Poetic Representation:
Reznikoff's Holocaust

Dan Featherston

blank Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust is one of the few poems on the Holocaust that calls Adorno's famous quotation into doubt. This book is composed solely of Holocaust survivor testimony distilled from twenty-six volumes of documentation of the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Using transcriptions from the court proceedings, the entire poem is devoid of metaphorical language and the rhetorical framework of interpretation. As in court testimony, there are no conclusions, no judgments that would preclude the hearing:

Among those who had hidden themselves
were four women and a little girl of about seven
hiding in a pit-a dugout covered with leaves;
and two S.S. men went up to the pit and ordered them to
blank come out.
"Why did you hide?" they asked
and began to beat the women with whips.
The women begged for their lives:
they were young, they were ready to work.
They were ordered to rise and run
and the S.S. 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. [28]

blank The absence of legal and literary rhetoric, as well as authorial interpretation, removes any buffer zone between the testimony and the reader. There is no exterior to Holocaust except the reader. In regard to the Adorno quote, it is interesting to note that Reznikoff's near-invisibility in the poem has led several critics to dismiss the work as "not poetry." In a review of Holocaust, Robert Alter opines that there is a "numbing pointlessness in the constant repetition of savagery and murder without the slightest interpretive response on the part of the poet..." (1) And yet, "numbing pointlessness" seems to refer to the Holocaust itself rather than the poem, foregrounding the reader's witnessing of testimony, not the poet's interpretation of it. In the court of poetry, Alter places the poet in the position of judge, while his own criticism of Holocaust is itself a judgment: not merely of the poem, but of the silence that follows each testimony. This silence is the historical permanence of these experiences without the distancing of authorial interpretation and historical/official judgment. This desire for language to provide a kind of telos, a closure to the "numbing" repetition of historical brutality, bears an eerie resemblance to the SS Figuren: that is, the desire for language to resolve or redeem history. (2) Poetry, however overtly judgmental and symbolic its language, cannot erase history any more than incineration and brutal language-games erase the dead. Reznikoff's Holocaust allows for the testimony to exist as an event in itself whereby the poet's role is not to speak over the testimony, but to listen.

blank Since the process of selection and combination are interpretive acts, no text is devoid of interpretation. If we expand the definition of interpretation to include form, Reznikoff interprets by installing line-breaks, as well as by numbering and grouping testimonies into subheadings ("Deportation," "Invasion," "Research," etc.). Thus, the poem is arranged thematically as opposed to chronologically, departing from the sequence of the court proceedings just as the proceedings depart from the chronology of the Holocaust itself. Another interpretive aspect of Holocaust is the text's metonymic relationship to the actual Holocaust. As the proceedings did not circumscribe the Holocaust, Reznikoff's poem does not circumscribe the documentation of the proceedings. Instead, Holocaust draws from a massive compilation of first-person testimony excluded from the generic timelines of "History." The Poet's testimonial fragments develop an accumulative and specific, as opposed to summational and general, approach to history. (3)

While the atrocities committed by the Third Reich were carried out on a massive scale, the Holocaust is ultimately each act of brutality by each individual acting under one government. And it is the primacy of these specific acts and their impact on individuals that Holocaust recovers from historical summation and the numbing of statistics:

Once the commander of a camp had eight of the strongest among
the Jews
placed in a large barrel of water,
saying that they did not look clean,
and they had to stand in this barrel naked for twenty-four hours.
In the morning, other Jews had to cut away the ice:
the men were frozen to death.
In this camp-and in others also-
they had an orchestra of Jews
who had to play every morning and evening
and whenever Jews were taken to be shot.
In one such camp,
the orchestra had all of sixty men. [74]

More than twenty years after his death, Reznikoff's poetry continues to be dismissed by poets outside the mainstream as "prose narrative" and by the mainstream as nonexistent. Few readers of poetry have ever heard of Reznikoff, despite that his poetry is perhaps the most direct and available of all the American modernists. Reznikoff's poetry incorporated social, historical, and ethical dimensions into one of objectivism's high-profile precursors, imagism, and developed the traditions of the prose-,
found-, docu-, and epic poem, as well as the cross-semination of literary and legal genres.


"Poetic Representation: Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust" appears on the EPC with the generous permission of Dan Featherston. This essay was originally published under the title, "Poetic Representation: Reznikoff's Holocaust and Rothenberg's 'Khurbn'" in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review #68 (30th Anniversary Issue), Fall '97-Winter '98.

Return to the Charles Reznikoff Homepage at the EPC