Janet Sutherland: On "Testimony"

He called the work Testimony: The United States acknowledging in the title the importance of seeing the nation as a whole, even while noting its fragmentation. What is most worrying to critics in Testimony is its seeming bias towards all that is most sordid and terrible in American life. This is due in part to its origins as a source-based work, for seldom in criminal court cases is there mention of ordinary life. I feel, though, that it is also due to Reznikoff's ideas about young America. If we accept that his main aim in Testimony was to give an impression of the problems of assimilation (not just problems associated with race and culture differences but also those of urbanization, poverty, etc.) then one can see the drift of the work not as bias but as a deliberate attempt to direct the reader towards an understanding of the problems the New World has to face.

[. . . .]

Reznikoff called this verse form "Recitative." Why did he use this form rather than prose, for instance? The answer would appear to lie in the way Reznikoff uses the verse form to carry an indirect emotional content rather than using an authorial commentary or abstract emotional words which are more characteristic of prose. Reznikoff's "Recitative" form is clearly based on English as a spoken language, as a witness might speak in a court of law, rather than on more lyrical qualities. It is a verse form, however, using speech rhythms rather than a regular metrical arrangement. The shortened sentences taken from the source are broken in one or more places at natural pauses in speech rhythm. It is these breaks which transform the work from a "found" text into poetry. The abruptness of the shortened sentences leads to a kind of staccato effect emphasized by the occasional interjection of very short lines such as "the baby should live," "and shot her twice," "the S.S. man laughed." Such an abrupt or broken speech pattern suggests. an emotional state; thus Reznikoff can dispense with abstract emotional words because the verse structure subtly supplies an indirect emotional content. Commentary is unnecessary. In using the "Recitative" method, therefore, Reznikoff is isolating a particular section of his source--the testimony of witnesses--and in accentuating its particular characteristic (the spoken word) he gives the reader an unspoken sense of his source. . . .


Title Janet Sutherland: On "Testimony" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Milton Hindus Criticism Target Charles Reznikoff
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet
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