There Wouldn’t Be Tragedy Without Poetry to Describe It

Charles Reznikoff

Poems like Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Holocaust (1975) bring back memories that most would rather soon forget.  Similar to poetry designed to bring awareness to the historical plight of African Americans, as its own “separate and self-contained genre”, Holocaust poetry was designed the same way (Vice 1).  However, the difference between African American historical and Holocaust poetry is that the later is meant to serve in addition as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust that killed six million Jews.  This brings me a question many scholars have asked: So should Holocaust even be a respective genre of poetry worth of criticism and veneration?

Sue Vice asserts in her essay entitled “Holocaust Poetry and Testimony” that as a result, Holocaust poetry should most certainly remain its own genre as well as its existence as testimonial accounts of these horrors of “civilized” war (‘Research’, Holocaust).  Another critic, Todd Carmody with the University of Pennsylvania adds that Holocaust was a response to the political controversy surrounding the trial of Holocaust concentration camp organizer, Otto Adolf Eichmann, in his article “The Banality of the Document: Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Ineloquent Empathy” (1).

A photograph of Adolf Eichmann during the trial surrounding his actions in 1961

Not only did Reznikoff’s Holocaust immortalize the dead, but it also serves to “re-present” the depositions that helped bring many of the perpetrators to justice during the Nuremburg trials of 1945 – 1949 and the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.  Vice also explains how most Holocaust poetry is not just simply a way to generically memorialize its victims, but a way for authors like Reznikoff to document the events surrounding the Holocaust first-handed…or extremely close to it.  In fact, Carmody also agrees with Reznikoff’s style of “ ‘recitative’” Holocaust poetry“…Reznikoff’s objectivist approach offers an alternative…to models that often call on us to identify with survivors” as a way of understanding the Holocaust (1).  (The rest of Carmody’s article revers Reznikoff and his treatment of this and other subjects).

Vice explains how the “definitional feature of testimony” within Holocaust has been

Photograph of Holocaust victims

“removed” so that “first-person utterance has been transformed into third-person narrative” which maintains the testimony and makes it more individual, relatable, and affirmable (11).  Additionally, Reznikoff recreates the material for an audience who might not read it otherwise without the involvement of an “overt narrator” bringing more awareness to this horror (11).

Most critics agree with Holocaust remaining a viable subject matter for poetry.  Reznikoff proves that it is not simply the subject matter, but the way in which it is delivered which insights believability of your point of view, recounting what makes an emotion and event yours…forever.

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