Holocaust: Charles Reznikoff

Originally published on the Guardian Books blog 11 January 2011.

Back in November, books blog readers were asked to name their favourite book of 2010. For me, the answer was, and is, an easy one; it has to be Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff. Now, I’m pretty sure most of you have never heard of either this book or its author, and that would hardly be surprising given that Holocaust has long been out of print and that Reznikoff has never been a fashionable writer. Now, thanks to Five Leaves Publications, you can get your hands on a very nice paperback edition, complete with an introduction by George Szirtes, and judge for yourself whether or not I’m wrong.

Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1894, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and studied law at New York University, although he never actually worked as a lawyer. New York, Jewishness and the law were, one way or another, to dominate his poetry and fiction. In fact, his Complete Poems 1918-1975, sadly still out of print, consists mainly of observations of life in his native city and verse reworkings of episodes from the Old Testament and Talmud.

Reznikoff is on record as saying that his legal studies led him to the insight that poetry should be like the evidence given by a witness in a criminal trial; “not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard”. It was this approach that made him a kind of patron and model for the Objectivists in the 1930s, and its full flowering was to come in his late 500-plus page long poem sequence Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, the first volume of which was published in 1965.

Testimony draws on the records of hundreds of court cases to present a portrait of a society in ferment; the society, incidentally, into which the poet was born. It is, indeed, a picture of things seen and heard, with, ironically given the material, very little by way of judgemental interpretation. The original transcripts are arranged and lightly edited as, essentially, found poetry. For most of the cases used, we don’t even get to read the verdict or sentence handed down.

Published just a year before his death in 1976, Holocaust was Reznikoff’s last book. It, too, draws on court records, this time The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The literal, matter-of-fact style that Reznikoff uses in the poem is not accidental; it is a conscious technical choice. The horrors of the death camps are placed starkly before us in the words of the survivors, and the poet’s selection process denies the reader the opportunity to look away. It also deprives us of any sense of catharsis; these things happened and no good came of them. There is no redemption, and no place for the reader to hide in the flat surface of the writing:

 The women begged for their lives:
they were young, they were ready to work.
They were ordered to rise and run
and the SS men drew their revolvers and shot all five;
and then kept pushing the bodies with their feet
to see if they were still alive
and to make sure they were dead
shot them again.

And for me it is this matter of technique, the unblinking gaze of the invisible poet, that makes Holocaust such a vital book. It’s as if Reznikoff took up the challenge implicit in Adorno’s much misunderstood “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch” (“It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz”). If Adorno’s question is “how can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust“, Reznikoff’s response is “by doing what the artist has always done and finding the appropriate technical means”. The result is, in my opinion, one of the very great long poems in English to be written in the last century.

And so, there you have it. Not fashionable, not a big seller, not even a novel, but Holocaust is certainly the best book I read last year. And like any January drunk in a pub, my intention is to grab you by the collar and insist that you must read it, too. I’m not going to say you’ll like it; that wouldn’t be the point. But if you are interested in what poetry can do in the face of the world, then Holocaust is a must.

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War Poetry

My review of From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945, edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson and published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is on-line on Guardian Books.

It is interesting to read From the Line alongside Gerald Dawe’s Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-45. Dawe has more wars to play with, given the nature of 20th century Irish history, and his anthology covers World War I, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars and The Emergency, aka World War II.

The most immediately striking difference between the two books is the almost perfectly monoglot nature of the Irish one. Dawe includes just one poem in Irish, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s post-Hiroshima ‘Aifreann na Marbh’ (Mass of the Dead). It is salutatory to be reminded that the poet-soldiers who fought for their vision of a Gaelic Ireland were, for the most part, monolingual minor Georgians, with the exception of the somewhat Whitmanesque Pearse.

It is worth remembering that over 200,000 Irish men volunteered to serve in the Great War, many of them in the belief that they were fighting for Home Rule; a tiny fraction of that number participated in the Easter Rising. Yet when the survivors of the war came home they found themselves somehow on the losing side, often viewed as little more than traitors to the emerging Free State. Some fought their erstwhile comrades in the War of Independence and then against each other in the Civil War, many just packed their medals and memorabilia away and never talked about it again.

Observers of the various recent state visits between Ireland and the UK will be aware that this silence has only very recently been broken. Most Irish poets who fought in the trenches were simply forgotten. A good number who fought in World War II just never returned. Dawe serves them well by recovering them from this ill-deserved oblivion, and the effort involved is qualitatively different from that required from Goldie and Watson.