Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry From the Law (part one)

Charles Reznikoff
(Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978 and 1979)

When first published (in 1978 and 1979), the two-volume Black Sparrow Press edition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony saved my poetry-reading soul.

I’d just started law school, after four years majoring in English at Cal-Berkeley. Suddenly, a relatively dreamy college-boy academic life vanished. Gone was the reading of glorious poetry and literature. Now there were law books, and nothing but law books. Huge law books filled with cases.

“Cases” as in published written decisions, typically by an appellate court, regarding various legal disputes. These court decisions for the most part were poorly written: prosaically stated facts, convoluted points of law, and hair-splitting “logic.” Law school “homework” largely consists of reading such cases. Students are supposed to figure out the key legal rulings in the cases and thereby figure out “the law.” It quickly becomes a task of utmost drudgery, one that pretty much kills the desire to read just about anything else.

In those dull seas of legal study, Testimony was a life-line, a connection to the creative. Reznikoff’s Objectivist untitled verse settings of facts taken from published court decisions were short enough to read almost anytime, and impeccably well-made: concise and powerful. That Reznikoff, after being trained as a lawyer, had gathered his facts from case reporters filled with court decisions made the poems all that more miraculous: he’d made incredible poems from the same kinds of tedious cases I was studying.

Here’s a poem from Testimony:
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.
The poem seems simple, and is, but the writing is exceedingly adroit. In the first stanza, the isolation of “stone deaf” in its own line emphasizes the import of that fact in the narrative, and mirrors how alone the man must of seemed on the tracks. Most compelling here is the way the poem speeds to its sudden end, with a second stanza shorter than the first and the third stanza – a single line – shorter still. The poem, as the accident itself, is a rushing nightmare with a horribly abrupt conclusion.

Here’s another poem from Testimony:
The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying, “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.
There’s much, poetically, in this short vignette of awful abuse. The balance of the lines and breaks couldn’t be any finer: the poem’s flow carries attention to the end, even though the subject matter is upsetting enough to cause anyone to want to turn away.

Then there’s the way the second line describes the child’s transgression as “some misconduct or other.” That phrase (“some . . . or other”) shows precisely how trivial or arbitrary it was. In the fifth line, the first word – “crying” – is particularly well set, as it suggests both the wail of the beaten child while actually, and ironically I think, describing the father’s yell.

Finally, and perhaps most compelling, there’s the shockingly effective use of the run-on construction in the poem’s final two lines. These mirrored clauses – each beginning “and”– show how sickeningly long the battery went on, with the final act (“and stamped on him”) made thus to appear as horribly unnecessary, cruel, and redundant as it no doubt was.

Most poems in Testimony are longer (generally ranging from about 20 up to 40 or more lines) than the two poems above. But no matter the length, all have the key Objectivist (or Reznikoff-Objectivist) traits of particulars pared to their essence, stated concisely. And essentially all are narratives.

Narratives about people hurting (or killing) people, people hurt or killed by machines, and even, in a few instances, people hurt or killed by the forces of nature. Cruelty, greed, anger, racism, jealousy, exploitation of the innocent, carelessness, and/or accidents. The poems’ subject matter, especially when read as a whole (and there are almost five hundred of them) is exceedingly grim. It could be no other way, given the source material. The stories told in court, and thus the matters addressed in the court decisions from which Reznikoff made his poems, almost always involve tragic and ignoble aspects of life.

Testimony in this way does not present the sum and substance of human existence, but a part of it, though a part that Reznikoff certainly suggests must not be forgotten. I agree with Milton Hindus (a famous, now deceased Reznikoff scholar) that Reznikoff wants us to not just remember the cruel and tragic aspects of life presented in the poems, but to think, and think hard, of the unstated alternatives. Such as kindness and care and love, as opposed to aggression, hate and all the rest.

Many great essays and comments on Testimony have been published over the last 30 years. My favorite among these was written by reference law librarian Benjamin Watson. Watson’s essay (“Reznikoff’s Testimony”) was first published in 1990, and then again in 2005 in the Law Library Journal and Legal Studies Forum, respectively. It’s now made the jump from those arcane periodicals to the Web, and is available to all (click here to go).

I like Watson’s essay because he went back to Reznikoff’s working papers (housed at UC San Diego) and found notes that allowed him to match up about 150 of the poems in Testimony with the actual published court decisions Reznikoff used as the source material. Watson closely compares one court decision to the poem made from it to convincingly show that Reznikoff changed not only the names of persons and towns (as the poet had said he’d done in an introductory note) but sometimes also altered the sequential order of events from the order they were said by the court decision to have actually occurred.

The facts in Testimony’s poems, in other words, sometimes time-traveled; dialogue or events were compressed or re-arranged, presumably to sharpen the intensity of the narrative presentation, or of the emotions triggered by the story told. These changes only occurred in some poems, concerned relatively few of the facts in those poems, and never involved changing the ultimate event (e.g., whether a person was killed or maimed). To me, the revelation that there is in some poems yet another layer of imposed Reznikoff-ian reality emphasizes even further the poetic achievement of Testimony.

Watson’s essay provides a great service by including (as an appendix) a list that matches specific poems to citations of about 150 specific published court decisions. It’s incredible to compare the source material (the court decision) and the resulting poem, to see fully the dross from which Reznikoff extracted the facts that he then fashioned into his poem-treasures.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult these days to find either the court decisions or Reznikoff’s poems. The case reporters in which the decisions were published can be found only in an extremely well-stocked law library (since the books are mostly one hundred or more years old) or via web-based, subscription-required legal search sites such as WestLaw (which holds the copyright, such as it is, on the case reporters).

It’s just as hard to find Reznikoff’s poems, at least in the two volume complete edition. The Black Sparrow Testimony has been out of print for years. Used sets (the two volumes together) are rare, and even single volumes of the paperback, when available, can be priced above a hundred dollars.

Your humble blogger, however, can provide one example. Below is a particular court decision (Butler et al. v. New York, N.H. & H. R.R. Co., 58 N.E. 592 (Mass. 1900)), direct from a case reporter (I’ve cut and pasted it onto a single page for ease of viewing here), and then the poem Reznikoff made from its facts.

The court decision, it must be noted, was written by one of the greatest judge-writers in American legal history: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at the time the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The Butler decision, with regard to its writing, is far better than most. The facts are not scattered about but found in a single (albeit very long) paragraph. Also, the brevity here is exceptional: the decision is only three paragraphs long.

Nevertheless, Justice Holmes’ presentation of the facts doesn’t clearly depict what happened, mostly due to poor writing. The third sentence – the first that sets out specific details – is compound three or four times over. It’s easy to lose the narrative thread in its complexity. And I want to take a gavel and smash the fourth sentence, particularly its unfortunate double-negative (“It is not argued that there was not evidence . . .”). And of course it all gets very foggy if the decision’s two other paragraphs are factored in, with their heady discussion of legal principles and precedent. See for yourself what Reznikoff saw (please click on the image to enlarge it, in a new window: the paragraph with the facts is about half-way down the first column):

Now here’s Reznikoff’s Testimony poem from this case:
The boy was only four years old
and his mother left him on the front doorstep
with his little sister; told them to stay there
and went into the house to do her washing.
The house was about two hundred feet from the railroad track
and the boy and his sister climbed the embankment
and the boy went upon the track.

A freight train had just broken apart
and the forward part of the train had gone by
leaving about thirty feet between the forward part
and the rear cars that followed.
The boy took off his hat and waved good-by
to the part of the train that had passed.
His sister called to him to come back
and he replied,
“Why the train has gone by!”

But he was run over by the cars that followed.
It couldn’t be any clearer, or sadder, could it?

End Note: The writing and publishing history, in brief, of Testimony:

Reznikoff’s Testimony project began in the early 1930s, when for a few years he worked for the company that published the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris. The job required him to read and analyze court decisions found in case reporters. From the facts of some of the cases, he made prose poems (yes, prose poems!). These poems were first published in 1932 under the title “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” in the first two issues of Contact (a magazine edited by W.C. Williams), and that same year in the Zukofsky-edited An Objectivists Anthology. In 1934, a small book of the prose poems, titled Testimony, was published by the Objectivist Press. A scan of the front of that book ends this post, below.

Reznikoff included three verse poems based on facts from the case reports, and collectively titled “Testimony,” in his self-published 1941 collection, Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down.

Reznikoff fervently took up Testimony again in the 1960s, spending time reading old court decisions in law libraries, and writing hundreds of poems from those decisions in the verse form he had come to find most suitable for the work. In 1965, New Directions-San Francisco Review jointly published a book containing some of these poems. In 1968, Reznikoff self-published another portion. In 1978, shortly after Reznikoff’s death, the two volume Black Sparrow edition was published. Its full title is Testimony – The United States (1885 - 1915) Recitative. It includes all poems from the two collections published in the 1960s, plus all others in verse that Reznikoff wrote. It does not include the 1934 Testimony prose poems.

As discussed above, the two volume Black Sparrow edition, the only complete edition of the verse Testimony poems, is exceedingly difficult to find. Even harder to find is the volume of Testimony prose poems, published in the 1934 (pictured below). Currently, it is available only in about 50 U.S. libraries, of which less than a handful are located on the west coast.
Jumping back to the verse poems, the only realistic option at present, aside from a library, is the 1965 New Directions/San Francisco Review edition of Testimony. It contains between about one-quarter to one-third of the poems found in the complete two-volume edition; a hardcover reading copy can be had via the used book option for about $20.


Joseph Donahue said...

What a terrific piece! I have often wondered about the exact relation of the poems to the source texts. And prose poems? I don't think I've ever seen them. Curse you, a new quest begins.

Nicholas Manning said...

Marvelous post Steven. Those poems are both extraordinary and devastatingly sad.

Anonymous said...

Amazing work, both Reznikoff and you! Thank you.

I wish I could buy "Testimony" for less than $150.00.

Kirby Olson said...

I enjoyed your piece, and your link to Watson's article which gives a sense of where to find the original articles.

What I can't understand is why Reznikoff changed the original contexts. Does he give his rationale for having done this? I would assume that the cases would be in the public domain (or at least many of them would), so why would he alter the context?

It makes it more difficult to understand exactly what happened, and to judge them accordingly.

What was he thinking when he did this?

Are there any speculations?

If you keep an eye out at you can sometimes find very cheap editions of Testimony. I got mine for about two dollars. (both halves of the Black Sparrow edition).

But I haven't known how to read them.

I was wondering if you knew whether in his shorter poems whether he changed the contexts there, too, or whether they are keenly observed slices of real life.

Or is it a mix?

I always assumed they were just the facts, M'am kind of poems, but now I'm not so sure.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Joseph, on the prose poems: I hope you get a chance to read them, though let me say: while I'm a big fan of prose poems, the conciseness of the verse settings I think works better with this material.

Kirby, I probably should have written that Reznikoff's changes -- those that re-ordered facts from the events as reported -- are relatively minor, in addition to only occurring in some of the poems.

Minor because in those poems that do have changes, they are typically very small in number (one or two things). See the example given by Watson at pages 14-15 of his essay. There are about three dozen separate facts set out in that particular poem. Reznikoff changed the order of two or maybe three.

Minor also because sometimes the changes are exceedingly minor. For example, in one case, it was reported that a foreman told a worker, "You God damned son of a bitch, you go to work!" In his poem, Reznikoff had the foreman say, "You go to work, you God damned son of a bitch!"

Minor also because no change made concerns the major narrative event. Reznikoff NEVER changed the big stuff. The people in the poems don't live or die or break a leg or get shot etc. unless that actually was reported to have happened. This stuff is exactly square all around.

As to why Reznikoff made changes, Watson at page 15 of his essay offers the suggestion that concision was a reason.

I'd agree, and add what I wrote in the main post here: he did it sometimes, on minor matters, to heighten intensity, either of the narrative or the emotion.

I'd also say that sometimes (perhaps as with the change in word order mentioned above), Reznikoff made a change because to his ears it sounded or flowed better in his line if he said it the way that he did.

After writing this comment I added a few words to the main post, so that my point about what was and wasn't changed is clearer.

And Kirby, if you decide you don't care to read Testimony, and want to sell your set, I'll pay you ten times the two dollars you paid at Amazon and have you send your copies off to hysperia.

Kirby Olson said...

Steven, I think I will keep my copies. I've also ordered the Watson article through interlibrary loan.

I did think that maybe I should put the set on sale for 149.99 since Hysperia said she'd pay that sum (I want some new books), but now that you've given me a way to think precisely about what happens in the poems, I think I can go forward.

It bugs me that he changes the cities apparently in some of them.

Concision wouldn't be helped by changing a long name like Cincinnati to Peoria, would it?

One of the things I like about Reznikoff is the factual quality. you get that in a lot of Ginsberg's poems, too -- right down to the date.

Therefore the poem feels like an intersection with reality, which I like.

Steven Fama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Fama said...

Hi again Kirby,

If you'd like, you can read on-line Benjamin Watson's great essay on Testimony. There's a direct link to it (two, in fact) in my post here, one indicated by the words "click here" in the paragraph in which the essay is first mentioned.

Also, and as I mentioned -- and as Reznikoff himself mentions in a short prefatory note to the poems -- the names of all persons, towns, and cities were CHANGED in Testimony. He also simply elided proper names in many poems: writing for example "the man," "the boy," or "the woman" instead of the person's name as given in the case reports.

He changed or did not use names even though they were a part of the public record (stated in the court decision published in the case reporter). Probably though Reznikoff wanted to keep people's name private, since the case reporters are not readily accessible to most, even when first published.

But I think there's more to it. That Reznikoff changed or did not use proper names, I think, suggests something about his project. As Watson points out or suggests, Reznikoff wanted to take the narratives out of the strictly personal, or even gossipy, realm. I think he also didn't want his narratives tied entirely to a specific historical incident such as would have been the case if real names and places were kept in). Instead, Reznikoff's method places each poem in what I'd call a more universal perspective. In this way, using the particulars, but not every last one of them, to suggest something about the world.

Kirby Olson said...

Yes, I don't like that notion that the world is some kind of floating Platonic ether. It's specific to a given locale, its precise immigrants, its precise streets.

This just goofs everything up.

He made a bad decision.

People have specific names which tell you a lot in and of themselves about their histories.

People live in specific places with specific industries and specific kinds of crime.

Poems should be direct notations. Everything else is useless, I think.

Hysperia is willing to buy a volume. I have volume 2 which I will sell for 149.95. It's in reasonably good shape.

Saves her a nickel from her original offer.

But honestly most libraries have these volumes., if interested.

I still can't understand why he did this. It's just infuriating. I never read his volume on the Jews of Charleston but I hope he didn't play fast and loose with the facts there, too.

Facts are more beautiful than fictions.

Kirby Olson said...

Thanks too for putting in the links. I didn't see them originally because usually links are in a different color.

This was an extremely helpful post.

Kirby Olson said...

Where do you find the law cases? Is this something that you go into a law library and ask, I want to read Dean Vs. Commonwealth, for instance (listed on p. 27 of the law article). Have you read the majority of the cases and compared them to the actual poems?

I've now read the article by Watson, and don't find it too bad. I liked it.

On a slightly different question -- I have been writing books on poetry. One of them was on Gregory Corso's poetry. Another time I wrote an article on Larry Fagin's poetry.

It turned out that my published Texas Tech University Press wouldn't allow me to publish even a single line of Fagin's poetry without his permission, which he didn't give.

So the entire chapter was scuttled.

Apparently you can cite poetry in an article, but not in a book form, without getting permission. I don't know if there is a clear legal precedent for this.

I tried to discover why you can't even publish a single line without permission.

One scholar said it was because Yvor Winters had rankled several modernists, and they said he could no longer cite their work, not even one line, because every line is integral to a poem.

When I published my book on Codrescu I wanted to use a single line from Charles Olson but was told I couldn't do it without permission by McFarland and Co.'s editor.

So I took out the line and paraphrased.

As a lawyer interested in poetry would you know anything about his mysterious convention?

As far as I am concerned, you needn't publish this in your comments box. I don't really care to have the detail that Fagin wouldn't allow my post to surface (I don't know why he didn't, because I felt the article was an interesting one, but I guess that he didn't!).

If you wouldn't mind just replying directly to
I would appreciate any light you could shine on this legal problem.

I think it's a shibboleth without an actual legal foundation, a kind of rumor floating about scholarly publishing but is not really true.

Fair use allows you to use about 8% of a prose document.

And fair use allows you to use 60% of a poem in a scholarly article published in a journal.

but in a book, every line has to have a permission slip.

I think this is because when you use a single line in a novel or something like that you have topay.

But I don't think this should be the case in nonprofit book publishing.

It's just baffling.