David Ignatow (ihg-NAH-toh) published several volumes of prose, including The Notebooks of David Ignatow (1973); Open Between Us (1980), a collection of lectures, interviews, essays, and reviews; and The One in the Many: A Poet’s Memoirs (1988). In addition, Ignatow published a substantial number of short stories in various small magazines in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many of these are collected in The End Game, and Other Stories (1996). His letters, a treasure trove of personal, aesthetic, and philosophical insight, are collected in Talking Together: Letters of David Ignatow, 1946-1990 (1992).
Because of his deliberate eschewal of traditional poetic techniques, including rhyme and meter, and his firm insistence on the “plain style” in contradiction to prevailing modes of the day, David Ignatow endured a long period of public and academic neglect, not unlike that endured by his idol and warm supporter, William Carlos Williams. Also like Williams, he was an early victim of T. S. Eliot’s extraordinary success, which has tended to cast much modern American poetry in a convoluted Donne-shadowed mold, despite Eliot’s own sympathetic openness to free verse.
Ignatow’s first two collections, Poems and The Gentle Weight Lifter, were decidedly the work of a poet at odds with the dominant mandarin sensibility of the period. The first collection occasioned an enthusiastic review by Williams in The New York Times (November 21, 1948), a review that led to a friendship between the two men. Although conversational in style, the poems’ simplicity of diction and syntax, their almost clumsy rejection of conventional lyricism, and their steadfast metaphoric sparseness placed them outside the mainstream of contemporary aesthetics, causing more than one critic to label their author a “naif” or “primitive.” Randall Jarrell’s more accurate review of The Gentle Weight Lifter in the Yale Review (Autumn, 1955) characterized Ignatow’s poetry as “humane, unaffected, and unexciting,” noting that he lacked Williams’s “heights and depths.”
From the beginning, Ignatow proclaimed himself “a man with a small song,” identifying most strongly with Walt Whitman and Williams in terms of wanting to articulate the travails and tragedies of the ordinary citizen in his own language. A strong chord of social and political protest inevitably accompanied such a program, and not a little of Ignatow’s value resided in his willingness to confront the inequities he saw all around him.
However, it must have become increasingly evident to Ignatow that very few of the poems in his first two books were clear successes, for all their integrity of purpose and manner, and that something more was needed if he hoped to achieve the same sort of understated suggestiveness that Ernest Hemingway, an admired fellow writer, had achieved in his best short...
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Ignatow, David. “An Interview with David Ignatow.” Interview by Leif Sjöberg. Contemporary Literature 28 (Summer, 1987): 143-162. Ignatow explains the influence of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams on his poetry. Whitman, he says, wrote about everyday life, and Williams wrote in everyday speech. These two influences were Ignatow’s salvation in the 1930’s and through the 1950’s, when the fashion in poetry was lofty abstraction.
_______. “It’s Like Having Something in the Bank: An Interview with David Ignatow.” Interview by Lynn Emanuel and Anthony Petrosky. American Poetry 3 (Winter, 1986): 64-85. Offers valuable insight into Ignatow’s poetic philosophy. Ordinary life is his subject, and he tries to show it in a new way. Essential to understanding Ignatow.
_______. The Notebooks of David Ignatow. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973. Ignatow allows the reader into his creative process by means of these journals. He offers biographical details as well as insight into his philosophy of writing poetry.
_______. The One in the Many: A Poet’s Memoirs. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988. Ignatow presents his essays on poetry written over a period of four decades. In them, he reveals that he was obsessed with a single artistic quest: to uncover the human dimension beneath...
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