testimony. In 1937, he brought out a selection of poems entitled Separate Way and another prose work, Early History of a Sewing Machine Operator in the composition of which he collaborated closely with his father, Nathan Reznikoff. In that same year, his mother Sarah died of cancer at the age of sixty-eight and was memorialized by her son in a profoundly moving suite of eleven poems which he called Kaddish. Around the same time he composed another sequence of poems about his experience of serving as a "stooge" to a movie producer entitled Autobiography: Hollywood.
In 1941, Reznikoff published some poems under the title Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down, and in 1944 The Jewish Publication Society of America brought out his historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from medieval England entitled The Lionhearted, an epithet which the author evidently thinks would have been more fitly bestowed upon the victims of persecution than it was upon the celebrated King Richard in whose reign it started. For years after this Reznikoff was engaged in writing, research, translation, and editing for such organizations and periodicals as The American Jewish Committee, The Jewish Publication Society, and The Jewish Frontier. However alien any of these tasks were to Reznikoff's real interests as a writer, he performed them with conscientious care that brought praise from an historian like Oscar Handlin. The painstaking attention to detail which makes for concentration in his verse is also evident everywhere in his prose. He looked upon no job which he was called upon to do as beneath him, and he never performed it shoddily. Perhaps it is this humility which is the secret spring of the sympathetic identification with which he always portrays the humblest members of the social order; the scrubwoman, the elevator operator, the poor shoemaker, the overworked servant-girl, the millhand hurt in an industrial accident, helpless children, immigrants, members of vulnerable minorities (Jews, Blacks, Orientals), people in the grip of overwhelming passions as well as the victims hurt or destroyed by them. He always refuses the inherent invitation of his material to sentimentality. If Reznikoff errs at all, it is on the side of understatement and restraint, never melodramatic exaggeration. The reader who feels touched by his "witness," therefore, is affected more intimately, more persuasively, and more powerfully than he might otherwise be.
Reznikoff was too self-critical to be very productive as a poet, and what he did produce too often succumbed to his passion for revision. During his fifties, when he was kept very busy with tasks of editing, translation and research, he did not find much time to spend on his verse. After 1941 he did not print another collection of his verse for eighteen years. In 1959 he collected poems he had published in such magazines as Commentary and published them under the title Inscriptions: 1944-1956. I had been impressed with the appearance of some of these verses in periodicals, and when the book finally appeared I was moved to review it.
The publication in 1962 by New Directions of his selected verse under the old title By the Waters of Manhattan (as I have already indicated) revived interest in his work. Three years later, in 1965, New Directions in concert with The San Francisco Review brought out another book by Reznikoff, Testimony: The United States, 1885-1890: Recitative. Despite a creditable effort at publicizing the book, and despite some interesting and enthusiastic reviews by Geoffrey Wolff and Cynthia Ozick, the general reaction was either negative or silent. Even Hayden Carruth, who had been so enthusiastic over the previous book, was savage in his reception of this one in Poetry. New Directions then gave up its option to publish further installments of Testimony, and Reznikoff, until his work was taken under the small wing of The Black Sparrow Press, was once again reduced to printing his own work. In 1969, he put out two books By the Well of Living and Seeing and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees.
It was not until Reznikoff was in his 77th year, in 1971, that he received a glimmer of recognition from the American literary world (earlier--in 1963--he had been awarded the Kovner Prize by the Jewish Book Council of America) with the award to him of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize of $2,500 by The National Institute of Arts and Letters. Three years later, in 1974, his new publisher and patron, The Black Sparrow Press, brought out a handsome volume by him entitled By the Well of Living and Seeing: New and Selected Poems, 1918-1973. In 1975, Black Sparrow also published in soft-cover his Holocaust. This was the last book published in his lifetime, though he was busy correcting proofs of the first Volume of his Complete Poems when he died at his home in Manhattan on the morning of January 22, 1976, following a heart seizure the previous evening. He was buried in the Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn on a Reznikoff family plot. On his tombstone, beside his name, his widow had directed that the word Poet be incised, and as if to prove his right to the title she inscribed on the stone his lovely line: "and the day's brightness dwindles into stars."
from Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright © 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.
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