AG: [surveying The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff] – I’d like to read through a lot of these actually, because they’re so good. There are too many to read, because I (also) want to go from him to (William Carlos) Williams, and then from Williams, retrospectively, back to (William) Wordsworth, and see Wordsworth’s sharp focus of perception, if we have time.
“The shoemaker sat in the cellar’s dusk beside his bench and/ sewing machine, his large blackened hands, finger tips/ flattened and broad, busy./ Through the grating in the sidewalk over his window, paper/ and dust were falling year by year,/ At evening Passover would begin. The sunny street was/ crowded. The shoemaker could see the feet of those who/ walked over the grating./ He had one pair of shoes to finish and he would be through./ His friend came in, a man with a long, black beard, in shabby,/dirty clothes, but with shoes newly cobbled, and blacked./ “Beautiful outside, really the world is beautiful.”/ A pot of fish was boiling on the stove. Sometimes the water/bubbled over and hissed. The smell of the fish filled the / cellar./ “It must be beautiful in the park now. After our fish we’ll take/ a walk in the park”. The shoemaker nodded./ The shoemaker hurried his work on the last shoe. The pot on/ the stove bubbled and hissed. His friend walked up and/down the cellar in shoes newly cobbled and blacked.”
AG: I always thought that was the acme of American poetry. “The smell of the fish filled the/ cellar”. Having broken through a false notion of beauty, or an automatic stereotyped ideal of what beauty is, and come to some American-esque notion of truth as beauty, let us say, or direct observation and presence and grounding in clarity, and acceptance of existence in detail, in microscopic, accurate, insightful, noticing detail, then you could actually come to a point of view where “The smell of the fish filled the cellar”, because of the pungency suggested, the nasal phanopoeia invoked, that is conjuring up that smell, becomes a really beautiful line – “The smell of the fish filled the cellar” – Actually, vocally, it’s quite good – “The smell of thr fish filled the cellar” – It actually has all the hissing of the fish on the stove.
Student: What page is that on?
AG: That’s on page 64 of the Collected Poems (Complete Poems, Volume 1), and it’s at the end of a series that begins with Poems, 1920.
I’ll go back a little (now) and read a few more of the short (poems)
Kitten – just a few, short, haiku-like again:
“Kitten, pressed into a rude shape by cart wheels..” – Kitten, pressed into a rude shape by cart wheels – “..an end to your slinking away and trying to hide behind ash-cans.”
“The baby woke with curved, confiding fingers/ The gas had been turned down until it was only a yellow/ glimmer./ a rat walked slowly from under the washtub.” – Dracula! –
Here’s a short poem that I also used as a warning-notice to print in the rock ‘n roll Rolling Thunder Dylan Tour newspaper, for all the heroic coke-heads:
“Suddenly we noticed that we were in darkness/ so we went into the house and lit the lamp/ The talk fell apart and bit by bit slid into a lake…”
This is a Jewish middle-class voice. It’s very funny actually. It’s just sort of this completely “everyday” (tone). He was a law clerk actually. He did legal research for a living and walked up and down New York City streets, walked several miles every day, between his apartment and his law office to do legal research. And his wife was a professor of English (later at Brandeis). Totally anonymous. He knew a number of great-friend poets, like William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting. (They) all knew his work, but he printed all these books by himself. He didn’t have any books published until, maybe 1940, by New Directions, or 1950. His first New Directions book came out, a collection, a selection, of these poems, but, year-after-year, he printed his own books, including novels. He’s got a lot of interesting work, most of it unobtainable, but (much of it) now coming out from Black Sparrow Press. I’m beginning to dig his work more and more for teaching – grounded, focus – because it seems one of the largest bodies of concrete imagistic objective writing that anybody in America’s accumulated -Williams has, maybe, a slightly larger accumulation of direct perceptions articulated clearly, visually, on the page. I don’t know what other poets do have those isolated exact, precise, images – except (there’s) a young kid, David Cope. (I’ll) interrupt (just) a moment..