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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Charles Reznikoff

The chronology of the Objectivist movement is brief. In late 1930, Louis Zukofsky, the poet who coined the term “Objectivist,” wrote Ezra Pound that he was preparing a critical article on the poetry of Charles Reznikoff but, in order to analyze the poetry, had become involved in trying to define two terms: sincerity and objectification. Pound, familiar with Zukofsky’s work, had already convinced editor Harriet Monroe to allow Zukofsky to edit an issue of Poetry. Zukofsky then appended his article, entitled “Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff,” to the February, 1931, issue—the “Objectivists” issue—with an eye to providing what he later called a “standard” for his contributors. His primary example of the language of Objectivism was Reznikoff’s one-line poem “Aphrodite Urania”—“The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water.” The poem strongly suggests in its sound the movement to which it refers.

Reznikoff was a product of the Jewish community in New York. Born in Brooklyn in 1894, he earned a law degree but practiced only briefly. For a few years in the 1930s, however, he worked at a legal publishing firm, where he helped condense and summarize court records for inclusion in legal reference works. Although he had begun to publish in the teens (he self-published some of his own work with hand-set plates beginning in the 1920s), his reading and writing in legal publishing had a profound effect on much of his later poetry. He began to see that court testimony uniquely documented a comprehensive cultural history, and from court records he extracted and further condensed stories and vignettes (published as his prose book Testimony 1934) and transformed them and additional records into poems that filled two volumes when published some thirty years later. He came to appreciate the straightforward, unornamented prose of court testimony, which used metaphor sparsely if at all. The tools he developed in such writing served him well when he wrote Holocaust, based closely on courtroom accounts of the Nazi death camps.

Reznikoff had an apparently intuitive eye for the “historical particulars” that Zukofsky valued. He incorporated into even his earliest poetry details of daily life in New York—from street lamps to domestic tragedies—that he saw during his long walks through the city. He wrote drama and fiction, including fictionalized history, but seldom criticism. In the 1930s, he worked for a time in Hollywood but returned to New York and made a living as a free-lance writer, translator, and researcher until his death in 1976. Reznikoff’s work speaks of a significant project—one in which history shapes language, language in turn shapes history’s readers, and poetry marks out the most artfully shaped language of the lived historical moment.

Randolph Chilton
College of St. Francis

In the Heath Anthology
[How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted] (1918)
[The shoemaker sat in the cellars dusk beside his bench] (1921)
Aphrodite Vrania (1921)
[About an excavation] (1934)
[Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies] (1934)
[In steel clouds] (1934)
After Rain (1934)
Hellenist (1934)
The English in Virginia, April 1607 (1934)
from Testimony
      Children (1941)

Other Works
Rhythms (1918)
Rhythms II (1919)
Poems (1920)
Uriel Accosta: A Play & A Fourth Group of Verse (1921)
Chatterton, the Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis (1922)
Coral and Captive Israel (1923)
Five Groups of Verse (1927)
Nine Plays (1927)
By the Waters of Manhattan (1930)
In Memoriam: 1933 (1934)
Jerusalem the Golden (1934)
Early History of Sewing Machine Operator (1936)
Separate Way (1936)
Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941)
The Lionhearted (1944)
Inscriptions 1944-1956 (1959)
By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse (1962)
Family Chronicle (with Nathan and Sarah Reznikoff) (1963)
By the Well of Living and Seeing and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees (1969)
By the Well of Living & Seeing: New & Selected Poems 1918-1973 (1974)
Holocaust (1975)

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Modern American Poetry
Biography, photos, and critical/historical essays about Reznikoff's work.

Secondary Sources

Milton Hindus, Charles Reznikoff: A Critical Essay, 1977

Milton Hindus, ed., Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, 1984

Sagetrieb 13 (1994) (special issue on Reznikoff)