Review by Brad Haas

A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and
the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry

Stephen Fredman
University of Chicago Press
paperback $16.95

    While commonly recognized as important work, the poetry of Charles Reznikoff has posed a challenge to critics.  The fact is, relatively few have ever known how to read it.  This is made clear early in Stephen Fredman’s new study:

...Reznikoff’s poetry may have been extremely difficult for critics like Kenner and Bloom to see because it resides in plain sight, inviting neither reference-hunting nor interpretation as a psychodynamic struggle.  In opposition to the modes of twentieth-century poetry that have managed to gain critical acclaim, Reznikoff devoted himself to banishing obscurities from his poetry, presenting instead a bare pattern of events in the brightest possible light. (11)1
How is one to deal with something self apparent, that exposes itself so nakedly?  Where does that leave a critic, who needs to feed on that which cries for further explication?  It would seem there are endless mysteries to be uncovered in the work of Zukofsky; but what could be found in something that purports to hide nothing?  The situation is not helped by Reznikoff’s Objectivist strategies, which place facts-of-being in front of the reader, with practically no subjective illumination from the author.  He presents in clear, precise diction.

    In the past several years critics have been developing ways to combat this problem, and Reznikoff is finally beginning to receive the critical attention he is due.   Three essays in The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999) 2 were devoted to Reznikoff, which was a relative critical bumper crop.  Now Stephen Fredman has written the first full length critical work on Reznikoff.  Admittedly, it is not a long book (161 pp.) compared to something like Mark Scroggins’ Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (340 pp.). 3  Still, this is quite an accomplishment, and one that helps to define certain ways to approach Reznikoff’s work.

    Fredman structures his book on polarities, which he sees as the ‘Jewish dilemmas of Objectivist poetry,’ and hammers this theme throughout the book with numerous illustrations.  For example, Fredman recounts the story of Reznikoff’s two names: Ezekiel, his Hebrew name, after his grandfather, and Charles, the name by which he was known.  The idea to give him a non-Hebrew name came from a Jewish doctor, who said to Reznikoff’s mother, ‘Call him Charlie, he’ll be grateful to you.’  Fredman sees the ownership of these two names an integral fact:

Reconciling his American and Jewish names becomes a central dilemma for Reznikoff’s writing.  Surprisingly, though, critics have given this issue little mention, tending to regard Reznikoff as either a Charles - an American modernist poet, whose short poems and Testimony reveal a close observer of the urban world and of the social costs it exacts - or as an Ezekiel - an American Jewish man of letters, whose autobiographical poetry and fiction and extensive renderings of biblical, talmudic, and other historical Jewish sources address in multiple ways the question of Jewish identity in America. (14)
Fredman’s assessment of previous critical evaluations is undeniable, and it must be said, in light of the title of his own book, it is tempting to see him veering towards treating Reznikoff as an ‘Ezekiel.’  But to his credit, this never happens.  Fredman does not ignore Reznikoff’s Jewish heritage, nor does he investigate Reznikoff because he is Jewish.  He finds Reznikoff worthy of study because he is a great poet who happens to be Jewish.  To take this further, it seems obvious that in order to understand the poetry, Reznikoff’s materials must be understood, which means becoming familiar with the ‘between the stools’ predicament in which Reznikoff and his fellow Jewish Objectivists found themselves.

    The phrase ‘between the stools’ is not random, but a term Fredman adopts to illustrate the tenuous nature of Reznikoff’s situation.  He is ‘between the stools’ of his two names, and what they represent; he is ‘between the stools’ of Hellenism - as practiced by modernists such as Pound and H.D. - and Hebraism; he finds himself ‘between the stools’ of the Zionist and Leftist camps surrounding the Menorah Journal in the 1920s and 30s.  Though not shown by Fredman, it becomes clear that Reznikoff was in a position very similar to that of most other modernist writers.  Pound, perhaps most often used as a template for the modernist type, is actually an anomaly, an exile whose work reflects an attempt to make a past out of the entire Western heritage.  But if we consider others, we see writers grounded in particular geographies, grappling to make the inheritance of the past relevant for the present, to ‘make it new’: Olson and Gloucester; Williams in Paterson and In the American Grain; Joyce, in all his works, dealing with Dublin; Yeats and Ireland; David Jones working with the material of Britain.  So it comes as no surprise when Fredman writes, “The major question agitating Reznikoff and the Menorah writers - a question that reverberates in a variety of ways throughout the work of the other Objectivists - is how to climb aboard the invigorating enterprise of modernism while securing vital ties to the Jewish past.” (9)  This is in fact what all the major modernists were faced with, being caught in a modern society disconnected from the past, the difference being that for Pound, that past was universal; for many others, it was what was found in their own ‘back yards,’ and this was not exclusive to Jewish poets.  Each writer named above had to struggle with their own unique inheritances, and with the particular circumstances each inheritance entailed.

    I would like to make this point more clearly by taking David Jones as an example.  Jones, too, was in a position ‘between the stools.’  In the seminal preface to his long poem, The Anathemata (1952), he writes:

So that to the question: what is this writing about?  I answer that it is about one’s own ‘thing’, which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being indigenous to this island.  In this it is necessarily insular; within which insularity there are the further conditionings contingent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

    While such biographical accidents are not in themselves any concern of, or interest to, the reader, they are noted here because they are responsible for most of the content and have had an overruling effect upon the form of this writing.4

It is clear Jones works with the materials he has by accident been given.  At first his essays in Epoch and Artist (1959) seem quite narrow in scope, being on Wales, Roman Britain, and religion.  How could these seemingly obscure topics have any universal application, any more than Reznikoff’s Judeo-centric pieces?   The answer may lie in a statement made by Vernon Watkins concerning David Jones:
Certain artists fall into a period which reflects an age or a fashion, and their excellence is in a sense historical.  Others use history as a tool in their hands and so manipulate it that their work extends far beyond the province of their age and becomes applicable to all ages.  The work of David Jones belongs to the second category.  The history of one man’s experience, if intensely recorded, contains the history of the race.5 (my italics)
Jones ‘manipulates’ the historical deposits of England and Wales, fusing the various elements of his inheritance, from the Roman legacy, to the Welsh and English heritage, to the myths of Arthur and of the Church.  By doing this he defines a place for himself as well as provide a model for others.  This seems very much in line with Fredman’s assessment:
Reconfiguring the past was one of the main strategies used by Jewish intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century to find a place in American culture.  Indeed, if the perception of the dominant society is that one represents an atavistic strain in human culture - something long superseded by the progress of Christian civilization - then an effective way to counter this idea would be to rearticulate one’s place in history. (81)
In these two sections we can see the bridge.  Neither Reznikoff or David Jones found themselves alone in their endeavors to reconnect with the past using the tools of modernism.  What are different are the ‘historical particulars’ and the variant cultural inheritances that each by accident was given.  If we take the last line of Watkins’ statement, that ‘the history of one man’s experience, if intensely recorded, contains the history of the race,’ we should find interest in the Welsh/English experience of Jones, as well as the Jewish-American experience of Reznikoff, as each one expresses something universal through the sincere presentment of particulars.

    Fredman does an excellent job illuminating Reznikoff’s cultural context, which is absolutely essential to a reading of his work.  There are, at times, a few details to take issue with, such as the use of the term ‘objectivism’ without any discussion whether that is a valid term (Zukofsky, for one, denied ever having made an ‘ism’).  Also, Fredman groups Charles Olson as one of the next generation of poets to benefit from the Objectivist inheritance, despite the fact that he himself wrote ‘“And All Now is War”: George Oppen, Charles Olson, and the Problem of Literary Generations,’6 which points out that Oppen and Olson were born only two years apart, making a good case for claiming Olson was of the same generation as the Objectivists...  But these are minor complaints about an otherwise solid work.  We should be glad Stephen Fredman has taken on Reznikoff, and has provided substantial evidence showing the universal importance of his poetry.

1.  All page number references in the text refer to A Menorah For Athena.
2.  Edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain.  Published by the University of Alabama Press, 1999.
3.  Published 1998 by the University of Alabama Press.
4.  Jones, David.  The Anathemata.  London: Faber, revised edition, 1955.  p.11.
5.  Jones, David.  Letters to Vernon Watkins. University of Wales Press, 1976.
p. [11].
6.  Published in The Objectivist Nexus (see note 2.).