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By Alan Gilbert

In my previous post, I asked—given Rob Fitterman’s direct appropriation of captions taken from photos archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—whether or not Charles Reznikoff might be considered a forerunner of Conceptual poetics, especially given its heavy reliance on strategies of appropriation.

I soon received a helpful email from essayist, translator, editor, and Objectivism expert Eliot Weinberger pointing out that Reznikoff didn’t directly appropriate text for his poetry, but in fact rewrote legal transcripts and historical documents. (Weinberger’s email made me wonder if as result of Harriet’s comment stream begin turned off there was an inordinate amount of backchanneling going on. Personally, I haven’t noticed any more than when I blogged for Harriet a couple summers ago.)

Weinberger directed me to an article in a 1982 volume of Sagetrieb by Kathryn Shevelow in which she reproduced Reznikoff’s source material side-by-side with the resultant poems, which showed that unlike the poem Fitterman read, or Vanessa Place’s self-appropriation of appellate briefs she’s written (to name the two authors of the stimulating Notes on Conceptualisms—Harriet readers, note the plural “conceptualisms”!), Reznikoff creatively intervened in the writing of a text like Testimony. Not “uncreative writing,” in other words.

In his essay “Reznikoff’s Testimony,” republished in a 2005 volume of Legal Studies Forum, Benjamin Watson gives an example of an original passage in prose and Reznikoff’s appropriated version as poetry, along with some commentary on the “poetic” differences:

Reznikoff naturally took special notice of the hardships of immigrants. Most of the accounts he found described their working conditions, including this one from the New York Supplement concerning a twelve-year-old Italian girl who spoke no English: ‘Shortly after she commenced operating the machine the wheels became clogged with an ear of corn, and, in attempting to push the ear towards the knives, her hand was drawn in, one of her fingers was taken off, and the hand itself was considerably lacerated and injured.’ Here is Reznikoff’s verse description:

Soon afterwards the wheels of the machine
became clogged with an ear of corn
and in trying to push the ear towards the knives
her hand was drawn in, one of her fingers torn off
and the rest of her hand mangled.”

The appellate court affirmed that the child was insufficiently instructed in the dangers of the machinery and upheld an award of damages. Reznikoff typically ignored these facts, to concentrate exclusively on her sufferings. His alterations were directed toward removing the euphemisms which the judge had employed. The girl’s finger is not “taken” off, but “torn” off. The vague medical jargon “considerably lacerated and injured” becomes “mangled.” The court writes of “the hand itself” as if it were an inanimate object. By substituting “the rest of her hand” the poet restores its human vulnerability. Further, Reznikoff’s long, rhythmic lines seem to reflect the inexorability of the machine.

I present Charles Reznikoff: the unacknowledged link between Conceptual poetics and contemporary documentary poetry!

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 by Alan Gilbert.