At the beginning of the twentieth-century, modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams revolutionized English and American poetry under the banner of “make it new.” For Pound in particular, poetry needed to be emancipated from traditional forms, excess verbiage and hackneyed thought patterns. Unlike the Romantic poet-prophets, for whom the vastness of nature was a reflection of their own inner emotions, modernist poets sought to develop new poetic forms and language to reflect the world in clear, concrete terms. The new poetic ideal was, at least in theory, to “go in fear of abstractions,” or to “show” rather than to “tell.” In practice, however, both Pound and Eliot inherited many hackneyed tropes from their literary forebears, including a distinct anti-semitic strain that is apparent in both their poetry and other statements.
One offshoot of this initial wave of modernist innovators was a group of American, mostly Jewish, poets with secular inclinations who are sometimes referred to as the “objectivists.” These poets were inspired by Pound and Eliot but also rejected their heavy use of mythology and symbolism, and of course, their anti-semitism. Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, among others, found themselves composing verse-libre, free verse, poems with a clear, concrete and also distinctly moral sensibility.
As George Oppen writes in the middle of the poem “The Building of the Skyscraper”:
There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out
Oppen believed that truly seeing the “things of the world,” without jumping to abstractions or generalizations, would translate into the sort of acute moral awareness that poets should be in the “business” of cultivating. One extraordinary example of such poetry is Testimony, a long sequence of found poems of varying length by Charles Reznikoff. In composing this work, Reznikoff combed through thousands of transcripts of United States criminal court cases spanning three decades in order to deliver a series of concise, yet devastating vignettes of life in America around the turn of the twentieth-century.
Reznikoff and Judaism
From a certain perspective, the objectivist project is by its nature secular. For someone who is drawn to the motto “go in fear of abstractions,” what greater abstraction could there be than an unseeable unknowable God? Reznikoff, however, was simultaneously the paradigmatic objectivist poet and passionate about Jewish texts and the Jewish religion. In addition to secular works about American life and his New York City landscape, Reznikoff’s oeuvre contains a condensed version of the five books of the Pentateuch entirely composed in quotation, a novel about the expulsion of the Jews from medieval England, translations of the poetry of Rabbi Judah haLevi, a verse playlet about the life of Rashi and a fictionalized imagining of the “Fifth Book of the Maccabees” based on the Legends of Josephus. Eventually he would apply the poetic technique of Testimony to the Nuremberg and the Eichman trials to write the poem Holocaust.
Reznikoff was the American-born son of Russian, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and he grew up in Brooklyn with a strong awareness of and admiration for Judaism, as well as a sense of anxiety about his ability to participate in this tradition. In a long autobiographical prose-poem, Reznikoff describes saying goodbye to his scholarly Orthodox grandfather before heading away to university:
When he had blessed me,
my grandfather turned aside and burst into tears.
“It is only for a little while, Grandpa,” I said
in my broken Yiddish. “I’ll be back in June.”
(By June my grandfather was dead.)
He did not answer.
Perhaps my grandfather was in tears for other reasons:
perhaps, because, in spite of all the learning I had acquired in high school,
I knew not a word of the sacred text of the Torah
and was going out into the world
with none of the accumulated wisdom of my people to guide me,
with no prayers with which to talk to the God of my people,
a soul –
for it is not easy to be a Jew or, perhaps, a man –
doomed by his ignorance to stumble and blunder.
It is unclear whether Reznikoff is overstating his ignorance here or whether his lifetime project of reading and re-imagining Jewish texts only began much later. Thankfully, Reznikoff’s anxiety about his weak Torah background did not ultimately paralyze him, but instead motivated him to delve more deeply into his tradition. Reznikoff would eventually come to believe that the objectivist project of capturing reality “as it is” was actually buttressed by a familiarity with Jewish literary texts. A common critical trope understands modernist writers as actively seeking to depart from and improve upon inherited literary models. Yet Reznikoff stated that the Hebrew Bible in English translation formed a paradigm for his tight, succinct and almost reticent poetry. While his fellow objectivists were pointing to ancient Anglo-Saxon rhythms and Japanese haiku as the inspiration for their free verse, Reznikoff additionally recalls the Torah leining of the Orthodox synagogue where he prayed as a child as “an intermediary between song and straight prose.” Thus, in a poem entitled “Hanukkah,” Reznikoff imagines his poetic project in the following terms:
Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two-
not by might nor by power
but by Your spirit, Lord.
In a tone that may be read somewhat ironically, Reznikoff imagines those Jews who are fluent in their sacred texts as being on a more advanced, or even “powerful” plane than him. Yet Reznikoff believes that they share a common project, and hopes that in his work as a poet he may ultimately be able to contribute a “word or two” to this venerable tradition. In this respect he does not seem to be writing ironically at all.
Hanukkah: a Holiday of Sight
For Reznikoff, Hanukkah presents the ideal meeting point of his Jewish values and his sensibility as a modernist writer. Hanukkah is, on one level, a holiday about the clash between Hebrew and Hellenistic culture. Erich Auerbach famously writes about how this clash plays out on a literary level. In contrast to the austere and reticent language of the Bible, which is built upon “the suggestive influence of the unexpressed,” Greek poetry, decadent and detailed in nature, leaves little to the imagination. Although the extensive influence of Greco-Roman literature is impossible for any major poet to completely shake, Reznikoff in particular was interested in distinguishing himself as a poet who operated within the Hebrew paradigm. As he said at the beginning of “Jerusalem the Golden”:
The Hebrew of your poets, Zion,
is like oil upon a burn.
cool as oil;
the smell in the street at night
of the hedge in flower.
I have married and married the speech of strangers;
none are like you, Shulamite.
One of the halakhot (Jewish laws) of lighting the Menorah is that the Hanukkah lights should have no practical use whatsoever. This practice, which has its roots in the customs surrounding the Temple menorah, stands in contrast to the Sabbath candles, from which we are encouraged to benefit and enjoy ourselves. The “Hanerot Hallalu” chant traditionally sung each evening immediately following candle-lighting reminds of the Hanukkah-specific rule: “אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם אלא לראותם בלבד” – “We are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, only to gaze at them.”
In another Hanukkah piece, Reznikoff refashions this halakhic statement into a short poem that captures the essence of the holiday for him:
In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight—
not to see by but to look at.
For Reznikoff, the unique innovation of the Jews is a philosophy in which things, and more importantly people, can transcend their instrumental purposes. “Looking” here is not just an aesthetic stance, it is an ethical affirmation of the inherent value of something or someone apart from its utility or benefit to society. This could be simultaneously be imagined as a slogan of the objectivist poetry movement as well. As a fellow poet and friend Harvey Shapiro said about Reznikoff, “in the care and precision of his lines, people and objects maintain their own lives. This is a moral point, and Reznikoff is a moral poet.”
In Rabbinic texts, Hanukkah is often emphasized as a holiday of sight. The halakhic obligation of lighting the Hanukkah menorah is split into two parts: lighting and seeing. The Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat (23a) says that one who simply sees the Hanukkah lights but lacked the opportunity to light him or herself may say the blessing “שעשה ניסים לאבותינו” – “who performed miracles for our ancestors.” Elsewhere, the commentary of Tosafot points out that there is no such parallel in any other holiday – there is no blessing to say upon simply seeing a lulav or sukkah.
Another potential example of the connection between sight and Hannukah is the midrash in Genesis Rabbah that discusses the various exiles the Jewish people experience(d) throughout their history. The Greek exile is associated here with a period of “חשכה גדלה ” -“great darkness.” It is surprising that this midrash uses darkness, of all metaphors, to apply to a culture like that of Greece with all of its artistic and technological prowess. The Hanukkah Menorah then, symbolizes clarity and light which punctures through this darkness. One might imagine sight to be a category that prioritizes the physical material world. Yet for the midrash, and for the objectivists, “sight” speaks to something deeper.
One collection of Reznikoff’s poems is titled “By the Well of Living and Seeing,” which is a reference the well of “Lahai-roi” that is mentioned in Genesis 24:62. For Reznikoff, as a poet and as a Jew, truly seeing the world is not merely a natural process, it is a noble life pursuit that requires great discipline and cultivation. Hanukkah offers a paradigm for him to refine his sight and clarify his life objectives. As Reznikoff puts it:
The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light –
in a little cruse – lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit
(from “Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays”)