The Pithy, the Necessary, the Clear, and the Plain
by Mark Chmiel
Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, edited by Milton Hindus
National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine at Orono, 1984
Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.
— A.C. Graham quoting a Chinese poet from long ago
This thick volume is a collection of reminisces, literary analyses, and appreciations of Charles Reznikoff: Objectivist, American-Jew between two worlds, New Yorker, walker, miniaturist, transformer of documentary mass of data into free verse art, survivor of mean anti-Semitism growing up, self-published devotee to his own writing, lawyer who never practiced, maker of a preferential option (in writing, anyway) for the humblest, and chronicler of the Jewish history.
I first learned of Reznikoff from writings by Eliot Weinberger and Allen Ginsberg. In the summer of 2010 I plunged into his works and Hindus’s volume during the generation of what became Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine.
Poems and Passages from Some Poems by Rez—
Not because of the victories
But for the common sunshine,
The largess of the spring
Not for victory
But for the day’s work done
As well as I was able;
Not for a seat upon the dais
But at the common table.
Prying sentences open to look at the exact meaning:
Weighing words to choose only those that had meat for my
And throwing the rest away as empty shells
… scrutinize every word and phrase
As if in a document or the opinion of a judge
And listen, as well, for tones and overtones,
Leaving only the pithy, the necessary, the clear, and the plain
After I had worked all day at what I earn my living,
I was tired. Now my work has lost another day
I thought, but began slowly,
And slowly my strength came back to me.
Surely the tide comes in twice a day.
Others on Rez—
Anne Stevenson: His work, indeed, displays the same variety as does the Bible: there are psalms and proverbs and celebrations and an inexorable energy in the plainness of the language.
Michael Heller: Instead of judgment, there is a sense of great detachment, a kind of moral spaciousness that the reader must cross.
Rez on Writing—
To me the use of language means communication. If you write, you write to be understood, and if you’re not understood, you’ve failed. I’m a great believer in clarity and I try to practice it; that’s why I’m interested in precision in the use of words, which is part of clarity. I think the only importance in writing it is to convey meaning or emotion.
You start with an emotion. You must start with that, otherwise it’s dull. You start with something that moves you and you state it as simply and directly as possible, without saying you’re moved, but in such a way that the reader will also be moved by it. This is the way I try to write.
One reason for using the case books [for Testimony] is that a case is in the public domain. No one has a right to it, but everyone can use it.
Method of writing
Write all seemingly good lines.
Examine every word to remove all possible Latinisms and unnecessary words.
Examine the meaning of the sentences in their order
Examine the rhythm of the lines
Examine the rhythm of the whole
Then revision by contemplation