Charles Reznikoff created two unique works of poetic art of the 20th century. To my mind, these works are amongst the greatest by an American poet, yet he is hardly known.
Perhaps, this should be unsurprising. Most are unable to name the greatest living British (female) playwright, and very few can name an artistic director of a theatre, who is a also a person of colour.
Increasing this awareness of Reznikoff’s work by a drop, I highlight this biographical essay from the Poetry Foundation by Milton Hindus.
Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creely were admirers, as were George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky.
Perhaps like JH Prynne in England, he is a poet’s poet.
I’ve read Testimony: The United States, 1885-1890: Recitative.
And Holocaust, both once and have dipped in and out since. I can not say they are easy works. Both are unique in American literature.
“Drawing on actual US legal records between the years 1885 and 1915 (Reznikoff read “thousands” of such cases), the poem dispassionately, in a minimum of words, generally with all names and hence personality and individuality removed, records accident, injustice, disaster: Reznikoff’s great concern for man’s inhumanity to man, and for sheer ill-fortune, makes Testimony both a painful book to read and at the same time a profoundly moving assertion of human worth, dignity, nobility, and promise.” (Hindus)
This editing to its essential bones, the closing and the finding of the gaps between hits a deep and true level of poetry.
This has cousin work in what I have been writing on found art (see Tony Matelli post), found sound and verbatim theatre.
The extract is notable that there is a poetic thread on the lives of black Americans running throughout the work. This makes the work the most significant on the black American experience by a white (modernist) poet – I do not know of another white poet to portray black America of that time in this un-adorned poetic fashion.
With the exception of Holocaust, it has no parallel in American writing.
Reznikoff distils, concentrates and crafts the essence of holocaust survivor testimonies into Holocaust. He used the Nuremberg Trials and the Eichmann Trial as source material.
There is no opinion. There is no observed outcry. The voices speak for themselves.
He self-published much of his work or had small print runs. Unassuming, self-deprecating - it seems - his is a poetry which has passed us by. Eliot Weinberger writes:
Interested in some more found art, I have some thoughts on watching Dickie Beau and his found sound. The found sound of drag fabulist Dickie Beau.
Cross fertilise. Read about the autistic mind here.