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This article is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 1979.

The Tone of a Human Voice Elaine Feinstein

The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, ed. Seamus Cooney, (2 volumes), Black Sparrow Press, 1977.
Charles Reznikoff, by Milton Hindus, Menard Press, £1.80.

THE SPANISH poet Jehuda Halevi (whom Reznikoff elegantly translates) said of poetry: 'It is but proper that mere beauty of sound should yield to lucidity of speech.' Among the many traditions that merge for critical convenience of thought under the heading of modernism, that desire to restore to poetry the tone of a human voice remains for me the most attractive. Certainly it lacks the enigmatic glitter of the surrealist tradition; I admit it may sometimes seem to lack surface tension altogether. Even at its best, the clarity may seem ordinary, because the subtlety does not lie in the complexity of imagery (which anyone can perceive) but in the directness of thought, which frequently bypasses our critical apparatus. In the late fifties when I first felt the attraction of an indigenous American modernism-of Williams, say, rather than Eliot or Stevens-and began to interest myself in the figures of the Objectivist movement such as Rakosi, Oppen and Zukofsky, Reznikoff seemed to me less ingenious technically in his short lyrics than Zukofsky, and altogether less interesting in his longer poems than Williams. It was mainly Reznikoff's autobiographical novel Family Chronicle, together with a few snatches of Testimony which then impressed me.

Now, reading these two beautifully produced volumes of Reznikoff's poetry again, I am astonished to have missed his central importance. He is ...


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