poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

On August 31, 1894, Charles Reznikoff was born 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.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Rhythms (1918)
Poems (1920)
Jerusalem (1934)
Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941)
Testimony (1965)
Holocaust (1975)
Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (1989)

Prose

By the Waters of Manhattan (1930)
Testimony (1934)
The Lionhearted (1944)
Stories and Fantasies from the Jewish Past (1961)
The Manner Music (1976)

Plays

Chatterton, the Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis: Three Plays (1922)
Nine Plays (1922)
Coral and Captive Israel: Two Plays (1923)


Multimedia

 

 

Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays

Charles Reznikoff, 1894 - 1976
I
New Year's

The solid houses in the mist 
are thin as tissue paper; 
the water laps slowly at the rocks; 
and the ducks from the north are here 
at rest on the grey ripples. 

The company in which we went 
so free of care, so carelessly, 
has scattered. Good-bye, 
to you who lie behind in graves, 
to you who galloped proudly off! 
Pockets and heart are empty. 

This is the autumn and our harvest—
such as it is, such as it is—
the beginnings of the end, bare trees and barren ground; 
but for us only the beginning: 
let the wild goat's horn and the silver trumpet sound!

Reason upon reason 
to be thankful: 
for the fruit of the earth, 
for the fruit of the tree, 
for the light of the fire, 
and to have come to this season. 

The work of our hearts is dust 
to be blown about in the winds 
by the God of our dead in the dust 
but our Lord delighting in life 
(let the wild goat's horn 
and the silver trumpet sound!)
our God Who imprisons in coffin and grave 
and unbinds the bound. 

You have loved us greatly and given us 
Your laws 
for an inheritance, 
Your sabbaths, holidays, and seasons of gladness, 
distinguishing Israel 
from other nations—
distinguishing us 
above the shoals of men. 
And yet why should we be remembered—
if at all—only for peace, if grief 
is also for all? Our hopes, 
if they blossom, if they blossom at all, the petals 
and fruit fall. 

You have given us the strength 
to serve You, 
but we may serve or not 
as we please; 
not for peace nor for prosperity, 
not even for length of life, have we merited 
remembrance; remember us 
as the servants 
You have inherited. 


II
Day of Atonement 

The great Giver has ended His disposing; 
the long day 
is over and the gates are closing. 
How badly all that has been read 
was read by us, 
how poorly all that should be said. 

All wickedness shall go in smoke. 
It must, it must! 
The just shall see and be glad. 
The sentence is sweet and sustaining; 
for we, I suppose, are the just; 
and we, the remaining. 

If only I could write with four pens between five fingers 
and with each pen a different sentence at the same time—
but the rabbis say it is a lost art, a lost art. 
I well believe it. And at that of the first twenty sins that we confess, 
five are by speech alone; 
little wonder that I must ask the Lord to bless 
the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart. 

Now, as from the dead, I revisit the earth and delight 
in the sky, and hear again 
the noise of the city and see 
earth's marvelous creatures—men. 
Out of nothing I became a being, 
and from a being I shall be 
nothing—but until then 
I rejoice, a mote in Your world, 
a spark in Your seeing. 


III 
Feast of Booths

This was a season of our fathers' joy: 
not only when they gathered grapes and the fruit of trees 
in Israel, but when, locked in the dark and stony streets, 
they held—symbols of a life from which they were banished 
but to which they would surely return—
the branches of palm trees and of willows, the twigs of the myrtle, 
and the bright odorous citrons. 

This was the grove of palms with its deep well 
in the stony ghetto in the blaze of noon; 
this the living stream lined with willows; 
and this the thick-leaved myrtles and trees heavy with fruit 
in the barren ghetto—a garden 
where the unjustly hated were justly safe at last. 

In booths this week of holiday 
as those who gathered grapes in Israel lived 
and also to remember we were cared for 
in the wilderness—
I remember how frail my present dwelling is
 even if of stones and steel. 

I know this is the season of our joy: 
we have completed the readings of the Law 
and we begin again; 
but I remember how slowly I have learnt, how little, 
how fast the year went by, the years—how few. 


IV
Hanukkah

The swollen dead fish float on the water;
the dead birds lie in the dust trampled to feathers;
the lights have been out a long time and the quick gentle hands that lit them—
rosy in the yellow tapers' glow—
have long ago become merely nails and little bones,
and of the mouths that said the blessing and the minds that thought it
only teeth are left and skulls, shards of skulls.
By all means, then, let us have psalms
and days of dedication anew to the old causes.

Penniless, penniless, I have come with less and still less
to this place of my need and the lack of this hour.
That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power—
for a blade of grass, for a reed.

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.

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 not by power
but by Your Spirit, Lord.

From The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff. Copyright © 1976 by Charles Reznikoff. Used by permission of Black Sparrow Press, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

From The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff. Copyright © 1976 by Charles Reznikoff. Used by permission of Black Sparrow Press, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

Charles Reznikoff

Charles Reznikoff

Born in 1894, in Brooklyn, New York, Charles Reznikoff was the author of several poetry collections and was a principal proponent of Objectivism.

by this poet

poem
III
Hanukkah

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.
poem
The troopers are riding, are riding by
the troopers are riding to kill and die
that a clean flag may cleanly fly.

They touch the dust in their homes no more,
they are clean of the dirt of shop and store,
and they ride out clean to war.
poem
With green stagnant eyes,
arms and legs
loose ends of string in a wind,

keep smiling at your father.