Mind, Mouth and Page – (Reznikoff 1)

Charles Reznikoff 1894-1976

Mind, Mouth and Page continues from hereĀ 

Well, (at the) same time, same mental station, same movement as the Imagist people, basing their practice on direct observation of the image (were) the Objectivists. (Imagism) grew into the Objectivist movement, where people also included their thoughts or feelings as part of the hard data of the moment. (Yet) another group was called (the) Activists and that was because they were trying to use language that was active, rather than passive. They were trying to use language that was precise and clear and clean. So they called themselves “Activists”. So, Imagists, Objectivists, Activists – various metamorphoses of the same notion of direct treatment of the thing – “direct treatment of the thing”, which is (Ezra) Pound‘s phrase.

(So to the) selected verse of Charles Reznikoff, who was a friend of (William Carlos) Williams and a member of the Objectivist group (although this is a different kind of guy, not Williams, not the scientific medical observer). First of all, he’s Jewish and his family is from Poland, and so he’s got that Jewish oy-oy-oy weltschmerz as part of his Objectivism – that’s his nature. He’s got his own nature (just as Williams has got his kind of funny “Peggy has a little bit of albumen/ in hers -“ – the humor). Williams has his humor, and Reznikoff has a different kind of humor. It’s the immigrant son’s, or the immigrant’s, or the immigrant’s son’s humor, both Jewish and immigrant. So he’s really interested in America as a real weird place to walk around in and look around in, and (to) compare it with the old country, or compare it with the classic country..compare it with the Bible country…with Hasidic country. So this is like the Lower East Side, America, 1920. And he’s making very tiny portraits, and some of them are very good, in some respects more moving than Williams (especially if you’re Jewish, that is), that heart thing, soulful thing. In some respects, sometimes, they’re incomplete, they’re sketches. He’s trying. But here is, like, a whole book of one poet trying to contact direct basic observation material, trying a practice that anybody can try (including yourselves). So here’s another way of doing it, besides Williams’.

His book is called “By The Waters of Manhattan” and this is the only copy I could find in town at Brillig Works (bookstore) but they’re going to re-order it (and I also asked Back Country (bookstore) to re-order this) – [Allen reads from Reznikoff’s early writing] – “The shopgirls leave their work/quietly/ Machines are still, tables and chairs/ darken/ The silent rounds of mice and roaches begins” – And this one little thing – “My work done, I lean on the window sill,/ watching the dripping trees/The rain is over, the wet pavement shines/ From the bare twigs/ rows of drops like shining buds are hanging” – So it’s very weak, in a way. It almost doesn’t make it, except that you see he is working at something and he is trying to describe it. He isn’t as adept as Williams, but there’s something that he’s working on, so he’ll get there, after a while. [Allen continues reading from Reznikoff] – “The winter afternoon darkens,/ The shoemaker bends close to the shoe, / His hammer raps faster./ An old woman waits,/ rubbing the cold from her hands.” – “Scrubwoman” – so they’re just actually little fast sketches – “Scrubwoman” – “One shoulder lower/ with unsure step like a bear erect/ the smell of the wet black rags that she cleans with about her/ Scratching with four stiff fingers her half-bald head/ smiling” – “The Idiot” – “With green stagnant eyes,/ arms and legs/ loose ends of string in a wind, / keep smiling at your father.” – “The pedlar who goes from shop to shop,/ has seated himself on the stairs in the dim hallway/ and the basket of apples upon his knees/ breathes the odor” – so that’s a little bit like getting on toward haiku. They’re that short – “Ghetto Funeral” –
“Followed by his lodge, shabby men stumbling over the cobblestones,/ and his children, faces red and ugly with tears, eyes and eyelids/ red/ In the black coffin in the black hearse, the old man/ No longer secretly grieving/ that his children are not strong enough to go the way he wanted to/ go/ and was not strong enough” – “Showing a torn sleeve,/ with stiff and shaking fingers the old man/ pulls off a bit of the baked apple shiny with sugar,/ eating with reverence food, the great comforter.” – Here he’s got both the image (“pulls off a bit of the baked apple”) -“with stiff and shaking fingers the old man/ pulls off a bit of the baked apple shiny with sugar” – that’s perfect, as far as “pulls off a bit of the baked apple”, it’s so hamishe there, that’s exactly (it). Then the generalization – he’s got his feelings and his generalization – his weltschmerz, his Yiddish sentiment to add in, which is alright – ” eating with reverence food, the great comforter.” – but it’s deceptive because you think, “Well, maybe he’s just a sentimentalist”.

[Allen continues reading out Reznikoff poems] – So here’s, like, a whole novel again, like Williams’ whole novel in that three-page “Knife of the Times”. It’s number 19 [in the fourth section] of a series called “Five Groups of Verse”, which were published in 1927 – [Editorial note – this section actually published in 1921] – “She sat by the window opening into the air-shaft….”…”Come in” she said as gently as she could and smiled” – That’s really so complete and right into the heart there, because it’s a whole lifetime. And a lifetime – that’s one thing – but a lifetime of feeling compressed there, and a lifetime of such generous feeling and such realistic situation-appreciation – “Come in” she said as gently as she could and smiled” – so that the object in the poem is as intelligent and as sentient as we are, and then Reznikoff begins to seem a very solid tearful man – “24” – so there’s a few like this – [Allen continues to read from the fourth section of “Five Groups of Verse” – this is actually “19”] -“He showed me the album. “But this?” I asked, surprised at such beauty…”… “..They kept no lights in the window. A single gas jet flared in the empty store” – (Then) Number 25 of the series, [again the numbering’s a little awry, number 48 of the fourth section, in Volume 1 of the Black Sparrow Complete Poems, but, perhaps, in Allen’s edition….] one that I like almost the most, it’s just totally perfect detail, totally perfectly composed, seamless, no comment but the detail – [Allen reads this section in its entirety] – That fish hissing (“A pot of fish was boiling on the stove. Sometimes the water bubbled over and hissed…”) – there’s that hiss on the stove, so that you know that the fish is going to hiss, and burn on the back of the stove, and get an extra fishy smell to the basement, full of leather smell to begin with. It’s so totally of the earth and of human existence on the earth – samsaric – that it’s like a triumph, and it’s composed of all of these totally humble details, which everybody else would have thrown away as being no poetry at all, totally impossible to deal with – [Allen next reads Reznikoff’s “A Citizen”] – “I know little about bushes and trees/ I have met them in backyards and streets/ I shall become disreputable if I hang about them/ Yet to see them comforts me/ when I think of my life as snarled./ Was not knowledge first on trees?” – The apple. – Here’s a little street-sketch, as Williams might have done. Like a sort of Proletarian Portrait“, as Williams has had. This is called “The Sunny Day” – [Allen reads “The Sunny Day”] – “The curved leaves of the little tree are shining…”…”..the children shout, the owner swings his bamboo” – So it’s like a little tiny movie.

Nothing special happening. But then, (follows the poem), “Building Boom” – it’s a little more sharp again. He goes back and forth between doing the best he can, just trying to keep his mind clamped down on objects and transcribing them, and then occasionally this enormous arrow of hurt feelings comes through. [Allen reads “Building Boom”] – “The avenue of willows leads nowhere/ It begins at the blank wall of a new apartment house/ and ends in the middle of a lot for sale./ Papers and cans are thrown about the trees./ The disorder does not touch the flowing branches/ but the trees have become small among the new houses,/ and will be cut down; /their beauty cannot save them” – “Building Boom” is the title. So he’s a Jewish guy who really knows the business world.

Actually, he’s a law researcher, and in the course of that, he sits in offices and reads up on cases, (for) preparing special briefs. He’s like a tailor doing things on commission, sort of, except a lawyer (not exactly what his mother dreamed of when he’d be a lawyer!). But (some of that material forms two of) his other books – Testimony and Holocaust – which I won’t go into. I read a couple of short poems from Testimony the other day, and, as you remember, it was about the girl who was working at the machine, and her scalp got pulled off, and blood came down her waist – that’s from Testimony – The United States 1885-1890.

And there’s a great book recently put out this year [1975] by Reznikoff and Black Sparrow Press called Holocaust, which (includes) documentary anecdotes from the concentration camps of the Jews in the ghetto, so this is perhaps one of the best pieces of reading about that very specialized subject that can be done, because he’s winnowed through all the material and come up with the short anecdotes, and arranged them in poetic lines, the most pungent, poignant, anecdotes of that whole period..I’ll read you just one [Allen reads a section beginning “A rumor spread through the ghetto..“], then I want to get back to the body of his early observational work. These are excerpts. “All that follows is based upon a United States government publication, “Trials of the Criminals before the Nuemberg (sic) Military Tribunal” and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem”

(tape ends here) – to be continued..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *