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Charles Reznikoff

REZNIKOFF, CHARLES (1894–1976), U.S. poet. Despite his personal humility, his lack of recognition until late in life, and his deceptively understated, straightforward literary stance, Reznikoff is one of the most important Jewish poets of the 20th century. He was born in the Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, the child of Russian immigrants who arrived in the United States a few years before his birth. Reznikoff 's early years were marked by poverty and antisemitism, as were the lives of his parents and grandparents both in the old and new worlds. The compelling force of these conditions may be seen in the way Reznikoff drew upon the autobiographical impulse throughout his life in prose works such as By the Waters of Manhattan (1930; Reznikoff also used this title for his selected poems of 1962) and the poetic sequence By the Well of Living and Seeing (1969). In 1910, Reznikoff went to the University of Missouri to study journalism; he returned to New York and entered the Law School of New York University in 1912, receiving his degree in 1916. Reznikoff never practiced law, though years later (1930–34) he worked as an editor for Corpus Juris, the legal encyclopedia. Indeed, as Milton Hindus puts it in his biographical sketch of Reznikoff, "What else he did to earn money – selling hats for his parents, doing research for organizations, translating books, helping to edit a magazine, or being a general factotum for a friend, Albert Lewin, who was a successful Hollywood film producer – was more or less a matter of chance and largely indifferent to him." Reznikoff married the writer, teacher, and Zionist Marie *Syrkin in 1930, and their relationship was often troubled by career and financial woes. When Syrkin accepted a teaching position at Brandeis in 1950, Reznikoff remained in his beloved New York, an arrangement that lasted 17 years. Reznikoff based his bitter novel The Manner "Music" (1977) on their relationship, though it was only discovered and published after his death. Yet Syrkin also helped Reznikoff, securing an editorship for him at the Zionist journal Jewish Frontier – a job which, characteristically, he did not relish. Only in his later years did Reznikoff begin to find a larger audience, as renewed interest in the Objectivists grew, and younger poets, including Allen *Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, David *Ignatow, Harvey Shapiro, Michael Heller, and Paul *Auster, addressed his work.

Reznikoff 's poetry was shaped by the experiments in free verse and imagism of the somewhat older first generation of American modernists. His first volumes were self-published, but by the early 1930s he joined Louis *Zukofsky and George *Oppen as a member of the short-lived Objectivist group and published a number of important books under the imprint of the Objectivist Press. Reznikoff 's work, with its emphasis on the testimonial quality of the poem, served as a model for Zukofsky, who formulated the group's theoretical position, that of "thinking with the things as they exist." As an Objectivist, Reznikoff favors relatively short, direct poems built on perception and sympathetic observation of urban life; these concentrated lyric units are almost always structured into larger sequences or serial forms. As Charles Bernstein notes, "There is no poet more dedicated to foregrounding the detail and the particular than Reznikoff and no poet more averse to blending these details into a consuming and totalizing form."

To a much greater extent than any of his colleagues, including Zukofsky, who came from the same Yiddish-speaking immigrant background, Reznikoff consistently addresses Jewish history, religion, and culture, and frequently documents contemporary Jewish life in America. Through much of his writing career, Reznikoff 's work appeared in the Menorah Journal, and the Jewish-American intellectual movement associated with that publication also played a crucial role in his writing and thinking about Jewish identity. Reznikoff 's poetry may be regarded as an open-ended debate around such issues as language, religious belief and practice, Diaspora, and above all, the historical fate of the Jewish people. As Paul Auster puts it, "In spite of this deep solidarity with the Jewish past, Reznikoff never deludes himself into thinking that he can overcome the essential isolation of his condition simply by affirming his Jewishness. For not only has he been exiled, he has been exiled twice – as a Jew, and from Judaism as well." Thus, in the volume Jerusalem the Golden (1934), the tensions of assimilation and devotion to Jewish tradition manifest themselves among modern Jews of New York, but also mirror the lives of the Hebrews in the ancient city of King David. The culmination of Reznikoff 's poetic investigation into Jewish fate is Holocaust (1975), based on the transcripts of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. Yet Reznikoff is equally concerned with America's historical destiny, as seen by his longest work in his mode of poetic documentary, Testimony: The United States. Based on American court reports from 1885 to 1900, including industrial accidents, hate crimes, and domestic violence, Testimony is a dark vision of one of the most hectic periods of modernization, a deliberate response to any optimistic notion of American progress and civic life. L.S. Dembo, who contributed immensely to the rediscovery of Reznikoff and his fellow Objectivists through a series of interviews he conducted with them in 1968 and 1969, sums up Reznikoff 's status as a Jewish-American poet as follows: "Being himself, however, really meant not just a Jew or just an American but both and neither…. An exile, he sits down by the waters of Manhattan to weep; a wry smile comes over his face, for he realizes that he is home. And then he really weeps."


P. Auster, "The Decisive Moment," in: The Art of Hunger (1997); C. Bernstein, "Reznikoff 's Nearness," in: My Way: Speeches and Reviews (1999); L.S. Dembo, The Monological Jew (1988); N. Finkelstein, Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity (2001); S. Fredman, A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry (2001); M. Heller, Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (2002); M. Hindus (ed.), Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet (1984); R. Omer-Sherman, Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature (2002); H. Weinfield, "'Wringing, Wringing His Pierced Hands': Religion, Identity, and Genre in the Poetry of Charles Reznikoff," in: Sagetrieb, 13:1–2 (1994), 225–32.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.