The work of Charles Reznikoff is of the highest importance and demands that we take serious note of what it says and what it must portend for the future of the Poem. This is a matter of fact, as I will demonstrate.
I was going to begin with a critical look at why the current malaise that we call contemporary poetry overlooks the importance of the documentary poem. I then realised that some readers may not think that such a form isn't at all important, so I've decided to make that case first.
One of the betterworn cliches of lit crit is that poetry is really good at 'bearing witness'. I think that I probably agree with the sentiment here but would rather that this observation could be made without the legal and religious connotations that it aspires to. It seems to me that poetry is really good at making a record of events and people. This aspect of the poem is found in some of our greatest works, the Divine Comedy can be read as a record of contemporary Italian politics as well as a religious allegory just as Piers Plowman can be read as a record of English religious and social concerns at the end of 14th century England. Throughout the history of western culture one of the central functions of the poem has been to memorialise the dead, a function that continues to produce some of the most impressive work that we have. Satire is a record of the thing being satirised and contemporary attitudes towards it.
Now, this recording business is complex because poets usually make use of records (documents) that are already compiled in order to make a point and some of the readerly interest then lies in the rationale behind the selection of particular pieces of information and the exclusion of others. Other poets record directly their own experiences of the social milieu in which they live and it is this type that I want to consider first.
Thomas Hoccleve's My Compleinte and the subsequent Dialogue is a record of a bout of mental illness and its consequences in the early part of the 15th century. The first relates to the poet's illness and recovery and the way he was shunned by his friends who were worried that his condition would recur a rejection that in itself caused dejection and despair but not a relapse. The Dialogue records a conversation with a friend who reads the complaint but advises the poet not to circulate it in case it makes matters worse by further antagonising those that rejected him in the first place. The friend goes on to express concern that the stress of undertaking a new creative commission might bring about a relapse.
Some critics have expressed doubts as to whether or not Hoccleve actually experienced mental illness but, as a bipolar depressive, I can personally vouch for the accuracy of both the experience of the illness and of the reaction of the majority of those who you thought were friends.
Here's the description of the illness:
Almighty God, as liketh his goodnesse
I can report that an initial bout of this kind of illness feels like a wild and uncontrollably infirmity and that it does seem that you have thrown yourself out of the 'you'. The first few lines attribute the cause of the illness to God or perhaps fate. There's also a comparison to be made here with contemporary mental health services seeing the illness as being exclusively a problem of brain chemistry.
Now, the primary difference here between this and Reznikoff is that the above is clearly what we think of as a poem, it is metrical and it rhymes. The last line is the sort of poetising that we're also accustomed to.
Here's the friend's initial response to the circulation of the complaint:
'That I shal sei shal be of good entente,My point here is that, if you were making a documentary film about mental health in the 1420s, this is just the sort of material you would be looking for because the document reports the facts but also provides context. If I was teaching the history of the period I would use the above as a factual record rather than as a piece of literature.
The next example before we get to Reznikoff is provided by Andrew Marvell and his account of the Second Dutch War. This particular conflict hardly ever features in the British histories of the time (166567) primarily because it was a major humiliation, the Dutch navy sailed up the River Thames, sank many of the Royal Navy's big ships and captured the English flagship which was taken back to Holland. The sequence of poems are largely satirical but my evidence for these as documentary comes from Samuel Pepys, a senior navy civil servant who records that he was shown a manuscript of one of the poems and that his heart 'aked' because it was so accurate about the chronic incompetence of the English fleet.
I'll provide just one brief example from "The Last Instructions to a Painter" to demonstrate the proximity of satire to document.
There our sick ships unrigged in summer lay
The above is a completely accurate account of what occurred, the Dutch fleet was ushered in by a disaffected pilot, the chain that was supposed to be the impregnable last line of defense proved useless, the unpaid sailors refused to fight and all of this debacle was watched from the banks of the river by the fops of the court who had journeyed down from London in the hope of some excitement.
In the interests of clarity, at this point we need some definitions. The first is from the reasonably authoritative OED: "Factual, realistic? applied esp. to a film or literary work, etc., based on real events or circumstances, and intended primarily for instruction or record purposes" which we need to compare with the eminently arguable 4th edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: "less a systematic theory or doctrine of a kind of poetry than an array of strategies and techniques that position a poem to participate in discourses of reportage for political and ethical purposes. In this it is documentary in two potentially conflicting senses: it consists of, or concerns, or is based on purportedly objective records of facts or events but uses those records to support, elaborate or advance an often passionately held position." The first of these is entirely sufficient for our purposes, the second is both willfully inaccurate and Part of the Problem.
This absence of 'slant', except for the selection rationale' is of crucial importance precisely because it directly challenges and subverts the current status quo, it denies the possibility of idealisation, of poetic inspiration and all the deceits that go with it. Moreover, this work does what the very best poetry has always done, it holds up a mirror to the world and presents to us what it's like, or was like, to live a life on this planet. This is in direct contrast to poets who incorporate documentary and archival elements into their work these are usually present to reinforce or add credibility to a point.
Here's an example from Testimony:
I've written official reports on Bad Things that have happened and know from that experience the importance of factual statements with as few adjectives as possible — a rule that Reznikoff follows. If the above were a newspaper report (reportage in the fancy Princeton lingo) then the driver would be reckless in setting out with only one lamp, the superintendent would also be irresponsible for letting him set out and Fraser would be unlucky because this makes things more interesting for the reader. However the avoidance of describing words has the advantage of absolute clarity and encourages readers to provide their own.
Reznikoff makes this point with reference to his Holocaust sequence much better than I ever could:
"In telling about a minor incident or a great catastrophe—like the Holocaust in which six million Jews lost their lives—how is it to be told? In the conclusions of the facts? The way many histories—generally out of necessity because of the absence of details—are written? Or in detailing the facts themselves? As, for example, the way law cases are tried in court. A witness in a court, for example, cannot say a man was negligent in crossing a street: he must testify instead how the man acted: the facts instead of a conclusion of fact. So, in reading or listening to the facts themselves, instead of merely [coming] to conclusions of what happened in the life of a person or to a people, the reader or listener may not only draw his own conclusions but is more apt to feel actually what happened as if he or she were—fortunately—only a spectator."
It is this readerly sense of involvement that I find essential if poetry is going to emerge from its current introspective rut. I'm very, very keen on being involved in what I'm reading and Reznikoff is absolutely right, it is the facts, without any subsequent conclusions or analysis that promote the sense of being present as the events unfold. I'd go further and suggest that the reader is involved in the making of the poem as well as the event that the poem describes. This may seem a little farfetched but the original poem can/should be thought of as incomplete so by supplying their own context, which the work requires us to do, readers do write their own 'complete' work.
What I'm trying to suggest here is that the poem as document changes the nature of the movement between text and reader. In the standard modes of expression, the poet makes something that is intended to do something to the reader and that the conclusion of this oneway process is the response of the reader. With the document the reader's conclusion is produced by him or her putting additional layers and contexts that the maker refuses to provide.
I'm not suggesting that these are 'open' poems in that readers are not completely free to build their own meaning. There are these facts that aren't metaphors, that don't 'stand' for anything else, that don't carry with them any great insights or truths. The stagecoach had one working light when it should have had two, it turned over because of a rock in the road and Mr Fraser's arm was broken as a result.
The other main dimension that needs to be noted here is that of witnessing in a legal context which can often get blurred with bearing witness in a poetic sense. Now, the whole process of providing evidence in a court of law is burdened with a raft of complexities and histories that ensure that any court documentation has the witness as its primary concern. Of course a witness does not have to be a person, a smashed window and missing goods may be witness to the possibility that a burglary has taken place. The task of the court is to examine the facts of the matter and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. With the Testimony volumes, readers may choose to do this or may simply absorb the facts as reported without coming to a conclusion. Often, however the temptation to act as jury is very great indeed. Here's Reznikoff on a criminal act:
Anyone who thinks that this isn't great literature is either a fool or hasn't read very much. In the hands of others the tragedy of this event would have been poetised beyond all recognition, stuffed with adjectives, clouded with incidentals and generally elaborated to extinction. Instead, what we get is a human tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. Once again the conclusions are ours and I'm trying hard not to see the role of Mrs Blunt in apparently provoking this and in Blunt's act as one of stupidity rather than malice but there are many other conclusions that might be drawn; but the point is that readers have some work to do to provide their own context. The other facet that we need to pay attention to is the deliberate act of compression to the facts that Reznikoff performs to produce a degree of absolute precision in terms of what happened, or what the record alleges to have occurred.
So, we have several things that poetry does very well indeed but many would and do argue that this kind of material isn't poetry at all because it contains none of the tricks and sleights of hand that we're so familiar with. This is the point and is why it is so essential for the future of the Poem.
I'll deal with the reasons for this sorry state of affairs towards the end of this piece, but just want to point out here that Reznikoff is one of the very few who holds up our lives to us in the most challenging and inspiring way. In the above poem we don't just have the account of a murder, we also have something essential about human frailty and all of the many sadnesses that can ensue. Here we have a form of telling that is almost completely against form with the exception of lineation (see below). For this reader to tug at my heart and prod my brain at the same time is a very rare feat indeed, yet Reznikoff manages this with consummate ease throughout the Testimony poems.
As well as leaving the rant until last, I think I need to deal with the 'not poetry' argument. Of course, this degree of unadornment isn't how we are conditioned and taught to think about the poem, but it is poetic in that it has a poetic effect and in Reznikoff's case it is also lineated. What I mean by poetic 'effect' is simply that, in very few words, these poems stop me in my tracks and cause me to have a bit of a rethink as to How the World Might Be. I need to point out that this is in direct contrast to my inability to respond to most of what people think of as the Modernist Poem.
So, in this instance we have a husband and wife in some financial difficulty, there is a request followed by a threat which leads to a murder. The fact of the killing isn't discovered until the wife's body, with her blue stocking still on, is discovered beneath the snow. The odd element, to my untutored ear,is that each of these protagonists appears to have kept their financial interests separate.
The reason, in this particular instance, that I'm rethinking how the world is may be that this reads like a situation that rapidly got out of control, It is very unlikely that Blunt woke up that particular morning with the intention of killing his wife; it is also unlikely that she would have been killed had she not threatened him with the axe. The factor that causes a rethink is the realisation that perhaps many things on a much larger scale occur in this clumsy, inept kind of way. Having some interest in world affairs (whatever that might mean) it now seems to me that inept clumsiness is one of the defining characteristics of international relations between states that start from nothing and then accelerate into crisis in ways unforeseen by strategists.
There's a view expressed by some Reznikoff fans that these poems aren't his best, that he's much more effective as a poet of the 'everyday'. I'd take issue with this primarily because we're not comparing like with like. The Holocaust, whether we like it or not, is the defining event of the last 200 years, whereas the death of Mrs Blunt and the breaking of Mr Fraser's arm clearly aren't. Having said this, I'm not of the view that Reznikoff is on a par with Paul Celan in the matter of the Holocaust Poem, but I do think that the manner in which these poems are made is an essential cultural component that we ignore at our peril. This is from the Children section of the collection:
Women guards at the women's section of the
and this is from Ghettos:
Among those who had hidden themselves
So, going back to the quotation about conclusions, are these more effective because they demand that we draw our own and make our individual judgements? There is not an underlying thesis here other than these terrible things happened and we are challenged to make of these accounts what we can. This is very different indeed from the repetition of numbers, from the examination of German culture, of anti-semitism and all the other ways we have of talking and teaching about the Holocaust. These other ways are obviously important, but Reznikoff insists on placing the details behind the numbers before our eyes
In the above instances, no additional flummery is provided, the children were on their way to be gassed and the female guards gave them sweets in a vain attempt to keep them quiet. The women and the child who were hiding were shot as they ran and then shot again to make sure that they were dead. As a reader I have this deep sense of outrage and complete dismay that these things can be committed by a European state in the recent past. I have my own ideas as to how the Holocaust came about, how a government founded on hatred of the Jews can develop and refine industrialised slaughter; but my reaction to these brief poems is much more personal.
I have huge issues with notions of personal evil and my default position is that people will behave badly and/or with cruelty if the cultural and economic structures around them encourage, promote and reward this sort of behaviour. Most of my working life has been spent working with young adults who have been involved in serious offences and very, very few of these were without a moral compass and/or had an inherent interest in inflicting pain and humiliation on others. So, it is unlikely that any of the above perpetrators would 'fit' my notion of evil, but if that is the case then I have to recognise that these are 'normal' human beings (fundamentally wellintentioned and generous to others) behaving in terrible ways. This is further compounded by the kicking of the feet and the provision of sweets. It seems to me that it is irrational and unnecessary to check that someone is dead before shooting them again, just to make sure. The sweets give me a different kind of problem because such an act contradicts the normally emotionfree attitudes of the guards and the only objective of the camps. The children are going to be gassed anyway, whether they cry or not so giving them sweets in an attempt to calm them down seems fairly pointless unless the women wanted to protect their own emotions from the children's cries.
I'm happy to acknowledge that this is difficult and often treacherous material to work with because of the unique nature of the subject, and that a great many critics will take shots at any attempt to poetise such a terrible event. But if we look at both ends of the poetry spectrum on this material then a number of issues become a little clearer. The later work of Paul Celan on the Holocaust was both sparse and oblique:
SIGHT THREADS, SENSE THREADS, from
It seems to me that both poets are using different strategies to do the same thing, to perform the same act. Both are primarily concerned with bearing witness but also leave the reader with more than a little work to do. Celan requires me to pay close attention to the ambiguities and abstractions that might be at play whereas Reznikoff demands that I consider the unadorned but terrible facts without any doubt about what is being said and documented.
My personal benchmark for documentary accounts of New York is Walk, a film made in 1990 by Jonas Mekas, the only man on the planet who knows more about cinema than Jean Luc Godard. In my head I also make comparisons with the early sixties photography of Diane Arbus. Reznikoff seems to be aiming for the same sort of effect as these two but falls short because his subjects are rendered in a way that is too reductive:
These may be observational and everyday but the don't say very much and, taken together, don't have much of an effect on me at all. I do appreciate that Reznikoff was a founding member of the Objectivists with their passion for clarity in all things, but I really don't see the point of this kind of work. I have to confess that I feel the same about most of William Carlos Williams' output.
Reznikoff the Jew
I know next to nothing about the Assyrians and didn't know that they'd invaded Israel and occupied Jerusalem, but have now been informed by the wonders of the interweb that this occurred in about 827 BCE. I am aware, however, of the barbaric European practice of ghettoising the Jewish element of the urban population. As may be gathered from the above, History makes use of different periods and places in Jewish history to tell the story of the survival of a people despite centuries of victimisation and slaughter. There's also more than a degree of stoicism, exemplified here by "let the heathen rage."
The other point that I take from this is that the Jews only survived as a people because they refused to assimilate, because they held fast to their traditions and culture in the face of appalling and murderous persecution. These concerns continue to be relevant in Europe now as exemplified by the attempts of the French government to encourage its Jewish citizens to remain in France rather than emigrate to Israel, together with the conflicting views about staying or going as the emigration rate continues to climb.
Reznikoff and the future of the Poem
This isn't the place for an indepth look at this state of affairs, but I do want to report that the Princeton wristbreaker devotes 16 pages to things Romantic and less than one to the documentary. This is one of the reasons why the work of Reznikoff and those that followed must be seen as strategically crucial to our current plight. Poetry, quite simply, cannot continue having introspective and vaguely incestuous conversations about itself within parameters that were set in 1805 or thereabouts. All this does is endlessly and wearily confirm the reading public's perception of the Poem as lyric.
Testimony and Holocaust indicate a major opportunity to rethink the current conversations and witterings about poetry, a place where people wonder why what is currently produced and lauded actually isn't very good, a place where disagreements break out and factions develop over Not Very Much.
Reznikoff threw down the most challenging of gauntlets to this infantile state of affairs with absolute honesty and conviction. The reason that he was ignored (not poetry) was precisely because the strength of that challenge was (and is) far too much of a threat to the status quo.
I'm not by any means suggesting that everything will be fine if we all start writing (and teaching) documentary work. I don't intend to sketch out a glorious vista of great and serious poetry if we follow this route. What I am simply trying to point out is that the work of Charles Reznikoff requires and demands far greater attention as gauntlet and strategy than it currently gets.
Poet John Armstrong's blog is: Bebrowed's Blog writing about writing (and reading).