AG: Okay, so those were his (Charles Reznikoff’s) short things. I’ll finish with some of his longer matters from Volume 1 of his Collected Poems, because I think I mentioned them to you… – (66) – “If there is a scheme..” – (did I read this before here? no?) – “If there is a scheme/ perhaps this too is in the scheme/as when a subway car turns on a switch” – (that’s the thing I forgot, when it “turns on a switch”) – “the wheels screeching against the rails/and the lights go out/but are on again in a moment” – (I wonder which was better, his poem or mine – okay..) – “the lights go out/but are on again in a moment”, but it’s ““If there is a scheme/ perhaps this too is in the scheme” – (That’s kind of an interesting suggestion as far as the mind’s concerned, if you examine mind)
I wanted to read a couple of the longer story poems. I don’t think I read any of them here. We read the one about the knock? the aunt and the man?
AG: So that was from an earlier set. And now (from about page 44 on) ..Yeah, well this is kind of a weird one – “The Burden” (page 51)
Student: In Collected Poems, Volume 1?
AG: Volume 1, yeah – “(29) The shop on which he worked was on the tenth floor. After six o’clock/ he heard the neighbouring shops closing, the windows and the 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./When the train came to the bridge and the housetop 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.”
And the next one – “(30) – “In high school she liked Latin and the balances of algebra” – (have I read this here?)
AG: No? – “In high school she liked Latin and the balances of algebra” – (I like that, actually – a very elegant thing for a working-class girl – she liked the balances of algebra” – very intelligent mind – it penetrates both ways – it’s an intellectual’s conception, at the same time, it’s something that might come to the lower middle classes – “she liked.. the balances of algebra”) – “Her mother had died years before and her father had 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 who she had met at 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 himself to/ her father. A good match they all said. Besides home was uncomfortable/with a nagging stepmother.”
On page 54 (this is like a complete novel at this point):
“He was afraid to go through the grocery store where his father was/still talking to customers. He went through the tenement hallway/ intothe room where they ate and slept, in back of the store./His little brothers and sisters were asleep along the big bed. He took/ the book which he had bought at the pushcart, to read just a page/ or twomore by the dimmed gaslight./ His father stood over him and punched his head twice,/whispering in Yiddish, “Where have you been all day, you louse/that feeds on me? I needed 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 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 Hashanah 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 ina 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.” – (that’s where they ended up)
Then the next. I don’t think.. do these need any commentary? Hardly
Student: Is this autobiographical, in the third person?
AG: I don’t think they are autobiographical at all. I think he’s just observed these things among his friends and neighbors. He heard people talking. It’s like in Mind Breaths, I have a poem that’s built on these, actually. It’s something that.. I just listened to my father and this is what he said – [Allen reads from the poem, “Don’t Grow Old” – “Wasted arms, feeble knees,/ eighty years old, hair thin and white,/cheek bonier than I’d remembered,/ head bowed on his neck, eyes opened now and then he listened/I read my father Wordsworth’s/Intimations of Immortality Ode/”Trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God who is our home”/ “That’s beautiful”, he said.”but it’s not true. When I was a boy…” – (and then he continues, it’s just like (Reznikoff) – I was totally under the influence of Reznikoff at this point – and then my father continued) – “When I was a boy we had/ a house on Boyd Street, Newark/The backyard was a big empty lot full of bushes/and whole grass.I always wondered/what was behind those trees./When I grew older, I walked around the block..” – (I thought that was so funny, “When I grew older” – like, another year! From four to five, he finally got around to walk around the block (but it seemed like that when you’re a kid)) – “When I grew older, I walked around the block/and found out what was back there, it was/ a glue factory.”
In other words, it’s somebody talking. He heard his grandmother (or) his aunt talking, or a businessman, talking about this business.
This Rabbi went away and somebody signed something for his house and then someone got cheated and, twenty years later, the son, who was a lawyer, came back and told him that he’d been cheated and wanted to make it up, but he was dead already. It’s a typical story. Stories like that you hear in the family all the time, whether Irish or Jewish, or Swedish, or German, or honky or black, there are these stories. It’s all totally family – heimisch, or homely. And I’m sure everyone has these stories. And they’re told always in the same way – like great gaps of time are covered – “There was this boy and he had a limp. Well, when he grew up, he had a candy store”. And it’s like epic poetry (because that’s what epic poetry is composed of) – the essential details, as it would be remembered, for everybody to understand, not something high faultin’ and flighty, but just the essential details of life recollected perfectly in order, but just the essential details. So, “There was this guy who has a club foot and, when he was fifty, he wanted to get married” (it starts with the child – a club foot at grammar school)
Here’s a complete fast shot (on page 55) – “(33) 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 life you’re going into – but you’ve 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 in a box and went/ from office to office./ Others like himself, sometimes a crowd, were waiting to thrust their cards through a partition opening..” – (That’s really horrifying. I’ve been in that situation, you know, in a big city, trying to compete with a million other people for the same job)- “..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 time to go down the steps to Holz’s lunch/ counter./He would mount one of the stools/The food, steaming,fragrant, just brought outfrom 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 butter sliding from the top and red fruit juice dripping over the saucer./ He was growing fat.” – (that’s the end – “He was growing fat” – It’s like a novel because you can see a life of such anxiety the only relief is the eating time, so he begins piling the eating in, but that means a life of unrelieved dread, or what he’s talking about, (is) actually, a brilliant piece of karmic detection work..)
So the last one I’ll read today is on page 59 (a very brief one, because we’re over time) – “(40) – 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 girl I wanted to study so much, but who could?” – (The phrasing is so perfect – “When I was a girl I wanted to study so much, but who could?”…(It’s so) correct that it makes you cry. You know it’s true, one way or another. It’s totally real. The art has approached reality in so beautiful a way, and his attention is so exact, and his intelligence is there, and so humble. He’s not trying to impress anybody, he’s trying to be real. So..) – “”When I was a girl I wanted to study so much, but who could?/My father used to cry when I talked to him about it,/but he 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.” – (So, a moment of pure silence, pure awareness, pure silence, pure sympathy, complete empathy, sympathy, compassion, fullness, awareness, (a) complete universe. And the “clock ticked and ticked rapidly”)
Okay, I might want to do some more of these because they’re so good! – Yeah, one last, I’ll do it – It’s only five lines. It applies to what I want to do next time – “(46) 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.”