The Poems

Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) was, along with Louis Zukofsky, one of the chief voices of the "Objectivist" movement, a loosely-affiliated poetic movement consisting of 2nd generation American modernist poets. The movement (not to be confused with Ayn Rand's political philosophy) owed a great deal to the Imagist movement of the early modernists. It aimed chiefly at the establishment of "objective perfection" and "sincerity" in the composition of poetry. "Objective perfection" refers to a "'rested totality,' the poise of a finished art object" (DuPlessis 8).

In addition to his reputation as an "Objectivist," Reznikoff is esteemed as one of the foremost Jewish-American poets of the 20th century; his (Pinkser 244-248).

Jewish history plays a significant role in Reznikoff's poetry of the 1930s. Jerusalem the Golden, published in 1934 evokes both that long history and the intimate details of modern, everyday life. The first half of the book is composed largely of short poems, often as short as two lines, though a number of these follow a common subject and build toward a thematic resolution.

This is the case the sequence from poems 15 to 19. The speaker begins leaving home on his way to work, reflecting briefly on rubbish in the street. He then goes into the subway, noticing, first another passenger wearing red shoes, and then the subway rail itself. He queries each, questioning their apparent out-of-placeness in the modern setting. He asks the wearer of the shoes, "do they dance behind the counters / in the store, or about the machines / in the shop where you work?" He asks the rail, "what did you know of happiness, / when you were ore in the earth; / now the electric lights shine upon you."

Each of these things seems out of place, but they hold, nonetheless, a life that the rail-yard, a barren forest of artificial metal posts, mimicking oaks, appears not to have. In the final poem of the sequence, the only one of the group with a title, the speaker proclaims that subway station should be inscribed as "the gift of Hephaestus, the artificer, / the god men say is lame." This alters what we have seen before, the forest is not barren; it is a gift from and made by a god. Men say he is lame, but we have seen his creation and the signs of life it acquires in the shoes and the rail. The rail from the earth and the dancing shoes are not out of place here, all are evidence of the touch of the divine in the midst of the apparently lifeless, in the midst of the modern.

The longer poems toward the end of the book continue this theme of the divine in the midst present. The title poem is composed of four brief sections, titled respectively "The Lion of Judah," "The Shield of David," and "Spinoza," and "Karl Marx". Taken as a whole they present a narrative of evolving conceptions of the divine in relation to the Jewish people. The progress of this is from retribution and war to righteousness to dispassion and finally to equity with Marx. There is a parallel transition here from king to prophet to philosopher to communal existence as the concept of God becomes increasingly remote, until the human assumes the mantle of the absent divinity under Marx, innately following the precept "From each according to his strength, / to each according to his need." From the perspective of 1934, Reznikoff's move in positioning a socialist communion as the culmination of a specifically Jewish, and specifically religous, history is both an ingenious rhetorical and poetic device and also a useful window into the political culture of that desperate time.

Site Index | Home | AS@UVA | 1930's Website