Disarchiving Anguish

Charles Reznikoff and the Modalities of Witnessing

by Jacek Partyka (Author)
©2021 Monographs 264 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 14


The book examines the modalities of witnessing in the works of Charles Reznikoff. Associated with the so-called “Objectivist” group created in New York in the early 1930s, Reznikoff is often called a poet-witness because the material he draws on in his poetry and, to a lesser extent in prose, comes from his observations of urban life and from authentic testimonies he found in archives. Yet, the process of turning eye-witnessed situations and contents of depositions given by other witnesses into literary texts is far from objective. In particular, Reznikoff’s use of archival material is informed by subtly camouflaged manipulation. To demonstrate various degrees of this change, the book centers on a comparative juxtaposition of the poet’s works with the original documents.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Objectivist, the Archivist, the Witness and the Author
  • Reznikoff as the Objectivist
  • The Archive
  • The Experience, or “Life Consists of Retellings”
  • The Testimony
  • The Author-Witness, or The Witness-Author
  • Yet Another “Unoriginal Genius”: A Missing Element in Marjorie Perloff’s Formulation of “Poetry by Other Means”
  • Walter Benjamin’s Concept of (Writing) History
  • Disarchiving Anguish
  • Chapter 2: Witnessing in the First and Second Degree
  • I. Walking, Witnessing, Writing: Urban Poetry
  • Witnessing in the First Degree
  • The Primacy of Seeing
  • “Familiar and Yet Strange”: The Experience of Exile
  • II. Family Chronicle
  • “To Remember, We Need Others”
  • Translated but Not Lost
  • Immigrant Narrative Beside a Familiar Literary Category
  • Text(ile) Matters
  • Legal(istic) Matters: Law and Justice
  • Chapter 3: The Archival Finders Keepers: Testimony (1934) and Testimony. The United States (1885–1915): Recitative
  • A Non-Teleological Epic Project
  • “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”
  • Testimony (1934)
  • “Pretty Nearly Everything”
  • Witnessing Race Relations: Law vs. Justice
  • Formal Aspects of Testimony (1934)
  • Testimony as Recitative
  • Witnessing, Testifying, and the Problem of Language
  • The Quotient of Objectivism: from the Deposition to the Recitative. An Analysis of Particular Cases
  • Elegy. The Unhealed Wounds of the Past
  • Law and Justice: Systemic Violence
  • The Shattered Glass Inside the Case
  • Chapter 4: Depoliticizing the Genocide: Holocaust
  • Juridical Prerogatives and Political Agendas
  • Peter Weiss’s Appropriation of Documents
  • The Modalities of Witnessing in Holocaust
  • Kurt Gerstein
  • Zivia Lubetkin
  • Shimon Srebrnik and Rivka Yosselevska
  • Chapter 5: Reznikoff’s “Unoriginal Genius” and the Tradition of Performing Witness
  • Palimpsest/Palimtext
  • Socially Engaged Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser and Mark Nowak
  • Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith and the Boundaries of Conceptual Witnessing
  • Testimony Reactivated: Ann Hamilton and Tim Clifford
  • Heimrad Bäcker’s and Robert Fitterman’s Take on the Holocaust
  • Holocaust and Hello Kitty
  • Conclusions
  • Works Cited
  • Index of Names

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I would like to extend my gratitude to the following institutions for making my research possible: The Polish-American Fulbright Commission; The New York Public Library; The Archive for New Poetry, University of California, San Diego; The John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin; Corbridge Trust at Robinson College, University of Cambridge, England; Fordham University in New York; and The Estate of Charles Reznikoff. My special thanks go to Michael Davidson, Elizabeth Frost, Maria Farland, Marin Elsky, Jarosław Ławski, Jurek Kamionowski, Karol, Bartek and, last but not least, Ula.

In altered forms, some parts of the present study appeared earlier as articles in scholarly journals and as chapters in monographs: “Mowa zależna. Charlesa Reznikoffa (prze)pisanie Holocaustu” (Żydzi wschodniej Polski. Studia. Tom 1 Świadectwa i interpretacje. 2012. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu w Białymstoku); “Literackie formy graniczne (Weiss – Reznikoff – Grynberg)” (Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały. Pismo Centrum Badań Nad Zagładą Żydów IFiS PAN 2013, tom 9); “Writing of Crisis, Crisis of Writing: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934)” (Eating America: Crisis, Sustenance, Sustainability. 2015. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang); “Archives of the Machine Age: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. The United States (1885–1915): Recitative” (Er(r)go. Theory–Literature–Culture, no. 4, 2021); “Charles Reznikoff and the Rhetoric of Witnessing through Silence” (Res Rhetorica, vol. 7, no. 4, 2020); and “Stitch, Stich and Stichomancy: Poetry by Other Means in Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives,” (Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 11, 2017).

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List of Abbreviations


Charles Reznikoff. Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow Press, 1996 [vol. I].


Charles Reznikoff. Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow Press, 1996 [vol. II].


Charles Reznikoff. Family Chronicle. Markus Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1988.


Charles Reznikoff. Holocaust. Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham, 2010.


Charles Reznikoff. Man and Poet, edited by Milton Hindus, National Poetry Foundation, 194.


Charles Reznikoff. Selected Letters of Charles Reznikoff 1917-1976, edited by Milton Hindus, Black Sparrow Press, 1997.


Charles Reznikoff. Testimony. The United States (188-1915): Recitative. Black Sparrow Press, 2015.

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‘Regarding the pain of others,’ which now is immediately associated with the title of Susan Sontag’s classic essay, seems an all-too-common experience of contemporaneity, enabled as it is by the abundance of technological means to record and transmit images of atrocities from all corners of the world. The persistence and prevalence of human and non-human anguish is matched only by the effortlessness with which we witness it, if only vicariously. Confrontation with the scenes of suffering piling up from day to day before our eyes evokes a whole spectrum of responses—from compassion to indignation to excitement to indifference, the latter one a form of defense mechanism, often resulting from helplessness. Considered from the viewpoint of a witness who happens to be occupied with literature, as is the subject of the present study, the anguish of others demands its preservation in language that, nonetheless, in the end of the process, can either clarify or falsify the experience, or miss the point completely. The greatest challenge of the job does not consist in looking at things or tracing the facts, but in choosing a verbal context in which they are meant to be represented. This, in turn, often comes at the cost of coping with the not-so-rare, perverse enamor with what Julia Kristeva calls the abject (l’abject, the repulsive), which “cannot be assimilated” but nevertheless “beseeches, worries and fascinates desire,” and can permeate the fabric of language (1). Moving along an analogical path, Sontag—but restricting her remarks to the medium of photography—points to a “prurient interest” aroused by “depictions of tormented, [or] mutilated bodies” (95).

In 1932, William Carlos Williams, the editor of Contact, a modernist “little magazine,” added a new member to the editorial lineup. From now on Nathanael West’s work was to search for European avant-garde ideas and adapt them for typically American use—in other words, the aim was “to cut a trail through the American jungle without the use of a European compass … not only in but against the American grain and yet in idiomatic pain” (Goldman 322, emphasis added). The 1932 October issue of Contact featured his artistic manifesto, in which he recognized and endorsed the excessive use of violence in literature as the most adequate mirror of American experience:

Is there any meaning in the fact that almost every manuscript we receive has violence for its core? They come to us from every state in the Union, from every type of environment, yet their highest common denominator is violence. It does not necessarily follow that such stories are the easiest to write or that they are the first subjects that young writers attempt. Did not sweetness and light fill the manuscripts rejected, as well as accepted, by ←15 | 16→the magazines before the war, and … those immediately after it? We did not start with the ideas of printing tales of violence. We now believe that we would be doing violence by suppressing them.

  In America violence is idiomatic. Read our newspapers. To make the front page a murderer has to use his imagination, he also has to use a particularly hideous instrument. Take this morning’s paper: FATHER CUTS SON’S THROAT IN BASEBALL ARGUMENT. It appears on an inside page. To make the first page, he should have killed three sons and with a baseball bat instead of a knife. Only liberality and symmetry could have made this daily occurrence interesting. (132–33)

During his long uneventful life, Charles Reznikoff (1894–1976), one of the contributors to Contact, would frequently reflect on instances of violence, anguish and systemic injustice in the United States, which were common topics of the poems and prose that he wrote. However, the interest in human misery did not have the character of an obsession, as it did in the case of West. Reznikoff’s stance was consistently ethical, if carefully camouflaged by the habitual use of understatement, and directly related to his ethnic roots. In 1941, amidst the anxiety and raging horror of WWII, he published “A Short History of Israel; Notes and Glosses,” where his typical restraint matches his magnanimousness:

Among men who gorge and swill

and sleep in the vomit,

be temperate and clean;

among men who lust and whore

be true; among men in armor


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
testimony Holocaust representation Objectivist poetry urban poetry Walter Benjamin found poetry
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 264 pp., 7 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Jacek Partyka (Author)

Jacek Partyka is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Philology, University of Bialystok, Poland. His research interests center on American late modernist and postmodernist poetry, literary representations of genocide, W. H. Auden’s reinvention of himself as a new poet in the US, and the literature of the Jewish diaspora in New York City.


Title: Disarchiving Anguish