Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1894, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and studied law at New York University, although he never actually worked as a lawyer. New York, Jewishness and the law were, one way or another, to dominate his poetry and his fiction. In fact his Complete Poems 1918-1975, sadly still out of print, consists mainly of observations of life in his native city and verse reworkings of episodes from the Old Testament and Talmud.
Reznikoff is on record as saying that his legal studies led him to the insight that poetry should be like the evidence given by a witness in a criminal trial; "not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard". It was this approach that made him a kind of patron and model for the Objectivists in the 1930s, and its full flowering was to come in his late 500+ page long poem sequence Testimony: the United States (1885-1915) Recitative, the first volume of which was published in 1965.
Testimony draws on the records of hundreds of court cases to present a portrait of society in ferment; the society, incidentally, into which the poet was born. It is, indeed, a picture of things seen and heard, with, ironically given the material, very little by way of judgemental interpretation. The original manuscripts are arranged and lightly edited as, essentially, found poetry. For most of the cases used, we don't even get to read the verdict or sentence handed down.
Published just a year before his death in 1976, Holocaust was Reznikoff's last book. It, too, drew on court records, this time The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The literal, matter-of-fact style that Reznikoff uses in the poem is not accidental; it is a conscious technical choice. The horrors of the death camps are placed starkly before us in the words of the survivors, and the poets selection process denies the reader the opportunity to look away. It also deprives us of any sense of catharsis; these things happened and no good came of them. There is no redemption, and no place for the reader to hide in the flat surface of the writing:
The woman begged for their lives:
they were young, they were ready to work.
They were ordered to rise and run
and the SS men drew their revolvers and shot all five;
and then kept pushing their bodies with their feet
to see if they were still alive
and to make sure they were dead
shot them again.
And for me it is this matter of technique, the unblinking gaze of the invisible poet that makes Holocaust such a vital book. It's as if Reznikoff took up the challenge implicit in Adorno's much misunderstood "Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch" ("It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz"). If Adorno's question is "how can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust", Reznikoff's response is "by doing what the artist has always done and finding the appropriate technical means". The result is, in my opinion, one of the very great long poems in English to be written in the last century.
And so, there you have it. Not fashionable, not even a novel, but Holocaust is certainly the best book I read last year. And like any January drunk in a pub, my intention is to grab you by the collar and insist that you must read it, too. I'm not going to say you'll like it; that wouldn't be the point. But if you are interested in what poetry can do in the face of the world, then Holocaust is a must.
This article appeared first in the Guardian book blog and is republished with permission