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On Testimony

Excerpt from an Interview with Reznikoff by L.S. Dembo

Q. Well, that brings us to the question of Testimony: The United States, 1885-1890, a work that doesn't seem at all to be in the mainstream of your poetry. 

A. Testimony may be explained by T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative," as I understand it. Something happens and it expresses something that you feel, not necessarily because of those facts, but because of entirely different facts that give you the same kind of feeling. Now, in reading law, if the cases state any facts, they're just a sentence or two; but, occasionally, you'll find the facts gone into in detail, sometimes to explain or defend the judge's position. Still the facts have a function of their ownópsychological, sociological, and perhaps even poetical. In Testimony the speakers whose words I use are all giving testimony about what they actually lived through. The testimony is that of a witness in courtónot a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard. What I wanted to do was to create by selection, arrangement, and the rhythm of the words used as a mood or feeling. I could have picked any period because the same thing is happening today that was happening in 1885. For example, in the volume I'm working on now there's a description of a Negro riot in St. Louis around 1900. A reviewer wrote that when he read Testimony a second time he saw a world of horror and violence. I didn't invent the world, but I felt it.

Q. But doesn't testimony as such come out as simply a transcription of reality? 

A. But I throw out an awful lot to achieve my purpose. It's not a complete picture of the United States at any time, by any means. It's only a part of what happened, a reality that I felt as a reader and could not portray adequately in any other way. But I will tell you, if it's any satisfaction, that Testimony had very little sale.

Q. Well, that's certainly no satisfaction. 

A. This discussion about testimony and events being lived through brings me to a waning I'd like to make. I suppose I'm an "objectivist" and I have my own "formula" for writing, but no formula can be a guarantee of good writing. I think behind any poem there's a background of experience and emotion that explains its moving quality. Sometimes even the poet himself may have forgotten the background. It's a mystery. 

from "An Interview with Charles Reznikoff." Contemporary Literature 10.2 (Spring 1969)

 Aldon Lynn Nielsen

Charles Reznikoff wrote at length in verse of the black experience in America. His longest poem, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915), Recitative, is divided up into sections according to geographical region and subject matter. Within these divisions, there is a repeating section entitled "Negroes," which is comprised of court testimony from cases involving blacks, rendered into verse patterns by the poet. These sections, taken as a whole, constitute the most substantial consideration given to black life by a white poet during the modernist period, and for once they let that life speak for itself, in the form of dispassionately reported depositions. One example shall have to serve:

Several white men went at night to the Negro's
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery
his wife and children ran under the bed
and as the firing from guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up, ran through a side door
into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the
house of a neighbor—
a white man--
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man's door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for "unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring"-
the white man's property.

Reznikoff allows the irony of America's racial injustices to foreground itself in these pieces, as in this one, which makes no comment on the fact that there were no charges for destroying a black man's property or for assaulting him and his family.

From Reading Race" White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1986 by The University of Georgia Press.

Linda Simon

Reznikoff's sources for Testimony were hundreds of volumes in the Reporter series (these are published by region) from 1885-1915. He looked particularly for cases involving "injury (death, assault, theft) due to primitive violence; injury due to negligence, particularly those caused by machinery . . . , and unusual characters or places--unusual and yet characteristic of the time." These, he thought, would illuminate the transition in America from an agricultural to an industrial society and, presumably, the impact of that transition on particular individuals.

From "Reznikoff: The Poet as Witness." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Randolph Chilton

Naturally, nearly all of the poems describe a criminal act or circumstances surrounding such an act. In addition to their content, Reznikoff's editing strongly reinforces his dark view of the period he worked with.

[. . . .]

The macabre facts of these cases are left to speak for themselves, but the cumulative effect of such descriptions is to evoke on the reader's part a growing sense of "a world of horror and violence," in one reviewer's words. Reznikoff says, "I didn't invent the world, but I felt it." On another level, of course, if we read sensitively, we must remember that the speakers describe the world of our own ancestors--a world we have inherited. In this context, Reznikoff's unornamented rendering of the records of murder, incest, violent crime, and cut-throat greed finally makes us perceive our world as strangely as any surrealist perceives it, but with a much more historically oriented sensibility.

From "Charles Reznikoff: Objective Witness." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Linda W. Wagner

Reznikoff’s late sequences of poems, Volumes I and II of his Testimony, accumulate these factually-based accounts into moving collections. Repeatedly Reznikoff's pace in the poems adds immeasurably to the effect of control, of re-counting, that the poet seems to be aiming for. Many of these testimonies are heart-breaking. Most of them reflect the chaos of the modern urbanized world Reznikoff imaged in his first poems. But because they are phrased in longer lines, with more details and more interrelationships presented as context, they are easier to read and absorb than were his early short lyrics.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff manages our responses so that we know exactly what he wants us to know, when he allows us to know it. Because we are led so simply, given traditional scenes that our past experiences mark as positive or negative, the full effect of his contrived ironies--for they mark nearly every one of the testimony poems—is usually devastating.

[. . . .]

[B]ut it seems to me that what is equally important in this masterful series of poems, the testimony volumes I and II, is Reznikoff's craft, his ability to shape our responses so that his recounting is dramatic, for all its subdued and objective tone. We read Testimony because we are caught in its plots and characters, because we are moved by each accounting, because Reznikoff doesn't let us forget the implication he so carefully never states.

From "Charles Reznikoff: Master of the Miniature." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

David Ignatow

He had sent me the first volume of Testimony, and I was knocked over by it; by its calm account of cases of murder, lust, perversion, theft and betrayals throughout the early years of this great republic, each case told with such economy of language, simplicity and directness as to leave no doubt in anyone's mind that he or she was reading an actual case drawn from legal history, but, and this was the big but, written from the viewpoint of an observer who could have been there and who knew who was at fault from first hand observation, yet was not about to point it out to anyone with so many words of direct accusation. The reader was left to draw his or her own conclusions, and yet fault was not the issue in all of these poems. It was more than that, it was the deepest sorrow and commiseration with pain, suffering, human frailty, with human limitation to self understanding, self discipline and human lack of soul, if one can define spirit of commonality in those terms. He was revealing the grating isolation in which each of the victims and their aggressors were living in a country dedicated to unity within diversity. There was plenty of diversity but little or no unity and the book was an overwhelming indictment of the case.

[. . . .]

Could a man do less that to write of his grief at the loss of opportunity this country had once to raise itself to the heights dreamed of by its founders? Charles was not about to shirk that duty to the truth, which in his sardonic way he could only hope that someday would act as a therapeutic with which to cleanse this country of its shame. And so I was to find him on every page of Testimony speaking to me as he had not been able to in private on those occasions when we had met, for one, that walk on Fifth Avenue with hints of his project barely made. After the first volume of Testimony I felt closer to him than ever before.

From "Charles Reznikoff: A Memoir" In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Milton Hindus

Testimony should be a specific against what a fatuous public official once described as "the optimism of the American historical vision." This is not because Reznikoff believes America is worse than the rest of the world, but because he sees no reason to think it much better. Vice, drunkenness, greed, murder, and sadism produce results no different in America than they once did in Dostoyevsky's Russia or Dante's Italy.

[. . . .]

When Reznikoff resumed writing Testimony in the 1960s, there loomed up before his imagination out of "the dark backward and abysm of time" realities dwarfing the great economic Depression of the Thirties (the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima), yet he still felt that the horror of such grand historical abstractions could most effectively be brought home by the minute particulars of individual cases, which he had first begun to read extensively while working for a living on the encyclopaedia of law for lawyers, Corpus Juris. Later, he continued to read these reports for the sheer human interest of them and because he felt challenged to create for strangers (by selection, arrangement, and a clarified, chastened style) the feelings which some of the cases had aroused in himself. Litera scripta manet. The written record remains, but what good is it if it is unread? The law reports of the various states were for Reznikoff what Holinshed's Chronicles and Hakluyt's Voyages were for earlier poets, quarries out of which to dig materials that could be shaped into new literary artifacts.

From "Epic, Action-Poem, Cartoon: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Janet Sutherland

He called the work Testimony: The United States acknowledging in the title the importance of seeing the nation as a whole, even while noting its fragmentation. What is most worrying to critics in Testimony is its seeming bias towards all that is most sordid and terrible in American life. This is due in part to its origins as a source-based work, for seldom in criminal court cases is there mention of ordinary life. I feel, though, that it is also due to Reznikoff's ideas about young America. If we accept that his main aim in Testimony was to give an impression of the problems of assimilation (not just problems associated with race and culture differences but also those of urbanization, poverty, etc.) then one can see the drift of the work not as bias but as a deliberate attempt to direct the reader towards an understanding of the problems the New World has to face.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff called this verse form "Recitative." Why did he use this form rather than prose, for instance? The answer would appear to lie in the way Reznikoff uses the verse form to carry an indirect emotional content rather than using an authorial commentary or abstract emotional words which are more characteristic of prose. Reznikoff's "Recitative" form is clearly based on English as a spoken language, as a witness might speak in a court of law, rather than on more lyrical qualities. It is a verse form, however, using speech rhythms rather than a regular metrical arrangement. The shortened sentences taken from the source are broken in one or more places at natural pauses in speech rhythm. It is these breaks which transform the work from a "found" text into poetry. The abruptness of the shortened sentences leads to a kind of staccato effect emphasized by the occasional interjection of very short lines such as "the baby should live," "and shot her twice," "the S.S. man laughed." Such an abrupt or broken speech pattern suggests. an emotional state; thus Reznikoff can dispense with abstract emotional words because the verse structure subtly supplies an indirect emotional content. Commentary is unnecessary. In using the "Recitative" method, therefore, Reznikoff is isolating a particular section of his source--the testimony of witnesses--and in accentuating its particular characteristic (the spoken word) he gives the reader an unspoken sense of his source. . . .

From Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Auster

Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative is perhaps Reznikoff's most important achievement as a poet. A quietly astonishing work, so deceptive in its making that it would be easy to misread it as a document rather than as a piece of art, it is at once a kaleidoscopic vision of American life and the ultimate test of Reznikoff’s poetic principles. Composed of small, self-contained fragments, each the distillation of an actual court case, the overall effect is nevertheless extremely coherent. Reznikoff has no lesson to teach, no axe to grind, no ideology to defend: he merely wants to present the facts.

[. . . .]

It would be difficult for a poet to make himself more invisible than Reznikoff does in this book. To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers of the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire is to allow events to speak for themselves, to choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few: an ability to accept the given, to remain a witness of human behavior and not succumb to the temptation of becoming a judge.

From "Reznikoff and His Sources." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

Michael Heller

For in Reznikoff, lives, cityscapes, testimonies, tend to remain resolutely what they are, to resist being read analogically or metaphorically. Particularly in the urban poetry, there is a sealed character to the contents of the work, one that is full of sorrow, of a judging sorrow and tenderness, which understands personality, even that of fools and villains, and yet accepts. In many of the poems, there seems to exist an air of resignation, a curious resignation, because in the way the contents of a poem are rendered, this atmosphere arises from its subject and not from its author's attitudes.

This air has as much to do with craft as with feeling. For what Reznikoff's work evokes--and this is its most contemporary aspect--is the perception and the humanity of the reader. The surer, possibly harsher aspects of judgment are left to the reader as if to say, let him or her decide what to feel (or do) about modern life, about the modern world. Instead of judgment, there is a sense of great detachment, a kind of moral spaciousness that the reader must cross. It is not that there are gaps of information--everything is given. Yet, as with few other contemporary bodies of verse, the reader must discover in himself the attitudes he has toward the material.

Nothing seems so aesthetically right, so convincing as this distance. We often find in Reznikoff the sense of the poet having just withdrawn from the scene of the poem, of the people recorded themselves already in some state of taking leave. The great, the impersonal forces of city life or of history have just happened, and now there is the moment urging one to seek stillness, a stillness in which an intuition or perception of what has occurred can take place. At times, particularly in those poems which record the experience of living in the Jewish urban ghettoes of the early 1900s, there is a stifling, pervasive claustrophobia: the boy who sneaks out late at night to use his sled, fearful of being assaulted for his Jewishness in the daytime; the young woman trapped and inarticulate before the sexual advances of the foreign boarder in the house upon whose money the family is dependent; the cello heard through the wall by a young man whose family insist that he defer and defer again his study of music. The great anxiety of city life, of things going on behind one's back, that one is essentially left out or that reasons for what has happened to one are not to be found in this life--these themes are nowhere presented more effectively than in Reznikoff.

Again, it is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret. This restrained use of language marks Reznikoff's entire corpus. . . .

In such works as Holocaust and Testimony, the refinement of Reznikoff's method reaches an austere and heightened level. These works, edited from court testimony, trial records and historical documents, seem at first to be what we have come to call "found poems" (if such material in its sheer poetic recalcitrance can be called poetry). For it is the selection and arrangement alone, i.e., versed, sectioned and placed in book form that indicate that these are to be taken as poems. Yet, other than their presentness, the author's relation to the materials is not to be discovered. The total burden of interpretation appears to be left to the reader; there is, by usual standards, nothing of literary value, nothing quotable or memorable, or even ironic--indeed, irony, in whatever form, must be supplied, as to the pedestal of Ozymandias' pillar, by the affected reader. Shorn of entertainment value, of sentiment, this work seems to place a curious demand on the modern reader. And yet for these poems to be simultaneously a witnessing and a rejecting of any social, artistic or psychological agenda in their presentation, for these materials to be able to "speak for themselves," strikes this reader as not only proper but in some powerful way as noble.

Shorn of comment, the poems of Holocaust and Testimony are less the case of an author's abscondus, than a way of implicating the broadest range of social, political and philosophical responses into a confrontation with material about which, truly, the less said, the better. In commanding response, but not dictating it, the author manages to give both good and bad conscience their due. This, of course, is modernity with a vengeance.

* * *

Artistic resolution and legal judgment are by no means synonymous, yet both aim at a kind of wholeness which is intellectually and psychologically satisfying. This satisfaction in works of art is always mysterious because our views, our understanding of events and of our worlds are always partial, are never exhaustive. Reznikoff's stylistic restraint has the effect of leaving the subjects of his poetry, like the things of the phenomenal world, with their intactness preserved, their tacit being untouched. Whatever their personal value to him, it is in this relentless pursuit of their being that Reznikoff’s craft and subtlety are involved. The paradox of Reznikoff's work, its modernity so to speak, is that the specific and the concrete, their very limitedness, are the gates to wholeness. This limitedness becomes in Reznikoff but the other side of openness and generosity towards experience. Through it we are uncompromisingly reminded that we have hearts and minds of our own, that we too are the witnesses of our world.

From "The Modernity of Charles Reznikoff." In Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet. Ed. Milton Hindus. Copyright 1984 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.

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