Whatever judgment may ultimately be passed upon him, not much more than his works is ever likely to be known of Charles Reznikoff. He left no fervent disciples. The record he wished to preserve is the one he made himself, but it is quite detailed, and will surely have to do for those readers who, treasuring his memory, might like to know more.
Reznikoff was born on 31 August 1894 in—as he himself called it—the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, who are depicted in Family Chronicle (1963), were Sarah Yetta Wolvovsky Reznikoff and Nathan Reznikoff, both immigrant Jews who had recently come to the United States seeking refuge from the czarist pogroms of the 1880s.
The poet was named Ezekiel to honor his maternal grandfather, Ezekiel Wolvovsky, who had died sometime in the 1870s. As he told Reinhold Schiffer in 1974, his mother’s English was very limited, and her doctor, who attended his birth, was “a Jew, but an anarchist,” and had “no use for Jewish affairs, as anarchists wouldn’t.... At every great fast day, he gave a feast.” So when the poet’s mother told him she wanted to name him after her father, he said, “‘Well, what’s your father’s name?’ She said ‘Yehazqel,’ which in English is Ezekiel, the prophet. So he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘call him Charlie. He’ll be grateful to you.’ So all that is on my birth certificate and everywhere is Charles.” In Inscriptions he comments on the meaning of his names, in English and in Hebrew:
According to family tradition, his grandfather Ezekiel had also been a poet who composed his songs while traveling around the Russian countryside with his wagon in search of a living. At his death, the manuscript of his work came into the hands of his widow, Hannah Wolvovsky, who was fearful that the writing might contain nihilistic and hence subversive sentiments dangerous to her family. She destroyed it. The destruction of his grandfather’s lifetime literary output haunted Charles Reznikoff, and he took it as a sign that he himself must see to it that his own work was printed even if there was neither public nor market for it, and that he must be sure not to leave any of it to the care of his family, friends, or executors. It is ironic, therefore, that as much as he published during his long life, he should have left perhaps his most interesting prose work, the novel which he mysteriously called The Manner “Music” (1977), neatly typed among his papers at his death, where it was discovered when these papers came into the hands of his last publisher, John Martin, of Black Sparrow Press.
While Reznikoff was still a boy, his paternal grandparents and other relatives, who had remained behind in Russia when his parents immigrated to America, came to live near them in New York. Reznikoff’s “Early History of a Writer,” in volume two of The Complete Poems (1977), emphasizes the frequency of his family’s moves around the city of New York, and its encounters with the ugly anti-Semitism in non-Jewish neighborhoods. These experiences contributed much to his feelings of insecurity and to his self-consciousness as a Jew. From Brownsville the family moved to Harlem, then to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and, by the time he was twelve years old, back to Brooklyn, but this time more than a mile away from the concentration of Jews in Brownsville. This neighborhood, as he wrote in “Early History of a Writer,” was “mainly laborers and clerks,” mostly cold-water flats without heat. “Among their children,” he wrote, “the hatred for Israel smoldered,” and any Jew unlucky enough for whatever reason (including following his business) to “blunder” into the neighborhood would, “likely as not, have a clod of mud or a couple of stones whizzing at his head.” The poet’s grandparents were, in that neighborhood, “the only Jews for blocks.” Here, the young Reznikoff would scurry home from high school so as to miss the other children getting out of grade school. Reading on the stoop or playing in the street, he was nevertheless the target of flung stones or garbage. Long afterward he remembered an undersized, red-faced Irish child of six or seven years passing back and forth in front of the house where Charles was sitting on the stoop.
There were more violent and traumatic incidents involving his grandfather and an uncle, and from them Reznikoff created vignettes that have the kind of salience that Wordsworth gave to some of his early experiences in The Prelude, which he subtitled Growth of a Poet’s Mind. In “Early History of a Writer” Reznikoff remembers walking with his grandfather through a public park on the East Side when two hooligans (“two strapping Germans—or were they Russians?”) decide to have some fun with the sickly looking undersized Jew “with a short grayish brown beard/ruffled by the cold wind.” Despite his grandfather’s attempts to avoid the confrontation, these fellows will not let him pass but playfully knock him down (showing off, they are “larking with a girl”); they send him “rolling on the pavement until the iron railing along the path stopped him.” His grandson helps him to his feet:
Another experience which ended even worse took place at the conclusion of the evening prayers on the Day of Atonement, when his grandfather and his uncle were unexpectedly late in returning from the synagogue in Brownsville to which they had walked. Charles was worried and went out to meet them. He saw his grandfather coming down the street alone, tears streaming down his face, unable to answer “where’s uncle?” And his uncle appeared “without his new hat and the blood running down his face.” As they were passing a bar a little boy, encouraged by a gang of young ruffians, had brandished a stick at them. The uncle had taken the stick away, and some of the gang jumped the old man and sent him sprawling in the gutter. Charles blamed his uncle for going down that particular street; his father blamed him for taking the stick; and the uncle, trying to warm himself next to the stove, said not a word.
Such was the background which prepared him to write not only his long sequential poem Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915 (1934-1979), a bare and powerful record of human suffering and injustice, but also—during the last years of his life—his major poem Holocaust (1975). There can be no doubt that his direct and indirect observation of violence (and his sense of its perpetual immediacy) as a Jewish child in a hostile urban neighborhood lies behind the lifelong concern in much of his work with the continual possibility, potential, and actuality of violence between human beings. In that and indeed in much else—he embodies his time, and he voices the Jewish experience.
In his early years, Reznikoff was a precocious student. He finished grammar school at the age of eleven, three years ahead of the rest of his class, began writing verse when he was 13 or 14 years old, and graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn in 1909, when he was 15. He had looked forward to going to this intellectually demanding school as something of a relief from the society of his hostile neighborhood, but, as he recorded in “Early History of a Writer,” he was disappointed in his expectations:
On weekends, these three friends would explore the secondhand-book stalls and antiquarian bookshops on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, seeking fresh discoveries modeled on the literary adventures and history they had read about: “for of course we knew that Rossetti or Swinburne had found the Rubaiyat/in just such a pile.” Sometimes, he and his friend Gabriel would attempt to meet certain literary challenges or to solve specific problems (such as writing a sonnet on a given theme in a limited period of time) which had become part of romantic history. “We knew that Keats and Leigh Hunt used to do that. / I had Gabriel choose the theme, / for this was to be a test of my skill in writing verse / as against his.” Even in those early days, Reznikoff was slow, thorough, perhaps in the eyes of others overscrupulous; overcareful. By the time he finished his sonnet (long after Gabriel, and long after the time had expired) it was twilight, “but there was still light enough to see what we had written./Gabriel’s sonnet was something fantastic,/which I did not care for; but he said that he liked mine/And, indeed, I liked it very much.”
The Missouri School of Journalism was not what Reznikoff had expected. Journalists, he discovered, were interested primarily in news and not in writing, while he himself was indifferent to what is generally called news and thought it unimportant compared to what could be made of it in writing. In the language of the man he never met but was soon to choose as his first literary instructor and model, Ezra Pound, Reznikoff’s real interest lay in “the news that stays news.” He would distinguish between journalism and literature by citing the familiar story of the old-fashioned newspaper editor instructing the fledgling reporter in how to find printable news by telling him that if a dog bites a man it is not news while if a man bites a dog it most emphatically is. Journalism is interested above all else in the unusual, the sensational, the improbable, the melodramatic. Literature, while it might include such things, can create something out of nothing through its style, its wit, its intelligence. Selection, unity, patient attention to detail, communication of feeling rather than mere facts were everything in literature. It must be devoid of pointless exaggeration or sentimentality as well. The same man might be both a working journalist and a literary artist, but these were different roles, and there was a world of difference between the results achieved.
Reznikoff returned to New York from the University of Missouri after one year and, after working for a year in his parents’ hat-manufacturing business, he entered the Law School of New York University in the fall of 1912. He had considered, for a time, taking a PhD in history and embarking on a life of scholarship and teaching, but, as he told Janet Sternburg and Alan Ziegler in 1973, “one day passing N.Y.U. Law School I remembered that Heine had studied law and Goethe had studied law, so that seemed to be fine. They only had two hours a day of studying and the rest of the day I’d be free. So I applied and was admitted. I was just 18 then.” Of course he became immersed in his studies: the two-hours-a-day of “case-book” instruction demanded six hours of preparation, and by the time he entered his third year he wanted to quit and get back to his writing: “But my folks wouldn’t hear of it—they said correctly that you’ve only got another year to finish.” In 1915 he earned his LLB degree, graduating second in his class; for the next year he took a few postgraduate courses in Law at Columbia University (and perhaps did some work in the family business), and in 1916 he was called to the Bar of the State of New York. He was 22 years old. He practiced law very briefly indeed: “I thought that a young lawyer would get little business, if any,” he told World Authors 1970-1975, “and if I did not work for another lawyer and just rented desk room I would have plenty of time for my own writing and, indeed, was soon at work at my verse at a desk.” When the United States entered World War I in 1917 he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Columbia University, but the war was over before he got any training. The war may, however, have been the reason why he printed, on the press which he had installed in the basement of his parents’ home in Brooklyn,a small selection of his poems, which he called Rhythms. This little book appeared in 1918, and among the verses was “On One Whom the Germans Shot,” lines inspired by Ezra Pound’s memorial to his gifted friend, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in battle in France in 1915:
When he reprinted the poem in 1920 he dropped the title, and in 1927 he dropped Gaudier-Brzeska name, but the remaining lines (which Zukofsky praised in the February 1931 “Objectivists’ Issue” of Poetry) are evidence of the thoughts of death which were haunting so many young men like Reznikoff during the war. His work, too, might be “unended,” Reznikoff felt, but he was determined that, unlike his maternal grandfather’s verse, it would not be unprinted. The book also contained the brilliant short poem beginning “I step into the fishy pool”—in 1918 titled “The Suicide”; in its pacing and sharp clarity of image, in its use of line breaks, it is characteristic of his most mature work. (In all later printings, that is from 1920 on, he wisely dropped the title, and indeed as a general rule from 1927 on Reznikoff left his poems untitled.) Reznikoff lived long enough to see this book of 23 poems, like others of his early works, bring high prices from rare-book dealers.
The training in law marked a decisive turn in his career. By his own account, he had learned to apply the methods of close reading of case books and judicial decisions he had acquired in law school to his own work and to the work of others. Under the sobering influence of the law, he learned to deflate his own romantic rhetoric and, in general, to become much more critical of both himself and others. In this way he acquired the habit, well worth his investment in his law education, of
He lost what literary self-complacency might have come with Harriet Monroe’s acceptance of two of his poems in her prestigious Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published in Chicago, when his work was criticized by a friend “Al” (Al Lewin) who was studying Shakespeare with Kittredge at Harvard: “most, if not all, that had seemed good to me/now had the dead sound of a counterfeit coin/on his marble good sense.” In his newfound self-critical frame of mind he revised the poems, but Harriet Monroe rejected his revisions and offered some revisions of her own, which Reznikoff strongly disliked. In the end, he withdrew his poems from Poetry: “for the judgment of the editor ... /I had, by this time,/little respect,” and he determined on private publication, the form he would come to like best. What he learned from law and from Al Lewin, he wrote more than 50 years later in “Early History of a Writer,” was that
The law did more than chasten his style; it also appealed to his imagination as he reflected upon the contrast afforded between his quiet classroom and study and the noisy bustle of the street below, and the worry and noise of his parents’ shop; what he found was the abstract depersonalization of the language in law, and he was caught up in the play of reason underlying the anguish, the temper, the fear, anxiety, and pleasure of human endeavor:
Abjuring the deliquescent sentiments and soft, imprecise, impressionistic verbiage characteristic of much of the work of the mauve decade, which had once appealed to him and which he had tried to imitate, he now appreciated
His great pleasure—he calls it “delightful” in “Early History of a Writer”—was in discovering how to puzzle through a judge’s reasoning and “drag the meaning out of the shell of words”: its great appeal was the appeal of “the clear waters of reason” and of using words for their clarity, not for their connotative value. So central did the bare statement of fact become, indeed, that he felt “no regret for the glittering words I had played with,”
His delight in the law, indeed, was a delight in the ideal he found it embodied, of rights for individuals, of redress for suffering, of sympathy and practical help for the oppressed and the wronged, all couched in an objective, impersonal, dispassionate, uncluttered and clear language, expressing clear principles. It is intimately (and intricately, perhaps) connected with his poetry. At the same time, his devotion to scholarship (and to the study of law, which he impatiently lost interest in because his impulse to write was so strong) indirectly reconnected him to his Jewish heritage which he, and his brother, had rejected as teenagers. Marie Syrkin, whom he married in 1930, has said that he saw his own position as poet and scholar in the light of “a long Jewish tradition according to which a true scholar might spend his days in pious study,” and that he “viewed his poetic avocation as a sacred study.” The idealization of the law can be seen in the eloquent conclusion of Rashi (first published in 1925 and collected in 1927), his little play about a medieval scholar and commentator on the Bible:
From 1918 on, he continued to write, and for a period he worked as a salesman for his parents’ hat-manufacturing business. By and large, however, his life was quiet and uneventful, for he was determined to dedicate his life to his writing. Living in New York almost without interruption, he worked as a free-lance writer, editor, and translator only enough to meet his modest needs and walked the streets and bridges of New York (in his early years as much as 20 miles a day, in his later years six). In his first novel, By the Waters of Manhattan (1930), he called walking “that sober dance which despite all the dances man knows, he dances most”; on his walks he always carried his small notebook to jot down lines that occurred to him, things that he saw.
In 1919 he printed on his press another selection of his poems, Rhythms II. It is not clear how much, if any, public attention these poems brought him; certainly neither of them was reviewed. That they caught at least one pair of eyes, however, is indicated by the fact that, in 1920, a 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. In his 1930 memoir, Roth indicated that,despite his own admiration for Reznikoff’s poetry, the book’s sales were insignificant. Roth’s enthusiasm was expressed in 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....” Reviews were mixed. The Sunday Call, looking forward to a more substantial later collection, called the work “promising shavings”; Elias Lieberman, in the American Hebrew, called himself “a friendly critic” and the book “sordid, with the emphasis on the sore”; nevertheless, he said, “there is a wealth of memorable phrases and images in this volume”; the Dial gave it a brief but favorable mention, and all the reviews stressed the fragmentary nature of the book. Malcolm Cowley, in the New York Evening Post, attacked Reznikoff as “astigmatic. He is unable to focus, and lines of splendid verse are lost to sight among low heaps of rubbish,” but he also asserted that Reznikoff “has seen vision, and ... this, and not the ability to write perfect iambs, is the essence of a poet.” As the 1920s progressed, Reznikoff was increasingly able to publish his work in magazines such as the Menorah Journal, and New Palestine: in the early 1930s he would also be publishing in Contempo and Poetry.
The publication of Uriel Accosta: A Play, and a Fourth Group of Verse in 1921 was followed in 1922 by a collection of playlets, Chatterton, The Black Death, and Meriweather Lewis. The form of these, according to Reznikoff, was inspired by the example of the contemporary German expressionist drama being produced in the Weimar Republic, but especially the work of Georg Kaiser. In 1923 he published Coral, and Captive Israel: Two Plays, and in 1927, when he met Marie Syrkin, a struggling writer and editor who taught in a New York high school (she was a traditional poet), he was living on a regular allowance of $25 a week for his past labors for the family business, and was writing full-time. That year he published Nine Plays which collected the previously published plays and added three others (Abram in Egypt, Rashi, and Genests), in an edition of 400 copies. The plays, with such heroes as Chatterton, Uriel Accosta, Meriweather Lewis, and Rashi, fill only 113 pages of verse: one friend described them as “dramas with all the interesting parts left out”: all of his subjects are historical, and, as Tom Sharp has observed, explore “the difficulties of being true to oneself, one’s God, one’s family, one’s art, one’s country, and one’s fellow man.”
The year 1927 was fruitful for Reznikoff: in that year he also published Five Groups of Verse and By the Waters of Manhattan: An Annual, a book which he hoped would be the first of a yearly series. It is almost unclassifiable, for it contains a family memoir in prose which purports to be by his mother, but is in fact by Reznikoff, and a series of verse reworkings of Old Testament sources which he called “Editing and Glosses.” The book was seminal for Reznikoff, for in the prose he began a work which, after much revision and transformation, would become Family Chronicle (1963), and in the verse, he began an activity—the exploration and reworking of his Jewish and biblical heritage—which would occupy much of his later life (these are the works he called “Glosses”). In the Boston Evening Transcript for 3 July 1927 W.R.B. (perhaps William Rose Benét) commented that in Five Groups of Verse Reznikoff accurately portrays that “seared and disillusioned humanity which, rightly or not, we associate with the ghetto” and complained that all too frequently the poems lack development: “Most poets do not know when to leave off; by contrast, Mr. Reznikoff does not know when to go on!” Reviewers ignored By the Waters of Manhattan: An Annual.
In 1930 he married Marie Syrkin, who was supporting herself and her three-year-old son by teaching high school, a job she detested. Since her income, as she put it in her memoir of Charles, “just about covered my annual expenses” they agreed “lightheartedly that since he had enough income to meet his share—the $25 a week—we would set up housekeeping.” They were helped considerably in their plans to marry by Charles Boni’s publication of Reznikoff’s novel By the Waters of Manhattan (1930), with an introduction by the prominent anthologist and critic Louis Untermeyer. Reznikoff received $1,000 from Boni, but shortly after their marriage, in the Depression following the Wall Street crash, the Reznikoff family business failed, and Charles lost his $25-a-week allowance. Reznikoff was thus obliged, after his fruitful years as a full-time writer, to find a job, and he went to work for the publishing firm that produced Corpus Juris, which he described as “an encyclopedia of law for lawyers.” His job was to analyze law cases and summarize their essentials in a prescribed form. Although he used his legal training in this job, he seems at first to have found it as dispiriting as being a hat salesman (an experience he incorporated into his novel The Manner “Music” ), but eventually he found in this literary hackwork the materials he needed for Testimony. The challenge of combining his vocation with his avocation (to paraphrase Robert Frost) is described in these lines, which he wrote around that time:
The job took up so much of his energy and time that it was 1934 before he published any more books. It is, then, perhaps fortunate that the job failed, for he was too scrupulous in his work. Marie Syrkin records that one well-disposed supervisor admonished him that “when I hire a carpenter I don’t want a cabinet-maker,” and after a couple of years he was fired because he would not write up the cases fast enough or in proper legal jargon. By this time, however, his parents had settled their financial difficulties, and Charles could make enough money to meet his own needs in occasional free-lance work.
With the 1930 publication of his novel By the Waters of Manhattan he acquired something of a reputation as a writer, but once again, Reznikoff’s work failed to make a commercial impact (the great success that year, which made use in more sensational fashion of similar immigrant experience, was Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money), but it did score something of a succès d’estime. Leonard Ehrlich (the author of God’s Angry Man, a novel about John Brown) reviewed it favorably in the Saturday Review of Literature, and Lionel Trilling wrote in the Menorah Journal “Mr. Reznikoff’s work is remarkable and original in American literature,” and described his prose style as “of the greatest delicacy and distinction.”
By 1928, according to Mary Oppen’s Meaning: A Life (1978), Reznikoff had met fellow-poets Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, and by 1931 they had become known, with Carl Rakosi, as the principal members of the Objectivist group of poets. February 1931 saw the appearance of the well-known “Objectivist Issue” of Poetry, guest-edited by Louis Zukofsky at the suggestion of Ezra Pound. Zukofsky not only included poems by Reznikoff (his first appearance in Poetry) but made him the principal subject of his lengthy essay on “Sincerity and Objectification,” which set forth in somewhat cloudy language what Zukofsky saw as the theory of the new movement, and which singled out Reznikoff’s work for special praise. (Reznikoff himself suggested that the most accurate description of the group’s aims was the simple “writers publishing their own work.”) The so-called Objectivist Issue of Poetry (it was never officially or formally so titled) was followed up by Zukofsky’s An “Objectivists” Anthology (1932), which was published in France by George and Mary Oppen’s To, Publishers, a new venture which they hoped would be the vehicle not only for books by members of the group but also of major work by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, both members of the group’s “advisory board.” The Oppen’s venture failed, however (it did publish a book by Williams and a book by Pound, as well as Zukofsky’s anthology), and Zukofsky, Oppen, and Reznikoff (principally bank-rolled by Williams and with Zukofsky as treasurer and secretary and with the interested but geographically distant help of Carl Rakosi) set up the Objectivist Press, which was to be Reznikoff’s principal publisher for a brief but important period. In 1934 the Objectivist Press published three titles by Reznikoff: Testimony (a prose work), Jerusalem the Golden, and In Memoriam: 1933, and in 1936 it published his selection of poems, Separate Way. The year 1936 also saw Reznikoff print, on the press which was now in the basement of his sister’s house, the prose memoir Early History of a Sewing-Machine Operator, on which he collaborated closely with his father, Nathan. His sister’s basement, incidentally, became the warehouse for the books published by the Oppens in France.
Testimony is a collection of sparse, brief prose narratives, drawn from law records; in his introduction to the book Kenneth Burke said that “in a direct style that frequently helps us to realize what Stendhal had in mind when expressing his enthusiasm for the Code Napoleon as a way of statement, he can contrive by a few hundred ‘factual’ words to stir our feelings and memories.” But the book got a mixed reception, as did Jerusalem the Golden. T.C. Wilson, in Poetry (September 1934), compared Reznikoff to Williams and found his poetry to be “essentially insignificant” because “what he sees he presents clearly and concisely. But he does not see enough”; Kenneth Alling, in Commonweal, said that Testimony offers “an inner revealment, ... something incisive and profound,” while Jerusalem the Golden has “in addition to ... clarity, also a mystical, clairvoyant quality.” Like other reviewers before them, both Wilson and Alling noted Reznikoff’s selectivity, arrangement of details, and extreme understatement, qualities which are characteristic of Reznikoff’s work throughout his career and which are particularly evident in his late and major works, based in part on what he learned in writing Testimony the two-volume Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915: Recitative and Holocaust.
In the years after he left Corpus Juris Reznikoff had worked as a free-lance editor, translator, and writer, producing an occasional article in order to get enough money to scrape by. On 12 February 1937 his mother died of cancer at the age of 68, and Reznikoff memorialized her in one of his most moving sequences, the eleven poems of “Kaddish,” dedicated “to the memory of Sarah Yetta Reznikoff” and published in Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941). Some time shortly after her death (the date is not exactly clear) Reznikoff’s friend Al Lewin, a producer at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, employed Reznikoff as his personal assistant at a salary of $75 a week. Separated from Marie (who stayed behind in New York) he wrote to her frequently, sending her the poems he wrote while away. Some of these are collected in the sequence “Autobiography: Hollywood,” published in Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down. This, with his posthumously published novel The Manner “Music,” which he seems to have written during the 1950s, gives a vivid and poignant depiction of his West Coast experience. He stayed in Hollywood for a little less than three years (Marie spent two summers with him) and then returned to New York, where he went back to his life of free-lance writing.
Reznikoff would not publish another book of verse until 1959. In 1944 the Jewish Publication Society of America published his historical novel about medieval England’s expulsion of its Jewish population. The Lionhearted. The 1940s were not a happy period for the Reznikoffs—Marie and Charles slowly growing estranged, but neither wanting a divorce. The domestic dilemma was solved in 1950 when she got a job in the English department at the newly established Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Charles agreed to maintain the $60-a-month flat on 18th Street in Manhattan. They would henceforth spend most weekends and all holidays together in New York. Charles took on a number of projects that provided him with a living; the results of these activities include The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community (1950), on which he collaborated with Uriah Z. Engelman; his translation from the German of I.J. Benjamin’s account Three Years in America, 1859-1862 (1956); and an edition of the public papers of Louis Marshall (1957).
By the time the Louis Marshall papers were published, Marie Syrkin was editor of the Jewish Frontier, which she describes as “a Labor Zionist monthly with much ideology and little money.” As she put it in her brief memoir of Charles, “fortuitously, the only paid employee, the managing editor who ran the magazine in New York, left for richer pastures. My comrades agreed that ... Charles could be entrusted with the post just vacated. Fear of nepotism made me slash the original stipend radically, but eventually the $100 a week ... was restored.” Though he ated the work (he despised journalism), he was meticulous in its execution and in addition undertook to write the history of the Jewish community in Cleveland: while continually fretting over the time it took and the distraction it was from his poetry, Reznikoff nevertheless labored over this abortive project, eventually turning out, instead of the sociological and historical prose the project’s sponsors expected, disparate bits of more-or-less anecdotal information “in neat strips pasted in horizontal and vertical rows.”
In 1959 Reznikoff printed a book of poems called Inscriptions: 1944-1956, a collection of 59 poems arranged in seven untitled groups. The poem later titled “Te Deum” is thoroughly characteristic not simply of his mature lyrical work, but even of his earliest work at its best:
The rhythms of these lines (which flow together naturally with their sense and are not determined mechanically by a metronome, in Pound’s phrase), the cunningly devised rhyme scheme (victories/breeze; sing/spring; none/done; able/table), the assonance of day’s and dais,and perhaps above all the rocklike democratic faith (shared with Whitman and Dickinson) that its human center is to be found everywhere and its circumference nowhere—all of these elements combine to make a poem memorable as an affirmation of the essential significance and importance of every single human life. It is this unshakable faith that Whitman called “the antiseptic of the soul,” and it is certainly the faith of Reznikoff: it informs and sweetens even his most seemingly bitter works.
In 1962 New Directions and the San Francisco Review jointly published a selection of Reznikoff’s previously published poetry under the by-then-familiar title By the Waters of Manhattan. Reviewing this volume for the Nation, Hayden Carruth, “captivated, enthralled, swept away.... Delighted, awed, roused,” said that “I cannot exaggerate the degree of my enthusiasm for this book” and commended it for the depth of its knowledge of New York and for the depth of its Jewishness. “When you buy this book,” he advised the Nation’s readers, “tear out the three pages of introduction by C.P. Snow.” For this book Reznikoff was awarded the Harry and Florence Kovner Memorial Award for poetry in English by the Jewish Book Council of America in 1963. In that year, too, he privately published Family Chronicle, which was republished in 1969 in England and in 1971 in New York with an introduction by Harry Golden. Family Chronicle, a memoir purportedly by Sarah Reznikoff (“Early History of a Seamstress”), Nathan Reznikoff (“Early History of a Sewing-Machine Operator”), and Reznikoff himself (“Needle Trade,” first published in part in Commentary in 1951), and heavily revised by Reznikoff after his parents’ death, is (in the words of Eric Homberger) “among the most vivid of memoirs from the lower East Side.” Along with The Manner “Music” and many of his poems, it testifies to the strong autobiographical impulse in Reznikoff and at the same time is an important document in the history of that generation of Jewish immigrants who entered the United States after 1880.
In 1965 New Directions published Testimony: The United States, 1885-1890: Recitative. Geoffrey Wolff in the Washington Post (9 November 1965) was impressed with the “muscularity of verbs” and Reznikoff’s “lyric sadness.” He called Testimony “as inevitable as the tale Cassandra foretold, and as moving, too,” but what other reviews there were were generally unfavorable. While calling the poem “unique in the history of American literature,” James Schevill judged in the San Francisco Chronicle that it is “dramatically too bare. The language becomes more sparse than illuminating.” William Dickey accused the book of “a very simplistic kind of moral perspective indeed,” and Hayden Carruth said that the “cold, neutral language” makes Testimony “uninteresting” and “lifeless.” New Directions as a result dropped its options on the sequel volumes and indeed on any of Reznikoff’s future works; he was thus driven to publish the second volume of Testimony: The United States, 1891-1900: Recitative himself, in 1968. The final installments, covering the period 1901-1915, did not appear until the posthumous publication of the complete edition in 1978-1979. Yet Testimony is, with Holocaust (1975), Reznikoff’s major work. Drawing on legal records of the various sections of the United States between the years 1885 and 1915 (Reznikoff said he had read “thousands” of such cases), the poem dispassionately, in a minimum of words, generally with all names and hence personality and individuality removed, records accident, injustice, disaster: Reznikoff’s great concern for man’s inhumanity to man, and for sheer ill-fortune, makes Testimony both a painful book to read and at the same time a profoundly moving assertion of human worth, dignity, nobility, and promise. With the exception of Holocaust, it has no parallel in American writing. As Elaine Feinstein wrote in the English journal PN Review “his training as a lawyer taught him there was a continuity in human suffering, and a terribly arbitrary quality in it.... Suffering is not only a question of violence; for Reznikoff it is often most deeply a matter of waste.”
In 1966 Marie Syrkin retired from Brandeis as Emeritus Professor, and the couple moved into the luxury of a 24th-floor apartment in Lincoln Towers in Manhattan: “we had a marvelous view of the Hudson,” she recalls, “air-conditioning, and a multitude of doormen.” Ironically enough, on an early morning walk along Riverside Drive soon after the move, he was attacked by two youths who blackjacked him unconsciousness: he lost his wallet, containing about a dollar, but his glasses were unbroken. After the stitches were removed and he resumed his habit of walking in the city, a major problem was where he could safely go: such diminution of his lifelong habit was an impoverishment he resented.
In 1969 he printed two collections of poetry which he published in one volume: By the Well of Living and Seeing, and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees and in 1971 Reznikoff received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1974 the Black Sparrow Press brought out his By the Well of Living & Seeing: New & Selected Poems, 1918-1973, and the following year Black Sparrow published Holocaust, a book which in some sense he had been preparing for all his career, though it was written at his wife’s urging. Adopting the techniques he had used so successfully in Testimony , Reznikoff mined the Nuremberg Trials and the Eichmann Trial for a bare and appalling narrative of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. Though he had previously written frequently and movingly about Jewish history, in this book he would permit himself no subjective outcry: the record must speak for itself. As Daniel Lehman commented in Poetry (April 1976), “Reznikoff opens the mouth of suffering, and makes it quiver with the voice of survival, a voice capable of the real and tough affirmation implicit in the struggle not at all to sweeten up the story while making it ‘literature.’”
Holocaust was to be Reznikoff’s final stand as a moral witness, for, following a heart seizure at the apartment where he had dwelt with Marie for ten years, he died at St. Vincent’s hospital shortly before dawn the next morning, 22 January 1976. He was buried in the Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn, and a line from the opening section of “Heart and Clock” (1936) was incised on his tombstone: “... and the day’s brightness dwindles into stars.” The poem from which it is taken is especially apt as a memorial for a poet whose sense of his calling made him always conscious of the passage of time.
Poems, 1918-1936, volume 1 of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, in the press at the time of his death, was published later that year, and the next year Black Sparrow Press brought out Poems, 1937-1975, volume 2 of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff and his novel The Manner “Music.” In 1978 and 1979 the complete version of Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915 was at last published, and only his plays remain uncollected.
Among Reznikoff’s papers at his death was found a 30 March 1948 letter from William Carlos Williams, who wrote: “A confession and an acknowledgement! In all the years that I have owned a book of yours, nineteen years! a book you gave me in 1929, I never so much as opened it—except to look at it cursorily. And now, during an illness, I have read it and I am thrilled with it and in this Flossie, who has read it also, gladly joins me. You know, of course, that it is By the Waters of Manhattan of which I am speaking. Why have you not gone on writing? Why do you not start again now? This book has so much in it that marks you as a first rate artist that it is shameful of you not to have persisted. It is not by any means too late.... I’m ashamed never to have read your book! It took an illness at that even now to make me do it. Such has been my life and I find that I was the loser for it not you—as too often happens when we are neglectful of others, we are the sufferers, not they....”
Of course, Reznikoff never did stop writing as Williams feared he had. Even when the world seemed completely unmindful of him, he went about the work which he had come to do. After Reznikoff’s death in 1976, the poet Robert Creeley could still write sensitively in a tone that is reminiscent of Williams’s: “One had not known, sadly, that Charles Reznikoff wrote novels. That a man should have such quiet and singular genius so modestly put aside (by himself) is regrettable. So much does shout at us, belligerently claiming attention for its style or its intelligence or its newness....” These words are from Creeley’s introduction to Reznikoff’s posthumously published novel The Manner “Music,” the tragic and triumphant tale of a composer to whose music, no one—not even his wife or his closest friend—had learned really to listen. It is a parable to end all others about the fate of modern art and modern literature. Oliver St. John Gogarty noted that the typical modern writer was doomed to go on talking to himself but that it was left for James Joyce to go one step further and to talk to himself in his sleep in Finnegans Wake. It is this problematical situation which concerns Reznikoff in his last fiction, written in prose embedded with striking imagist and objectivist poetry.
On the death of Yeats in 1939, Auden wrote that, when he dies, the poet becomes his admirers. That is what has now happened to Reznikoff. He is no longer driven by the compulsion to create. It is not up to him now; it is up to those who are left behind and who think that they may have deciphered something of the meaning which he strove faithfully to create. The magnitude of the response to Reznikoff’s death by at least one admiring reader may perhaps be indicated by the coupling of names which occurs in the title of a set of Allen Ginsberg’s verses in his Plutonium Ode. He calls them “After Whitman and Reznikoff.”
[Biography by Milton Hindus]
Poems By Charles Reznikoff
Articles about Charles Reznikoff
Audio & Podcasts
Emerson remarked that the best writers often have the shortest biographies. The genius “draws up the ladder after him,” and the world, which had consigned him to obscurity during his lifetime, “sees the works and asks in vain for a history.”
Whatever judgment may ultimately be passed upon him, not much more than his works is ever likely to be known of Charles Reznikoff. He left no fervent disciples. The record he wished to preserve is the one he made himself, but it is quite detailed, and will surely have to do for those readers who, treasuring his memory, might like to know more.
Reznikoff was born on 31 August 1894 in—as he himself called it—the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, who are depicted in Family Chronicle (1963), were Sarah Yetta Wolvovsky Reznikoff and Nathan Reznikoff, both immigrant Jews who had recently come...