Monday, January 23, 2006

Charles Reznikoff

As Ron Silliman notes, a review of the collected shorter poems of Charles Reznikoff appeared in Sunday's NYTimes Book Review.

Back when I was a poet/lit scholar, I imagined myself writing some sort of dissertation that would include Reznikoff. I was especially taken with his two-volume poem Testimony, a collection of what might be called "found" poems taken directly from legal documents. It's divided up first into years (1885-1890, 1891-1900, 1901-1910, 1911-1915), then into regions ("The South," "The North," sometimes "The West"), and then into simple categories ("Social Life," "Domestic Scenes," "Boys and Girls," "Machine Age," "Property,") that are further subdivided by number.

Here's #1 under "Social Life," "The South," 1885-1890:
The day had been dark and rainy,
and she and Fuller were sitting by the fire
late in the evening
in an old house on the mountain
about fifty yards from the road.
They had a bottle of whiskey between them
and had been drinking,
and Fuller was singing, "The Drunkard's Doom." (15)

In his review, Joshua Clover asserts that each of Reznikoff's short poems
is a sort of American haiku, albeit no more impressionistic than a hand-operated printing press.

This haiku-like quality is clear enough even in the parts of the longer poem. But as a long poem, it also works by accumulation and repetition, even as the distinction of each detail matters. For example, Volume 1 of Testimony includes a somewhat disturbing number of railroad accidents, like this one:

There were three on the locomotive:
the flagman, the fireman, and the engineer.
About two hundred yards from the man--
the flagman commenced ringing the bell;

within about a hundred yards
the engineer commenced sounding his whistle:
thirty or forty short blows.

The man did not get off the track or look around. (31)

It's poetry as documentary, but also poetry as design. While the words are "found," they are also arranged, chosen. The critical power of this poetry comes not through ideology-critique but through affect: the words and images are neither offering a "message" nor pointing outside themselves to a symbolic realm, but they do have an affective impact in their starkness.

And, as I'm teaching working-class women's literature this semester, I want to help my students with the way of reading poetry that Reznikoff's writing calls for.


bdegenaro said...

Are the "affective" and the "ideological" in opposition to one another? Can it be both-and? I think readings of working-class lit. that discount the affective dimension do a disservice, but I also like the polemic elements of class-conscious lit. There's a line there. When I teach w/c texts, I always talk about critical reception of Upton Sinclair--discounted by lit critics as ideologue, discounted by the party as a belletrist.

This probably sounds totally disjointed...sorry. Do you know Dana Gioa's "Can Poetry Matter?", which takes up these issues?

Donna said...

Doesn't sound disjointed at all. I'm particularly interested in affect these days, and affect, I would say, does work that we might call or that some might have called ideological. (Jon at Posthegemony is one who, as I understand his argument, would say that affect *is* opposed to the ideological in that affect is prior to meaning, whereas the ideological is that which is articulable.)

I guess the distinction I was trying to make was between the overtly polemical (the kind of statement that, according to a affect-oriented theorist like Massumi, risks cutting off the possibility of further movement) and the more suggestive, affective moments that (again, according to someone like Massumi) opens up possibility in that meaning isn't fixed. Can a piece of literature do both? Yeah, probably--although the polemic might overshadow the suggestive. (An interesting short piece in the NYTimes Science section today reports a study that suggests polemicists tend to think with the emotion-processing center of the brain rather than with the "cool reason" part, whatever that means. It's just interesting to me that, basically, once a person has identified with a party that they have trouble thinking critically about politics--unless it's the other side. To some extent, this connects up for me with George Lakoff's theory of "frames": that we're pretty successful in forcing new information into our already-established frames of interpretation, even if the new information contradicts the frame. All this to me suggests that change can only happen at the level of affect. Of course, that's kind of what Spinoza thought, too. But it makes me want to pay more attention to the affective than to the expository.)

I was also trying to suggest that to some literature we need to bring different kinds of reading: that reading a poem by a working-class writer might require a different or at least an additional set of "tools"--that a poem about a seemingly "mundane" subject really might be about that subject rather than a metaphor for something more "sublime."

All right. That was long. Hope some of it makes some sense. Thanks for getting me thinking (or, rather, articulating!).

(And I have to admit to having a bias against Gioa--which might be unfair--so I haven't read his essay.)

Jon said...

For what it's worth, and I think this is in line with what Donna's suggesting, I'd be tempted to say that ideology is an effect of affect. So yes, affect and ideology co-exist and inter-relate, but in some way affect is prior to ideology; and moreover, to stay at the level of ideology, or ideology critique, is in some way to miss what's fundamental.

bdegenaro said...

Thank much to both Donna and Jon for helping me think about this. The affect-as-prior-to-ideology distinction is an interesting one. And I guess I still see a lot of class-conscious texts in particular (murals of Diego Rivera, say) as growing out of a particular committment, and even using affect rhetorically.

Donna said...

Yeah, I don't disagree, Bill. I think I might have muddied things by talking about two not-necessarily-related concepts: the concept of affect-prior-to-ideology and the concept of working-class literature. I wasn't really trying to suggest that working class literature is affective *rather than* political or committed, since it certainly often is both. It was really about expressing my own interest in attending to affect, even when or if the ideological is articulated.

And thanks, Jon, for the useful formulation: ideology as the effect of affect. Yes.