It was in my heart to give her wine and dainties,
silken gowns, furs against the wind;
a woolen scarf,
coffee and bread was all that I could buy:
It is enough, she said.
It was in my heart to show her foreign lands,
at least the fields beyond my city:
I could not pay our way;
when she would see a row of street-lamps shining,
How beautiful, she would say.
The city is a place of relentless toil, unnatural living, of decadance and decay: that’s the impression that many influential poets give, anyway. Think Blake’s bleak and bleary London, Baudelaire’s seedy phantasmagorical Paris, the fourmillante cité which in turn inspired (along with Dante’s visions of Hell) Eliot’s miserable urban visions – the bourgeois flim-flam of Prufrock and the civilisational wreckage of ‘The Wasteland’. Eliot went on to name the parts of his most spiritual poem, Four Quartets, after four small villages in the south of England. His message to subsequent poets couldn’t be clearer: You’ll more likely glimpse eternity in the Chilterns than in Soho. That’s why R.S. Thomas sought God on hills and moors rather than in squares and boulevards…
It’s refreshing then to read a more benign poetic vision of the city once in a while. For Charles Reznikoff the city provides the backdrop – and much of the imagery – for reflections on such universal themes as love, courtship and even – because the city isn’t made up solely of the jagged artificial forms modernism often ascribes to it – the beauty of the world and of nature.
Charles Reznikoff was a lawyer, a life-long resident of New York and one of the founders of the movement known as Objectivism – no relation, thankfully, to the political philosophy of the same name. It is difficult (and, here anyway, unnecessary) to explain on exactly what aesthetic grounds Objectivism is distinct from other modernist movements such as imagism and vorticism, but as for politics and geography it’s quite easy: most of its poets were American, most, if political, were left wing in their poilitics, and many were Jewish, Reznikoff himself being all three, (although I wonder if there is a little sceptical irony concealed in his paeon to Karl Marx, its utopian hopefulness seeming a little at odds with the gentle irony of his other poems). His major work, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’, is really more like a collection of separate poems, some with ancient Jerusalem as their setting, but many more set in New York, muted, personal and quotidian in their nature.
’57′, quoted above, captures some of the humour of New York, with Reznikoff gently evoking the voices of those ignorant of the world beyond their own city- ‘the fields beyond the city’ sounds touchingly parochial and ‘foreign lands’ somewhere impossibly distant, to the persona at least. The language is hardly elevated and a word like ‘dainties’ sounds positively twee (it took me a few readings before I remembered that in America this word more likely referred to cakes and pastries than, as it would in Britain, no less tweely, to underwear – there’s no erotic edge to the poem, anyway). It is a poem about love, but also about finding beauty, unexpectedly, in the city. And urban beauty needn’t be the bold, dramatic forms of Futurism, or the neon-lit eroticism of Baudelaire’s demi-monde; coffee and streetlights become as much tokens of love as the images of any pastoral…
Sometimes Reznikoff’s poetry celebrates the simple beauty of the city itself:
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
a girder, still itself among the rubbish
Such lines exemplify the ‘Objectivist’ mission, to use simple, precise, fresh language. I don’t want to give the impression that Reznikoff’s eye lingers on the refuse dumps and street corners of the city – he writes beautifully about moonlight, water and blossom, as much a part of some cityfolk’s experience as tarmac and electric light is, but he tends not to classify flora and fauna in any great detail: a flower is ‘a flower’, a bird more often than not just ‘a bird’ and as for insects, well, not for him Hardy’s ‘On this scene enter -winged, horned and spined – / A longlegs, a moth and a dumbledore’. But instead, with laconic wit:
Of our visitors – I do not know which I dislike most:
the silent beetles or the noisy flies
Each to their own I suppose. No doubt Reznikoff’s disdain for bugs is a more typical reaction than Hardy’s wonder. ‘Fourmillante Cite’ indeed! Creepy crawlies aside, however, this poet finds the city not in the least bit hellish.
Reznikoff poems are quoted from The Objectivists, ed John McAllister, Bloodaxe, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996
The photo is from the New York Times, John Marshall Mantel
(And, yes, I’m still cannibalising old blog posts, I’m afraid – I’m busy with moving house and packing! I should be getting back to normal by the middle of next month…)