Spontaneous Poetics – (Revisiting Reznikoff – 1)

Charles Reznikoff  (1894-1976)

We continue with our transcription of Allen’s June 23 1976 Naropa class. He moves on from haiku (see here) to a discussion of one of his favorite ‘”close attention” poets, the Objectivist, Charles Reznikoff. We’ve featured Allen on Reznikoff extensively before (here, here, here and here), but (duplication notwithstanding) feel absolutely no compunction in featuring him again.

AG: Well, that concentration of perception in Japan, or in that kind of meditative Oriental style, we have an equivalent of that in English, and so, fast, skipping through, a couple (sic) of Americans who are as concentrated in their focus, or are as clear in their focus, sharp in their focus, visually often, as the Japanese.
“The winter afternoon darkens/ The shoemaker bends close to the shoe, his hammer raps faster”
..I am going to begin to read a whole series of brief poems from Charles Reznikoff – Volume 1 Poems 1918-1936 [at the time of Allen’s lecture Reznikoff’s poems were published by Black Sparrow in two volumes – they had yet to be gathered together in a single volume] –  and most of these poems are from 1918 to 1925, published by (19)27, at a time when (Ezra) Pound..(and other contemporaries) were all beginning to read and translate Chinese and Japanese poetry, because they were interested in phanopoeia“, “the casting of an image on the mind’s eye”, and they were also experimenting with American Imagism, trying to focus Western consciousness on the real world, on actuality, usually visual, in these exercises.
Vaudeville – “I leave the theatre/ Keeping step, keeping step to the music/It sticks to my feet/stepped into dung…”
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 the wind,/ keep smiling at your father”
“The imperious dawn comes/ to the clink of milk bottles/ and round-shouldered sparrows twittering.” – “Round-shouldered sparrows”!
“Old men and boys search the wet garbage with fingers/ and slip pieces in bags.  This fat old man has found the hard end of a bread/ and bites it. – This is from Poems in 1920.
“The girls outshout the machines/ and she strains for their words, blushing./ Soon she too will speak/ their speech glibly.”
“The pedlar who goes from shop to shop,/ has seated himself on the stairs on the dim hallway/ and the basket of apples upon his knees, breathes the odor.”
“They have built red factories along Lake Michigan,/ and the purple refuse coils like congers… what are “congers”?

Student: Eels

AG: Lake Michigan eels..  o.k. ..”They have built red factories along Lake Michigan,/ and the purple refuse coils like congers in the green depths”.
And then, he can work it up into something longer and into entire life-stories in half-a-page, using that clear, sharp, spoken speech, non-poetic, but absolutely realistic, grounded language.
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.” – So that’s like a whole Balzac volume, like two generations. He can (get) generations into a brief thing like that. And another little short poem:
“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’s another novel-in-ten-lines:
“She sat by the window opening into the airshaft/ and looked across the parapet/ at the new moon./ She would have taken the hairpins out of her carefully coiled/ hair/ and thrown herself on the bed in tears,/ but he was coming and her mouth had to be pinned into a smile./ If he would have her, she would marry whatever he was./ A knock. She lit the gas and opened the door./ Her aunt and the man – skin loose under his eyes, the face/ slashed with wrinkles./ “Come in”, she said as gently as she could and smiled.” – I think that’s one of the great narrative poems of the 20th Century. It’s so powerful because it’s got a complete lifetime, but also a complete moral lifetime in a way, a complete emotional growth, indicated.

Student: What are you reading from?

AG: Oh, I’m reading from Poems 1918-1936, Volume 1 (of ) the complete works of  Charles Reznikoff [complete poems – sic], which we have in the library, which I think is on the compulsory required reading list. And the reason I’m zero-ing in on Reznikoff is I think he’s the least poetic of poets, so that with Reznikoff there’s no longer any need to write poetry, but there is the need, or there is the practice, of focusing clearly on what’s happening around us, and seeing clearly the facts of life, seeing the detailed facts, transcribing the sharpest stickiest-into-the-mind details, telling it naturally, as if you were telling a story – as if your grandmother was telling a story to you, or if you were telling a story to your grandmother (but, seemingly, with the experience of several generations of observation, so that you can condense whole cycles of generations into five or six lines that tell a complete story of the development), or a complete presentation of an economic-social situation, living situation (“sat by the window opening into the airshaft”), family situation, her aunt and the man, and, ultimately, what do you call it? love? psychological? psychological love situation, loneliness situation – “”Come in”, she said as gently as she could and smiled.” – sounds like some sort of saint.

Student: What’s that called?

AG: That’s Number 11 in Poems, 1920. But that’s just the beginning, because he has lots of poems like that. There are about thirty poems in a row of complete life histories. So I’ll read a couple of them.
But I started off with haiku, remember? We started today (referring to) Crane, Shelley, poetry to die with, now Reznikoff, also poetry to die with, because he died, October, last year [1975]

Student: How old?

AG: Age 82. In New York.

Student: Allen (let me turn the tape over) before you read any more.

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