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International Conference “Charles Reznikoff: Inscriptions (1894-1976)”

Université Paris Nanterre, France, June 1st-3rd, 2023
Étienne Garnier

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1Held in Paris from June 1st to June 3rd, 2023, “Charles Reznikoff: Inscriptions (1894-1976)” was the first international conference entirely dedicated to the American poet. The conference was organized by Naomi Toth (Université Paris Nanterre), Xavier Kalck (Université de Lille) and Fiona McMahon (Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3) with the support of multiple institutions: the Institut Universitaire de France, ArTeC, the Institut des Amériques and the research laboratories CREA (Université Paris Nanterre), CECILLE (Université de Lille), and EMMA (Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3). The organizers invited renowned specialists of the American poet to give keynote speeches such as Norman Finkelstein, Jena Osman, Stephen Fredman and Michael Heller, who unfortunately had to cancel. Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas and Mark Scroggins, key figures in the study of Objectivist poetry, also presented papers on Reznikoff and Objectivist poetry. The aim of the conference was to grant more visibility to Reznikoff’s work and highlight his significance in the American poetic landscape and beyond.

2Françoise Král, director of the Centre for Anglophone Studies (CREA), stressed the conference’s importance and international scope. Besides, participants had the opportunity to engage with Reznikoff’s poems during a scheduled reading at Maison de la Poésie in Paris, underscoring the cultural and testimonial dimensions of Reznikoff’s works.

3The first panel, “Documenting the Law,” was led by Law professor Florence Bellivier (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) and discussed Reznikoff’s engagement with the legal system. The panel explored Reznikoff’s unique writing process and its ethical and political implications. Natina Gilbert (University of Rochester) focused on the 1934 version of Testimony. Using Lisa Siraganian’s study of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” she examined its connection to modernist formal experiments and corporate jurisprudence. Gilbert highlighted Reznikoff’s presentation of facts without judgment or attack, and emphasized his goal of revealing obscured realities through data collection, which became a substitute for the objective correlative. During the debate that ensued regarding Reznikoff’s stance on structural injustice within the justice system, the speakers noted a potential pairing of Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser.

4In her keynote address entitled “Subjects of the Law,” American poet and scholar Jena Osman (Temple University) shared her own experience of encountering Reznikoff’s work during a seminar taught by Charles Bernstein in 1991 and how it led her to reconsider the relationship between language and the law, particularly through the coverage of Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas by Nina Totenberg. This exploration of language in the context of the court proceedings influenced Osman’s own writing, resulting in her poem “A Real Life Drama.” Osman also mentioned Ted Hearne’s adaptation of her poems into music. The discussion touched upon the similarities and differences between Osman’s and Reznikoff’s methods, highlighting the importance of pattern recognition in Reznikoff’s reading. During the ensuing discussion, Stephen Fredman referenced Ann Hamilton’s use of Reznikoff’s Testimony in an installation, illustrating his theory of poetry as a transactional art.

5The following panel entitled “Witnessing and Testifying” was chaired by Benoît Tadié (Université Paris-Nanterre) and featured speakers Rosina Martucci (University of Salerno) and Andrea Inglese (École Bleue and ENSAV). In her talk entitled “Comparative Literature Paintings: Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff and The Lost Bread by Edith Bruck,” Rosina Martucci discussed the connections between the works of Charles Reznikoff and Edith Bruck, highlighting their attempts to provide truthful accounts of a violent historical period. While Reznikoff maintains a neutral tone, Martucci noted that his compilation makes him both a witness and a prosecutor. In contrast, Bruck’s emotional detachment in The Lost Bread allows her to depict the horrors of concentration camps. Both writers emphasize sincerity and the role of detail, testifying to the suffering of millions of Jews. Andrea Inglese delivered the paper “Testimony ce qui est mémorable” and pointed out that despite the difficulties Reznikoff faced in getting published, his testimonies have enduring power. Reznikoff’s Testimony challenges the notion of “national myth” and instead exists at the intersection of individual witness accounts, collective national narratives, and poetic testimonies. This contradicts the expressivist view of poetry, which assumes a strong link between the poet’s subjective experience and expression. Inglese argued that Reznikoff’s work allows for the creation of a form capable of conveying the tragic dimension of industrial modernization, as proposed in Aldous Huxley’s thought. The experience of tragedy helps modern society recognize the limits of its own methods.

6The next panel, “Vernacular Poetics,” led by Charlotte Estrade (Université Paris Nanterre) consisted of Lisa Siraganian (Johns Hopkins University), Miriam Ould Aroussi (Université Paris Cité), and William Dow (Université Paris Est). Lisa Siraganian’s presentation, “Reznikoff’s The Manner Music: A Poetics of Unintended Consequences,” centered on Reznikoff’s posthumous novel, The Manner Music (1977). She utilized the concept of unintended consequences to analyze the novel, demonstrating how Reznikoff portrayed the failures of large-scale schemes and markets through his attention to specific details. Siraganian argued that Reznikoff’s work served as a diagnostic aesthetic project, exemplified by the poems compiled in Testimony which revealed a pattern of poverty and misfortune. By examining a passage in which a cobbler poorly repaired a character’s shoe, Siraganian revealed how the sound produced by the shoes exposed a larger exploitative system. As the author inserts a persona in the novel, the sound one’s shoes make could be seen as the true intention of Reznikoff’s work, turning The Manner Music into an ars poetica. Miriam Ould Aroussi focused on the second version of Testimony published in 1965. She acknowledged the various ethical interpretations of Reznikoff’s poems, which are often read through a political lens, but she was primarily struck by the poetic aspect of the work rather than its ethical implications. Aroussi recognized a distinct treatment of language in the poems, reflective of Reznikoff’s unique understanding of rhythm as associated with emotion. Reznikoff’s insistence on using vernacular speech indicated his belief that the natural rhythms of everyday language should not be altered. By using common speech and its rhythm, Reznikoff reacquainted readers with the power of ordinary language. William Dow then presented his paper, “Reznikoff’s Poetic Journalism: A Material Culture of Poetry and Knowing” which aimed at positioning Reznikoff within the realm of literary journalism as he argued that his most influential work is a long poem that encompasses the documentary and literary journalistic picture. Dow suggested that employing a poetic approach to literary journalism could lead to a greater appreciation of the richness of details and to a responsive engagement with Reznikoff’s poems. Reznikoff represented a documentary culture seeking to transform traditional journalism into a materialist history alternative. Testimony is Reznikoff’s declaration that national history, rather than being written from the standpoint of an only individual, could be written from the standpoint of every individual in the nation.

7Following William Dow’s presentation, the event proceeded with the first round table discussion, led by Fiona McMahon, on the stage adaptations of Reznikoff’s work in France. The participants included French stage directors, Henri-Jules Julien and Romain Jarry, and French poet Sonia Chiambretto. Henri-Jules Julien was the first to adapt Reznikoff’s work in France with his play based on Testimony touring the country from 2011 to 2012. He first came across Reznikoff’s works in 1996, when he read eight translations by Jacques Roubaud in La Revue de la Littérature Générale. Henri-Jules Julien shared that his encounter with Reznikoff’s writings had a profound impact on his life, so much so that it led him to change career paths and become a stage director. After a decade, the desire to do something with Reznikoff’s poetry started to emerge in his mind. Recognizing that these poems gave voice to the unheard, Henri-Jules Julien sought to give these voices a new platform through his adaptation. His approach involved one actor and a piano player, creating two simultaneous interpretations of the poem and showcasing two distinct voices. Romain Jarry then presented his own adaptation of Testimony, which differed from Henri-Jules Julien’s approach. Jarry’s adaptation aimed at bringing the work back to its origins, specifically the courtroom. Each performance involved a dozen residents from the town where it took place, emphasizing the authenticity and connection to the source material. Sonia Chiambretto shared her work, which was partly influenced by Reznikoff. She stumbled upon Reznikoff’s writings by chance. This discovery was a revelation that made her realize that it was possible to write in a similar fashion. As someone who regularly participates in workshops, she always makes it a point to discuss Reznikoff whenever the opportunity arises. She then read excerpts from her book, titled Peine Mineure, which utilized testimonies of minor girls sent to a juvenile prison. During the ensuing question-and-answer session, Sonia Chiambretto emphasized how she felt validated and justified in her own writing after discovering Reznikoff. Seeing that another poet had utilized a form of poetry similar to her own instinctive writing style gave her a sense of legitimacy. This round table discussion concluded the first day of the conference.

8The first panel of the second day, titled “Judaism, Jewishness and Yiddishkeit,” featured a talk by Ranen Omer-Sherman (University of Louisville). His presentation focused on Reznikoff’s complex stance towards Zionism, revealing a disconnect between his Jewish identity and the prevailing Zionist discourse of the time. Through a discussion of Reznikoff’s verse-drama The Black Death (1922) and his shorter poems, Omer-Sherman highlighted how Reznikoff believed that Israel was inextricably tied to the diaspora, that the Jewish community could not be dissociated from the wind that had scattered it across the world. Reznikoff’s interest in and use of history invite the reader to question the Jewish ethical tradition as it has to face a new set of questions brought by the creation of the state of Israel. The following presentation by Dara Barnat (Tel Aviv University) examined the connections between Reznikoff, Allen Ginsberg, and Walt Whitman, specifically exploring the Jewish American poetic response to Whitman. Contrary to Ginsberg who expressed enthusiasm for Whitman, Reznikoff initially appeared indifferent. Yet, Whitman’s influence can still be observed in Reznikoff’s work. Reznikoff’s embrace of Whitman was complicated by the cultural climate of the time, where Whitman was often viewed through a political lens. Ginsberg’s adoption of Whitman, on the other hand, was a rejection of the exclusivity of high modernism.

9The next keynote speaker was Norman Finkelstein, American poet and critic who, in his talk entitled Reznikoff and the Rabbis,” connected Reznikoff’s writings with Lionel Trilling’s essay “Wordsworth and the Rabbis” (1950). Trilling’s essay drew parallels between Wordsworth and the rabbis of the Torah. Finkelstein found that these parallels resonated with Reznikoff’s work, as he considered that both Wordsworth and Reznikoff entertained a complicated relationship with the divine. Finkelstein also discussed Trilling’s book Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) and highlighted Reznikoff’s heroic approach to his Jewish heritage. He concluded his talk by emphasizing Reznikoff’s status as a major lyric poet and his ability to speak to his readers on a spiritual level. The discussion following the talk touched on Maurice Samuel’s book The Gentleman and the Jew (1950). Finkelstein also considered rhyming in Reznikoff’s poetry, which the poet resorted to in times of personal crisis.

10The next panel of the day focused on “Translation and Poetic Traditions” and was chaired by Olivier Brossard (Université Gustave Eiffel). Ciro Lubliner (University of Sao Paulo) discussed his translation of Testimony into Brazilian Portuguese. Lubliner explored the significance of the testimony and how Reznikoff’s own translation of legal documents added poetic layers to the text. He argued that testimonies are always related to the empirical and the senses, and that translation is intimately connected to the body, as it brings the voices behind the speeches back to life. Translating violent texts such as Testimony is not a progression toward death, but rather a suffering leading to the creation of a life. Sarug Sarano, Mexican poet and translator, then presented his translation of Testimony into Spanish. He referenced Eliot Weinberger’s belief that Spanish modernism could have used a poet like Reznikoff and discussed the translator’s role. Sarano and Lubliner agreed that Reznikoff himself was performing a form of translation. Sarano examined the differences between the US and Mexico and how they constituted a difficulty for the translator. The challenges of translating derogatory terms and discrepancies in economic development were addressed by Sarano, as well as his use of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and Spanish poet Luis Cernuda as models in his translation.

11The final session of the day was a round table discussion focused on the topic of translation. Abigail Lang (Université Paris-Cité) chaired the round table, which included Swiss writer and translator Eva Antonnikov, French writer and translator Thierry Gillyboeuf, Polish poet and translator Piotr Sommer, and Chilean poet and translator Carlos Soto Román. Eva Antonnikov shared how she first discovered Reznikoff’s poetry in a book store in Washington. Intrigued, she made the decision to translate his very first collection of poems, Rhythms I and Rhythms II. Thierry Gillyboeuf explained that he came across Reznikoff in a book by Serge Fauchereau. Gillyboeuf found Reznikoff’s simplicity to be deceptively challenging to translate, as it was easy to understand yet difficult to put into words. He believed translating Reznikoff was even more challenging than translating E.E. Cummings. Carlos Soto Román discussed the scarcity of American poetry translations in Chile until recent years. He stumbled upon an unauthorized translation of Reznikoff’s work in Argentina. He emphasized how the books one translates become a part of the translator, merging with one’s own poetic style. Piotr Sommer expressed his need to explore other poets and how he initially focused on Northern Irish poets. However, his interest shifted when he discovered Reznikoff’s second “Kaddish,” which had a profound impact on him. Eva Antonnikov emphasized the challenge of preserving the musicality of Reznikoff’s poetry and agreed with Sarug Sarano’s observation that the concise nature of the English language added to the difficulty of translation. Thierry Gillyboeuf highlighted the hidden lyricism in Reznikoff’s poems. Carlos Soto Román recalled his initial intention to consult the original documents Reznikoff used, but ultimately decided that he was more interested in how Reznikoff presented the facts rather than the factual details themselves. Piotr Sommer discussed how Reznikoff’s simplicity could sometimes provide a sense of relief against the complexity of other contemporary poets.

12The day ended with a reading of some of Reznikoff’s poems, as well as personal poems by Dara Barnat, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Fredman, Andrea Inglese, Jena Osman, Ariel Resnikoff, Mark Scroggins, and Frank Smith. The reading took place at the Maison de la Poésie in Paris1.

13The conference began its final day with a panel titled “Objectivist practice” chaired by Xavier Kalck (Université de Lille). Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas (Independent scholar) presented a paper on Reznikoff as a model Objectivist, and mentioned that Zukofsky’s essay on Reznikoff was initially intended for a different publication but was repurposed for the February 1931 issue of Poetry magazine. Although Zukofsky didn’t like the term “Objectivist,” he found it useful for marketing purposes. Zukofsky’s essay had no intention of creating a new -ism, but rather emphasized the difficulty of finding a common ground among all Objectivists. Zukofsky was more interested in finding new possibilities for the future of American poetry, as he wrote during a time where the traditional characteristics of poetry lost their relevancy. Twitchell-Wass concluded his talk by stating that Reznikoff and Zukofsky required different reading strategies, insisting on the irresolvable differences between the two poets. Mark Scroggins (Florida Atlantic University) then warned about the use of the term “Objectivists” and mentioned that while there has been individual critical work done on each Objectivist poet, works on the Objectivists as a group are few. Scroggins announced a group biography of the six figures associated with the term, using the concept of “family resemblance” by Wittgenstein to describe their connection. They share a history but not a poetics. Reznikoff holds a special place within the Objectivist group, as he was seen as a model for the younger poets who found him less intimidating than established figures like Eliot and Ezra Pound. The Objectivists, as shown in their publication history, were more concerned with making their works known rather than developing aesthetic principles. Jacek Partyka (Jagiellonian University) then spoke about the portrayal of animals in Reznikoff’s Testimony. Partyka noted that references to animals constitute the cohesive elements of the thematic diversity of the book. Partyka linked the first poem of Testimony with the trial of Bill Burns, which was the first prosecution brought under the 1822 Martin’s Act to prevent animal abuse. He discussed the historical context of animal protection in the United States and how horses and donkeys are crucial in Reznikoff’s discourse and defence of marginalized individuals. Reznikoff’s Testimony is then a reflection on how interactions with animals were made into signs of American belonging and exclusion. Étienne Garnier (Université d’Angers) discussed how Reznikoff's poetry is often characterized by sincerity and also looked into the notion of simplicity in Reznikoff's poetry. He discussed the simplicity of language and imagery in his work, contrasting it with the complexity found in the poetry of other modernist poets. Garnier focused on the particularization of objects and experiences, which Reznikoff broke down into their simplest forms. He finally explored Reznikoff's use of biblical texts and court documents as sources for his poems, highlighting how he reorganizes and rearranges simple bodies into more complex constructions.

14Following Michael Heller’s inability to attend the conference, Stephen Fredman (University of Notre Dame) agreed to give what should have been the conference’s closing remarks: “The Method of Irreducible Detail: Charles Reznikoff the Historian.” After having been introduced by Naomi Toth (Université Paris Nanterre), Stephen Fredman expressed his gratitude for being part of the conference and mentioned that it felt like a dream. He began working on Reznikoff in the 90s, and highlighted the cultural background that Reznikoff belonged to. Reznikoff symbolized a generation that questioned the possibility of being both American and Jewish. Fredman noted that Reznikoff started as an imagist poet and compared his approach to history with Pound’s, specifically focusing on the method of luminous detail. Unlike Pound, Reznikoff didn’t have an ideological approach but believed that details could illuminate reality. Reznikoff’s exploration of history focused on facts rather than abstract causes.

15The final panel of the conference, “Reception and Legacy,” was chaired by Olivier Hercend (Université Paris Nanterre). Almas Khan (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), delivered her presentation: “African American Experiences and the Poetic Formation of Charles Reznikoff.” Khan argued that the experiences of African Americans influenced Reznikoff’s poetic consciousness, as it reflected his own encounter with antisemitism. She interpreted Reznikoff’s book as an early example of critical legal research and highlighted how he applied objectivist poetics to African American literature, as seen in his early poem about the inability of African Americans to afford tombstones for deceased children. François Hugonnier (Université d’Angers), in his talk titled “Paul Auster’s Reznikoffs,” discussed Reznikoff’s influence on Paul Auster, particularly in Auster’s foundational essay on objectivist poetry. Even though Auster reluctantly talks about any Jewish influence on his writings, he nonetheless cites Jewish poets as influential to his writing, among which Reznikoff. Auster saw Reznikoff as representing the Jewish in-betweenness, and his influence extended to identity, writing, and poetics. Auster used Reznikoff to find his own definition of a writer which eventually allowed him to open up to details and dialogism, something that he was unable to do in his poetry. Joanna Orska (University of Wrocław) gave her talk “Postsocialist Objectivism? Charles Reznioff's Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down in the Former Soviet Bloc Countries After 1989.” She introduced her research on Reznikoff’s reception in Eastern Europe, which was greatly influenced by Cold War politics. The leftist sympathies of American avant-garde poets were undermined by the revolutionaries of Eastern Europe. Similarly Reznikoff’s fidelity to a clarity of statement marginalized him during a time where formalist experiments were considered essential. It was only later that he began to be recognized by later generations of poets. The reception in the Eastern Bloc mirrored the reception of Reznikoff in the US, as the Objectivist poetry did not seem of importance to Slovenian anthologists. Orska also explained the lack of interest for Reznikoff’s poetry in Czechoslovakia because there was still a strong influence of surrealism in the country up to the 70s. Orska noted the Polish reception of Reznikoff which was mainly due to the translations of Piotr Sommer. Seth Murray (University of Rochester) focused on the crowd in Reznikoff’s poetry, drawing on Elias Canetti’s “theory of the crowd.” Murray argued that Reznikoff used walking, reading, and writing as a strategy to disappear, which Murray further connected to Auster’s perception of Reznikoff as a figure in the crowd. Murray also explored László F. Földényi’s ideas in relation to Canetti, notably the idea of the “discharge,” the moment where all differences between individuals disappear. Földényi transforms the discharge into a practice allowing a reconnection with a metaphysical security that has been lost. Murray suggested that Reznikoff’s poems could be seen as a facilitation of discharge and that Auster, by creating his own literary crowd out of a fear of solitude, tried to create the conditions for such a discharge for him and his readers. Ariel Resnikoff (poet, scholar, and translator) shared his personal relationship with his ancestor, Charles Reznikoff, and how the Objectivists influenced his own poetic aspirations. Resnikoff discussed the concept of in-betweenness and the qualities of Reznikoff’s poetry, including its personal, ethical, and historical elements. He also drew parallels between Reznikoff’s relationship with Hebrew and Bertolt Brecht’s estrangement effect, underlining the critical engagement these approaches encourage in readers.

16During the following discussion, Norman Finkelstein emphasized the need for new editions of Reznikoff’s work to bring it back into circulation. As the conference wrapped up, Naomi Toth expressed gratitude to all the participants and highlighted the importance of holding the first Reznikoff conference in France, as he so willingly embraced diasporic identities. The conference itself served as a testament to the ongoing relevance of Reznikoff’s poetry, and to its lasting emotional influence as was stated so often throughout the conference.

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1 A recording of the event is available at

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Étienne Garnier, « International Conference “Charles Reznikoff: Inscriptions (1894-1976)” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Étienne Garnier

Université d’Angers, CIRPaLL

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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