Reznikoff: Getting the Love He Deserves

By Harriet Staff

Lots of poetry in The Guardian today! In addition to their story on Lorca’s manuscript, Billy Mills writes about his favorite book of 2010, which, improbably, turns out to be Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust. The book-length poem was composed entirely with excerpts from The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Reznikoff, lawyer that he was, was interested in witness and reportage, and broke the transcripts of testimony into stark line-breaks, which, as Mills says, deprive “us of any sense of catharsis”:

And for me it is this matter of technique, the unblinking gaze of the invisible poet, that makes Holocaust such a vital book. It's as if Reznikoff took up the challenge implicit in Adorno's much misunderstood "Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch" ("It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz"). If Adorno's question is "how can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust", Reznikoff's response is "by doing what the artist has always done and finding the appropriate technical means". The result is, in my opinion, one of the very great long poems in English to be written in the last century.

It’s great to see an important and under-appreciated poem receive such an enthusiastic write-up in a major paper, especially as documentary poetics is more relevant than ever. Even Mills seems to know how rare such praise is—as he says, it was the best book of the last year and it’s “not even a novel” (!?).

Originally Published: January 11th, 2011