Monday, March 30, 2009

Phillip Lopate on Charles Reznikoff, the online Jewish book community, has posted Phillip Lopate's introduction to By the Waters of Manhattan, the novel by acclaimed author Charles Reznikoff, recently republished by Black Sparrow Books. Here is a brief excerpt, but please visit JBooks to read the rest of his excellent essay:

"Among those who cherish his tender, translucent, humane poetry, Charles Reznikoff is a venerated figure, a role model of integrity and sustained excellence. During most of his lifetime (1894-1976), he had been so underrated and neglected that he developed a kind of stoical, resigned shell, going his own way. In person (I saw him on numerous occasions before he died), Reznikoff gave off an obliging, almost meekly humble impression, but there was a stubborn will underneath; his dedication to his art was unshakeable. You can see it from his correspondence, that remarkable, moving record in Selected Letters of Charles Reznikoff, 1917-1976 (Black Sparrow Press, 1997). If publishers would not accept his poetry manuscripts, he would print them himself. He also had that grain of selfishness that all writers need, however annoying to their loved ones. Though his wife Marie yearned for years to quit her high school teaching job, Charles, the most devoted, uxorious of husbands, nevertheless would not become a go-getter. He refused to practice law, though he had a degree. Instead, he held down jobs that would afford him the mental freedom to pursue poetry and fiction: he wrote tedious legal definitions for textbooks, sold hats, and, ill-suited as he was temperamentally to service the Hollywood dream factory, polished screenplays for his boyhood friend, producer Albert Lewin.

Towards the end of his life, he was taken up by the younger members of the New York School of poetry and the descendents of the Objectivists, and treated reverently by them, like a fragile, priceless grandparent, a last link to the pioneers of the 20s and 30s. Reznikoff, glad for the appreciation, did not know quite what to make of it, just as he had been puzzled decades earlier when championed by Louis Zukofsky (whose abstruse criticism he could barely decipher) as a sort of instinctual Objectivist poet. The problem with that annexation was that Reznikoff was no primitive: he was extremely intelligent, rigorous, and, in his own non-showy way, committed to an ambitiously austere aesthetic program of his own"

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