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Charles Reznikoff (August 31, 1894 – January 22, 1976) was an American poet best known for his long work, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915), Recitative (1934-1979). The term Objectivist was first coined for him. The multi-volume Testimony was based on court records and explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He followed this with Holocaust (1975), based on court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II.
In 1930 Reznikoff married Marie Syrkin, a prominent Zionist and friend and biographer of Golda Meir. Although they did not live together at all times during the marriage, it lasted until Reznikoff's death.
When Louis Zukofsky was asked by Harriet Monroe to provide an introduction to what became known as the Objectivist issue of Poetry, he contributed his essay, Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff. This established the name of the loose-knit group of 2nd generation modernist poets and the two characteristics of their poetry: sincerity and objectification.
Charles Reznikoff was born in 1894 in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, the son of immigrants Sarah Yetta (Wolvovsky) Reznikoff and Nathan Reznikoff, who fled the Russian Empire and its pogroms. His Hebrew name was Ezekiel, after his maternal grandfather. His father established a family business of manufacturing hats. He was young when he graduated from high school and had already started writing poetry. He spent a year studying journalism in graduate school at the University of Missouri, where Reznikoff realized he was interested in writing more than reporting news. He entered the law school of New York University in 1912 and graduated in 1916. He practiced law briefly. In 1918 as the United States had entered the Great War, he entered officer training school. He did not see active service before the end of the war.
Reznikoff worked for a time for his family's business as a hat salesman. He worked for a legal publishing house, where he wrote summaries of court records for legal reference books. This experience was to prove integral to his later writing.
From his teens, Reznikoff had been writing poetry, much of it influenced by the Imagists. He published his own work, using a second-hand press for which he set the type himself. Throughout his writing life, Reznikoff was always concerned to ensure that his work was published, even at his own expense. This appears to have been inspired by a family story of his grandfather, an unpublished Hebrew poet whose manuscripts were destroyed after his death, for fear of their falling into Russian hands.
Around the time the Objectivist issue of Poetry appeared, Reznikoff, Zukofsky and George Oppen set up To Publishers and later the Objectivist Press, essentially to publish their own work. Reznikoff had had some success with his 1930 novel By the Waters of Manhattan, and the new press published three titles by him, two that gathered together previously self-published work and the third a first installment of a long work called Testimony.
In early drafts, Testimony was a prose retelling of stories that Reznikoff had discovered while working on court records. Reznikoff found these accounts to give him insight into the story of America between 1855 and 1915, both in its diversity and its violence. Tellingly, he chose to omit the judgements, focusing on the twists and turns of the stories.
Over the following forty years, Reznikoff worked on refashioning these stories into an extended found poem, which finally ran to some 500 pages over two volumes. He tried to express the stories in as near as possible the words of the participants. As a result, his poetry was almost entirely stripped of metaphor and of authorial personality and emotion. In this sense, Testimony can be read as the great monument of Objectivist poetry.
The poetic mode which Reznikof developed in writing this work was invaluable to his work on Holocaust. It was based on testimony in court cases related to the Nazi concentration camps and death camps. He also adopted this style for his poetry that reworked stories from the Torah or Old Testament.
Reznikoff lived and wrote in relative obscurity for most of his life, with his work being either self-published or issued by small independent presses. In the 1960s, at the behest of friend and fellow poet George Oppen, and Oppen's sister June Oppen Degnan, New Directions Publishers published two books of his poetry: By the Waters of Manhattan (1962, New Directions/San Francisco Review NDP121), which had an Introduction by C. P. Snow; and Testimony: The United States 1885-1890, (1965, New Directions/San Francisco Review NDP200). But, despite acclaim from fellow poets such as Hayden Carruth, May Swenson, and Denise Levertov, critical reaction was generally negative. Reznikoff had to return to self-publishing to see his work in print.
In 1971, he was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize of $2,500 by The National Institute of Arts and Letters. Around this time, he found a new publisher, Black Sparrow Press. They published By the Well of Living and Seeing: New and Selected Poems, 1918-1973 in 1974. At the time of his death, Reznikoff was correcting proofs of the first volume of the Black Sparrow Collected Poems. In the years immediately following his death, Black Sparrow reprinted all his major poetry and prose works. In addition, it published for the first time his completed novel, The Manner “Music” (1977), found among his papers.
Representation in other media
In 2013, the band Joan of Arc, with the help of the experimental performance group, Every House Has a Door, created a musical/theater piece based on Reznikoff's Testimony. The album inspired by his work was called Testimonium Songs and released on Polyvinyl Record Co. and Joyful Noise Recordings.
- The Manner “Music” (1977)
- The Complete Poems (1977)
- Charles Reznikoff, Modern American Poetry
- Charles Reznikoff reading his poems, University of Pennsylvania
- Review of The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975
- Testimony 2015 reissue
- Charles Reznikoff Papers MSS 0009. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library.