Michael Heller: On "Testimony"

For in Reznikoff, lives, cityscapes, testimonies, tend to remain resolutely what they are, to resist being read analogically or metaphorically. Particularly in the urban poetry, there is a sealed character to the contents of the work, one that is full of sorrow, of a judging sorrow and tenderness, which understands personality, even that of fools and villains, and yet accepts. In many of the poems, there seems to exist an air of resignation, a curious resignation, because in the way the contents of a poem are rendered, this atmosphere arises from its subject and not from its author's attitudes.

This air has as much to do with craft as with feeling. For what Reznikoff's work evokes--and this is its most contemporary aspect--is the perception and the humanity of the reader. The surer, possibly harsher aspects of judgment are left to the reader as if to say, let him or her decide what to feel (or do) about modern life, about the modern world. Instead of judgment, there is a sense of great detachment, a kind of moral spaciousness that the reader must cross. It is not that there are gaps of information--everything is given. Yet, as with few other contemporary bodies of verse, the reader must discover in himself the attitudes he has toward the material.

Nothing seems so aesthetically right, so convincing as this distance. We often find in Reznikoff the sense of the poet having just withdrawn from the scene of the poem, of the people recorded themselves already in some state of taking leave. The great, the impersonal forces of city life or of history have just happened, and now there is the moment urging one to seek stillness, a stillness in which an intuition or perception of what has occurred can take place. At times, particularly in those poems which record the experience of living in the Jewish urban ghettoes of the early 1900s, there is a stifling, pervasive claustrophobia: the boy who sneaks out late at night to use his sled, fearful of being assaulted for his Jewishness in the daytime; the young woman trapped and inarticulate before the sexual advances of the foreign boarder in the house upon whose money the family is dependent; the cello heard through the wall by a young man whose family insist that he defer and defer again his study of music. The great anxiety of city life, of things going on behind one's back, that one is essentially left out or that reasons for what has happened to one are not to be found in this life--these themes are nowhere presented more effectively than in Reznikoff.

Again, it is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret. This restrained use of language marks Reznikoff's entire corpus. . . .

In such works as Holocaust and Testimony, the refinement of Reznikoff's method reaches an austere and heightened level. These works, edited from court testimony, trial records and historical documents, seem at first to be what we have come to call "found poems" (if such material in its sheer poetic recalcitrance can be called poetry). For it is the selection and arrangement alone, i.e., versed, sectioned and placed in book form that indicate that these are to be taken as poems. Yet, other than their presentness, the author's relation to the materials is not to be discovered. The total burden of interpretation appears to be left to the reader; there is, by usual standards, nothing of literary value, nothing quotable or memorable, or even ironic--indeed, irony, in whatever form, must be supplied, as to the pedestal of Ozymandias' pillar, by the affected reader. Shorn of entertainment value, of sentiment, this work seems to place a curious demand on the modern reader. And yet for these poems to be simultaneously a witnessing and a rejecting of any social, artistic or psychological agenda in their presentation, for these materials to be able to "speak for themselves," strikes this reader as not only proper but in some powerful way as noble.

Shorn of comment, the poems of Holocaust and Testimony are less the case of an author's abscondus, than a way of implicating the broadest range of social, political and philosophical responses into a confrontation with material about which, truly, the less said, the better. In commanding response, but not dictating it, the author manages to give both good and bad conscience their due. This, of course, is modernity with a vengeance.

* * *

Artistic resolution and legal judgment are by no means synonymous, yet both aim at a kind of wholeness which is intellectually and psychologically satisfying. This satisfaction in works of art is always mysterious because our views, our understanding of events and of our worlds are always partial, are never exhaustive. Reznikoff's stylistic restraint has the effect of leaving the subjects of his poetry, like the things of the phenomenal world, with their intactness preserved, their tacit being untouched. Whatever their personal value to him, it is in this relentless pursuit of their being that Reznikoff’s craft and subtlety are involved. The paradox of Reznikoff's work, its modernity so to speak, is that the specific and the concrete, their very limitedness, are the gates to wholeness. This limitedness becomes in Reznikoff but the other side of openness and generosity towards experience. Through it we are uncompromisingly reminded that we have hearts and minds of our own, that we too are the witnesses of our world.


Title Michael Heller: 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 "The Modernity of Charles Reznikoff"
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