A source study of Charles Reznikoff’s “Amelia”

A source study of Charles Reznikoff’s “Amelia”

The late, great Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff has long been a favorite and model of mine. Jacket 2 does us all the favor of publishing a study of Reznikoff’s poem “Amelia” from his multi-volume work Testimony, criminally out of print. Charles Bernstein summarizes the virtues and import of this excellent piece of literary scholarship:  

Richard Hyland, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers Law School, Camden, New Jersey, has compiled the fullest account of the sources of a Reznikoff poem, together with a detailed commentary on theAmelia Kirwan case and the poem Reznikoff wrote based on this case. Many of Reznikoff’s poems, especially those in Testimony, are based on legal records. But there has been little research on the exact relationship between the legal record and the poem, with the general assumption that Reznikoff used only language from the legal records, cutting away but not adding any of his own words. The key to Reznikoff’s aesthetic is his selection and condensation of the source materials.

Surely Reznikoff is a paradigmatic poet for all documentary and source-based poetry of the 20th century and exemplary for many of us who use appropriated or found material in our work. By looking at the 1910 court records, we can now see the source of the language that Reznikoff incorporated into his poem, at least in this one instance. Hyland goes much further. By contrasting the aesthetic pitch of Reznikoff’s slim poem with the social efficacy of Judge Edward Bartlett’s magisterial decision, Hyland gets to the core issue of the office of poetry. Reznikoff’s poem, he notes, perhaps wryly, is “weak.”

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