A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry, by Stephen Fredman

By Morris, Daniel | Shofar, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Menorah for Athena: Charles Reznikoff and the Jewish Dilemmas of Objectivist Poetry, by Stephen Fredman


Morris, Daniel, Shofar


University of Chicago Press, 2001. 193 pp. $46.00.

Stephen Fredman demonstrates that for Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), a paradigmatic modernist poet and first-generation Jewish American of Eastern European (Russian) origins, Hellenism represented a site of desire, an approachable but untouchable reservoir of symbolic capital, something beautiful, like Keats's urn, but encased in museum glass. However much he tried to access Greek culture through his intellectual labors, Reznikoff continually felt he could observe it only from the marginalized perspective of an ethnic outsider.

Reznikoff's anxiety emerged over his relationship to Hellenism in poems from the 1920s. In poetry, he addresses the issue of his access to symbolic value. His poems express his wish to prove his worth to the Protestant gatekeepers of the academy at places such as Harvard, where young Jewish intellectuals from the Menorah Society helped found the Menorah Journal (1915-62), a highly influential journal that "made crucial contributions to the negotiations between Judaism and the emergent cultural modernism" (p. 7). The Menorah Journal was an early forum for Reznikoff's work (p. 7).

By emphasizing a Jewish poet's relationship to Greek literature, Fredman in A Menorah for Athena makes an important contribution to our evolving sense of how modern literature can be interpreted through the lens of ethnicity. He shows that Reznikoff was, like H. D. [Hilda Doolittle] and Pound, fascinated with Greek poetry, but that his relationship to the material differed from theirs even if The Greek Anthology informed Reznikoff's "objectivist" style. H. D. and Pound interpreted the Greek texts as examples of a purely aesthetic model from which to build a new kind of poetry -- "verbal concision, formal density and suppleness, and eschewal of subjective effusions" -- , as a way to inform their Imagist goals (p. 2). H. D. and Pound, in other words, adhered to Matthew Arnold's influential association of Hellenism with aestheticism, and Hebraism with a Puritanical strain of English culture that privileged "right doing" at the expense of a celebration of beauty for its own sake. For Reznikoff, the Greek materials registered what Fredman calls his "liminal position between cultures" (p. 2):

Placing himself in a symbolic position of betweenness -- between Hebraism and Hellenism, between Judaism and modernism,...Reznikoff joins not only the other Objectivist poets but also an entire generation of American Jewish intellectuals. Sensing an opportunity to overcome a two-thousand-year history of marginalization, these Jews are hungry to enter the mainstream of American culture. The most ready route that presents itself involves refiguring the authoritative dichotomy between Hebraism and Hellenism in such a way that it supports rather than impedes their entry. (p. 7)

Reznikoff held a law degree from New York University, worked as a script analyst for a major film producer in Hollywood, and was an influential poet and chronicler of American legal history and of the places where Jews had made an impact on colonial American life such as in Charleston, South Carolina. …

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