blank In 1974, I was invited by Anthony Rudolf to contribute an article to the London Magazine, European Judaism, for an issue celebrating Charles Reznikoff's eightieth birthday. I had been living in France for the past four years, and the little piece I sent in on Reznikoff's work was the first thing I wrote after coming back to America. It seemed like a fitting way to mark my return.
blank I moved into an apartment on Riverside
Drive in late summer. After finishing the article, I discovered that Reznikoff
lived very near by-on West End Avenue-and sent him a copy of the manuscript,
along with a letter asking him if it would be possible for us to meet. Several
weeks went by without a response.
blank On a Sunday in early October I was to be
married. The ceremony was scheduled to take place in the apartment at around
noon. At eleven o'clock, just moments before the guests were due to arrive,
the telephone rang and an unfamiliar voice asked to speak to me. "This
is Charles Reznikoff," the voice said, in a sing-song tone, looping ironically
and with evident good humor. I was, or course, pleased and flattered by the
call, but I explained that it would be impossible for me to talk just now. I
was about to be married, and I was in no condition to form a coherent sentence.
Reznikoff was highly amused by this and burst out laughing. "I never called
a man on his wedding day before!" he said. "Mazel tov, mazel tov!"
We arranged to meet the following week at his apartment. Then I hung up the
phone and marched off to the altar.
blank Reznikoff's apartment was on the twenty-second
floor of a large building complex, with a broad, uncluttered view of the Hudson
and sunlight pouring through the windows. I arrived in the middle of the day,
and with a somewhat stale crumb cake set before me and numerous cups of coffee
to drink, I wound up staying three or four hours. The visit made such an impression
on me that even now, almost a decade later, it is entirely present inside me.
blank I have met some good story-tellers in my
life, but Reznikoff was the champion. Some of his stories that day went on for
thirty or forty minutes, and no matter how far he seemed to drift from the point
he was supposedly trying to make, he was in complete control. He had the patience
that is necessary to the telling of a good story-and the ability to savor the
least detail that cropped up along the way. What at first seemed to be an endless
series of digressions, a kind of aimless wandering, turned out to be the elaborate
and systematic construction of a circle. For example: why did you come back
to New York after living in Hollywood? There followed a myriad of little incidents:
meeting the brother of a certain man on a park bench, the color of someone's
eyes, an economic crisis in some country. Fifteen minutes later, convinced that
Reznikoff was lost, too-he would begin a slow return to his starting point.
Then, with great clarity and conviction, he would announce: "So that's
why I left Hollywood." In retrospect, it all made perfect sense.
blank I heard stories about his childhood, his
aborted career in journalism, his law studies, his work for his parents as a
jobber of hats and how he would write poems on a bench at Macy's while waiting
his turn to show the store buyer his samples. There were also stories about
his walks-in particular, his journey from New York to Cape Cod (on foot!), which
he undertook when he was well past sixty. The important thing, he explained,
was not to walk too fast. Only by forcing himself to keep to a pace of less
than two miles per hour could he be sure to see everything he wanted to see.
blank On my visit that day, I brought along for
him a copy of my first book of poems, Unearth, which had just been published.
This evoked a story from Reznikoff that strikes me as significant, especially
in the light of the terrible neglect his work suffered for so many years. His
first book, he told me, had been published in 1918 by Samuel Roth (who would
later become famous for pirating Ulysses and his role in the 1933 court
case over Joyce's book). The leading American poet of the day was Edwin Arlington
Robinson, and Reznikoff had sent him a copy of the book, hoping for some sign
of encouragement from the great man. One afternoon Reznikoff was visiting Roth
in his bookstore, and Robinson walked in. Roth went over to greet him, and Reznikoff,
standing in the back corner of the shop, witnessed the following scene. Roth
proudly gestured to the copies of Reznikoff's book that were on display and
asked Robinson if he had read the work of this fine young poet. "Yeah,
I read the book," said Robinson in a gruff, hostile voice, "and I
thought it was garbage."
blank "And so," said Reznikoff to me in 1974, "I never got to meet Edwin Arlington Robinson."
blank It was not until I was putting on my coat
and getting ready to leave that Reznikoff said anything about the piece I had
sent him. It had been composed in an extremely dense and cryptic style, wresting
with issues that Reznikoff himself had probably never consciously thought about,
and I had no idea what his reaction would be. His silence about it during our
long conversation led me to suspect that he had not liked it.
blank "About your article," he said,
almost off-handedly. "It reminds me of something that once happened to
my mother. A stranger walked up to her on the street one day and very kindly
and graciously complimented her on her beautiful hair. Now, you must understand
that my mother had never prided herself on her hair and did not consider it
to be one of her better features. But, on the strength of that stranger's remark,
she spent the rest of the day in front of her mirror, preening and primping
and admiring her hair. That's exactly what your article did to me. I stood in
front of the mirror the whole afternoon and admired myself."
blank Several weeks later, I received a letter
from Reznikoff about my book. It was filled with praise, and the numerous quotations
from the poems convinced me that he was earnest-that he had actually sat down
and read the book. Nothing could have meant more to me.
blank A few years after Reznikoff's death, a
letter came to me from La Jolla, written by a friend who works in the American
Poetry Archive at the University of California library-where Reznikoff's papers
had recently been sold. In going through the material, my dear friend told me,
he had come across Reznikoff's copy of Unearth. Astonishingly, the book
was filled with numerous small notations in the margins, as well as stress marks
that Reznikoff had made throughout the poems in an effort to scan them correctly
and understand their rhythms. Helpless to do or say anything, I thanked him
from the other side of the grave.
blank Wherever Edwin Arlington Robinson might be now, one can be sure that his accommodations aren't half as good as Charles Reznikoff's.
This essay appears on the EPC through the kind permission of
"It reminds me of something that once happened to my mother..."
appears in Why Write? published by Burning Deck Press in 1996.
Return to the Charles Reznikoff Homepage at the EPC