Irving Feldman Essay - Feldman, Irving

Feldman, Irving

Feldman, Irving 1928–

Feldman is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Feldman's] constructions [in Magic Papers] of line and stanza prosaic or even actually prose arranged to look like blank verse … often [lack] any tight relation of thought to line. It is the line that Feldman is softening, in himself, or has allowed to go soft, the line though not the syntax, which is coldly periodic, intellectualistic and distant somehow from a valid presentation, as if a spring had been let go. (p. 75)

I am rather disappointed, in fact, at finding that after fifteen years Feldman still offers so much of his early manner, which was compounded largely of others' tones and formulations, and is still writing, most of the time, a stanza ornate in diction, often precious, straight and expository and full of distancing abstract adjectives, redolent of early (and late) Eliot and Ransom and Tate, who are no sympathetic part of the Feldman ambience at all…. If you are a fortyish poet in the late Sixties, you should long ago have abjured or smothered those fathers' voices, out of self-respect if not out of the longing for self-creation, and found a way either to integrate your own fathers' (cf. Feldman's early poem, "Assimilation") or escaped entirely from the ghetto and the first academic masters toward your own future speech. (pp. 75-6)

[My] disappointment is mitigated … somewhat by Feldman's retention of one main metaphor of his own.

That metaphor releases from him the familiar anguished cry, the query, the riddle he has carried with him from the first, like a talisman. And like a talisman, it may save him from being altogether wasted and lost. I mean, his obsession with "bread." To him, that "liebe breyt" he cried out for in the early "The Lost Language" is the word, perhaps The Word. It may be his manna, the mystical, mysterious sustainer of life in the desert today, or what is more true, the deeper aridity he wanders in (god forbid!) a whole life long: the Sinai of the Self. That self, Feldman's or ours, is what it is because we have been carried forth from the ghetto starvation into the new world, the extended Diaspora (a hip sociologue could call it), and, in climbing from those teeming slums over the swarming lost lives of our parents and friends and relatives, by means of the language, in the American poet's case, or anguish strangling, as Joyce might have Jewished it, one stands suddenly alone, thankfully free for the moment of the outworn superstitions, customs, imperatives, so much broken baggage … only to discover that the child inside who hears and speaks and feels is yet a prisoner in the tangled sheets of those sooty, sexy, violently emotional years so full of passionate quarrel and fever and utter miscomprehension, and the Depression years to top it all! and that, though there is no returning to the bosom of Abraham, if his wandering flock can be glimpsed through the phosphorescent filth and wealth of Hasidic moilings in East New York, or in the sterile, modern temples of Shaker Heights or Beverly Hills, pace Milton Himmelfarb! there may yet be for the poet's life and imagination the clear sense that his growth into self, his blossoming and fruiting must in some way come from the "bread-word," as Feldman terms it, invoking it often in various ways in those poems touching on the spirit, as distinct from those excoriating the past and the present together. (p. 77)

I think that the irritable nastiness and sardonicism on the one side of him is the reverse of his despair on the other. My point is that it's no solution for the poet to join any of the many social groups that are not his (as if they were inviting him in anyway!), or that do not strike him as fundamentally connected with those strata where he may find nourishment and take root. Those levels are perhaps located in another world altogether, and the poet stands outside the pieties and social commitments of the community, so called, or rather, he stands quite inside them, waiting for direct contact with the real thing, which is not to be found here and now, but perhaps, for him, only in the lucky chance (and who can be the cause of that?) that he might stumble one day, tedious like any other, right here in North America, upon a bush burning and not consumed, which would, in a word, be evidence that there is a trace in the trackless for him to follow.

When Feldman is on that angle of approach to vision and speech, he comes down or ascends to the right frequency for him, which is lament and prayer. (pp. 77-8)

The significant aspect to Feldman's work is that it is only when he finds that "bread-word" frequency sounding in him do his poems seem interesting and valid; that is, they have poetry in or near them. He knows that, and shows he knows it by writing the other kind of verse that I have said is not right. He is filling in time and holes in Being. And he probably knows too that the rest is Am-Lit, Tradition, Dross. (p. 79)

Jascha Kessler, in Midstream (copyright © 1972 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), April, 1972.

"Lost Originals" is the fourth book of a poet who has been gaining steadily in all the prime qualities of his art…. [Irving Feldman has written] a large group of memorable "satires."… I use the word broadly, meaning that the robust particulars of these poems are likely to be more affectionate than derisive. No one is doing this kind of thing much better; too few poets do it at all. When Mr. Feldman ventures a poem on Goya or Picasso, you see the work in question. Whether his subject is the frazzled hero of "A Poet," the succubi of "Greenwich Village Saturday Night," the joys of "dressing Hornpout," or the bacchanalia memorialized in "Reredos Showing the Assumption Into Heaven of Frank O'Hara"—all these in earlier books—or "My Olson Elegy" in the new book, Feldman is always fully up front, master of his language and occasion, a true and feeling wit….

He is something like a Malamud in verse, equally given to dream and elegy, to the whole wry fable-making post-Talmudic tradition and to those rituals of kitchen, bed and street that engender his acid-etched visionary lyrics. (p. 41)

R. W. Flint, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 25, 1973.

Together, as the children say, is where it's at: the very word, which at its root means not only the gate through which we gather but the good which we gather for, exactly describes Feldman's achievement, his risk and his reward. Always till now in his work there has been a yoking together of what is felt—or known, or not even suspected—to be disjunct. [One critic] has referred to Feldman driving pairs in tandem—Heine and Maimonides up front, Kafka and Blake behind. In speaking of the poet's earlier (three) books, I myself have referred to his "articulating an identity in two ways."… If there has always been the tug between wit and wisdom, the war of survival against consumption or even against consummation in Feldman's two-chambered heart, what is fascinating here and now [in Lost Originals] is the fused, annealed singularity of the voice, the energy of a diction which—out of so many refusals and losses—gets it all together. (p. 353)

The poet is released by his singular lack of duplicity into two kinds of energy inaccessible to him when he suffered the divisions of comment and criticism: he is enabled to wield, with stunning effect, a kind of polymorphous perversity of language, of words, of syllables: he can play more profitably than any other poet among us: … and he can mythologize on his own, lost originals indeed, which have found the poet and forced him, as the original does, to the source. It is no accident that so many of the myths are of children …; indeed it is an intention that even the poems which are about the end—are "about" death, dissolution and destruction—return (where else could they go?) to the beginning, to what childhood may loom up as or illumine. (pp. 353-54)

Though I have admired, and indeed addressed myself to, each of Feldman's books with the conscientiousness which fine work must elicit from any fair reader, I admit that I should never have suspected anything so incandescent to come from the author of those first three collections. Lost Originals is not a collection, it is a triumph of identity…. He has made himself a master, and what is most astonishing of all, Irving Feldman is a master of joy. (p. 354)

Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1973.

Irving Feldman's title for his book, Lost Originals, is a phrase that wisely calls our attention to its source in his poem "My Olson Elegy." The poem is some eighty lines long, in six stanzas of varying length and a terminal pair of lines. The lines are irregular, appearing to ask for three or four strong stresses each or sometimes maybe five. The lines are unrhymed. Probably we are meant to say them in the ordinary way we might talk, without worrying about any kind of pattern beyond that of everyday English speech, except that the language is rather more excited than that we normally use. Feldman has one curious manner of pointing his text with exclamation marks followed by commas, indicating perhaps a brief intensity followed by a pause. I wouldn't know what to do with this out loud. But in general the tone seems fit for the cheerful and manly address of epithets to the dead poet. (p. 66)

I think the poem calls Olson some very fine names evocative of affection and humor: "Landscape on legs, old Niagra!… Olson!, whale, thrasher, bard of bigthink…. your steamy stupendous sputtering—all apocalypse and no end…." And the conception of Olson as a derivative writer, derivative of "lost originals" and yet somehow rather grand too in his own incoherent way—this I thought a touching and just tribute….

You are the legend death and the sea have seized in order to become explicable.

When I read the poem for the first time, I took those last two lines as an appropriate and resonant invocation of powerful terms, much like the "King," "leviathan," or the notion of the dead poet swimming free at last [as in earlier lines]—hearty noises with portentous connotations. But then I saw that this was a sentence with subject and predicate, and that it presented action and ascribed motives for that action. The sentence is so smoothly formed and the elements of it so airily, if darkly, universal that it can be breathed with no hesitation at all. But it can be held for examination only in some process that dissipates it. Can it be that Charles Olson, or the idea of him, or his poetical works, are really to give us at last the explanation of mortality and of the secrets of the deep blue sea? Ought we not to notify the academies and The New York Times, even though the explanation itself is not immediately forthcoming? The poet does suggest that the answer resembles William James's dream that he had solved the ultimate riddle of creation—you will recall that James found in the morning he had scribbled down something about the entire universe being permeated with the odor of kerosene. Feldman, in the line immediately following those I have quoted, has a similar revelation. "—Smell of salt is everywhere …".

But, yes, just on a purely personal level, a poet is entitled to find in the death of an admired figure the most extensive significance. Had it been Shakespeare ("Others abide our question….") or even Melville ("This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps….") or Osiris, or Stalin, or John Kennedy, then all of us on earth might be expected to share this in some way too. But Charles Olson? (pp. 66-8)

Something like this troubles me about a lot of Irving Feldman's poems. This new book, his fourth, has no characteristic subject or occasion, as his earlier books had in their evocations of Samson, Moses, Prometheus, Cato, Noah, Abraham, Xerxes, Herodotus, or of a place, as he had with his New York, his Puerto Rico, his tourist's Paris or Spain, or of twentieth-century history, in The Pripet Marshes.

These poems tend to be about nebulous people in vague situations—a cocktail party, "the same tinkling of telephones, the same closing of frigidaires, a generous hubbub of voices like our voices, the same odor and press of persons—." The party is written about because the poet can imagine it taking place in other cosmic suburbs "since the universe is us." (p. 68)

The book leaves me with the sense that I have been listening to a tired voice speaking with a general sour distaste in an absence of real occasion. The Olson elegy is an exception, as are "The Titanic" and "Six Sailors." It does not seem to me that invoking the cosmos, itself a rather dreary locality in this presentation, rescues these occasions from their dimness. (p. 69)

John Thompson, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Irving Feldman's Lost Originals is … marred by a puzzling unevenness. At his best Feldman is profoundly witty, which is to say that he can unravel tragic themes in the process of letting an ingenious metaphor unwind. "As Fast As You Can," the first poem in the book, is one example of Feldman at his best…. But in other poems the self-conscious diction reaches such a viscosity that the poem ceases to flow; and in others, the diction parodies itself, as in "Hump," an overstrained parable of a hunchbacked man whose father is the hump…. (pp. 97-8)

Feldman's work has developed by significant leaps over his four-book career, but it seems to me that he remains a vitally developing talent whose future would be more exciting to consider if he had by now established a voice less burdened with gimmickry. (p. 100)

Henry Taylor, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.