Mind, Mouth and Page – 38 (Reznikoff 2)

Charles Reznikoff 1894-1976 – photo by Gerard Malanga

Ginsberg on Reznikoff continuing from here

AG: But (Charles Reznikoff)..back to his own eye – direct, a little walk (which everybody here has taken and very few written down – particularly the end of it, the last observation)..

[the class is, suddenly, temporarily, halted, when one of the students, begins shaking, prelude to an epileptic fit]

AG:- Oh, Thomas. Can we do anything for Tom?..I think it may be a little stuffy in here

Student: Perhaps you could put your hand on his shoulder?

AG: It may be stuffy in here. Can you help him get out, make a way for him to get out easily? I guess it’s a lot too stuffy here.

Now there’s a detail to write! There’s a perfect Reznikoff poem, there. It’s a question of taking the details – the stuffy room, the singing-class next door, the bearded man giving a lecture on poetry, suddenly a shaking of paper.

[Allen returns to the Reznikoff poem that he’d been about to discuss] – “The wind blows the rain into our faces/ as we go up the hillside/ upon rusted cans and old newspapers/ past the tree on whose bare branches/ the boys have hung iron hoops,/ until we reach at last the crushed earthworms/ stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk.” – [section 8 from Jerusalem the Golden (1934)] – Now that’s everybody’s hometown backyard street walk. And it’s almost like he deliberately made it archetypal – every one of the dismaying artifacts – [he reads the poem again] – Actually, I haven’t seen anyone else in 20th century poetry attempt to describe the look and activity of the earthworms that come out after rain and are on the sidewalk, “stretched and stretching” – Have you tried that? Do you remember any of your detail, Larry? [turning to poet, Larry Fagin who’s sitting-in on the class]

Larry Fagin: The snails..I was walking..I can’t remember much, but…smashing snails under my…

AG: Smashing snails with (your) bare feet?

Larry Fagin: Yeah, walking the streets of Berkeley, streetlights, dim shadows, crushing the soft skins of snails..

AG: “Soft skins of snails” – that’s interesting. When I was a kid, I remember all of those “crushed earthworms/ stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk”, but I hadn’t ever really recognized them and remembered them until I read Reznikoff

Student: Do you remember hitting them with a rock?

AG: Pardon me? What?

Student: I asked you if you ever hit them with a rock.

AG: Reznikoff or me?

Student: Crushing the worms..

AG: The worms? yes, sure.

Student: And they popped up at the end?

AG: Right. Yes

Student: Yes.

AG: There’s a second subject for (a Reznikoff poem)…because, (see), it’s something that everybody notices and everybody knows. It’s connected to the most obvious chthonic, underworld, under-earth, powers-that-be.

[Allen returns to concern for the epileptic student]

AG: Why doesn’t someone exchange seats with him. Tom, why don’t you sit back there if you need to get to the door if need be, and somebody will change seats with you. Because it’s probably fresher out there by the door, in terms of air. Are you alright? Sort of?

Student: Yeah, I’m perfectly alright.

AG: Perfectly? Nobody’s perfectly alright! Good God!

Student: I’m fine.

AG: Okay.

[Allen returns to his observations on Reznikoff, continuing] –

Then he tries to get a little bit Chinese-delicate in his observation – “At night, walking along the streets, the darker because of trees,/ we came to a tree, white with flowers/and the pavement under the branches was white with flowers too” [section 12 from Jerusalem the Golden] – It’s just that little photo, but, basically, he’s a city-guy – so it’s a city Jew accepting the city’s artifacts as a subject – [Allen continues with section 15] – “In the street I have just left..”…”pieces of newspaper” – Again, attempting to compose a poem of just the little bits of detritus and garbage on the subway platform, and also to get that wind through a subway car (“a wind/ blows through the car/ blows dust/ on the passengers/ and along the floor”), which is very haiku-like.

This (next one, section 17) is a little bit like (William Carlos) Williams‘ “Between Walls“, (“the back wings/ of the/hospital..”) – [Allen reads] – “Rails in the subway,/ what did you know of happiness,/ when you were ore in the earth;/ now the electric lights shine on you.” – That’s actually quite a jump, and it’s a great philosophical one.

Student: Could you read it again?

AG [reads it again] – There’s a whole bunch of poems about the subway. He’s chosen the subway now for his exploration as a poet. It’s kind of nice…it’s almost like an acid mind-jump, that one. Continuing on the subway. So he’s got this whole series exploring perceptions in the subway – [turns to Peter Orlovsky] – Do you know these, Peter?
Peter Orlovsky: No

AG [begins reading section 18 of Jerusalem the Golden]: – “Walk about the subway..”

Peter Orlovsky: Did he know Williams? I’m sorry. Go on.

AG: Yeah, he knew Williams real well.

Peter Orlovsky: What year did he know him in?

AG: Well these are 1927 [published in 1934, actually]

Peter Orlovsky; Uh-huh

AG: They exchanged (letters), they wrote letters back and forth, and I think they met.

Peter Orlovsky: What year did they first meet?

AG: Don’t know. They weren’t close friends, meeting each other all the time, but they were following each other’s work.

Peter Orlovsky: Do you think ’20’ s or ’30’s or ’40’s?

AG: Well this is ’27 [Editorial note – ’34, in fact – see above]. They knew each other as fellow members of the Objectivist circle.

Peter Orlovsky: In the ’20’s?

AG: Yeah, sure.

Peter Orlovsky: Wow!

AG: ’20’s, easy

Peter Orlovsky: Wow!

AG: Published in the same places, probably. The Objectivist Press. There was a group at that time – Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, George Oppen – O-P-P-E-N – Carl Rakosi. Oppen lives in San Francisco now (1975), Carl Rakosi, Minnesota, Minneapolis, I guess.

Student: That’s right.

AG: Do you know him?

Student: No

AG: That’s your home town, or that’s where you’re from?

Student: No, but it’s in the… yeah.. He lives in Minneapolis.

AG: Yeah

Student: His address is in your (address book)?

AG: Oh yeah, yeah. I went to visit him.
There were others related. Who? –Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker.

Larry Fagin: They’re in an anthology.

AG: The Activist Anthology?

Larry Fagin: Yeah. The Active [sic] Anthology, which came into that.. and the Objectivist people came in.. but Reznikoff told me that they weren’t really all that close. They didn’t know each other. They knew each other, but…

AG: They weren’t in each other’s homes. No, they’re scattered around the country.

Larry Fagin: ..And he always likes to think of their work as much different (each from the other), although having that one common thing.. but, everything else…

AG: Yeah. However, I want them to know that there was a group, known as a group, of people who were working, the basic principle , at least. I imagine it was Louis Zukofsky (who) was the one who enunciated it (Zukofsky, being a friend of (Ezra) Pound, and correspondent and friend and co-worker with Pound and Williams and Reznikoff and others). It was the image, clear and direct treatment of the image, plus whatever feeling (that) could be treated directly as a thing, as an object, as there is in here [Allen continues reading section 18 of Jerusalem the Golden] – “Walk about the subway station/ In a grove of steel pillars..”…”..here and there on the platform/ a flat black fungus/ that was chewing-gum” – So everybody has seen that.

Student: Right

AG: But who has written of that?

Student: Right. Did he ever write anything thing, of this kind, at (great) length?

AG: Well, there’s a whole book of connected things. Never long, long, long, long, long.
No. A few one-page”, two page poems, at most. He can do it. A poem called “Russia: Anno 1905” is like that. But I want to keep with these short things, because I just want to get home, over and over and over again, that real perception of a real thing that can be written down, that anybody can do.
His comment – “For an Inscription Over (the) Entrance to a Subway Station” – like a little classical playfulness – (39) – “This is the gift of Hephaestus, the artificer,/ the god men say is lame” – for the subway!

Peter Orlovsky: I don’t understand that one.

AG: It was built by a lame god. A subway could only be built by a god who was lame to begin with. [Allen continues..Jerusalem the Golden, section 20] – “In steel clouds/ to the sound of thunder..”…”Coming up the subway stairs, I thought the moon/ only another street-light/ a little crooked” – His first perception, coming out – “Suburban River: Summer” – So now observation of the rivers (well, a few observations of the East River probably) – “In the clear morning/ the gulls float/ on the blue water,/ white birds on the blue water, / on the rosy glitter of dawn,/ The white gulls/ hover/ above the glistening river/ where the sewers empty’ their slow ripples” – So it begins with this Homeric “rosy glitter of dawn” (that reminder of Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”, “above the glistening river/ where the sewers empty’ their slow ripples” (actually, it’s the aesthetic appreciation of the “slow ripples” coming out that’s important). – 28 – “The cat in our neighbor’s yard has convulsions;’ from her mouth a green jet on the pavement – / she has added a leaf to their garden” – And (39), I guess this would be the perfect Objectivist (poem or) an example of an Objectivist poem, which is simply the photograph shot, and the thought, the poet’s thought, that goes with it – “What are you doing in our street among the automobiles, horse? [laughter] – wait, wait, wait, I’ll start all over again – “What are you doing in our street among the automobiles, horse?/How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?” – That’s strictly Jewish – “How’s your cousin, the centaur?” “And the unicorn?”

Peter Orlovsky: What’s a centaur?

AG: A half-man, half-horse

Peter Orlovsky: Ah yes.

AG: The horse’s body and the human abdomen and face. “What are you doing in our street among the automobiles, horse?/How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?” – Suburb – (41) – “If a naturalist came to this hillside,/ he’d find many old newspapers among the weeds/ to study” – Then, just a little sketch – (46) – “Feast, you who cross the bridge/ this cold twilight/ on these honeycombs of light, the buildings of Manhattan” – very minor, mild, but an attempt to get the glitter of that archetypal view of light glitter of Manhattan – (48)- “This smoky winter morning -/ do not despise the green jewel shining among the twigs/because it is a traffic light” – So this is, again, an intersection with (Chogyam) Trungpa’s lecture on the beauty of the traffic lights the other night, or noticing particular details, without (aggression) and therefore without judgment, but noticing and appreciating – “This smoky winter morning -/ do not despise the green jewel shining among the twigs/ because it is a traffic light” – (50) – “A black horse and a white horse, pulling a truck this winter day, / as the smoke from their nostrils reaches to the ground,/ seem fabulous” – He’s laying it on there – (58) – “You think yourself a woman,/ because you have children and lovers;/ but in a street/ with only Orion and the Pleiades to see us,/ you begin to sing, you begin to skip” – (63) – “My hair was caught in the wheels of a clock/ and torn from my head: see I am bald!” – (66) – “If there is a scheme/ perhaps this too is in the scheme,/ as when a subway car turns on a switch,/ the wheels screeching against the rails,/and the lights go out -/ but are on again in a moment.” – Nobody ever written that.

[there is a sudden and brief commotion]

AG: Peter Orlovsky, you be quiet or leave the room!

Peter Orlovsky: I didn’t talk!

AG: Oh, alright. Well, somebody be quiet then. Don’t distract me now.

The point there is that it’s sort of all these subliminally-noticed events, like in the subway car, the screech of rail, the lights going out, and they’re suddenly going on again, which are enormous cosmic events of the mind for any city-dweller, or any New York dweller, (that) are so rarely written about (though they are part of the everyday important detail of our lives). Reznikoff is one of the greatest of the poets of New York City. In fact, only the.. almost the only one. There’s (Whitman, of course) and Hart Crane, and Reznikoff (and Williams has a few lines). Well, I suppose there’s lots of (them). Of the old guys, at any rate, previous to the last 30 years, there were very few people who, say, in 1927, were that perceptive about the subway.

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