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Reznikoff, Charles

REZNIKOFF, Charles

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 31 August 1894. Education: Boys High School, Brooklyn, graduated 1909; University of Missouri, School of Journalism, 1911-12; New York University Law School, 1912-15, LL. B. 1915; Law School of Columbia University postgraduate courses, 1915-18. Military Service: Joined Reserve Officers Training Corps, 1918: war ended before he served. Family: Married Marie Syrkin in 1930. Career: Worked as a salesman in his parents' hat-manufacturing business, 1912; admitted to the Bar of the State of New York, 1916; member of editorial staff, American Law Book Co., Brooklyn, early 1930s; associated with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi, known as the Objectivist group of poets and founders of the Objectivist Press, 1930s; worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, late 1930s; freelance writer beginning 1940s; member of editorial staff, Jewish Frontier, New York, beginning 1955. Awards: Jewish Book Council of America Kovner prize, 1963; National Institute of Arts and Letters Morton Dauwen Zabel award for poetry, 1971. Died: 22 January 1976.

Publication

Poetry

Rhythms. 1918.

Rhythms II. 1919.

Poems. 1920.

Uriel Acosta: A Play and a Fourth Group of Verse. 1921.

Five Groups of Verse. 1927.

Jerusalem the Golden. 1934.

Separate Way. 1936.

Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down. 1941.

Inscriptions: 1944-1956. 1959.

By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse. 1962. By the Well of Living and Seeing: New & Selected Poems, 1918-1973. 1974.

Holocaust. 1975.

The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff , edited by Seamus Cooney (2 vols.): Poems, 1918-1936. 1976. Poems, 1937-1975. 1977.

Novels

By the Waters of Manhattan. 1930.

The Lionhearted: A Story about the Jews in Medieval England. 1944.

The Manner Music. 1977.

Plays

Chatterton, the Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis: Three Plays (playlets). 1922.

Coral, and Captive Israel: Two Plays (playlets). 1923.

Nine Plays (playlets). 1927.

Other

Testimony, In Memoriam: 1933. 1934.

Early History of a Sewing Machine Operator, with Nathan Reznikoff. 1936.

The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community, with Uriah Z. Engelman. 1950.

Family Chronicle, with Nathan and Sarah Reznikoff. 1963.

Testimony: The United States 1885-1890: Recitative. 1965.

Testimony: The Unites States 1891-1900: Recitative. 1968.

By the Well of Living and Seeing, and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees. 1969.

Selected Letters of Charles Reznikoff, 1917-1976, edited by Milton Hindus. 1997.

*

Bibliography:

"An Annotated Bibliography of Works about Charles Reznikoff: 1920-1983" by Linda Simon, in Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, edited by Milton Hindus, 1984.

Critical Studies:

Charles Reznikoff: A Critical Essay by Milton Hindus, 1977; Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, edited by Milton Hindus, 1984; "'Detailing the Facts': Charles Reznikoff's Response to the Holocaust" by Robert Franciosi, in Contemporary Literature, 29(2), Summer 1988, pp. 241-64; Charles Reznikoff issue of Sagetrieb, 13(1-2), Spring/Fall 1994; "'And Breathe upon These Slain, That They Shall Live': Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust," in Reclaiming Memory: American Representations of the Holocaust, edited by Pirjo Ahokas and Martine Chard-Hutchinson, 1997, and "Charles Reznikoff: New World Poetics," in Strategies of Difference: Case Studies in Poetic Composition, edited by Pierre Lagayette, 1998, both by Genevieve Cohen-Cheminet; "Tradition and Modernity, Judaism and Objectivism: The Poetry of Charles Reznikoff" by Norman Finkelstein, in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, 1999; "'Palestine Was a Halting Place, One of Many': Diasporism in the Poetry of Charles Reznikoff" by Ranen Omer, in MELUS, 25(1), Spring 2000, pp. 147-80; A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry by Stephen Fredman, 2001.

* * *

Charles Reznikoff, born in 1894 in the Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, produced a large body of work, including poetry, fiction, drama, history, and memoir. While much of this material was concerned with American and Jewish American identity, Reznikoff wrote only one work that focused directly on the Holocaust—an extended poem, or, as he described it, a recitative, titled Holocaust (1975). As Reznikoff's last book of poems, Holocaust bears the hallmarks of the poetic style distinguishing his earlier writings, most notably his affinity with objectivist poets writing in the United States in the 1930s, the influence of his professional training on his aesthetics, and his commitment to witnessing history through poetry.

Objectivist poetry (a literary movement founded by Reznikoff's fellow Jewish poet Louis Zukofsky) can generally be understood as writing characterized by concise language; attention to detail; sparse, if any, use of symbol and metaphor; and an emphasis on the image itself as the most worthy object of poetic focus. Reznikoff explained his own understanding of the term in a 1969 interview: "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 subject matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music."

This aesthetic philosophy was accentuated by Reznikoff's training as an attorney, his aspirations toward a career as a historian, and his job as an editor of court records. In the latter position he condensed and summarized court cases for publication in legal reference texts, a practice that clearly influenced his poetic writings. Holocaust, for example, which was based directly on archival records from the Nuremberg and Eichmann war trials, appears at first glance simply to consist of brief recapitulations of wartime atrocities. Under the section titled "Research," for example, Reznikoff writes:

A number of Jews had to drink sea water only to find out how long they could stand it. In their torment they threw themselves on the mops and rags used by the hospital attendants and sucked the dirty water out of them to quench the thirst driving them mad.

But the poem is far more than a mere summary of the historical record. On the contrary, Holocaust is stylistically pioneering in its portrayal of the abominations that took place in starkly detached detail. Paraphrasing an eleventh-century Chinese poet whom he admired, Reznikoff described the function of poetry to be the "present[ation] of the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling." Reznikoff artfully culls, arranges, and juxtaposes the documentary material to present the horror of "the thing" while resisting the urge to prescribe "the feeling." In so doing he creates a poem seemingly devoid of emotion but that has profound emotional impact on his readers. In fact his very refusal to comment upon the abuses portrayed in Holocaust makes the poem all the more disturbing in that the absence of interpretation in the poem demands that the gap be closed by the reader. As poet Michael Heller claimed upon Reznikoff's death, the "sheer factualness" of Reznikoff's poetry "commands" but does not "dictate" our response.

For Reznikoff, who was ultimately neither a trained historian nor a practicing lawyer with the potential to avenge past wrongs in a court of law, writing poetry provided a means of witnessing the inhumanity of the Holocaust. He saw the poem itself as a form of testimony: "Now suppose in a court of law you are testifying in a negligence case," he explains. "You cannot get up on the stand and say, 'That man was negligent.' That's a conclusion of fact. What you'd be compelled to say is how the man acted. Did he stop before he crossed the street? Did he look? The judges of whether he is negligent or not are the jury in the case and the judges of what you say as a poet are the readers. That is, there is an analogy between testimony in courts and the testimony of a poet." In writing Holocaust Reznikoff produced one of the most powerful testimonials in literature to witness, confirm, and condemn the event.

—Heather Hathaway

See the essay on Holocaust.

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