AG: I do want to get back to (Charles) Reznikoff because, okay, we had a little haiku, and then we had a little sharp fast transcription noticings. Fast transcription. (Guy) de Maupassant. I think de Maupassant got this turn-on from (Gustav) Flaubert. Flaubert told him that if a guy was jumping out the window, he should be able to write a verbal sketch of the way that he fell out of the window (and) the way his shirt was ballooning into the air before he hit the ground, be that fast in noticing the particular detail of the situation that you could transcribe and put (it) in language.
(William Carlos) Williams instructions in the “Preface” to “Kora in Hell” for how to choose detail, or where do you go to get the exact flash, physical flash, eyeball flash, or the exact detail, the “minute particular” (to use (William) Blake’s phrase), that you can describe that will conjure up the whole situation, that will conjure up the whole scene – Williams suggested that you choose that aspect, of a tree, say, which makes that tree different from all other trees. Choose that. Like, [Allen points to one of the students], over there, from where I’m standing, you got a thin face and white-frame plastic eyeglasses, (or pink plastic eyeglasses), so there’s a little detail that brings your face out a little, or makes it different from other faces. So everybody’s got a little particularity, (or every tree, or every object, has some particularity). If you were sketching, physically making sketches, like pictorial sketches, a horned tree with two horns at the top, you’d get the two horny branches at the top and then just fill out the mass, but it would be those two horns that characterize the tree (Williams (actually) has a poem about trees like that – does anybody know it? – “I must tell you..” – oh, I’m afraid it’ll take too much time to find but there’s a little poem by Williams describing a tree with two horns at the top, that begins “I must tell you..” ..you can check it out in the Collected Earlier Poems)
Back to Reznikoff. Now, more narrative. What I was trying to do was (to) suggest the basic principles of picking out detail, as Williams prescribed them – also, out of his study of “le mot juste”, (the) precise word, (a) concept of the French prose-writers Flaubert (and) de Maupassant, which the Imagists drew on, actually. Historically, they did read these people and were interested in their practice of accuracy – not so much to be accurate, as (it is) to be there, so you see what’s there. It’s not a question of being macho-accurate, it’s a question of being completely present in the space where you are, so you see what’s in front of you, rather than day-dreaming. So, in this sense, the study of poetics is the study of mindfulness.
(It’s) related to Buddhist meditation, which is why the haiku grows out of Zen meditation practice (and it is appropriate that, as American consciousness began to realize itself, that the poetry around the turn of the century would check out the precision of focus of Buddhist poetics, through the haiku, or through (Ezra) Pound’s examination of traditional Chinese poetic method – as picture language, (in “The Chinese Written Character As A Medium For Poetry” – an essay, “The Chinese Written Character As A Medium For Poetry” – which he composed from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, re-published by City Lights – a very good study of language as pictures, using Chinese as an example of a picture-language, distinct from the abstract or American-English European languages, which are sounds, but (which) don’t have any pictorial content in the writing).
Alright, getting back to text examples. Well, something that’s totally family-like:
“In high school she liked Latin and the balances of algebra./ Her mother had died years before and her father married again./ The new wife was solicitous for her husband. “A workingman/ – has he the means for this education of a girl?/ They took her out of school and got her a job as a bookkeeper./ A student at one of the universities whom she had met in high/school, began to call./ She herself had been reading, but evenings are too short,/besides, her reading was haphazard./ They talked of books that he knew and what was good in his/ lectures. Her stepmother and father said, “It will be years/ before he’ll finish his studies and make a living. When/he’ll be ready to marry, you’ll be too old, He’s wasting/ your time”./ It was useless talking to her, but they spoke to him and he/ stopped calling./ A salesman, professionally good-humored, introduced him-/self to her/ father. A good match, they all said. Besides,/ home was uncomfortable with a nagging stepmother.”
– So, apparently, after all that, the way he indicated that he’d decided to take it was – “Besides,/ home was uncomfortable with a nagging stepmother.”
Student: Who was that?
AG: We’re back to (Charles) Reznikoff now.
Student: That sounded like a Henry James novel
AG: Yes. Yeah. That’s the amazing thing, that these take in whole cycles of change.
Student: That’s from Testimony?
AG: No, this is all from the Poems, 1920.
Student: Allen, how’s that different from prose now?
AG: Well, the question is, how does it differ from prose? It doesn’t differ from prose, but how does poetry differ from prose? Big question. I was talking with someone last night, D [unidentified], who’s here, who said “How does this differ from prose? Isn’t this just prose?”, and I said, “Yeah. Now enjoy it!”. Once he realized that it was ok that it was prose, then it didn’t bother him anymore, and he could listen to it, but until he got satisfied that the terminology, “poem” (had) stopped nagging him, he couldn’t actually hear what was on the page. Once I said “Okay, it’s not poetry, it’s prose”, then he could hear what was on the page and began enjoying it.
This differs from prose, I think in the sense that… well (Jack) Kerouac‘s prose is prose-poetry, (Arthur) Rimbaud‘s poetry is prose-poetry (in Season in Hell and Illuminations), (James) Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is prose-poetry, or poetry, certain (William) Burroughs is as dense as any Rimbaud or prose-poetry. (Louis-Ferdinand) Celine‘ s prose in Journey to the End of the Night, or later books, (like) Guignol’s Band, approaches the intensity, rhythmic variability and excitableness and imagistic precision of poetry. In the 20th Century, there was a notorious break-down of the distinction, especially in Gertrude Stein, beginning with Gertrude Stein, when both poetry and prose began converging on the mind itself as subject-matter. Then the distinction between prose and poetry broke down, because the forms that were suggested by observing mind functioning were interchangeable – poetry or prose. In other words, if the form in the prose or in the poem was a transcription of the jumps of mind, from little haiku, to long short-stories, to giant novels (like Finnegan’s Wake, or The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein), if the form was modeled basically on the notion of the movement of the mind, and jumps from thought-form to thought-form, and gaps in-between thought-forms, and the recurred cycles of thought-forms, then the difference between haiku and epic is eclipsed, as between prose and poetry. Because you have a whole epic in these little stories, a whole novel, as you said, a whole Henry James novel, in these stories.
The little thing I noticed when I started reading this (Reznikoff piece) was, “In high school she liked Latin and the balances of algebra “. Now that’s very curious, interesting, precise language. She liked “the balances of algebra”? – For a schmucky high-school girl who marries a salesman, his intelligent noticing of her aesthetic intelligence is extraordinary, and there is a very high level of intelligence dealt with here. “In high school she liked Latin and the balances of algebra” – that’s very elegant (although it sounds like this grubby Jewish cat talking about a family problem, but it’s really there as high poetry, sort of). You were saying?
AG: Yeah. Meaning, it is (should be) as straightforward . Well, there are distinctions we could make. It depends on how you want to make your disinctions, how you want to define it now. I would say, because of concentration of thought, concentration of history into so short a scope, condensing entire novels and cycles of generations in half a page,that makes it, by virtue of condensation (poetry). You could say it’s poetry if poetry involves condensation (either of language, or of idea, or of history) into short notation space. Because of mindfulness and attention to language, it’s poetry, because, although it sounds prosaic, he’s actually being very mindful and attentive to a language that sounds like somebody telling a family story with (the) exact, precise, flavor of an old(er) generation’s grandma’s granny-wisdom story-telling, or like any grandfather’s speech, condensing whole family cycles, taking decades and decades and karmas, taking decades to work themselves out into half a page, like old people do before the deathbed. Like my father telling me a story, which I think I’ve repeated several times [Allen re-tells this story in the poem, “Don’t Grow Old”, section III, prior to “Father Death Blues”] , that when he was young he lived on Boyd Street in Newark and in the backyard were bushes and green trees and a big empty lot, and he never knew what was behind the empty lot, and when he got older, he took a walk around the block, and he found out what it was – it was a glue-factory! Because I’d heard Reznikoff, I suddenly realized (that) as being the same genre of exact detail and telescoping in a few paragraphs, or a few lines, a complete samsaric history, samsaric suffering history and suffering illusion history.
Student: (Walt) Whitman would seem to be the beginning of the breakdown between prose and poetry.
AG: Yeah, in America, Whitman. But then before him you’ve got (Herman) Melville’s Moby Dick, which is a high-singing prose too.
Student: Was (Arthur) Rimbaud aware of Whitman?
AG: I don’t think so. I don’t know if Whitman was translated by then. 1890’s, he was known in England, so, I don’t think he was. [turning back to Reznikoff’s poems] – I want to get a couple more of these in . So I’ll see if I can find the most poignant – Oh, before we get into that, there’s another fantastic short photograph-movie:
“Scared dogs looking backwards with patient eyes/ at windows, stooping old women, wrapped in shawls,/ old men, wrinkled as knuckles, on the stoops./ A bitch, backbone and ribs showing in the sinuous back/ sniffed for food, her swollen udder nearly rubbing along the pavement.” – That’s like the “fish hissing on the stove” – “her swollen udder nearly rubbing along the pavement.”
“Once a toothless woman opened her door,/ chewing a slice of bacon that hung from her mouth like a tongue” – That takes the cake for absolute horrific realism. His comment on this:
“This is where I walked night after night/ This is where I walked away many years” – In that universe, I guess. In that suburb. This is called “Sunday Walks In the Suburbs”. It’s one of a series. I’ll repeat that little section – “Once a toothless woman opened her door,/ chewing a slice of bacon that hung from her mouth like a tongue” – it’s like Kafka. It’s an apparition out of Kafka of actual, total, reality. So is this prose or poetry? Because of the photographic accuracy, but spareness, of detail, the whole, somehow, is more than the sum of its parts here – of the slice of bacon, the toothless woman, a door, chewing a slice of bacon, she’s still chewing it. It’s a little bit there like that little haiku about the old guy on the winter night chewing his brush with his remaining tooth [“Night/ biting the frozen brush/with a remaining tooth” (Buson) -sic] – But this is such a horrible picture that you know it’s poetry.
Student: Allen? Is he doing the (William Carlos) Williams kind of meter also?
AG: No, he didn’t seem to be so interested in the arrangement of lines on the page according to breath, according to syllable, according to balance. He was more accurately interested, I think, in diction. That is, in a diction and syntax that was an accurate reflection of his own home speech, or family speech.
Student: Don’t you think that’s characteristic of writers who change languages? Wasn’t Melville originally Polish? or (Joseph) Conrad originally Polish?
AG: Conrad, yes.
Student: His language is pretty exact too.
AG: Yeah. Reznikoff was brought up in another language…Reznikoff came from a mixed-language family, and this is very clearly slightly affected by Yiddish, like “the balances of algebra” – it’s a very Jewish-American Lower East Side talk.
“He showed me the album. “But this?” I asked, surprised at/ such beauty./ I knew his sister, her face somewhat the picture’s – coarsened./ “My mother before her marriage”./ Coming in, I had met/ her shrivelled face and round shoulders./ Now, after the day’s work, his father at cards with friends/ still outshouted the shop’s wheels…..” – So he’s got a whole cycle change from “But this?” I asked, surprised at/ such beauty” – I had met her coming in – “her shrivelled face and round shoulders”. And then her husband, still yelling loud, conditioned by the shop’s wheels.
Well, let’s see. I got some really good ones here. Okay, this is a whole long (piece). It’s called “The Burden”
“The shop in which he worked was on the tenth floor. After six/ o’clock he heard the neighboring shops closing, the/ windows and iron shutters closed./ At last there was only a light here and there./ These, too. were gone/ He was alone./ He went to the stairs./Suppose he leaned over the railing./ What was to hold him back from plunging down the stairwell?/ Upon the railway platform a low railing was fencing off a drop/ to the street – a man could step over..” (that’s very Jewish, “a man could step over”) … “When the train came to the bridge and the housetops sank and/ sank, his heart began to pound and he caught his breath:/ he had but to throw himself through the open window or walk/ to the train platform, no one would suspect, and jerk/ back the little gate./ He would have to ride so to and from work. His home was on/ the third floor, the shop on the tenth. He would have to/ pass windows and the stairwell always.”
“He was afraid to go through the grocery store, where his/ father was still talking to customers. He went through the/ tenement hallway into the room where they ate and slept/ in the back of the store./ His little brothers and sisters were asleep along the big bed/ He/ took the book which he had bought at a pushcart to read/ just a page or two more by the dimmed gaslight./ His father stood over him ad punched his head twice,/ whispering in Yiddish “Where have you been lost all day, you louse that feeds on me, I need you to deliver orders.”/ In the dawn he carried milk and rolls to the doors of customers./ At seven he was in his chum’s room. “I’ll stay here with/ you till I get a job.”/ He worked for a printer. When he was twenty-one he set up a/ press in a basement. It was harder to pay off than he had/ thought./ He fell behind in his installments. If they took the press away,/ he would have to work for someone else all over again/ Rosh Ha Shonoh he went to his father’s house. They had been/ speaking to each other again for years./ Once a friend had turned a poem of his into Hebrew. It was/ printed in a Hebrew magazine. He showed it to his father/ and his father showed it around to the neighbors./ After dinner his father said, “Business has been good, thank/ God. I have saved over a thousand dollars this year. How/ have you been doing?”/ “Well”. “But I hear you need money, that you’re trying to/ borrow some?” “Yes”. His father paused./”I hope you get it” – Well, the thing is it cuts through to actual life. You know that’s really family and who can write really family ? Who gets that close to the nose? Who gets that close to actuality, among any poet, ancient or modern? There’s very few that get that cold void as well ( “Come in, she said, as gently as she could and smiled” – which covers the void too).
“Passing the shop after school, he would look up at the sign/and go on, glad that his own life had to do with books./ Now at night when he saw the grey in his parents’ hair and/ heard their talk of that day’s worries and the next;/ lack of orders, if orders, lack of workers, if workers, lack of/goods, if there were workers and goods, lack of orders/ again,/ for the tenth time he said, “I’m going in with you: there’s more/ money in business”./ His father answered, “Since when do you care about money?/ You don’t know what kind of a life you’re going into -/ but you have always had your own way./ He went out selling: in the morning he read the Arrival of /Buyers in The Times; he packed half a dozen samples into/ a box and went from office to office./ Others like himself, sometimes a crowd, were waiting to thrust/ their cards through a partition opening./ When he ate, vexations were forgotten for a while. A quarter/ past eleven was the time to go down the steps to Holz’s/ lunch counter/ He would mount one of the stools. The food, steaming/ fragrance, just brought from the kitchen, would be/ dumped into the trays of the steam-table/ Hamburger steak, mashed potatoes, onions and gravy, or a/ knackwurst and sauerkraut; after that, a pudding with a/ square of sugar and butter sliding from the top and red/ fruit juice dripping over the saucer./ He was growing fat.”
Student: Allen? Are there any recordings of Reznikoff reading his own poetry?
AG: Yeah. Reznikoff was invited yearly to the St Marks Poetry Project by Anne Waldman in the last few years, and I think there are at least two tapes of his readings at St Marks, casssette tapes of him reading. I went to both of them and it reduced me to tears to hear him. Because it was so elemental. No fancy-business. No ambition. No poetry. Just actuality (but actuality so reduced to such clear terms that it was moving, completely emotionally moving and yet totally objective. Yeah?
Student: How would you describe the difference between this poetry of Reznikoff and his later stuff, like Testimony?
AG: Well, later books, which we have in the library, Testimony and Holocaust. He was, as I said, a law clerk, and so Testimony was.. he was interested in this family story – family, every day, quotidian decade cycles. He picked out from 19th Century legal testimony, suits and counter-suits and law-suits having to do with people losing their hair in the machine press (etc). He picked out horrible stories, or poignant stories, and documents, little documents, and he isolated them in lines and he told them (unadorned), just picked them out, one or two paragraphs of testimony in legal trials. (In) Holocaust, he researched through all the Nuremberg trials and excerpted tiny vignette stories of these kind of details from lives and deaths in the concentration camps. So it’s one of the most strikingly accurate presentations of that apocalyptic situation that exists in literary record. He’s done the work for you if you want to know what went on there.
“In a month they would be married./ He sang a song to himself in which her name was the only/ word/ His mother was waiting up for him. She said, “I was told today/ that her mother died an epileptic,/ and her brother is an idiot in a home somewhere
.Why didn’t/ she tell you?”/ He thought of hugging her narrow shoulders, comforting her;/ of noting their children’s quirks and screeches fearfully -/ how the moonlight had been glittering in her eyes.”
Here’s for all poets:
“At night, after the day’s work, he wrote. Year after year he/ had written, but the right words were still not all there,/ the right rhythms not always used. He corrected the old/ and added new/ While away on a business trip he died. His children playing/ about the house, left home by the widow out to work,/ found the manuscript so carefully written and rewritten./ The paper was good to scribble on. Then they tore it into bits./ At night the mother came home and swept it out.” – That’s Reznikoff’s situation, actually.
“When at forty he went to America, the family was glad to be/ rid of him..” [Allen’s reading is interrupted by a banging and whistling outside the classroom] – “The poet was reading a poem from an old Jewish patriarch./ Outside the children marched up and down./ A police whistle blew on the corner.” [Allen resumes the poem] -“When at forty he went to America, the family was glad to be/ rid of him, envious and quarrelsome. All but him had/ married and were well-to-do./ The smallpox when a child had left him ugly. Because it had/ also left him sickly, he had been humored in not going to/ school, and so he could not read or cypher./ To strengthen him he had been apprenticed to a blacksmith./ When he walked he kept hitching up his shoulders and/ throwing out his hands./ He spoke indistinctly and so foolishly that when understood/ his hearers could not help smiling . Sure they did not/ understand, he would repeat what he had said until tears/ were in his eyes./ In New York he stayed with a pushcart pedlar. The pedlar had/ a daughter who had worked her way through high school/ and was in college./ The blacksmith’s arm became infected and he could not work./ He stayed at home waiting for his arm to heal, silently/ watching as she moved about the house or did her lessons./ She tried not to mind his eyes always on her./ At last she insisted that he move away. So he had to take/ lodgings elsewhere./ After supper he would stand in front of the house in which she/lived, hoping that she would come out on an errand./ The boys playing in the street discovered him and searched/ the gutters for peach pits and apple cores/ to throw over their shoulders at him as they passed, intent/ upon the sky./ He would chase them in his jerky way.”
“As he read, his mother sat down beside him. “Read me a little”./”You wouldn’t understand, Ma”. What do you care? Read me/ a little”/ When I was a little girl I wanted to study so much but who could?/ My father used to cry when I talked to him about it,/ buthe cried because he couldn’t afford to educate the boys -/ even./ As he read, she listened gravely; then went back to her/ ironing./ The gaslight shone on her round, ruddy face and the white/ cotton sheets that she spread and ironed;/from the shelf the alarm-clock ticked and ticked rapidly.”squabbles
The Lawyer – This is Reznikoff himself, I think.
“A man made cloaks of material furnished. The man from whom/ the cloaks were made refused them: defects in the/ material. But the material was yours. But the defects were/ shown by white strings in the selvage; your cutter should/ have avoided them./ A woman fell downstairs; no light in the hallway. There was!/ but boys stole the electric bulbs. The janitor was told; he/ should have lit the gas.”/ Water from the chop-suey joint upstairs came through the/ ceiling upon our silk. The water fell on a table where it/ damaged nothing; they took their silk, gone out of style,/ and dabbled in it in the water. The silks were on the table to/ be cut./ Our union takes steam-shovel engineers only, but their union/ takes all kinds; they want to put us out of business. One/ of our men was on a job; they call out the locomotive/ engineers and make the boss – / Why was he spending his life in such?”
“When the club met in her home, embarrassed, she asked them/ not to begin; her father wanted to speak to them./ The members whispered to each other, “Who is her father?”/ “I thank you , young men and women”, he said, “for the/ honor of your visit. I suppose you would like to hear/ some of my poems”. And he began to chant.”