Study Guide

Ira Sadoff

Ira Sadoff Essay - Critical Essays

Sadoff, Ira

Sadoff, Ira 1945–

Sadoff is an American poet, critic, translator, and editor. He is cofounder and editor of the Seneca Review. The tone of his poetry is remarkably akin to prose, continually avoiding "academic" or "poetic" expression. The mood of his poetry is one of controlled resignation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

In the biographical note [to Settling Down] it does not say that Sadoff studied at Iowa, but his poetry is stamped with that sound and shape. (It seems inevitable that "the Iowa Poets" will wedge into our jargon before long.) He works in hard-edge designs of pure acrylic colors. As if talking meant taking, he clenches his teeth in a brave reluctance, acknowledging no less than is necessary. Like Edward Hopper, he can make empty space into a premonition of disaster…. With his finger pressing "the trigger of sadness," he is forever "taking the subject/and subjecting it to our sense/of separation." The discontinuity of experience is, finally, his subject—shadowed by a secreting desire "to make oneself whole/without closing the circle forever."… [Stillness] for Sadoff is a frightening prospect, and as his portraits resolve in their pans, their characters have a ghostly, melancholy image, catching the Chekhovian tint of faded sepia…. Sadoff's voice moves naturally toward the flattened expanse of prose, and his several prose-poems are haunting. Attempts at assigned "academy" pieces find him uneasy—neither his wit nor his nostalgia is sharp enough. But those poems of his that etch the frail cruelties of banal domestic drama—as in soap opera, "Everything happens inside"—are superb. Having enabled himself to evoke the arbitrary distance between things, one looks forward to the ways he might close in on that emptiness. But wherever he may next settle down, he has already made a place for himself with this book. (pp. 100-02)

J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1975.

Ira Sadoff has … a methodic reliance on the simple, declarative sentence; a no-nonsense air, smuggled in from prose; a fastidious avoidance of the gratuitously "poetic". No wonder, then, that in Sadoff's very impressive first book, Settling Down, the most felicitous expression of his manner is to be found in the seven prose poems, each a gem…. [In] the endings of Seurat and of The Revolution of 1905 … the refraction of what can only be called a preconscious memory through the lens of a painting or a film, animated anew, reminds of the Delmore Schwartz of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a high compliment indeed…. (pp. 39-40)

In Sadoff's work the distinction between object and emotion is made as a kind of critique of contemporary consciousness. The sense of removal from reality that is signified accounts to a large measure for the mood of resignation pervading Settling Down; the exigencies of poetic empathy are strenuous, calling for acquiescence rather than affirmation. History may occur as tragedy and repeat itself as farce, but that is in a temporal realm; along a different set of space/time coordinates—in the empire of the psyche, for example—history survives as Stephen Dedalus's back-kicking nightmare, a threatening absence by day, an inescapable presence by night. (p. 40)

If there is a characteristic utterance in this volume, it is a kind of structuralist poem, of which Frank O'Hara was a master. Having delineated the structure of a given reality, the poet either presents it as shadow or he reconstructs it fancifully…. There is more talent in Settling Down than there is fulfillment, but that is as it should be. (p. 41)

David Lehman, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1976.

Titles and subheadings [in Settling Down] run on in the following manner: I. Waiting for Evening; II. Forgetting This World; and III. Going Back to Sleep. They indicate a potential problem of dynamics (and something of Sadoff's style of solution) for a collection of poems centered largely on the domestic, that is, how not to be duped by the local into the dull. Sadoff, although himself under thirty, legitimately chooses to deal with aging, which he appears to outline as closure of opportunities, as desiccating and estranged, within the frame of these topics—marriage, home, and work…. "Settling Down," the first and title poem of the book, is … typical of Sadoff's prettily enervated approach:

           … All day I sit
           at my desk watching the tea steep
           in its cup, the copper blood
           running out of its sack
           like fluid from a dying fish.

Although other poems like "The Return to Mysticism" claim that the cause of distress is cosmic ("the gods/out of tune our prayers/unanswered as usual,") others, [like "Séance,"] a little too readily for this kind of book, busy themselves with spirit tracks: "… a spine/of smoke … a char of bones/behind the mirror and a cloud of flesh on the ceiling."… Still, whether summoned to a poem by impaired personal relations, flaws of the stars, or other combinations astral, domestic, and organic,… one's sympathies tend to stay lightly engaged…. [The] generating impulse seems both diffused and strained.

The prose poems are probably the strongest pieces. These poems, "The Revolution of 1905," "Seurat," "Alienation of Affection," and "1928"—where even the titles indicate their broader intentions—do not focus quite so narrowly on the theater of domestic accommodation. There is a wider variety of people, and a general thickening of shape and circumstance. To tea bags and melancholy, Sadoff adds war, the lives of artists, and several changes in historical climate.

Also, the technique is surer. Because he is not dealing with the visual hedge of the line-break, the fluidity of the verbal structure is intact and under control. The images don't bleed quite so relentlessly into each other. Supported by more conventional narrative, the effects are less labored and the figures of speech not so florid—as in the smooth opening of "Seurat":

It is a Sunday afternoon on the Grand Canal. We are watching the sailboats trying to sail along without wind. Small rowboats are making their incisions on the water, only to have the wounds seal up again soon after they pass.

The conclusion seems thoughtful, unpretentious, and earned:

… We could not know, taking a step back, looking at the total picture, that we would occupy such a small corner of the canvas, and that even then we are no more than tiny clusters of dots, carefully placed together without touching.

There is also no inappropriate attempt to force the figures into conceits, or further into something resembling "quatrains" and "stanzas" and "lines." Nor is there the kind of arbitrary jamming of figures that mars even good poems like "The Thirties," a poem which illustrates all of Sadoff's strengths and weaknesses. The style of its beginning resembles "Seurat":

               The cars are all black.
               The men wear hats
               and the women long dresses
               simply to cover themselves.

But by the third stanza, this being a "poem," and not a paragraph, there are characteristic problems:

           Buildings empty like slashed wrists.
           The streets are paved with hands,
           and money flows through the fingers
           like rain in a desert or a great fire.

In an attempt to unify the lines, blood, rain, money, and people are all made to flow in continuing streams. Both streets and buildings have hands—but along one set of the hands money flames "or" rains in a desert. All of the muddle finally has something to do with flowing, hands grasping with futility, and catastrophe. Somewhere in there a strong image lies buried.

Nevertheless, in the concluding stanzas, Sadoff, often good at last minute salvage, works off the excrescent surrealist matter, and finishes with real feeling:

       My father …
       … will sit
 
       in a crowded theater and go off
       just as the hero is cured of
       an incurable disease. The bodies will spray
       out as an enormous fountain, a bouquet
 
       of arms and legs. This is a dream
       of the thirties: to explode into a circle
       of strangers, to open every part of yourself
       in the dark without hope.

But a quick look up the left side of the poem just quoted exhibits another too frequent trait. Each of the last five lines starts with a preposition, and every line breaks before every natural rhetorical or syntactical stop. This is more than awkward. The poem wears its words like a badly-blocked hat. A warp breaks the lines with schismatic fervor mid-phrase, choking almost every attempt to build up meaning. In Sadoff's practice,… beginnings of lines rarely have any force, and endings always enjamb, or tail off so that only the middle of a line is left with any definition—usually a strong, hatcheting caesura. For instance: "a bouquet/of arms and legs." Stop. "… a dream/of the thirties:" stop: "to explode into a circle/of strangers," etc.

These formal manners have several unhappy effects, one of which is to draw attention to the crudely-unvarying syntax. Sadoff draws a short bow and even it fragments into monotonously regular prepositional phrases, spliced by static predications…. Even when the lines don't break at the preposition they settle for cutting up the sense in some other place. This shakes the largely monosyllabic style with a nervous tic that rarely lets a plain statement alone. Always a white chopper of a margin comes at the poem, slicing and tilting…. It is not that the book has no pleasures, but that often the road to them seems intercepted. (pp. 144-48)

Lorrie Goldensohn, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976.