Meditation and Poetics – (Reznikoff – 1)

Portrait of An Old Woman (1563) – Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) – oil on panel 22cm x 18cm at the Alta Pinakothek, Munich

AG: Did I read any (Charles)  Reznikoff yet?

Students: No

AG: Here. Okay. so on page 14 – “(7) – On Brooklyn Bridge I saw a man drop dead/It meant no more than if he were a sparrow./ Above us rose Manhattan/below, the river spread to meet sea and sky”

These are a series of little sketches, mostly the city. He hung around New York City, working as a legal researcher

(9) – The shopgirls leave their work/quietly/ Machines are still, tables and chairs/ darken./ The silent rounds of mice and roaches begins”
This being probably 1915 that he wrote this.  So he wasn’t interested in poetry, he was interested in mice and roaches. He was interested in what was in front of him.

This is page 17:
(19) –  “My work done, I lean on the window-sill/watching the dripping trees./The rain is over, the wet pavement shines,/From the bare twigs/rows of drops like shining buds are hanging”
– That’s a very clear picture, almost like a photograph almost, in this case.

Student: (I thought of the early ones (of Ezra Pound‘s))

AG: Yeah. Now they were friends remember.Yeah.

Then, poems, Rhythms II (it’s his next book, published 1919 – he’s getting better and better now)
– “The winter afternoon darkens/The shoemaker bends close to the shoe/His hammer raps faster./An old woman waits,/rubbing the cold from her hands”
– So these are almost like haiku. They’re a little like Imagist poems. They’re just little sketches, little fragmentary sketches of active perception – active language, active perception.

Now , finally, here’s where it really gets total. And it’s the first.. It’s what I think is one of the first perfect… I don’t know what you would call this? – Activist poems?, or Imagist poems?, or Mindfulness poems? – “(7) Scrubwoman – One shoulder lower/with unsure step like a bear erect” – (Well, that’s a little poetic – “like a bear erect”, but we’ll buy it), ok – “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” – It’s like a (Pieter) Breugel portrait, actually. But what’s interesting here is, of course, you’ve got the photograph and you’ve got the actuality. But also the language – “the smell of the wet black rags that she cleans with about her”. It’s a little awkward there, but it’s just the way you’d say it. It’s like an old Jewish guy talking – the smell of the wet black rags that she cleans with about her.  Yes?

Student: ((There was Oriental poetry) in translation (at that time) in 1917 or so?)

AG: Yes. (Ezra) Pound was, at the time, dealing with that.

Student: And Reznikoff too?

AG: Yeah. They were all in touch. They were young people, like we are, in touch with each other. They were making movements. They were making big movements, as he would say. In those days they were making big movements, yes – [Allen continues reading Reznikoff] – “(9) – “The Idiot – With green stagnant eyes,/arms and legs/loose ends of string in the wind,/  keep smiling at your father.” – It’s sort of  like some horrible family insight in there – (18) “The imperious dawn comes/to the clink of milk bottles/and round-shouldered sparrows twittering” – That “round-shouldered sparrows” is terrific, actually. I don’t think anybody before had actually been able to describe a sparrow by using.. it’s somewhat of a human image – the round-shouldered man – but round-shouldered sparrows? – He noticed they were round-shouldered (and not even (William) Shakespeare noticed that!) – But that’s something very definite that you can notice – “Sight is where the eye hits” ( – or strikes) – That’s something he saw with his eyeball – he actually saw that it was a round-shouldered sparrow. After a thousand years of people writing about sparrows, this guy finally took a look at one. Okay, so that’s the whole point. You take a look at it.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, starting at approximately thirty-nine minutes in and continuing to approximately forty-four minutes in] 

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