Allen Ginsberg on Charles Reznikoff continuing from here
AG: I want to run through more of (Charles) Reznikoff. Are you interested in more of his flashes?
Peter Orlovsky: Yes
AG: Because I think they’re so beautiful. The more you get, the better. Because it’ll give you a grounding in it. [to Student] – Yeah?
Student: When were these poems published? When did his last book come out?
AG: 1975 – Holocaust. And he gave a reading last year at (the) St Mark’s Church (in New York) – he’s one of the regulars.. that Larry (Fagin) invites and Anne Waldman invites. Last time he read there, I wept. It was just this old guy with such pure sight
Larry Fagin: He still wears high-button shoes.
AG: Yeah, and he voted for Nixon!
Peter Orlovsky: He voted for (Richard) Nixon?
AG: I couldn’t forgive him. I wept and couldn’t forgive him.
Student: Couldn’t forgive him?
AG: I can’t understand how he could notice everything in detail and still be a big dope.
Student: Didn’t you say he was Communist, or was that somebody else? [ Editorial note – Student is, perhaps, confusing Reznikoff with George Oppen here]
AG: No, I didn’t. no. (William Carlos) Williams, maybe, more. Well, no, Williams wasn’t Communist either..
Student: I don’t see how you could..
AG: And Mrs Williams (Floss) was a little aghast at my family..
AG: ..Because my mother was a Communist. [Allen turns to Reznikoff, begins reading from Separate Way (1936)] – “Millinery District” – probably the (19)30’s now – “The clouds piled in rows like merchandise/ become dark..”…”At closing time, the girls breathe deeply/ the clean air of the streets/ sweet after the smell of merchandise” – So there’s a whole 1930’s there.
(And) this is called “Depression” (so this deals directly (with) the Depression. Actually, it’s a long poem, as you’d asked, but it’s a series of short poems composing one larger picture. [Allen reads “Depression” (similarly from Separate Way)] – “So proudly she came into the subway car..”…”each in that battalion/ eyes him,/ but does not move from his place/ well drilled in want.” – There’s a long poem here which I won’t read. It’s called “The Socialists of Vienna”, because I want to just stick to those direct (poems) (the longer poems are generally compositions from earlier material, like cut-ups, but re-arranged) – A few poems from Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941), so influenced by the European war and (Adolf) Hitler’s existence. Some very Jewish statements. [Allen reads section 7] – “On a seat in the subway, staring out the windows at/the noisy darkness…”…”..neither very poor, nor drunk/ why are you unhappy, Aryan?” – (and) 8 (from this series) – “A dead gull in the road..”…”has there been a purge of Jews/ among the birds?” – Actually, a little forced, I’d say – [Allen reads section 9] – “Now it is cold…”…”..talking to the sparrows/ in the naked bushes,/ to the pigeons/ in the snow.” – It says “Only Don Juan would believe/ I am..” and “only St Francis would believe that I am..” “talking to the sparrows”, etc. – (17) – “The elevator man, working long hours/ for little – whose work is dull and trivial -/ must also greet each passenger/ pleasantly/ to be so heroic/ he wears a uniform” – Total fast, complete. That’s really like the complete jump. That there really includes a lot of mind – “This subway station” (18) – great! back to the subways! (every time he gets on the subway, I’m overjoyed!) -“This subway station/ with its electric lights/ pillars of steel,/ arches of cement, and trains -/ quite an improvement on the caves of the cave-men;/ but look! on this wall/ a primitive drawing” – Well, that’s a little sentimental, that’s not quite (it) – (21) – “The white cat on the lawn…”…”Why, this might be the god Bacchus!” – So watch out for Gregory Corso! – No, I’ll say that again [Allen reads the section in its entirety] – “Cooper Union Library” – (23) – “Men and women with open books before them – /and never turn a page; come/ merely for warmth/ not light.” – (and 24) – “A row of tenements, windows boarded up…”…”The way, sir? If you don’t mind/ tell us/ the way, please.” – Here’s one of his great novels again (25) – “The young fellow walks about/ with nothing to do: he has lost his job/ “if I ever get another, I’ll be hard!/ You’ve got to be hard/ to get on. I’ll be hard, alright”,/ he says bitterly. Takes out his cigarettes./ Only four or five left./ Looks at me out of the corner of his eye -/ A stranger he has just met; hesitates/ and offers me a cigarette” – It’s so sweet.
Student: Can you read that again?
AG [reads the section again] – It’s amazing. It’s like the girl who’s hair was torn out, or the cobbler with the fish boiling over and hissing on the stove, or the girl saying “Come in”, with a good a smile as she can muster, to the fellow with bags (under his eyes), or the loose skin under his eyes, who’s coming to marry her, accompanied by her aunt. There are those few poems that have the total poignancy of a complete life-time. Actually, I imagine, this is one of the best, because there’s absolutely no generalization here, except “he says bitterly” (but you’ve already had the conversation so you know he’s talking hard, or talking bitter). But everything else is actual detail. “Takes out his cigarettes./ Only four or five left./ Looks at me out of the corner of his eye -/ A stranger he has just met; hesitates/ and offers me a cigarette” – It’s all facts – and yet, out of just total fact, he’s able to build a bodhisattva moral.
Okay, some commentary now – (26) – “I am always surprised to meet, after ten or twenty years/ those who were poor and silly/ still poor and silly, of course, but alive -/ in spite of wars and plagues and panics,/ alive and well./ Is it possible/ there is a Father in Heaven/ after all?” – (27) – “On a Sunday when the place was closed/ I saw a plump mouse among the cakes in the window/ dear ladies,/ who crowd this expensive tea-room/ you must not think that you alone are blessed of God” – (28) – “A fine fellow, trotting easily without a sound/ down the macadam road between the woods,/ you heard me/ turned your pointed head/ and we took a long look at each other/ fox and man;/ then, without any hurry, you went into the ferns,/ and left the road to the automobiles and me -/ to the heels and wheels of citizens.” – The last line makes it a little too heavy, probably – but it’s nice – “turned your pointed head/ and we took a long look at each other”.
One long poem – sort of a little tiny Whitmanic survey of the United States, “Going West”, beginning “The train leaves New York..” and the last line is “and along the streets of Los Angeles”. (and so finally he gets out and crosses the whole nation, and compresses it into a two-page poem) – I think (I’ll) not read, but recommend – called “Going West” (page 65 in that (New Directions edition (of)), By The Waters of Manhattan – “Going West” – that I’ll leave in the library on reserve, so that anybody who wants to check out Reznikoff can read him. I’ll leave all these books for you to look over)…
Just a few more.. (from “Autobiography – Hollywood”) – He’s in Hollywood now. A slight change of pace. What’ll he say about California? – [Allen reads] – “I like the streets of New York City where I was born,/ better than these streets of palms..”…”..the starling that at home/ skips about the lawns/ how jauntily it rides a palm-leaf here!” – So that’s his big transition. That one detail, seeing a starling on a palm leaf – [Allen continues] – “I like this way in the morning/ among flowers and trees…”…”You are beautiful, leaves and silent:/ you ask nothing/ neither food nor a fee/ nor even that I look at you.” – That’s really nice. That’s almost Buddhist, that one – or that is (a) Buddhist view. – (12 – Rainy Season) – “It has been raining for three days./ The faces of the giants/ on the bill-boards still smile/ but the gilt has been washed from the sky:/ we see the iron world.” – There are just one or two more from here that I wanted to get through – “Two girls of twelve or so at a table/ in the Automat, smiling at each other/ and the world…”…”They did steal a glance/ at their dark companion and were slightly amused:/ in their shining innocence seeing/ in him only another human being” – That’s, like, a really good piece of language, because, actually, to catch that particular inexperienced mellow acceptance that the girls had, of someone, that, ourselves, more experienced with our own madness, would have run away from.. – “Puerto Ricans in New York” (and here his view, his observation, is almost identical to Williams) – “She enters the bus demurely/with a delicate dark face..”…”She holds a small package in her hand – /perhaps a nightgown -/ and he a larger package:/ a brand-new window shade.” – Imagine a poem – “a brand-new window shade” – Okay, so final poem in here – “A young man, wearing a loose jacket of light brown with a yellow/ muffler tied loosely about his throat,/ is singing loudly to himself/ a Spanish song”…””Girl”/ He takes off the hat he does not have/ and looks earnestly into the eyes of a girl that isn’t there/ then smiles and looks aside coyly./ “No money!”/ And he turns away in disgust/ “Ah, tragic, tragic, tragic!” – So…
Student: Is that the last line?
AG: That was the last poem in … Pardon me?
Student: “Ah (the) tragic..” Was that Reznikoff, or…
AG: Yes. No, that’s the man. That’s the man saying, “Ah, tragic, tragic, tragic!” (“tragico“, I guess) – These are much later, I guess – “Puerto Ricans in New York” – Finally he got into that, I guess.
Oh, here’s a little thing called “Sightseeing Tour: New York” – Yeah, there’s still a couple more.
[Allen reads] – “These days when I dare not spend freely/ and the friends I meet are uneasy..”…”..I must be in my dotage/ for I find myself weeping that you are dead -/ who have been dead for a long time”. And (more) “Sightseeing Tour: New York” (so this is his genre – “Sightseeing Tour: New York”) – “The sky is a peculiar blue…”…”The shop is called in bold letters/ “Sanitary Barber Shop,”/ and there are those, I suppose, who believe it.” – That’s Reznikoff, you might check and see if you can find that.