David Ignatow 1914-1997
American poet and editor.
Compared to his contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, and W. H. Auden, Ignatow is not a well-known poet, nor has his work been extensively anthologized. However, some critics maintain that he is one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets—an unrivaled chronicler of urban, Jewish, and working life. Ignatow has been compared with Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, both of whom Ignatow acknowledged strongly influenced his writing. The debt to his predecessors notwithstanding, Ignatow has been praised for developing his own personal voice—by turns gruff, insightful, wry, and humorous—which he manipulated to best showcase the subject and meaning of each poem. While his career spanned the establishment of several poetic movements, Ignatow's work defies categorization. His poetry, which is intensely personal, focusing upon his own interpretation of and reaction to an event or situation, appears to have been written in isolation of his peers.
Ignatow was born February 7, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. While his mother was poorly educated, his father enjoyed literature, particularly the works of Russian writers. When Ignatow was a child his father would tell him the stories of writers such as Dostoevsky in a condensed and simplified form that he could understand. However, as the economic depression of the 1930s increasingly threatened his father's bindery business, home life declined. His father pressured Ignatow to quit school, although his mother strongly objected. Finally, after finishing high school and completing one semester at Brooklyn College, Ignatow was forced to quit school and work for his father. However, he kept the position for only a couple of years before securing another, menial, job. Anger at his father, disappointment in his failure to complete school, and the drain of working-class jobs prominently feature in Ignatow's writing. In 1938 the poet married Rose Graubart, a painter, with whom he had two children. While Ignatow's relations with his wife, from whom he was later estranged, and his son, who was institutionalized for mental illness, were strained, Ignatow enjoyed a close relationship with his daughter. Throughout these years Ignatow worked in such jobs as a journalist, messenger, and paper salesman. As late as the 1960s, after the publication of several volumes of poetry, Ignatow was still employed on the weekends as an admitting clerk at a hospital in order to fulfill his financial obligations. With his father's help in funding, Ignatow published his first volume of poetry in 1948, Poems. Although Ignatow served as co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal through the 1950s and worked briefly as poetry editor for the Nation in the early 1960s, he failed to achieve critical or public acclaim. He began teaching at various universities and became an adjunct professor at Columbia University in 1968, becoming senior lecturer in 1977. In 1968 Ignatow also became poet-in-residence and associate professor at York College of the City University of New York, where he became professor emeritus in 1984. Ignatow died November 17, 1997, in New York City. During his career Ignatow earned many prestigious prizes and grants, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the John Steinbeck Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and a Robert Frost Medal.
Common threads run through the more than one dozen books of poetry Ignatow published throughout his career. In general, he concentrates on urban life, on the lives of the working poor, and on the grittiness and violence of modern America. He features timely social issues such as the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the Vietnam War in his poetry. In addition, Ignatow's work is markedly autobiographical and confessional. Often, he writes of his own emotional reaction to a circumstance or event. His numerous poems about family relations, particularly with his father, son, and wife, resonate with guilt and bitterness. Despair marks many poems. However, Ignatow also is known for his wry humor, as demonstrated in pieces such as “Bagel.” Despite these commonalties, Ignatow's work has constantly evolved, as have his beliefs about the role of the poet and the nature of his craft. While Ignatow earlier stated that he rejected the European traditions of T. S. Eliot in favor of the distinctly American voice of William Carlos Williams, in later interviews he professed to see himself as a bridge between the two poets. In later works such as Facing the Tree (1975), Tread the Dark (1978), and Whisper to the Earth (1981), Ignatow increasingly embraces the subject of humanity and nature, moving further from his intensely urban focus. In addition, he adds metaphysical and philosophical components to his later works. Most notable is the greater sense of hope and joy with which he infuses his works beginning with his highly acclaimed collection Rescue the Dead (1968). While scholars have typified Ignatow's work as short poems written in straightforward vernacular language in free verse without formal structure or rhyme, many of his pieces are lengthy and incorporate intricate patterns. His numerous interviews as well as his critically acclaimed Notebooks (1973), reflections on his life and career, provide readers with many insights into the people and events that shaped his life, among them his years working in his father's factory, his troubled family life, and the influences of such sources as the Bible, Russian authors, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.
Acclaim and recognition have been slow to come for Ignatow. Despite frequent appearances in magazines such as Poetry, The New American Review, and The New Yorker, as well as the publication of more than fifteen volumes of poetry, Ignatow never achieved widespread notice, even among scholars. What is more, the reception his work did receive remained mixed throughout his career. Not only has the same poem inspired both hatred and adoration among reviewers, but often a reviewer will give a volume a divided assessment, citing poems that offend and others that are near-perfect. Reviews of Ignatow's first volumes of poetry centered on the stark vernacular, the troubled tone of the sometimes violent subject matter, and the intensely personal voice. Some critics were offended by Ignatow's matter-of-fact style as well as what they deemed distasteful subjects. Others praised Ignatow for tackling such important topics in an insightful and truthful manner, immediately noting the influence of William Carlos Williams. Williams himself gave Ignatow's first volume of poetry a positive review in 1948. Scholars concur that Rescue the Dead marked a turning point in Ignatow's career and represents some of his best poetry. Indeed, many critics maintain that pieces such as the title poem represent some of the greatest poetry of the era. By the conclusion of his life in the late 1990s, Ignatow had earned praise for his unique voice, his insightful and truthful look at modern, urban America, and his personal, unflinching examinations of family relations, suicide, and social change.
The Gentle Weight Lifter 1955
Say Pardon 1961
Figures of the Human 1964
Rescue the Dead 1968
Earth Hard: Selected Poems 1968
Poems, 1934-1969 1970
Facing the Tree: New Poems 1975
Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly, 1975
The Animal in the Bush: Poems on Poetry 1977
Tread the Dark 1978
Sunlight: A Sequence for My Daughter 1979
Open Between Us, edited by Ralph J. Mills, 1980
Whisper to the Earth 1981
Leaving the Door Open 1984
New and Collected Poems, 1970-1985 1987
Shadowing the Ground 1991
Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994 1993
Night Drawings: Poems 1995
I Have a Name 1996
Gleanings: Uncollected Poems, 1950s and 1960s 1997
Living is What I Wanted: Last Poems 2000
The Notebooks of David Ignatow 1973
The One in the Many: A Poet's Memoirs 1988
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SOURCE: “Three Poets,” in Commentary, Vol. 8, June, 1949, pp. 611-12.
[In the following excerpt, Weiss remarks on Poems, noting Ignatow's concern with the lives of the urban working class.]
If last is the position of honor in an omnibus review, then it belongs to David Ignatow. That he is a poet at all is a modest but encouraging testament to the resiliency of the poet in a difficult place and time. He lives honestly at the bottom of a world and manages to make poetry out of it. But it is a healthy bottom, far below fakery and the “literary world”; and though it has been said of Ignatow that he is the kind of poet who may confuse art with artifice, we'll take the chance. He is a poet the hard way, whose considerable spiritual sweat in the tenements and on the streets of the East Side actually shows through the work, giving it an honest rugged stink that we would recognize as genuine anywhere. While our mainstream of poets has been graduating from Harvard, Oxford, and Vanderbilt University—teaching literature, defining culture—Ignatow has been at work with not much more than himself, the East Side, and the prosody of Whitman. Within these limitations, and they are severe, he has achieved a decent colloquial simplicity. Living among the cultural proletariat he confronts the wild gargoyle, himself, in the mirror.
My neighbor growls...
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SOURCE: “Lives of the Poets,” in Poetry, Vol. 98, No. 4, July, 1961, pp. 247-48.
[In the following excerpt, Mills offers a favorable review of Say Pardon, stating that Ignatow offers a mature, personal verse.]
… Mr. Ignatow's Say Pardon is the best of these books if one thinks of the uniform quality of the work: the singularity of the poet's speech and the fulfillment of his themes within its bounds. This is his third collection, which certainly accounts in part for the settled quality of the tone and style. And that tone and style, as well as the material of the poems, appear to be such that we can guess Mr. Ignatow will be content to explore them further, eliciting from their limited circumference all that his sensibilities and humanity can uncover. Like Mr. Dugan, this writer composes a small but tolerable space for himself in the urban world by setting against the monolithic nature of that world the private values of his own speech. His poem Whistle or Hoot states this activity and its meaning metaphorically:
The bird that sings to itself is never a lonely or a frightened bird; though if before it were silent, darting its head for worms or worrisome matters, now that it sings to itself it triumphs, whistle or hoot.
Poetry, in our “civilized” circumstances, is singing to oneself, is in fact a way of survival. Mr. Ignatow's poems display,...
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SOURCE: “A Plain Brave Music,” in Chelsea, No. 12, September, 1962, pp. 135-39.
[In the following essay, Wright describes the language from Ignatow's first three collections as pure and powerful.]
The poetry of David Ignatow has so far appeared in three books: Poems (The Decker Press, Prairie City, Ill., 1948), The Gentle Weight Lifter (Morris Gallery, 1955), and Say Pardon (Wesleyan University Press, 1961). A number of periodicals have also printed his work; but it was not until quite recently, I believe, that his work began to receive the critical attention that it deserves. I suppose the first of his volumes is out of print by now. But by good luck I have found a copy, and I have been reading it with delight.
The book contains a remarkable introduction by Milton Hindus. He points out the strength of Mr. Ignatow's imagination and the courage which nourishes that strength; the “organic” form of the poems that “have emerged in shapes a little more natural and crude than those of artificial, hothouse growths”; and the poet's kinship with Whitman. It is fascinating to observe that the relation to Whitman is not merely a matter of artificial influence or the mentioning of a name. Mr. Hindus says that “real poems such as these should need no introduction—they are their own best introduction.” It is true. Whitman once said the same of himself and his...
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SOURCE: “Time and Money: The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in The University Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1968, pp. 211-13.
[In the following essay, Contoski traces images of money in Ignatow's poetry, presenting it in terms of the poet's cosmology.]
Europeans know an American saying that summarizes our country for many of them: time is money. They may not know the saying in English, but it is readily translatable into any language and remains one of America's chief contributions to the culture of the world. David Ignatow, perhaps because he is a businessman himself, is particularly sensitive to the role of money in our society, and his treatment of money makes him one of the most American poets of our time.
In one of his poems he sets the reader in a long line of people that do nothing but pass money, a dollar bill to be exact, from one person to the next. The title is appropriately “For One Moment.”
You take the dollar and hand it to the fellow beside you who turns and gives it to the next one down the line.
The world is round, and the line extends over oceans and mountains like a belt around the earth. Like people in lines everywhere, these people wait, and while they wait there is no real communication between them. Eventually the dollar comes back (not a dollar, but the dollar), but by the time it does, the reader's...
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SOURCE: “The Work of David Ignatow,” in Sixties, No. 10, Summer, 1968, pp. 10-23.
[In the following essay, Crunk chronicles Ignatow's career, revealing ways in which his poetry has changed and improved.]
We expect a poet to take pleasure with his words, as he would with his own hands and body. His body shapes the words, until the style of his poem has become the style of the pleasure he takes with himself. David Ignatow takes few pleasures with himself. His poems describe a world of unresponsive faces and emotions. In place of people, guilt; in place of light, brick tenements, and a wall. Ignatow hammers against the wall flatly, undramatically. Yet he carries odd shaped stones out of his inner life, and piles them in place. The wall has no style, and the poet hates it. But he takes an odd comfort in knowing it is there. As Kierkegaard noted in his Journal: how much better it is to stand at the foot of a wall, devising strategies, even hopeless ones, to overcome it, than to wrestle with the pale phantoms drawn out of one's own sleepless disposition.
Until several years ago, Ignatow's poetry was known to only a few people. He had published several volumes with small presses in New York. But his work made little impression during the 1950's, and the books were quickly forgotten. Those who knew the poems were repelled by their flat rhythms, and by a language of personal suffering which...
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SOURCE: “Nothing Hidden,” in The Nation, Vol. 210, 1970, pp. 470, 472-73.
[In the following review of Poems, 1934-1969, Mills praises Ignatow for revealing his most personal insights and exhibiting tremendous honesty.]
“The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts,” William Carlos Williams once observed. This impressive gathering of thirty-five years of David Ignatow's poems bears out Williams' remark. The important terms—“human value,” “intense vision” and “facts”—are descriptive of the kind of poetry Ignatow has produced so consistently, and too frequently without the recognition won by some of his more celebrated contemporaries.
Nothing is so impressive at first glance about Ignatow's writing—and there are included in the present volume, chronologically arranged, many previously uncollected and unpublished poems—as the unity it possesses, a unity which derives from the emergence of a singular voice, an identifiable poetic personality. One detects changes in this voice and personality; these are the result of deepening experience, mature reflectiveness and the increasing development of imaginative and technical powers. But from the start Ignatow has endowed his work with the indefinable, absolutely unmistakable signature of his own being—the consequence of putting the burden of the self completely on the line...
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SOURCE: “Circumscriptions: The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 164-86.
[In the following essay, Mazzaro theorizes on the impact of brevity and common place subject matter in Ignatow's critical appeal.]
David Ignatow began his poetic career announcing that he was “a man with a small song,” and the years since Poems (1948) have seen him extend the ranges of his poetry but never the magnitude of any single work. His individual poems are all “small songs,” and it is as a totality that they amount to something approaching a major voice. Randall Jarrell's remark in a review of The Gentle Weight Lifter (1955) that “one reads the poems with a mild blurred feeling of seeing them and not seeing them, a clear daze like water or late evening air” is especially apt. One is never sure whether one is reading a new poem or re-reading an old one, and it does not make a difference. Ignatow is a poet of and about habit, and daily recurrence rather than the intensity of what he chooses to celebrate, is important. In this focus on common recurrence, he resembles William Carlos Williams, who achieved a reputation and wide recognition only after he had published a large quantity of work and his audience had undergone a change in sensibility, and Jarrell's main objection to Ignatow's poetry is substantially not that different from the objection R. P....
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SOURCE: “David Ignatow: A Dialogue with William Spanos,” in Boundary 2, Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 443-81.
[In the following interview, Ignatow discusses New Criticism, the popularity of his poetry, and the relationship of his writing to other poets.]
Mr. Ignatow, you've been writing good poetry—a small number would even say major poetry—since the 1930's, but you have begun to achieve the recognition you deserve only in the last few years. To what do you attribute—what shall I call it?—this “failure” of sympathy? Were you writing a kind of poetry that ran against the imaginative grain of your generation? I'm thinking, of course, of the work of poets like Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell.
Against the imaginative grain of my generation is a good way to put it. Your question, according to the names you list, refers to the period, about 1940 through the 50's when the school of New Criticism and its followers, most of those you name, were in ascendance. They had totally rejected Walt Whitman, my main influence. Just previous to that period, the 30's, we had the proletarian school of writing, hard core ideologues, who were setting the style. I didn't belong to that school either. Its sloganeering was so unreal in relation to how people actually lived and thought. Standing in...
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SOURCE: “A Man with a Small Song,” in Parnassus, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1975, pp. 211-22.
[In the following excerpt, Lavenstein finds fault with Ignatow's writing in Facing the Tree, Selected Poems, and The Notebooks of David Ignatow, accusing the poet of “intellectual slackness.”]
Over thirty years ago David Ignatow proclaimed himself “a man with a small song.” Now, many years and several books of poetry later, it remains a slogan of accurate description, a motto of modesty which, even as a banner (and how our poets love them), bespeaks a man nervous and uncertain, worried about the dynamics of lyric rather than length, asking finally to be judged gently by individual acts of poetic effort and their inevitable by-product, sheer accumulation. And so for several decades David Ignatow has tenaciously continued to sing, building up that storehouse of songs which every poet hopes will rescue his single works from the relative obscurity of improbably titled magazines like Shankpainter Ten, Mouth, and Unmuzzled Ox. Several collections of Ignatow's work, and particularly the substantial volume with the tersely informative rubric Poems: 1934-1969, have helped to rescue his reputation from the icy fringes of literary disregard and to make him if not a commanding presence, certainly a recognizable landmark in an often bewilderingly amorphous landscape.
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 289-97.
[In the following essay, Mazzaro examines the philosophical underpinnings of Ignatow's poetry.]
Goethe's view of style as resting “on the deepest fundamental ground of knowledge, on the essence of things,”1 and the discovery of this essence in a connaturality of reality and subjectivity lie behind Robert Bly's choices for The Selected Poems of David Ignatow. The decisions have been, in Bly's case, further transmogrified by the writings of Carl Jung, who makes no effort to hide the influence of Goethe and German Romanticism on his thinking. Thus, one of America's classic city poets is cast into a role similar to that which Martin Heidegger defines for Friedrich Hölderlin—the poet as mediator of logos (word) and physis (thing). Facing the Tree, Ignatow's newest collection of poems, strengthens this concept of poet as mediator and, given the influence of Goethe on the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emerson's part in shaping American poetics, a reader can begin to see some justification in connecting Ignatow and Hölderlin. Indeed, Joseph N. Riddel's The Inverted Bell (1974) puts Ignatow's mentor, William Carlos Williams, squarely in the “Hölderlin tradition” by making the pronunciamento “no ideas but in...
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SOURCE: “Earth Hard: David Ignatow's Poetry,” in Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 67-133.
[In the following excerpt, Mills examines the issues that underlie Ignatow's writing as well as the method by which the poet achieves his impact.]
Earth hard to my heels bear me up like a child …
Multitude, solitude: identical terms and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet.
David Ignatow is a latecomer, a dark horse in contemporary American poetry, chiefly because he was never recognized—nor did he think of himself—as a member of the poetic generation to which he properly belongs by age—that is, the generation which includes, among others, Lowell, Berryman, Nims, Schwartz, and Shapiro. He has written steadily in isolation and independence for several decades. His earliest books, Poems (1948) and The Gentle Weight Lifter (1955), were published by small presses, one of them a New York art gallery. Only with the appearance of three successive volumes in the Wesleyan Poetry series, beginning with Say Pardon (1961) and culminating recently in a fourth, comprehensive collection of Poems 1934-1969 (1970), has Ignatow's work become generally known for its remarkable imaginative and stylistic accomplishment, and then...
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SOURCE: “Four American Poets,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 359-61.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient suggests that the success of selected poems in Facing the Tree indicate the quality that Ignatow might achieve.]
David Ignatow … began where Philip Levine began and has remained there, outside the great unities. The son of an immigrant Jew, he decided early that he would “never be able wholly to identify” himself with the country; and since his “business and family life” have proved a “tragic course,” as he painfully and repetitively observes in his Notebooks, he has concluded that “we stand alone … and everything is from bad to worse,” much though “the world is a long roar of activity, contradicting our despair and listlessness.”
There is anyway “no unity in life when one feels oneself drifting out of it, slowly being set apart by life itself.” Perhaps, then, in death … Death alone reduces the poet, now in his sixties, to lyricism. He walks upon and studies dirt and stone as his “next brothers and sisters.” And he falls asleep “as it were a poem / being written / to resolve my cares / into a final solution / and as my eyes close / and silence spreads itself / inside me like a wave / I know I am succeeding, / and in sleep rejoice.”
Yet Ignatow's manner still has much of the hardness...
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SOURCE: “David Ignatow's Post-Vietnam War Poetry,” in Centennial Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 219-27.
[In the following essay, Mazzaro urges readers to see Ignatow's anti-war poetry as part of a larger world view.]
Audiences are likely to view David Ignatow's work in terms of Rescue the Dead (1968) and his various protests against America's involvement in Vietnam. The view is understandable, given the nearness of the volume's publication to Ignatow's appearance on the national scene and the liberal and anti-Vietnam War tones of the book and Ignatow's verse during the late sixties and early seventies. But the view wrongly fits Ignatow's contribution to a particular moment in history at the expense of earlier and ongoing concerns. Siding with underdogs, Ignatow has consistently shown a “decency of character” which, as James Wright notes, carries his work “beyond personal lyricism.”
Ignatow's persistent view of history as a dialectic of man and woman, worker and employer, son and father, and love and war has, in addition, set a regular pattern to the poems, prompting as much as reflecting their particular Vietnam War experiences. Soldiers and the misplaced insistences of government evoke peaceniks and popular resistance, and in “All Quiet,” a decision to stop bombing North Vietnam without consulting the American public unleashes the “public”...
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SOURCE: “David Ignatow: Three Appreciations,” in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 35-37.
[In the following excerpt, Wakoski extols Ignatow's contribution to a uniquely American style of poetry.]
Williams said that David Ignatow is “a first-rate poet … to whom language is like his skin.” I would add that David Ignatow is a first-rate poet whose work represents what is most American in 20th century poetry and whose work, like Williams', uses an American rather than a neo-European or “new-England” language.
It continues to be a disease in this country to worship those things European and English as more cultured, more sophisticated, more beautiful. It is particularly a disease our critics have had, and keeps them floundering over what they continue to refer to as the “sloppiness” of Ginsberg's language, or seeing a certain use of old-fashioned prosody as the embodiment of great craft. It is continuation of the 19th century feeling that Longfellow's historical, patronizing, and colonialist poem, “Song of Hiawatha,” was a great piece of writing, whereas Whitman's “Song of Myself” was simply self-indulgent, overblown writing.
There are times when I feel that even during my own lifetime we have come a long way. A girl no longer has to have an illegitimate child if she gets pregnant when she is 15, nor do a couple have to face total...
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SOURCE: “David Ignatow: Three Appreciations,” in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 37-41.
[In the following excerpt, Wagner argues that Ignatow creates a personal bond with his readers that gives his works greater resonance.]
Taking our cue from Ignatow's poems themselves, I would like to stress that—much as we love the poet—our attention falls on the words, the lines, the open and yet always coercive form of Ignatow's poems. Those poems give us insight, direction; they express the anger and the joy of living; and they also provide a map for our own voyage of discovery. From “Stages,” “I am somewhere left behind in a dream / that did not end with my awakening / to what I do not own. With music and drums / I awoke. …” And “A man confronted by masks / begins to maneuver / out of their reach.” Such a triad describes so well the impetus for poetry (to find the self, the assorted selves, and to move them out of reach of all confinement), and as Ignatow says in “Say Pardon”:
Say pardon and follow your own will in the open spaces ahead.
For running through these decades of Ignatow poems is the sense, the spirit, of openness. It seems no matter of chance that David's forthcoming collection is to be called Leaving the Door Open. Part of the openness is the urge of the speaker, the poet, to make contact (and one thinks of Williams'...
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SOURCE: “The Very Few Faces of God,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, March, 1987, p. 18.
[In the following review, Carruth remarks favorably on the poetry collected in New and Selected Poems, 1970-1985.]
“The soldier is convinced that a certain interval of time, capable of being indefinitely prolonged, will be allowed him before the bullet finds him, the thief before he is caught, men in general before they have to die. This is the amulet which preserves people—and sometimes peoples—not from danger but from the fear of danger, which in certain cases allows them to brave it without actually needing to be brave.” This wisdom from the world before apocalypse was written by Marcel Proust.
Poetry is “braving it.” It is one among the many ways. If it have peculiar virtue, this must be its music, by which one does not at all mean its mellifluous syllables but its mythifying imagery that orchestrates the complications of existence and concentrates them. Existence as such is grotesque. It is noise. It is alien. George Gershwin, that light-hearted, light-minded man in the best sense, said: “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.” The last poem in David Ignatow's book is called “The Image”:
The image in the mirror feels nothing towards him, though it is his image. He weeps, and it weeps with him, but is merely the sign of his...
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SOURCE: “An Interview with David Ignatow,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 143-62.
[In the following interview, Ignatow discusses the influence on his writings of various poets including Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.]
Why does Whitman play such a large part in your poetry, especially in your earlier work?
Whitman has never ceased playing a large role in my poems. One has only to read the more recent book, Tread the Dark, published in 1978, to recognize how importantly I take him and his work and ideas. Also, it seems to me that my mode of direct presentation openly arrived at, that is, letting the incident speak for itself in the rhythms, cadences, and idiom of its occasion, which most often is of the language of ordinary speech, derives from Whitman. I can say that this mode characterizes all of my poems. In other words, like Whitman and Williams, I keep to the ordinary things in life, the known, universal experiences and relate them in the language as people experience them but in a light that is strictly my own. The theory is that—like Whitman, who perhaps deceived himself about his hopes—the poet should communicate with the people whose experiences he represents in his unique vision of them but in a language that will convince...
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SOURCE: “David Ignatow and the Dark City,” in American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Harper & Row, 1990, pp. 87-100.
[In the following excerpt, Bly examines the themes that have typified Ignatow's work.]
David Ignatow has broken free of a naïveté so typical of American poets. Whitman is his master, along with William Carlos Williams, but he sees that Whitman's insistence that we are all brothers, and friends, or should be, will lead directly to murder and insanity.
Let us be friends, said Walt … and cemeteries were laid out miles in all directions to fill the plots with the old and young, dead of murder, disease, rape, hatred, heartbreak and insanity …
To feel powerful and alive, we may want to hurt someone, or have evidence that our society is hurting someone in our behalf.
How come nobody is being bombed today? I want to know, being a citizen of this country and a family man. You can't take my fate in your hands, without informing me. I can blow up a bomb or crush a skull— whoever started this peace without advising me through a news leak at which I could have voiced a protest, running my whole family off a cliff.
We are in the hands of a dangerous person when we read Ignatow—dangerous to that hopefulness and guilelessness hidden in us. He pulls out a knife, and we soon feel that the part...
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SOURCE: “Jangling & Gritty,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 16, No. 5, December, 1994, p. 23.
[In the following review of Against the Evidence, Buttel praises Ignatow's voice, which Buttel argues depicts the reality of American urban life with gruffness and insight.]
In a photo on the front cover of Against the Evidence, David Ignatow stares out sternly at potential readers, as if to warn off those desiring to find ingratiating poems characterized by lyrical grace or elaborate design. In “Hello,” a brash broadside, he satirizes such poetry, ridiculing the presentation of a national award to a prominent poet for the perfect form of his poems: “Hello, drug addict, can you become a poem of perfect form? / “Hello, Mafia, can you become a poem of perfect form?”—and so on, referring at one point to “those bastards outside / who want to disturb us with their imperfect poems.” Clearly Ignatow considers himself to be one of those outsider bastards, on the ready to violate conventional standards and sensibilities whenever they threaten to stand in the way of his view of the world and his means of expression. This is not to say his only role is that of cranky curmudgeon, but that role gives him the elbow room to accomplish his various aims.
Coming to maturity in the thirties and publishing his first poems in that decade, Ignatow opened his poems to whatever...
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SOURCE: “Eastward Ho!,” in New England Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 198-99.
[In the following excerpt, Slavitt reviews Against the Evidence, finding some of the works sentimental and flat but a few flawless.]
… I wanted to close with a few pleasant words about David Ignatow's book [Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994] which represents most of a lifetime's work in poetry. Here and there, I was able to find some fine small poems, like this one.
In place of you the moon is a presence in my room I must turn my back on to sleep in the dark.
What more could one want? Well, in a book of this length and extending back more years than I do, myself … something substantial. Beyond the well turned phrase or even the whole poem, one wants the authority of a secure voice, the wisdom of a lifetime or else the appearance of wisdom that craft can suggest. Over and over again, though, he demonstrates that he hasn't the vaguest idea what he's doing. Great windy abstractions, flat statement, earnestness that isn't meant to be funny but which cracks me up.
When I see fish swimming in schools I'm very sad that we must stay apart …
I am gone by the second line, and the fairly limp third one doesn't retrieve my admittedly flighty attention. Richard Eberhart's poetry...
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SOURCE: Review of Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994, in Poet, Vol. CLXV, No. 4, January, 1995, pp. 219-21.
[In the following excerpt, Wojahn reviews Against the Evidence, which, he argues, is primarily about money, family, and mortality.]
Since David Ignatow began publishing in the early 1930's, his career has spanned ten presidential administrations, and four wars. He has witnessed the waxing and waning of literary modernism, and has come to enjoy the status of Grand Old Man. With the exception of Stanley Kunitz, no prominent American poet of today has been gifted with such a long career; but Ignatow's longevity seems not to have tempted him to play the role of wearisome cultural custodian in the manner of many other Grand Old Men. He possesses none of the later Frost's hectoring Cold-Warrior conservatism, and none of the aged Sandburg's treacly populism; Ignatow plays the Grand Old Man only so far as to congratulate himself for his sturdiness, his plain-spoken dependability. His odometer has turned over several times, but he still runs surprisingly well. And what other American poet has explored the possibilities of the plain style with Ignatow's tenacity?
Against the Evidence gathers work from seven decades, work notable less for its development than for its tough-minded consistency, for the relentlessness in which Ignatow reiterates his pet themes....
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SOURCE: Review of I Have a Name, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 72, Spring, 1998, pp. 169-70.
[In the following review, Pacernick contends that the poems in I Have a Name contain the best elements of Ignatow's earlier work as well as a greater sense of acceptance and maturity.]
In Cry of the Human, his remarkable collection of essays about contemporary American poets, Ralph J. Mills, Jr. takes the book's title and epigraph from a passage of David Ignatow's poetry: “… to be alone, to eat and sleep alone, to adventure alone: cry of the human …” In his long introductory essay, Mills writes “the contemporary poet recreates himself as a personality, an identifiable self within his poetry …” I have always felt close to the imaginary person at the center of David Ignatow's poetry, who speaks with an unmistakable voice that has remained constant for over sixty years.
In his most renowned book, Rescue the Dead, of 1968, Ignatow confronted the country's turmoil and his own in a voice that sounded as I imagined my father's voice would if he wrote poetry instead of sold insurance door to door from early morning until late at night. It was the poetry of a man who lived, worked, and suffered among common people and drew upon that experience for his art.
The voice of Rescue the Dead was clear to the point of clairvoyance, yet also deep in a...
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Ignatow, David. “The Beginning.” In American Poets in 1976, pp. 130-42. Edited by William Heyen. Indianapolis, Ind. Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1976.
Chronicles Ignatow's struggles and desire to become a poet despite family circumstances.
———. “Living with Change.” In Literature & the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, pp. 193-208. Edited by Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981.
Recounts incidents in Ignatow's life pertaining to race, teaching, and writing.
Lewis, Joel. “Souvenirs from a Zeitgeist.” American Book Review 12, No. 4 (September, 1990): 14.
A review of Ignatow's memoirs The One in the Many.
Chawla, Louise. “Reconciliation: David Ignatow.” In In the First Country of Places: Nature, Poetry, and Childhood Memory, pp. 85-103. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Traces Ignatow's changing views on nature in his writing.
Duemer, Joseph. “To Make the Visible World Your Conscience.” New England Review 14, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 268-86.
Compares Adrienne Rich's Time's Power and Ignatow's Shadowing the Ground.
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