by Charles Reznikoff
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
The title of Charles Reznikoff’s poem “Te Deum” comes from an early Christian hymn of the same name, which is curious, given that Reznikoff was a Jewish poet engaged throughout his career with Jewish identity. What’s not surprising is that this little poem, self-effacing, sweet, and deeply American, was written by a man beloved for all those qualities.
The “Te Deum” hymn is one of praise to God. With its Latin title and rousing “not for this, but for that” structure, the poem has an oratorical feel. It may be overreach to say there’s a faint echo of Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;/ I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”—but surely I’m on solid ground to say that the formal elements surrounding the poem give readers an expectation of grand statements and soaring rhetoric. Reznikoff upends those expectations with language simple and clear, a patchy rhyme scheme and haphazard line length. In a poem about the glories of the ordinary, that’s just. . . so satisfying.
Satisfying is a word I keep coming back to in this poem. Read it out loud. It gives pleasure. Hear that final rhyme, so snug in the last few lines, unforced, inevitable, powerful. Hear the word common, used once in each stanza, and think how the idea of common—a word English aristocracy might once have lobbed as an insult—works in American culture. What we hold in common is foundational and revered, or at least it used to be.
Which brings me a question the poem raises: do we still value a place at the common table? We live in an age where so many scramble for the seat upon the dais—fame and high status in the form of follows on Instagram, hits on TikTok, enviable lifestyles, desirable bodies and faces altered with filters and fillers. And once high status is achieved, exclusivity is the goal, belonging to groups only a blessed few can belong to. Owning limited editions of cars, clothes, purses, jewelry. Belonging to country clubs, living in gated communities, travelling to places reserved for “the discerning traveler” or in a style available only to those with an in. The back room, the penthouse, the private island, the platinum membership, the inner circle. As if our hearts’ desire is to be separate.
It’s a fool’s errand. Our hearts’ desire is not to be separate but to be connected. And that’s what we find at the common table. There we sit side-by-side, not above or below. There we are accepted as we are, there welcomed as an equal among equals. Connection, not separation, is what gives the most joy. Connection is what’s worth seeking and singing about. Te deum laudamus.
Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) was born in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants. He graduated from high school when he was 15, began studying journalism at the University of Missouri at age 16, and after a year, switched to law school at New York University. He was in officer training school during World War I and did not see action.
For a brief time he worked as a hat salesman for the family business, choosing not to practice law so he could save his energy for writing. During the Depression he took a job as a writer and researcher for legal publishing company. The case summaries he wrote became the basis for his most famous work, Testimony, a book-length “found” poem describing life in the United States for immigrants, poor people and black people from 1885-1915. His other long work, Holocaust, also made use of court testimony to tell the story of Jews in death camps.
He married a high school teacher, Marie Syrkin, who later became a distinguished professor at Brandeis and best friend of Golda Meir. Reznikoff himself did not have a distinguished career, and his work didn’t receive much attention during his lifetime. He’s now considered the founder of the Objectivist school of poetry and one of the premier Jewish poets of his day.
He died at age 81 of a heart attack.
To give you an idea of what he was like as a man, here’s a description by Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books.
There was the legend of Reznikoff, the invisible poet, walking twenty miles a day in New York City, writing down his observations in a little notebook, meeting cronies who never knew he was a writer at the Automat, publishing his own books of perfect poems for more than fifty years. A sweet, elderly man who was maddeningly self-deprecating. George and Mary Oppen told me about a reading in Michigan, at the end of which the audience was on its feet, wildly cheering. Rezi, as they called him, was heard to mumble: ‘I hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time.’