Reading Charles Reznikoff.

The Poem as Documentary

Reznikoff is perhaps best known for his documentary work, especially his Testimony: The United States 1885-1890 which makes use of late 19th century legal cases to create a record of that particular period in American history. This kind of material often attracts criticism and rejection because it isn't poetic enough and it isn't original. I take the opposite view and I'll try to show why. Firstly, the current malaise that besets the Poem is in part due to the fact that the current output and poetry-related debates are far too poetic in that they are too full of verbal and technical devices to reach a wider audience than the privileged but introspective cogniscenti.

The other charge about originality demonstrates that our (readers, writers, poets, teachers) world is still stuck somewhere between Baudelaire and Auden with the tired and flabby image of the poet as some kind of magus awaiting inspiration in order to put some stunning truths down on the page. I am aware that this is part of the conceptual argument but I don't hold with most of that kind of material and I'm not claiming Reznikoff to be a forerunner of that particular tribe. I would also suggest that memroialisation, in all its forms is one of the things that poetry does well and that this aspect of Reznikoff's work does this very well indeed:

    Blunt and his wife lived on a farm
    six or so miles from town.
    The quarrel was over a note that was due:
    he did not have the money to pay it.
    and asked her to sell her cows.

    He asked her a couple of times,
    and she said that if he asked again
    she would hit him with the ax.
    They were in the yard,
    and he hit her with the water bucket.
    He then went to the stable and watered the stock.
    Coming back, he saw her lying by the well
    and hit her again with the bucket.

    The well was filled with snow - nearly to the top,
    and there was blood in the snow.
    The boys took a couple of shovels 
    and digging down
    found clothing, shoes, and a pair of spectacles.
    Then they saw the form of a foot,
    and one of the boys reached down and felt it:
    that was Mrs Blunt with her stockings on.

I need to confess that I occasionally produce documentary work based on evidence statements but I couldn't produce work of this quality. The selection of material, the absence of adjectives conveys the sense that a surprising amount of murders occur without pre-meditation and are usually about not very much. The last three lines, without any poetic conjuring, are poignant and create a lasting impression on this reader at least.

In a 1969 interview Reznikoff talked about this aspect of his work:

Still the facts have a function of their own--psychological, sociological, and perhaps even poetical. In Testimony the speakers whose words I use are all giving testimony about what they actually lived through. The testimony is that of a witness in court--not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard. What I wanted to do was to create by selection, arrangement, and the rhythm of the words used as a mood or feeling.


It's not a complete picture of the United States at any time, by any means. It's only a part of what happened, a reality that I felt as a reader and could not portray adequately in any other way.

In another interview he said that he selcted material based on what moved him.

In terms of content, other critics have pointed out how, in many of the events, there is a massive gap between the relatively trivial argument and the outburst of extreme violence that follows. From my professional experience I can only report that this does tally with reality, even today. Most people do not intend to commit murder which usually occurs because an apparently random set of factors come together and the killing is done in immediate response to those, rather than from a planned attack. Most of these factors are usually, as in the case above, mundane and relatively trivial but the debt, the request to sell the cattle and the threat with the axe turn a brief series of events into a violent attack. What I'm trying to say is that most serious crimes are quite ordinary and are committed on impulse. Reznikoff is only mirrorring the norm.

Testimony doesn't just include violent incidents but also tackles racism, domestic problems and property disputes. This is the first poem in the Domestic Scenes sequence:

    Van Nicely with his warmest smile - 
    bringing presents for the children -
    said: "I have just come from Trenton";
    unwrapped a bottle of whisky for Mr Jones
    and gave Mrs Jones twenty-five dollars for Christmas;

    after shaking hands with her and saying politely,
    "How do you do?"
    as if they had not seen each of for days
    and the two of them
    had not spent the afternoon together in New York.

So, an event without violence but with transgression just the same, Reznikoff takes the actions of the unfortunately named but dastardly Van Nicely to say something about complicity and deception. We are left to wonder whether the gift to Mr Brown is an attempt to buy his compliance or to allay any suspicions that he may have although the presents for the children would suggest the latter. Either way it's a particular slice of life that has run through millenia.

The Walk in the Park. The Mekas Touch

In 1990 the great documentary film maker Jonas Mekas made Walk a fifty-eight minute film of him walking around New York and commenting on the things he sees and passes by. The only competitor, in any art from, is Reznikoff who gets to the essence of that particular urbanic in an equally compelling way. By The Well of Living and Seeing starts with a walk in the park:


    The pigeon saunters along the path-
    towards me.
    Will it turn aside?
    Of course.
    Not only Athena's owl
    knows the history of man.



    You must not suppose
    that all who live on Fifth Avenue
    are happy: I have heard the gulls screaming
    from the reservoir in Central Park.

So, these aren't violent or dramatic events, not the words, phrases of others but the mundane, the quotidian rendered as poetry. This has me cheering from the sidelines, this is what gives me some degree of hope for the future of the Poem precisely because it focuses on the things that make up our world, the things that we often miss in our rush to get by. Reznikoff uses the everyday to make serious, rather than profound, points as with the wisdom of less exalted beings than the owl and the assumptions we make about those with serious money. The walk continues:


    The face of the old woman
    sitting alone on a park bench
    is suddenly flushed
    and she begins to curse and scream.
    I can understand the horns of the automobiles
    screaming at each other
    as they stream out of the park
    into the crowded street;
    but, sitting alone on a park bench,
    at whom is she screaming?

My late teens were spent occasionally wandering the streets of London where the above was not an uncommon event, it's relatively rare now because in these enlightened times such people, esepcially in New York with its Zero Tolerance moronity, are taken into police custody, if they make a fuss about this they are heading for prison, if not then some time in hospital or residential care. This has got me to thinking that leaving such people alone was perhaps the better option rather than what's laughably referred to as care in the community- I speak as an ex-regulator of this kind of 'care'.

The question at the end of the above is ambiguous, it's both rhetorical and pointed, the first response is that she's screaming at nothing and no-one, the second might be that she's screaming at the (to her) very real demons in her head and, by extension, at the world at large. I'll readily admit that I have some interest in her screams as I'm also a mad (bipolar) person but nevertheless it's still an astute piece of compressed precision.

I now what to digress briefly into matters theoretical because it strikes me that this might be the sort of thing that Henri Lefebvre was talking about in his work on urban space and the everyday and what's currently described as 'psychogeography'. I'm not by any means suggesting that Reznikoff was aware of Lefebvre's work, although By the Well wasn't published until 1969, but some of the affinities are quite striking. This may, of course be wishful thinking on my part.

Part II of By the Well contains mostly longer poems, these are two of my favourites:


    The beggar was making his rounds:
    a sturdy fellow in his thirties;
    blond hair, carefully combed,
    blue eyes in a square German or Slave face;
    but the sooty look of people who cannot wash regularly.
    I never gave him anything
    and always looked at him coldly,
    and pretty soon he stopped asking me.

    One afternoon crossing a driveway
    leading into the park - the green light with me - 
    an automobile shot out of the traffic
    Past my face.
    I looked after it startled and angry - 
    and kept on walking.
    Suddenly I heard a voice, just behind me, saying sharply,

    I stood stock-still
    and another car whizzed past:
    I might have been killed 
    if I had not stopped.
    I turned to see who had spoken 
    out of a common humanity:
    it was the beggar,
    and he walked on before I could even thank him.

The two things that this triggers off is something Rorty said about a wrong being not doing someone a good turn when this would cost you very little and what Levinas said about evil being our personal 'self-interest'. In this particular case, the beggar goes out of his way to do something good that costs him nothing and the poet is the one whose 'cold look' belies self-interest. I'm now aware that I always walk past the Big Issue seller outside the local supermatket but I like to think that, for today at least, this negligence is balanced by getting something from a shelf that the shop assistant needed but couldn't quite reach.

This is a bit less dramatic:


    In the street, nine stories below, the horn of an automobile out of order 
    began sounding its loudest
    steadily - without having to stop for breath.
    We tried to keep on talking
    in spite of that unceasing scream;
    raised our voices somewhat, no longer calm and serene.
    Our civilization was somewhat out of order, it seemed.

    But, just as we began to knit our brows,
    tighten our jaws, twist our lips,
    the noise stopped;
    and we dipped our heads,
    like ducks on a stream, into the cool silence,
    and talked again quietly, smiling at each other.

Lyrical, intelligent and refreshingly ordinary and human. At first glance it's a trivial moment until you realise that silence in our modern conurbations are always overwhelmed by the droning shout of traffic. It's one of those universal urban incursions to our senses that is ignored as a small price to pay for the convenience of the car. A car alarm feels like a violation into my world, as if I can't do or think anything until that blaring has come to a halt. I could rant on about this from many different angles for a long time but Renzikoff makes the same point much more effectively in thirteen seemingly innocuous lines- the image of the ducks cooling themselves in the stream is exceptionally effective.

A provisional conclusion.

I hope I've shown in this initial overview that Reznikoff is an important poet who deserves much more readerly attention than he currently gets. I also hope I've dealt with some of the more outlandish snobberies about the documentary poem and shown how this kind of work is essential to the future of the Poem. Next time I'm going to deal with Reznikoff's autobiographical work and his material based on the Old Testament.