George Oppen Introducing Charles Reznikoff
San Francisco State University
March 21, 1974


George Oppen: That poem of Charles' that begins: "As I, barbarian, at last, although slowly, could read Greek,/ at 'blue-eyed Athena'" and it goes on and on. Charles' reading of that lithograph portrait on the wall of Athena.

Audience: Louder?

George Oppen: Ugh, yea. It's a — just take that poem, it's a beautiful poem with the Greek cadence and it moves on into that strange feeling of visiting famous times and famous places in the midst of one's own affairs, through books. There doesn't seem any reason — that poem was written at least forty years ago, since I read it forty years ago. I'm complaining about the length of time it's taken to notice Charles Reznikoff, not that Charles Reznikoff so far as I know cares.

Audience: [Laughter]

George Oppen: The last time I tried to praise Charles to himself, he had once interrupted to say, "George, I'm sure we both do, the best we can." A difficult man to praise and this is my opportunity.

Well — and all the same, that isn't just random eccentricity on Rezzi's part. Ugh, and if it was modesty it was modesty of extraordinary force. Rezzi wouldn't listen to praise because he intended to disregard condemnation, and this was —

Audience: [Laughter]

Some of these poems in the Collected are — were written in 1918 and some of them earlier I think. There was the issue of free verse to begin with, and of course, Reznikoff couldn't make use of the Whitmanesque breath of the New Eng — of the Mid-West poets, and he didn't have the authorization of the New England scenes. These were poems of the city. Instead, a small man starts to climb the stairs out of the subway, and he sees the moon shining through the entrance, whereupon the world stops, and is illuminated. Poem after poem of the city.

Which is experience the narrow end of the funnel that poems with a metaphysical dimension, actually. The metaphysical dimension being the absence of terror, or the disregard of it down to the very chewing gum stuck to the pavement which is in that poem.

Audience: Could you tell us why, exactly? [Laughter]

George Oppen: The narrow end of the funnel in these poems. The proofs in these poems are images, and the images are proofs, and the proofs are overwhelming. But Rezzi who didn't permit praise and disregarded condemnation bought a letterpress. Every evening after work he set two lines of verse, teaching himself to set type as he worked. [Adjustment of the microphone] I'm afraid it's in — is on.

[Raises his voice] I said Rezzi, wouldn't listen to praise because he was tempted to disregard condemnation or neglect. He had bought a, letterpress, and everyday, every evening after work, Reznikoff set two lines of verse, teaching himself to set verse, as he worked at it. And this way he printed all of his first books by himself. We, Mary and I that is, have carried these poems in our minds through everything that has happened to us since we were nineteen or twenty years old.

I don't know of any poems more pure, or more purely spoken, or more revelatory. I professed before, I think the young of my generation were luckier than the youngest in this audience, in that we had to go searching for our own tradition and our own poets. What we found was Reznikoff, and he's played — I cannot say how important he has been to us, as I think he will be to you, and this is what I wanted to say to Charles Reznikoff when he said to me, "George, I think we all do the best we can."

Audience: [A swell of applause]

. . . . .

George Oppen's introduction to Charles Reznikoff on March 21st, 1974 at San Francisco State University was transcribed by Kyle Schlesinger. The recording of Reznikoff's reading was recorded by the American Poetry Archive at the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University located at 1600 Holloway Avenue in San Francisco California.

Audio file of this introduction, and the full Reznikoff reading, at PennSound

For further information about this reading,
see Charles Bernstein's essay entitled, "Reznikoff's Nearness" published in
My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Return to the Charles Reznikoff Homepage at the EPC