ENGL 40761 Lecture Notes - Lecture 18: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Imagism

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7 May 2017
School
Department
American Culture as Collage
30 March, 2017
Charles Reznikoff: 1894-1976
Part of the movement of objectivism, which used imagist techniques, like those of
Pound, but applied to the working class current cultureimmigrants, the poor, farmers
o “Objectivists” first labeled as such by Louis Zukofsky in 1931
o Like the folk music singers, people in 1960s thought they were long dead, but as
contemporary interest grew, they were re-discovered
o Another objectivist: George Oppen, introduced Reznikoff at a 1974 reading
Reznikoff originally studied journalism, but then law. He lost a legal case on purpose to
free himself up to write poetry and take on odd jobs, which included defining terms for a
legal dictionary
Studied the testimony of working class people between 1885-1915, which became the
basis for his books
o “Documentary poetry, poetry as history
Reznikoff was a dedicated historian, and this is a piece of history written
for the powerless, illiterate and often voiceless people, whose stories
would not otherwise be told or taken seriously
Testimony
Undercurrent of neglect, malice, lacks a basic respect and care for humanity and human
dignity
Within sections, cases are very similar, so people are always making the same mistakes,
doing the same things, following a pattern of behavior and psychology
Incidents are true stories, drawn from real testimonies
Address many of the same themes and focus on the same people as the Anthology of
American Folk Musicfor, about and by the poor underclass, often talking about
murder, love, work, theft, fate, human cruelty and ignorance.
o A combination of individual experience and a generalized template (repetition
gives a picture of society as a whole)
o Luminous details, teach us something about their/our culture through the short
descriptions of the incidents
o Reznikoff and Smith both interested in a series of aesthetic qualities, like
“rawness” and authenticity present in both works, making no attempt to beautify
the stories (finding the meanness in life, rather than just the idea of America as the
land of freedom, hope and dreams). Both also place emphasis on fate, how
inescapable destiny is.
“Accidental” history, because these testimonies were never intended to be a form of
storytelling for the public, but rather were part of the legal proceedings.
o As a result, they’re not romanticized or filtered at all
How do we reconcile American Dream with Reznikoff’s/Smith’s America?
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