Ignatow, David 1914–
Ignatow, a poet of urban America—that is, of New York City—is usually compared with William Carlos Williams. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
David Ignatow's poems [in The Gentle Weight Lifter] are quiet, observant, matter-of-fact comments on ordinary urban life—or, more surprisingly, on Oedipus and Odysseus and Bathsheba and such—made by a man who seems individually sensitive and morally imaginative yet also, in a rather favorable sense, the man in the street. William Carlos Williams calls him "a first-rate poet … to whom language is like his skin," but really he's an unratable poet to whom language is like William Carlos Williams' skin. His methods are simple Williams, and his language—not at all rhetorical, close to an easy natural prose, but not prosaic—is that of a loving disciple. His temperament, unfortunately, lacks the heights and depths of Williams'. One respects and likes this poet, but 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; one isn't sure, sometimes, whether one is reading a new poem or rereading an old—one isn't even sure that one cares. The poems are sand that has almost been fused into glass; one feels, always, the lack of some last heat or pressure, concentration and individualization, that would have turned a photograph into a painting, a just observation into a poem. There is something humble and matter-of-course about the poems' methods: they are content, always, with an honest penny; and after a while the reader sees, rather in dismay, that it's bills he's interested in…. [David Ignatow writes] humane, unaffected, and unexciting poetry…. (pp. 123-24)
Randall Jarrell, in The Yale Review (© 1955 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1955.
[In The Gentle Weight Lifter Ignatow] uses myth for commentary in one set of poems, another set is all urban contemporary in its pictures and portraits. The poems have also a curious, yet seemingly natural, resemblance to Oriental verse; Oriental cum moral. There is nothing ingratiating about his style; it is stripped and clipped for observation uncompromised by a harsh wit. The mood is tight-lipped and dour. The effectiveness of the poetry is in its concentration. (p. 55)
Winfield Townley Scott, in Poetry (© 1955 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1955.
David Ignatow has for years been refining and strengthening his modest, muted style until one is not aware of it as technique—it is a transparent medium. He deals almost always with deeply personal concerns. Especially in the poems which I take to be the most recent [in Say Pardon],… he reveals himself as essentially a religious poet, one whose dominant underlying preoccupation is with the relations of God and man. The skeptic and pragmatist in him are inextricably linked with the longing for God in a way that is typically (though not, of course, exclusively) Jewish. God is questioned, berated, pleaded with here as in the Bible, although in rhythms and in a vocabulary in no way Biblical. (p. 417)
Ignatow's poems grow right out of the American concrete like ginkgo and ailanthus trees. They are beautifully localized, not by applied touches of local color (and very few of them are even "about" New York—but they are of New York) but because they are written with a proud, simple refusal of whatever is not "proven on his pulses." One sees that he took up the challenge of an "ordinary," a somewhat drab, life and resolved to make his poetry out of that or not at all…. There is an excitement that grows on one in his sober truthfulness and the beautiful simplicity of his language and its rhythms. One may apply to his work these words of Cid Corman's, which I cherish (they are taken from an unpublished radio talk on poetry): "Not experience thrown as a personal problem on others but experience as an order that will sing to others." (pp. 417-18)
Denise Levertov, in The Nation (copyright 1961 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 13, 1961.
The world of David Ignatow's poetry is remarkable for the particularity of its detail. His attitude toward his art is summed up in "The Escapade," which must inevitably be quoted in discussing [Say Pardon]:
Poet and gangster reach in the dark,
blind flashes reveal them.
The dead collapse and the living scatter
for cover. Alone now, they think the street
is theirs and swiftly make their getaway,
in the left hand the haul….
The idea of a poem as loot is particularly appropriate when applied to Ignatow's work, and it does not necessarily involve flirtation with the figure of the poète maudit. His poetry is grabbed from the everyday, particularly from the urban everyday, and from dream or fantasy. Such is the abruptness, the completeness of his snatch—as if he were scooping up the white and yolk of a broken egg in one swift movement—that the poems of fantasy are as clearly realized as his poems of fact.
In the simplicity of his language and the sureness of his movement he is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, who in fact shares half the book's dedication. Now imitators of Williams are two a penny these days, and practically all imitate him at his most slapdash and indefensible. And yet he is one of the few poets of this century from whom there are still useful lessons to be learned: the lessons of how to find value in the actual and ordinary, of how to speak of it with lucidity, and of how to present it as one unhurried but continuous act of perception. Ignatow is the only poet I have come across who has absorbed these lessons, and the last of them is the one he has learnt the best. His poems are accurate records undelayed by any elements outside of the original perception. His perception is careful and modest, and his control over the movements prevents the language from becoming flat. (pp. 593-94)
Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1961 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1961.
Mr. Ignatow's poems [in Say Pardon] display, without exception, a simplicity of language and an irregular prosiness of rhythm that are very much in keeping with the raw stuff of his art—which consists mostly of the happenings, the relationships, the people met in the course of a routine life in the city. Later poems in the book take up religious and moral themes in a vein of gentle Jewish wisdom that make them seem abbreviated counterparts to Bernard Malamud's stories….
[If, like William Carlos Williams,] Mr. Ignatow is attached to the ordinary and the small, and to a compressed poetry of understatement he creates from this material, the resemblance to Williams halts with these few parallel characteristics. Mr. Ignatow is very much his own poet. He has the peculiar capacity to turn his reflections on some portion of his working-day experience … into a short poetic fable …, [in which the] cumulative effect of the poet's thought and techniques places [a] seemingly trivial human movement at the edge of the universal, where it hints at the patterns in all our lives. Almost every one of Mr. Ignatow's pieces manages to make its poetry from the apparently dull and prosaic, the commonest emotions, the obvious vices and pieties. It is a measure of his talent and imagination that he can continue to work in the restricted but difficult region he has chosen, avoiding the pitfalls of the banal and achieving the victories he pursues. (p. 248)
Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Poetry (© 1961 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1961.
Ignatow is a nature poet who writes about the jungle of the city where rape and murder are the flora and fauna. Violence strikes at street corners and in narrow, dark alleys. Instead of peasants prancing on the grass winos and hopheads roll on pavements; the atmosphere is redolent of their urinary release in moments of escape from a world that is too much with them. For Ignatow metaphor cuts through to reality, and, indeed, the knife is the chief symbol of his dramatic gestures. The old poems in Figures of the Human … have fleeting touches of sympathy; the new ones are almost invariably savage in tone. (p. 47)
Robert D. Spector, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1965.
The longest new poem in [Figures of the Human] is twenty-five lines; the average is about ten. This is the chief "fault" I find in them, although one can scarcely call it a fault in the usual sense since it is what Ignatow has consciously chosen and he performs splendidly within these limits…. In reading Ignatow's tiny poems I often have the impression that they are static, that they lack the dynamic inner relationships which we believe necessary to art; yet when I examine them closely to see what part is missing—beginning, middle, or end—I find I cannot make up my mind. Perhaps they are complete in embryo; or, as Ignatow would no doubt prefer to say, in essence. Perhaps the problem lies less in esthetics than in psychology: a poem that ends just when the reader is beginning to get interested obviously will produce a certain abruptness of effect, and I don't think that going back over the poem again, even a dozen times, will make up for this foreshortening. There are other limits in Ignatow's work as well, limits of theme and attitude. He is an urban poet who writes almost exclusively of the cruelty, filth, and insanity of city life; his poems are bitter and shocking; even his love poems occur in this context and, in a sense, are vitiated by it; you might say that a large part of their meaning lies precisely in this vitiation. Within his limits Ignatow writes beautifully. In spite of all the pessimistic urban poetry we have had in recent decades, I think none hits so consistently at the most vulnerable part of our sensibility. This is not because it is shocking—after all, shock wears off quickly—but because Ignatow's feeling is perfectly genuine and perfectly his own. I have no question about his ability, but only about his future: how long can a creative instinct survive on these miniature emblems of disgust? (pp. 134-35)
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1965 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1965.
Characteristically slangy in diction and familiar in material, [the poems in Say Pardon] are nevertheless often carefully phrased and structured, and frequently illuminate the ordinary with flashes of insight. The structure, however, too often depends upon an obvious turn or reversal at the end, which at first pleases by surprises, but then becomes mechanical by repetition. (p. 63)
Ignatow goes predictably from situation to meaning; sometimes he presents a surrealistic picture throughout; and sometimes he simply embodies a completely literal situation…. Either way, however, literal or symbolic, there is a curious lack of penetration, and most poems stop just short of their promise, or they reach but disappoint it…. I have said that Dickey's poems often don't end soon enough, and I might say here that Ignatow's end too soon…. (p. 64)
Figures of the Human (1964) … is actually derived from three sources: new poems, selections from his Poems of 1948, and selections from The Gentle Weight Lifter of 1955. The new poems are much like those in Say Pardon, but there is a gain in precision and insight, and one or two of them show a redeeming power of word-music and verbal rhythm to contrast with the general level of flatness. (p. 65)
The Gentle Weight Lifter is … an agreeable surprise. It is full of exciting things, and seems, for its chronological position, to be a happy sport in the curve of Ignatow's career. There is more variety and grace and penetration here than in any of his other groups, and yet it comes somewhere in the middle. There was, apparently, a tremendous growth between 1948 and 1955, and then a leveling off in 1961 and 1964. (p. 66)
It is in [The Gentle Weight Lifter] that Ignatow demonstrates what apocalypses the casual style can achieve, and it is this work that redeems the songless and passionless laxness of much of his other poetry. (p. 67)
Norman Friedman, "The Wesleyan Poets—III," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1965 by Chicago Review), Vol. 19, No. 2, 1967, pp. 52-73.
[Ignatow's] poems are short and to the point, like business letters. He avoids rhetorical figures and words that might be construed as "poetic." His best poems present a whirlwind sequence of events with no overt emotional comment….
At worst his poems have a flatness of diction and a forced violence, although even the bad poems have the merit of being short and not exhausting the reader's patience.
But the poet himself has little patience. He sees the terrible waste of business and the violence of people cut off from the social order; yet he offers few alternatives. He sees everything from the point of view of eternity, a mysterious eternity that offers him no consolation for his sufferings. (p. 212)
Even when God talks to the poet, as He does in a number of poems, He offers small consolation. In ["The Rightful One"] He is pathetically human, as if He were also over-whelmed by the reality He created…. In the course of the poem references to God change from capital letters to lower case, though the poet changes back to capitals when the Rightful One has gone. However, elsewhere God is utterly foreign. (pp. 212-13)
Ignatow's world, like Ignatow's God, is ultimately irrational—at least to man. In "No Answer" the poet says he has learned to love without explanation, but throughout his poetry he is never really at ease. He is unhappy that he is not God. Reason is powerless as money against the relentless advance of time. In a senseless world he can only note the violence and hope…. (p. 213)
Victor Contoski, "Time and Money: The Poetry of David Ignatow," in University Review (copyright 1968 The Curators of the University of Missouri; all rights reserved), Spring, 1968, pp. 211-13.
David Ignatow's new book, Rescue the Dead, gives me a chance to take back a foolish review I wrote of his last, when I chided him for concentrating so exclusively on very short poems. True, a certain length does seem necessary for work of real importance, complexity, and depth of feeling; but this has nothing to do with poetic quality, and possibly it has less to do with these other desiderata than I once thought; I am uncertain. The point is that as Ignatow has moved away from the flat bitterness of his earlier poems, those terrible vignettes of urban degradation, his attitudes have become, without doubt, not only more complex and philosophical, but more deeply humane and personal as well; and this, though much of his work continues to fall into poems of only a dozen lines or so. Much of it, too, is written in language so neutral, both as to diction and in its rhythms and line-structures, that it seems tasteless; but this, I believe, is intentional, the foil against which his substance is cast. Perhaps for such poetry we should revive an old term with an altered emphasis: "poetry of sensibility." Ignatow celebrates the acuteness of experience…. Acutenesses, over and over: not memorable, but momentary: perceived, felt, shared. Their value lies, not in the "poetic," which Ignatow has totally discarded, even in the sophisticated sense with which we apply the term to Duncan or Rexroth, but rather in the quality of these three acts—perceiving, feeling, sharing—and then, more centrally, in our own love of experience, which is called sympathy. For even when twisted into strange shapes, our sympathy works and is reliable. It is the armature upon which these little poems are wound. If we had none, the poems would disappear. (pp. 405-06)
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 2, Summer, 1968.
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…. 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. (p. 164)
What Ignatow is seeking, Notebooks makes clear, is "the abandonment of the principle of individual life in order to give ourselves a larger, stronger basis in community." His desire is "to bring the world together in one song fest, in one eternal spring by singing the song that would start the fete." (p. 165)
Critics have often asserted that smallness is part of the appeal of Emily Dickinson's poetry and, at the onset of his discussion of miniatures [in The Poetics of Space], Bachelard discourages a view that the tendency to smallness be thought of as geometric, "exactly the same thing in two similar figures, drawn to different scale." Such a "simple relativism of large and small," he maintains, belies the unequal conviction with which the imagination approaches the objects. Thus, a reader should not think of small poems as shrunken large poems or, as Ignatow's publisher had once, of their necessarily being parts in the creation of "a grand and tragic vision." Thom Gunn's review of Say Pardon (1961) rightly affirms, "the point is, surely, that [the] poetry does not even set out to be grand or tragic." Still, in regard to Ignatow's work, one would be as wrong to accept without qualification Bachelard's dismissal of the view that "the tiny things we imagine simply take us back to childhood, to familiarity with toys and the reality of toys." There is in Ignatow's miniatures, as in Dickinson's, a tendency to oppose authority, to equate it and largeness—those "aristocrats of Greek society" that one accepts in childhood—but not quite to enter those encapsulations from ordinary life that one associates with toys and sometimes feels with miniatures.
In Ignatow's case, there is instead an open-endedness that Carruth's review of Figures of the Human describes as producing a "certain abruptness" when the poem ends just as "the reader is beginning to get interested." Carruth wisely questions "that going back over the poem again, even a dozen times, will make up for the foreshortening," but he does not suggest that the abruptness may be similar to that gnomic quality one gets from Miss Dickinson's poetry where, by having to resort to interpretation, the particulars of the poem are rendered universal and yet personal…. Rather, despite a call for understanding the dynamics of small poems, Carruth's own manner of dealing with the situation is a "geometric" scaling down: "When I examine them closely to see what is missing—beginning, middle, or end—I find that I cannot make up my mind." He goes on to imagine the poems not as parts of some ongoing vision but as "complete in embryo; or, as Ignatow would no doubt prefer to say, in essence." The approach presupposes with no apparent explanation that the deliberately limited techniques and subject of an Ignatow poem may be extended at will with no appreciable loss of interest. (pp. 169-70)
[The] dynamics of small poems should work ideally to stress the poet's humanity and cut down on the reader's tendency to lose himself in art. In Ignatow's poetry this emphasis on humanity is conveyed through a complex strategy of intimacy: his subject matter is often domestic and personal; his diction direct and informal; his manner of speaking given to partial statement; and finally, the whole given to silences rather than conclusions. (p. 170)
[The] most interesting aspect of an Ignatow poem inclines to be its use of gaps. It will leap on one level from one conscious perception to the next or from the conscious to the unconscious, setting up for readers at least these distinct patterns of inner relationships. In either instance, the resolution of gaps into meaning requires interpretation, and like those gnomic poems of Dickinson, Ignatow's poetry works best when the interpretation involves personal to personal transference. For these transferences, basic understandings of the poet's views on art, the conscious and unconscious levels on which such views function, and the various possible psychodynamics of expectation and fulfillment are each necessary. (p. 171)
Implicit on Ignatow's gaps are the rejection of the role of poet as alter deus that has existed since the Renaissance and the acceptance instead of Williams' belief that what a poem describes must be measured against the nature it depicts as well as James Joyce's view that the lyrical form is "the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion" and arises out of a response to nature. Thus, what Ignatow chooses to portray exists first as a duality of imagination and nature and, once depicted, must then be bridged by a mediation of art and life. The duality is not to be resolved at the expense of nature as Jarrell sometimes does, nor is it to dissolve into those imaginative visions that poets use to separate themselves from their societies. Rather, the various gaps in and among the poems work to keep the poet and reader from any "last heat or pressure" that might create such visions. Similarly, the poetry avoids overt, detached didacticism, for abstract moralizing may become as divorced from nature as that "false" world of closed art. The superiority of the poet—as it exists—results from a superior moral character. (p. 172)
While finding that daily life makes it increasingly difficult to make crucial moral decisions, Ignatow rejects for his poetry a view that man can acquire moral character without enlightenment from God. "The Past Reordered" (1967) may state that "God, Zion, and preordination are either abolished or, having vanished in the daily struggle for experience, are now forgotten without regret or afterthought," but "The Permanent Hell" (1966) indicates that the result is not freedom or an advantage but "a permanent hell from which no mea culpa can save." The abolition or distancing of God does not eliminate guilt, and here, differing from Jarrell's view of Deity as "all that I never thought of," Ignatow rejects any effort to abolish such guilt in a view of an evolving comprehensive self spurred on by suffering. The "good" that Ignatow's poetry will strive for is modelled on a perfect Creator rather than on a series of imaginatively spun natural adaptations…. The very presupposition … of gaps constitutes a vital means for understanding guilt and man's limited nature, and the continuous bridging of these gaps through glimpses of a traditional Deity earns for poet and reader alike an expanding awareness of truth. (pp. 172-73)
Ignatow revives for readers problems associated with Gnosticism and Manichaeanism. Either there is a God who is omnipotent and sees evil and refuses to correct it and hence Himself becomes evil (Gnosticism) or there is a dualism in which a continual battle between good and evil occurs (Manichaeanism). Ignatow's own inclination—like Jarrell and Arnold, and Hegel before them—is to dissipate these problems by seeing History in an almost deistic way: what man knows as good and evil is a partial vision beyond which lies ultimate good. Like Shelley, but at one remove closer, Ignatow will propose that, as a secondary demiurge to the History (Zeus) which shapes him, man should rebel against this tyranny and establish a new order. (p. 178)
However much he believes that apparently contrary philosophical positions may be resolved by successfully turning them into psychological states, Ignatow cannot avoid his readers' being confused. Two distinct orders are being delineated—one which is not changeable and one which is—and the very bridging of them returns a reader to the Gnostic-or-Manichaean dilemma. Either, as the Middle Ages believed, the world has no reality, or there are two orders in real conflict. In the first instance, the reader will have to confront Ignatow's belief that poets "dare not fail the world" and dismiss as silly the objection to withdrawal from what would then be "unreal" society. In the second instance, the very terms of the conflict exclude man permanently from Deity. This position has increasingly become that of modern poetry, but it leads for Ignatow to an equally unacceptable perversity and "imperial self." Here again, gaps—much as grace and mystery in religion—allow the poet whatever escape from contradiction he achieves.
More practically the confusion accounts for a modulating indirectness in Ignatow's poetry. (p. 179)
Ignatow's capitulation to an unalterable History has brought about an increase in his attempts to bypass this Demiurge by unconscious means. Since Poems, his poetry has enmeshed its calls for reform almost exclusively in gallows humor, irony, and incongruity, and in a poetic structure that moves by rhythm, rising to crisis and resolution more like dream or the separate frames of a movie montage than by the exigencies of uninterrupted narrative…. In Ignatow's case, the conditions which would form the sentence for the condemned come as a consequence of the bleak outlook that Ignatow projects for mankind and man's helplessness. (p. 181)
Readers will have to concede that the personalism to which they are attracted in Ignatow's poetry is predominantly the result of silence and that this silence perhaps even more than the personal elements, the compassion, and the various indirectness accounts for the work's imaginative appeal. (p. 185)
Jerome Mazzaro, "Circumscriptions: The Poetry of David Ignatow," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 164-86.
David Ignatow's Poems 1934–1969 is a long book … that seems less a collection of his poems than a continuing poem in installments. At moments one is struck by the truth of a situation, but the language leaves no deep impression and when one closes the book, the poems are gone. Ignatow, mainly a poet of urban life and of that New York City whose mayor is not John Lindsay but Franz Kafka, takes as one of his continuing subjects the evil in the world around him, yet he never seems quite to grasp it as evil. When he looks at the surface of big city violence, he is in his poetic element…. But when he goes beneath the surface, evil always becomes something else, something that might have been cured at an early age by kindness or that might still be cured by it. The real problem is never confronted, and too often the affirmations that these poems make seem like set-ups. Ignatow has chosen a tough subject and he talks tough, but there is a vein of sentimentality that runs right down the middle of the volume. At its best, Poems 1934–1969 is the reflections of a man of goodwill in the modern urban world—what is disturbing is how small and uninteresting a thing a man of goodwill seems to be. (p. 729)
John T. Irwin, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by John T. Irwin), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973.
In his earlier poems David Ignatow wrote about the city, very tough, bitter poems about life in New York. In his more recent work he has brought the same attitudes to psychological and metaphysical themes—loneliness, estrangement, death. "There must be something wrong with me," he says, "wanting to keep going through the endless griefs." It seems as if everything is against him….
Living on the edge of the world, the edge of the universe, he still belongs, somehow, to the human community, and because of this he can still find human moments of beauty and purity in spiritual awareness, which he can express with words that mean more than they say.
Hayden Carruth, "Images" (originally published in Bookletter, April 14, 1975), in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1975 issue by special permission), May, 1975, p. 51.
The schematic for David Ignatow's progress as a poet can be found in any Horatio Alger novel. With Pluck and Persistence, though not without Pain, he wrenched himself from the industrial world he hated, endured the humiliation of trivial jobs to earn a living, and surmounting domestic afflictions of all sorts, reached that eminence that enables him to have three books published by three different publishers in a little more than a twelve-month. But "The Notebooks of David Ignatow," his working journal and a rude chart of the poet's course, is no song of triumph. It is, instead, one long litany of despair, a bitter jeremiad against the work he is compelled to do, the unrelenting cruelty of his father, the obligations of wife and family and the frustrations of trying to write in an unsympathetic environment. "I write of failure," he says, "always of failure…. Pain is my favorite subject."…
Though no balm for a troubled time, it is a singular and distinctive volume: unremittingly honest, without subterfuges to hide the truth or grace notes to adorn it. No one who reads it will confuse it with any other. (p. 46)
As a poet he saw himself an heir of Whitman and William Carlos Williams, sometimes in a direct line that includes both. But his poems exhibit little of the temperament of a Whitman. He has none of Whitman's ego, or his sanguine embracing spirit. Ignatow is no yea-sayer, and he possesses little of that natural empathy that unites him with his fellow man. The poet who wrote "My Native Land" is not of the Whitman mold. And his "Communion" though it begins, "Let us be friends, said Walt" continues with a desolate vision of "murder, disease, rape, hatred, heartbreak and insanity."
His affinity to Williams, however, is substantial. They are close in their Imagist heritage. In his poems Ignatow combines the impulse or the idea of the poem with a form shaped by its contents, using language that is deliberately flat, colloquial and direct without literary or bookish polish. The "facts," as he says, merge with the rhythm. The unit is never the line or even the stanza, but the entire poem. That is why the bulk of his poems are short and not easily quotable. But when he is at his most effective, as in "Pricing," "The Hunter," "Say Pardon," "The Night Life," to choose only a few, all the elements combine in a construct that has its own built-in, energetic and explosive force….
Ignatow's accomplishments are considerable and of their own kind. For he has managed to convey the texture of life in the city with its desperation, vitality and mixture of threat and fulfillment. He has also recorded what it meant to survive in it. His poems were no dry run. All of it he saw and part he was. His books are both a witness and judgment of his times. (p. 48)
Thomas Lask, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1975.
[There] is a strangeness in Ignatow's poems that I know for a fact has an enormous appeal to certain readers, while it leaves others completely cold…. His poetry is so spare, so essential, that it must appear to some … poets that it is nothing more than a skeleton, or a voice without a body. And more than most, Ignatow frightens [them] with his propensity to take us back to the beginnings, to unwind and undo all the careful work that preceded their creation and show them what they are in essence: a clay sculpture animated with the breath of life….
This ability to strip down to essentials is, then, the quality I find predominant both in Ignatow's Selected Poems … and in [his] Facing the Tree. More than with most poets we are aware of the blank page with which Ignatow has begun, and of the care, almost reluctance, with which he adds any detail to it: "I am going to leave a child in an empty room." (From "The Future.") "I stopped to pick up the bagel/rolling away in the wind." (From "The Bagel.") "When I die/choose a star and name it/after me …". (From "For My Daughter.") But what is most remarkable for me is Ignatow's ability to retain the essential ingredients of life in these barebones poems. Somehow he manages never to reduce the poems to allegories as does, say, Charles Simic. I have nothing against allegory, far from it, but in poems such as those of Simic there is a focus on the object, which then reflects back on its human source, while Ignatow always manages to preserve the human source in itself.
If it is possible for me to sense Ignatow's direction, it is that he is descending even further into that hole in the earth, has become more daring, if also more afraid. The Selected Poems are very good, but the poems in Facing the Tree make use of language in a way that causes each word to resonate on the page, to function almost as a hieroglyph, without any weak links or mere transitions. And it makes sense that a poet such as Ignatow would become better as he became older and came closer to the place that is both his beginning and end, that has always held a great attraction to him, but never as much as it does now. (p. 95)
Howard Schwartz, in Margins (copyright © 1975 by Margins), June/July, 1975.
Goethe's view of style as resting "on the deepest fundamental ground of knowledge, on the essence of things," 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. (pp. 289-90)
Change is the major characteristic of the city and of reality itself: "Transformation is the principle of change, change is the principle of reality, reality is the principle of being, and being is the principle of existence. Existence is perpetual, but perpetually in change also," [Ignatow writes in The Notebooks]…. His purpose is to extend nature by creating something that stands within and yet apart from her creations. It is, as Ignatow repeatedly insists, a beating the breasts of the "mother for recognition as her superior". (p. 291)
Mediation, as it exists in Ignatow's work, occurs between "belief" and "act" rather than between logos and physis. It is an almost Kierkegaardian seizing of the Existential moment: "I believe in the past and I believe in the future. The present is the time to act upon my faith" [he writes in The Notebooks]. The ideal poet's role becomes that of "pointing out the bad from the standpoint of forgiveness and peace rather than improvement"…. More recently he said in boundary 2, "The solution … is to lodge man's ultimate meaning in his body where he becomes his own judge, jury, and prosecutor or celebrant"…. Facing the Tree takes up this "fixed pole" of the present moment and pits it either against the repetitious and reversible cycles of life or against memories of the dead. Ignatow's poetry, in this way, assumes a basis that is far more fact-obsessed than that of his mentor Williams and infinitely less enigmatic than Bly advocates. By making the fixed pole of action the present, it places more emphasis on individual responsibility and the need for writers to communicate. The "third thing" in his work evolves not to solve alternatives that rationality has fostered but to test the states that change invariably creates.
In presenting these tests, the poetry has inclined at times toward the baroque and transcendental, for the competing alternatives that the initial and changed states seem to set up require, as in baroque music, some sort of transcendence. Often the "cause" of this transcendence goes unprobed; it resides in one of the several gaps or interstices that characterize Ignatow's work. Increasingly, however, the poetry has ended classically. The oppositions, as in Oedipus Rex, turn out to be false, untenable, and temporary, and circumstances return to their former state, made confident by the testing of an indestructible core. (p. 292)
[In] the mediation of belief and act, Ignatow prefers to deal with the passive effects of a runaway technology rather than, as Bly suggests, to attack the "statistical mentality." Individually, Americans may have sought identity in things but, as significantly for Ignatow, their minds and the very shape of their lives are in the control of huge, impersonal interests and forces…. These interests and forces so diminish man's role to mere consumer that his flexible and finite parameters are subsumed in their capacity for indefinite expansion and ability to create unlimited needs…. He says in boundary 2, "I don't see the possibility of eliminating from our lives the technology by which the modern city is characterized…. It and I must work together to make each other recognizably human and worthwhile"…. By the very ratio of his art and the condition of community rather than by any pastoral retreat, Ignatow seeks to accomplish this goal.
Assuredly, as The Selected Poems illustrates, Ignatow is interested in dreams, wit-work, and surrealism, and there is no question that many of his early and middle poems contain the tensions that Bly chronicles. In the business world, matters tend to become either/or, and the city does tend to force one into extreme statements. Decision, evasion, dream, and wit become, in these circumstances, means of transcendence, but since the mid-sixties, Ignatow has taught, and his teaching has allowed a certain meditative tone to enter and strengthen his work. He has also lived at times in suburban and rural atmospheres. His expressed liking for the thought of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard, and his particular affinity with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952) have comprised part of the result …, but Ignatow has remained willfully independent of their "abstractions from experience" and despite an increase in landscape, his work has remained attached to the local and city. Consequently, a "Selected Poems" chosen to agree with Ignatow's current preoccupations would by slighting the early tensions be no more representative. As "No Theory" recently maintained, no theory is adequate to the separate ways the imagination moves from what exists to an equally worldly future reality. (pp. 294-95)
Ignatow inherits this interest in exploring language from the Modernists, who along with Ezra Pound saw that when language got inexact and slushy society began to come apart. Ignatow, however, sees more clearly than many of them the dangers in making the exploration of language a means of furthering a separation of literature from life. He is not interested in refined "pseudo-statement." His language must remain accessible to action. Therefore, he concentrates on the vernacular in forms that allow greatest accessibility to the public. The prose poem—because it minimizes the intensity and gaps of the lyric and brings Ignatow's message closer to the everyday—is to be preferred to a less accessible lyric form. There are fewer things unsaid, and the new form itself works, as prose does in Williams, as a test on the lyrical, challenging an old self with a new. The success of the Notebook entries in conveying this other self in prose may itself be an added consideration.
One result is that Facing the Tree emerges as Ignatow's best single volume to date. It is proof not only of his own continuing growth but of his ability to draw nearer his dream of his "rightful role, the national poet of America, the central voice, the one who speaks for the millions and who speaks to the person, who makes listening a must by the soul of his voice," [as he expressed it in The Notebooks]. (p. 296)
Jerome Mazzaro, "The Poetry of David Ignatow," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1975), Fall, 1975, pp. 289-97.
Ignatow has a sense of a people existing within the historic moment, but his cool tenderness never freezes into the pompous ice of theory. Sometimes his poems are as simple as newspaper paragraphs, but they are soon lifted into the realm of music, humor and feeling by Ignatow's ability to put the urban fact into wide perspective. He sees the patterns without which poetry can't exist, but he always senses the trembling human skin. (p. cxli)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975).
Precisely … at the margin of daily existence, where the self encounters others or turns away to look within, the elements of [Ignatow's] experience take the shape of a unique poetic articulation. The word "poetic" does not in this instance awaken any of the usual lyric connotations; the speech of Ignatow's poems, mined from the spoken language, earns its victory the hard way, by educating the reader's ear to realize and appreciate its marvelous flexibility and strength, its subtle beauty. (p. 68)
For Ignatow the ideals and values of Whitman are questioned and counterbalanced by the sombre, pessimistic vision of urban life to be found in Baudelaire's poetry and prose poems. The former's optimistic view of America … [is] vigorously challenged, inverted, by the harsh realities of the twentieth-century America which Ignatow's poetry so stunningly captures. In "Communion" Ignatow begins each of the poem's three stanzas with the same declaration of Whitman's desire for brotherhood, and proceeds to demolish it through the bitterly ironic disclosure of the fate of such hopes for America. Enmity and death pervade the poem's atmosphere, and a desolate prophecy of annihilation brings it to conclusion, thus simultaneously effacing Whitman's vision—though not, of course, his imaginative or poetic greatness which Ignatow surely admires. (p. 69)
Ignatow finds himself in the difficult situation of [many other] contemporary poets who also lack any kind of religious commitment, namely, that of possessing no ideological or metaphysical frame of reference from which to comprehend experience, derive values, and order imaginative vision. This condition assumes primary importance in Ignatow's case, for he turns this deprivation to positive account and develops from it his own notably anti-poetic "flat style," which likewise owes its inception to a close study of the abstract techniques of pioneer modern painters [Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian], as well as his wish to fashion a poetry utilizing the idiom of urban American speech. (p. 70)
For Ignatow, nothing will be rescued from oblivion by the benevolence of a Divine eye: living beings, the acts and gestures that occur within time and space, are simply and finally themselves and are subject to the fate imposed by the temporal order, which is to vanish, in the longer reaches of history, without a trace. (p. 72)
[On the other hand,] one must still account for certain poems in the third section of [Say Pardon] in which the figure of God appears, for they will help us to discern what values he struggles for through his writing…. Two [of these] poems, "I Felt" and "The Rightful One," come closest to establishing the kind of basic principle we grow conscious of as we read through Ignatow's poetry. Here the Divine and the human belong to the same dimension of reality, which is earthly, mortal, and also profoundly Christian in a certain sense, one might add, though completely devoid of ecclesiastical, transcendental, or supernatural implications, thus once more confirming a belief in the closed perspective and the resulting necessary confrontation with existence as it is at each moment…. In both poems blessedness, freedom, and integrity must be earned in terms of present existence; what value they might have elsewhere Ignatow does not know, for, as we have seen, he has no faith in the transcendent, in perspective, and admonishes us to recognize the "emptiness" beyond which we have already encountered. Value, when it does emerge, as in the poems just discussed, has been labored for and discovered within the context of the work, or rather in the difficult, complex process of transforming daily experience and perception into the language of poems. Ignatow repeatedly uses walking—frequently in the sense of a dogged persistence against the odds and of bearing the onus of pain and guilt—as a highly evocative metaphor for the slow, hard progression through a lifetime and, by implication, for the strenuous activity of writing poems along the way. (pp. 72-5)
The earliest pieces in Poems 1934–1969 do not reflect the deep impression resulting from his exposure to the city but are instead love poems; if they are not as yet revelatory of the dramatic interaction between the poet's self and his urban surroundings, certain of them, such as "Pardon Keeps the Sun," are notable for their candid self-scrutiny and careful delineation of the relationship of lover and beloved, both of which are important and enduring themes in Ignatow's writing. Other poems of the 1930's—"For a Friend," "Forks with Points Up," and "My Neighbor" are among the best—show an increasing preoccupation with rendering the complicated mode of life into which he had thrust himself, in other words, with "writing a poetry of New York." That attempt, to be successful, required the creation of a style, a form of language and rhythmic movement avoiding the "poetical," through which his urban experience could be incarnated. (p. 75)
For Ignatow,… the poetry which he sets out to write must be capable of embodying the joy, terror, evil, shame, and tragedy discovered each day in himself and in the lives of other city inhabitants, but it also demands a plain, unvarnished language that can, in the interests of accuracy and truth to experience, present those qualities in all of their intensity, drawing out their basic human implications while resolutely avoiding any kind of adornment. The reader, abruptly greeted by these bare essentials, gradually realizes how much poetry is in them. (pp. 76-7)
One can say without exaggeration that the distinguishing feature of Ignatow's poetry as his career lengthens out through the 1960's is an increasing intensity in his approach to experience, a tendency to probe even more boldly, thrusting himself forward so as to become as completely engaged as possible with aspects of pain and suffering, violence and death; as he comes more completely to grips with his condition, he does so with man's condition in mid-twentieth-century America as well. This intensity dominates the later poems of social and political affairs … to the same degree it does the personal or inward pieces. Any reader of Ignatow knows quite well the extent to which these elements pervade all of his writing, yet now he makes us feel that he must enter more fully into contact with the negative, terrifying forces which erupt everywhere in the modern world as a means of validating not only his own individual existence but even existence as such. He undertakes, as a result, what might be called a descent into the hell of contemporary experience which appears simultaneously as his private inferno; there, divested of traditional spiritual values and with every human impulse and emotion, measure of good and evil, under question, he must attempt to make his passage, literally, save his life.
Nowhere do we see these preoccupations more dramatically and powerfully articulated than in the poems of Rescue the Dead and a few others written afterward and now included in the closing section of Poems 1934–1969. (pp. 90-1)
Desperation is a word increasingly appropriate to the poems of Rescue the Dead, as the reader proceeds through the book, page after page. "The Room," which immediately precedes the trio of "Ritual" poems, prepares an entrance of a sombre kind into the tortuous labyrinth of these pieces. Like the lonely, deprived figures of Samuel Beckett's fiction and plays, the poet occupies a place of isolation, a room which is equivalent to the bare, reduced circumstances of his own existence…. In the extremity of [his] state only the most commonplace things suffice to keep the mind occupied and away from the storm of nerves and emotions, the eruptions of thought which send the self toppling into an abyss of disorder and madness. (Again one thinks of Beckett's characters….) The poem's last stanza finds visibility gone and the poet maneuvering in blackness…. This conclusion leaves the poet intact, keeping himself going, but directionless and unsure of his bearings…. [In "Ritual One"] his "falling" has finished, but only in the sense that Ignatow has reached the depths and has no alternative to seeing through the imminent horrors to their completion. (pp. 99-101)
["Ritual One" and "Ritual Two"] should be read, I think,… as an initiation ritual; growing up through "agony" here does not possess the same redemptive connotations as we have observed in other poems but signifies instead a decision to proceed from pain and abandonment and to live, though that entails an acceptance of existence as founded upon "Nothing."
Such an interpretation may be further justified by the substance of the two reflective sections comprising the whole of "Ritual Three," a poem which penetrates to the very center of "the heart of darkness" Ignatow pursues in spite of everything. (p. 107)
[In "Ritual Three"] he relinquishes his tormented thinking and emotional suffering…. [This line, "I am free,"] connects this poem directly with "Rescue the Dead," where at the conclusion Ignatow admonishes: "You who are free, / rescue the dead." The dead, we recall, are those who believe in love (in terms of the present poem, those with "life lost in feeling"), while the free "forgo love" in favor of self-seeking and survival, unencumbered by the moral baggage of feeling for others. The monstrous presence who announces his intentions above is merely a more completely defined—and thus more frightening—version of the "free" man of the earlier poem; as this voice echoes and elaborates in its speech the ending of "Rescue the Dead," we can see how cutting is the irony of the poet's final words there. The free will "rescue" no one: the act of rescuing implies a care for the welfare or the life of someone else, an idea totally alien to the free. The single thing they will do for persons of sensitivity, love, and mercy is destroy them, a literal fulfillment of the word by which the feeling are identified—"the dead." (pp. 108-09)
The sixth and last section of Rescue the Dead resonates with the poet's newly won energy and enthusiasm for living, visible in each of the marvelous, vital poems to be found there. But in order to secure the imaginative power for affirmation he desires, Ignatow must countenance openly the contesting negation of death and, without the solutions orthodoxy contributes and he cannot accept, refuse to be ruled by its ubiquitous, unpredictable presence. (p. 117)
[His] entire enterprise in [Poems 1934–1969]—in the complete body of his writing as it exists up to the present moment, for that matter—shapes into a personal quest conducted along the very boundary lines of his existence, with all the attendant perils which threaten nerves, vision, and seem to negate the prospect of going on, in search of an honest, manageable means of being, a path that leads toward a horizon. The route chosen circles down into darkness, disorder, and bestiality, both as they appear in the prevailing assumptions (frequently unconscious) of contemporary society and as they break in upon and besiege the poet's own consciousness. Ignatow makes this descent and climbs out again into daylight. (p. 129)
Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "Earth Hard: David Ignatow's Poetry" (originally published in boundary 2), in his Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry (© 1975 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 67-133.
Ignatow [is] one of our most trenchant observers of human consciousness in a state of crisis, which is to say living through our own time. The frailty of that consciousness combined with its paradoxical tenacity is a lingering echo in almost each poem in [Selected Poems]; the tragedy of human apartness, the collective inevitability of our individual extinctions…. [It should be] apparent to all of us who play the "Who-Are-The-Major-Voices-In-Contemporary-American-Poetry" game that Ignatow is a strong contender, and though his work fits neatly into none of the pre-packaged categories, it will touch many readers deeply and with great force. (p. 84)
Fred Moramarco, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Winter, 1976.
For three decades, Ignatow has written deceptively simple, almost awkward poems which are like letters to someone who has got to be made to listen. They are "letters to the world," as Emily Dickinson described her own poems: a recluse's dream of society. That is Ignatow's link to his acknowledged masters, Walt Whitman, who also meant his poems to be bridges over solitariness. For Leaves of Grass, too, is a recluse's dream, and his sanity….
Ignatow has a storyteller's gift which is rare among American poets. Instead of psychology and introspection, he gives us mad tales, hallucinations which tip us off to their sly, self-dramatic quality with a wink of exaggeration…. The poems become homemade myths which the mind invents to console itself for the savagery of its days. They reflect the agitated experiments we try out on ourselves day after day, with only rare times out for repose: the lunges of fantasy, the inner conversations, the voices and faces performing the busy play in our heads which we call "thinking." (p. 29)
The mind is incorrigibly theatrical. It hogs lines, ad libs scenes; it will do anything to keep on stage. Ignatow has tapped this strangely helpless energy in poem after poem, thinking not in images but in scenes which hug the "inner life" more closely, and with more genuine pathos, than the exotic spontaneity of the surrealists.
The best of these poems—and there are many "best"—are characterized by a sort of uncluttered authority which one hasn't experienced in American poetry since William Carlos Williams. The language is undecorated. There are no side effects, no tapestry of consoling images. This is not a cultural matter, Ignatow's tone of voice tells us. These poems have got to keep talking: it's a question of sanity, of life. But the urgency is not frantic either. It is like breathing and eating. The result is what we have come to call "unliterary." The poems refuse to redeem the painfulness of experience from a distance, they refuse to create an ennobling framework into which the reader agrees, for the duration of the poem, to be transposed. Instead, they use an opposite guile. They pretend to be talkative, half-educated. Few novelists have grasped the voice of the neighborhoods as Ignatow has: the complaints, the garrulous philosophizing, the straight-out talk of ordinary, unlovely existences. If you can't make sense right here in the stink of the world, Ignatow says, then you're not making sense at all…. Ignatow's poems are as sparse and rhetorically exact as any being written today. They are closely argued, subtle; they think with luminous precision. Only in the narrowest sense can they be called "unliterary." They are exactly what we mean by literature: formed utterances which help us to make sense of ourselves, and of each other….
[In Facing the Tree there is an] element which has become increasingly present in Ignatow's recent work: a note of amazed reconciliation, as of a survivor who has begun to look around him, and notices that he is walking, seeing; that a lifetime of wrestling with his inner ghosts has spewed him miraculously forth, older now, closer to the last act of his life, but full of wonder, and a stranger clear-sighted peacefulness. The doors and windows of his room have been thrown open, and he is flooded with the permanent, silent presence of outside…. There is a mood of acceptance and release in these poems. Instead of returning blow for blow, Ignatow stands simply in the midst of the storm, accepting to know it for what it is…. There is a lucid, casual quality in these poems. Ignatow confronts even his own death not as a victim, but as a survivor, a participant. He establishes alliances, seeks a treaty with death. Like Whitman, he brings it close to taste it, not morbidly or with romantic fascination, but because he grasps its quality of completeness. The darkness in his life had been connected to it all along; the darkness had been a signal that something was missing, which could be recovered only when fear was set aside, and knowledge put in its place….
There is a moral resilience in Ignatow's poetry which makes it unique among contemporary American poets. It's about time more of us listened, and understood that a "master" is indeed among us, as James Wright accurately puts it in his comment on Facing the Tree. (p. 30)
Paul Zweig, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1976 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Paul Zweig), January/February, 1976.
Ignatow's manner still has much of the hardness it assumed when he sought a "world view" and found it "in the city itself. Hardness, an identity of oneself so that the world knows." New York City, where he took over his father's bindery business, New York City with its "higgledy-piggledy movement for advantage," taught him a rapid cynical style. He decided on "little sounds, one at a time and fast like machine-gun patter." The "feverish tempo of the small factory racing against time to produce for profit"—his verse would accord with that. And grammatically it would not be too nice. If "all is for naught," it would not make a fool of itself over anything, even itself. It would dig up the disagreeable, recognize failure, present a hard view of the subject, bite the matter off.
Ignatow's plainness is even more "anti-poetic" than William Carlos Williams's, lacking as it does the latter's untoward line-breaks and syntax elided toward immediacy. It shows little of Williams's "minute organization." Its strength is a hard gusto…. On rare occasions the verse even tightens into a hard, hasty beauty that perhaps only C. H. Sisson has rivalled. (p. 359)
Reading through Poems: 1934–1969, how seldom one delights in the style, how little it delights in itself. It is barely lived in, performed…. [One] responds to the situation, not the language, which actually detracts if one considers it…. Neither voice, rhythm, diction, phonetic color, nor image is worked anywhere near its best advantage. (p. 360)
The truth is, I think, that Ignatow's simplicity reaches neither a full delicacy nor a full harshness. It is a tepid medium.
Yet I rejoice in Facing the Tree, so high is the level of achievement from poem to poem. The words, the forms, feel more sensitive than before. In "Autumn," for instance, the lines break well and the discrete alliteration quiets the poem. Ignatow now keeps even the prose in his prose poems from sounding throwaway: "The fork I raise to my mouth should be the fork in a dream…. The dream I would be having would be of the world being dreamed as it should be: … the feel of a fork in my hand like that of silk. In the world where the steel for it is made the fork is hard and pointed. How may I live in silkiness until the dream brings me to a death entered with a silky ease." This skillfully blends silken repetition with "hard and pointed" words. One need not blush to call it a "prose poem."
And there is this to note, not only of Facing the Tree but of all Ignatow's volumes, that however dull the language the poems frequently have effect. They may lack the leap of surprise that makes poems end at their highest pitch, yet their very backbone is surprise. Ignatow's imagination is far odder, far more active, far more distinguished than his language. What a distance, for instance, that silky fork is from any conventional approach to death.
It is true that Ignatow's thought sometimes lacks rigor….
Or he is too obvious, too insistent. In fact in Poems: 1934–1969 the bad work outnumbers and suffocates the good. So one rejoices, too, in Selected Poems…. Here the good pieces, freed, support one another. Both Ignatow and the reader gain. (pp. 360-61)
Calvin Bedient, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Spring, 1976.
David Ignatow is a poet of the city, sincerely and passionately committed to the life and lives of the workaday world…. [He] is nothing if not urgent and intense in his efforts to make poetry out of a Chicago of the mind, in the stockyards of which, as Norman Mailer observes, "one knows the human case—no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there." (pp. 41-2)
It is, I think, the tone that is chiefly the matter with these Selected Poems, for it seems to assume an unsophisticated pupil for a reader, and all too often it slips into pure gripe; Ignatow seems a man without a sense of humor. Like Reznikoff and William Carlos Williams, Ignatow expresses winningly a sympathetic identification with the errand boy, the fisherwoman, and the patient at the clinic; and Ignatow's distrust of the paymaster, the psychiatrist, and Walter Cronkite is affecting; but Ignatow's people, like the "I" of his poetry, are likely to be in extremis all the time, and he'd have to be a Dostoevski to bring it off.
In Holocaust, Reznikoff is calm describing a truly cataclysmic historical episode, calm enough to convey a sense of the utter banality of an Eichmann's mind, which, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, makes all the more frightening (because conceivable anywhere) its misdeeds. Ignatow, on the other hand, is shrill, a little like the sort of radical student who rather recklessly calls the dean a Nazi. The perspective is awry; and we respond as to the boy who cried wolf, to a premature proclamation of apocalypse. A judicious reader will resist any middle-aged writer who seems quite so upset; the quest of an extreme emotion for a situation commensurate to its ferocity ought to be the reserve of youth. This problem in Ignatow's work is compounded by the insistent presence of Robert Bly, whose afterword and appreciative headnotes to the various sections of the book presume to an authority (that, for example, of a Zen Buddhist koan) that we as readers are reluctant to confer. Bly is sententious in both the good (pithy, aphoristic) and bad (pompous, moralizing) senses of the word…. (pp. 42-3)
That the total of Ignatow's work seems like less than the sum of its parts is a shame considering how good some of those parts are. Especially successful, I think, are the little parables—poems like Doctor, And That Night, and Off to the Cemetery ("in cars and cabs / that are as goodlooking as false teeth"). (p. 43)
David Lehman, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1976.