Recordings are also available at PennSound in MP3 format.

Table of Contents

Photos from the CD

About Charles Reznikoff

Charles Reznikoff was born on August 31, 1894, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, had fled the pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II, and during Reznikoff's childhood many of his relatives joined the family in the United States. Reznikoff was a precocious student, graduating from grammar school when he was eleven, three years ahead of his class. At the age of sixteen, he went to study journalism at the University of Missouri, but he abandoned this endeavor after a year to pursue a degree in law, which he earned from New York University in 1915. He was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York in 1916, but he practiced law only briefly, "because I wanted to use whatever mental energy I had for my writing."

Reznikoff's first book of poetry, Rhythms, was privately published in 1918. He took a series of writing and editing jobs to support himself, working on the editorial staffs of the American Law Book Company and, beginning in 1955, the Jewish Frontier. In 1930, Reznikoff married Marie Syrkin, who later became a distinguished professor at Brandeis University. Throughout the 1930s, Reznikoff gained recognition as one of the principal proponents of Objectivism, along with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. The group of poets established the Objectivist Press, which published three of Reznikoff's books. His work enjoyed little commercial success, however, and much of it continued to be self-published.

The most comprehensive edition of Reznikoff's work is Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press, 1989). His other books of poetry include Holocaust (1975) and Testimony (1965), which are his most celebrated works, as well as Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941), Jerusalem the Golden (1934), Poems (1920), and Rhythms (1918). He also published several prose works and a number of plays. After his death, a novel entitled The Manner Music was discovered by his patron, John Martin, and published posthumously in 1976, with an introduction by Robert Creeley.

Apart from his foray in the south and a year spent as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s, Reznikoff was a lifelong resident of New York City. He died on January 22, 1976.

Used with permission from the Academy of American Poets

About the CD

This audio recording and accompanying photographs were made on December 21, 1975 in Charles Reznikoff's New York City apartment. I had just graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and was working on my first, autobiographical, diary film, Thirty Years Later, completed in 1978.

Published in 1975 by Black Sparrow Press, Holocaust profoundly resonated with me during the process of gathering material for the above-mentioned film project. Without a pre-conceived idea as to how I would shape the film, my hope was that Mr. Reznikoff's reading could be part of the sound track.

Mr. Reznikoff's West End apartment was located within a high-rise apartment complex reminiscent of where I grew up during my teens in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, NY. He was very kind and gracious to a rather nervous young filmmaker fumbling with his Nagra tape recorder and Sennheiser microphone who hoped that everything would work as planned. Both Black Sparrow Press and Mr. Reznikoff gave permission to include the reading in the film project.

I held on to this audio recording for many years with the thought of producing a CD that could be made available to the public. After protracted negotiations with Black Sparrow Press, David R. Godine the current publisher of Holocaust and most recently, with the Reznikoff estate, I was given permission to make this recording available for non-commercial, educational purposes only.

The black & white photographs were made with a medium format, Minolta Autocord camera. The original blue toned, 35mm slides have been subsequently color balanced in Photoshop. The combined images record a momentary interaction between this writer and a great poet who was to pass away just a few months later.

—Abraham Ravett, Florence, MA, December 16, 2009

"Reznikoff's Voices" by Charles Bernstein

Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff's last book, is, like his great work of the 1930s, Testimony, haunted by the voices of the dispossessed. In Testimony, Reznikoff worked with legal records of violent crimes from 1885-1915 to create tautly etched accounts of the turbulent underbelly of these United States. The two long volumes of Testimony are difficult reading, though a different sense of "difficulty" than that of other modernist poetry by first-wave modernists such as Eliot, Pound, Stein, or Stevens. There is no difficulty interpreting the content of these poems; in a sense they start with the heresy of paraphrase, for each poem paraphrases the longer account of a crime that Reznikoff appropriates, edited but verbatim, from the legal documents. The book, composed entirely from archival material, averts an overarching story line or poetical reflections. In contrast, Muriel Rukeyser's documentary poem Book of the Dead (1938) uses passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and a multi-voice format that shifts from quoted letters from a variety of sources and journalistic accounts, to weave together a far more theatrical and narrativizing work than Testimony.

Testimony is presented in a monolithic, if not to say monotonous, form, which offers no respite from directly confronting an unfolding, accumulating series of horrific events. Reznikoff's methodological refusal to mitigate means that the work speaks not for itself as itself. Perhaps the most important precedent for Testimony is Whitman's Song of Myself: Reznikoff's work is the antipode: in place of Whitman's bursts of celebration, Reznikoff's Testimony is a prolonged elegy; an unflinching acknowledgement of unredeemable and inexcusable loss.

What's most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work (unlike Rukeyser's) can't be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff's refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony's ethical grounding and suggests a connection not only with Zukofsky's "sincerity and objectification," but also with the postwar neorealism of filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini. For in Reznikoff's refusal to aestheticize brutality, he does not turn away from aesthetics but rather shifts the aesthetic frame from the "content" to the reading experience itself. In this sense, Testimony is "readingcentered," to use a phrase of Jackson Mac Low, another poet whose work is largely based on organizing large bodies of found (or appropriated) language. Both Mac Low and Reznikoff pose a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a "readership" but a "thinkership."

The initial unreadability of the vast catalog that is Testimony is what makes it one of the towering works of second-wave modernist American poetry, our great anti-epic. Because if we can't read Testimony than we can't read our own history. Or then again, perhaps what we at first find unreadable, numbing, becomes a way to what Stevens called "a new knowledge of reality."

I rehearse these matters because they echo concerns about the representation of the systematic extermination of the European Jews—graphic, filmic, novelistic, photographic, poetic, documentary, memorial. Representing the historically unrepresentable is both an impossibility and an obligation. Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews is the essential work of scholarship; its accumulation of everyday facts, of the dense network of often small bureaucratic and legal regulations that lead to the larger catastrophe, sets the standard for any work on this topic and provides a key context for Reznikoff's approach. I want to mention also Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It, which shows how digression and the comic can weave it's way around an empty center without betraying it. Paul Celan is the poet most closely associated with the project of refusing to represent in order to most fully confront. Many will also think of the exemplary accounts by Primo Levi and Jean Améry.

Holocaust was published in 1975, the same year that Abraham Ravett made the recordings of Reznikoff reading the poem, which was just a month before Reznikoff's death. Holocaust is largely based on documents from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. While its structure is similar to Testimony, it differs in being singular in its places, times, and crimes. Also the nature of the acts depicted necessarily dwarfs the serial record of brutality in Testimony. The events in Testimony took place during the first years of Reznikoff's life and the decade immediately prior to his birth in 1894. The events of Holocaust occurred in the middle of his life and he is reflecting on them in his final years. It's notable, as well, that the documentary material for Testimony is from U.S. court records and in English, while Holocaust uses translated material from Europe.

By its nature, if it doesn't demean nature to use that word here, the material of Holocaust overwhelmed the techniques Reznikoff had developed in his earlier work. A certain level of distance from this material—its "objectification"—is not possible in reading this work, even had the technique been identical. The distinction is at the heart of what makes Holocaust so compelling: it forces a confrontation with the way the "same" conceptual approach works with differently charged material. Testimony developed a form suitable to its content; on the face of it, this would not be possible for Holocaust.

Something happens, however, when we listen to the Ravett audio recordings, that changes everything: Reznikoff's voice. In Reznikoff's earlier recordings (available on PennSound), his voice is warm, friendly, compassionate, world-embracing, and empathetic. Not here. Reznikoff does the Holocaust with fiery and defiant voices. While his earlier readings bring out qualities of witness and engagement fully present in the text, Reznikoff's readings from Holocaust bring in a tone not present in the written poems.

When Charles Reznikoff, at 81, gives voice to "Heil, Hitler!" one hears a kind of glee, something in between Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin, a glee that adds, in its performative dimension, an ethical necessity for this work: anger, yes, but, more resounding, contempt. The sound of Reznikoff's contempt is liberating.

Charles Bernstein's most recent book is All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. His essay "Reznikoff's Nearness" appeared in My Way: Speeches & Poems. He is Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.