Against the Evidence Themes
by David Ignatow

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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David Ignatow has been called the “most autobiographical of writers” by the Dictionary of American Biography. “Against the Evidence” bears this out, as do many of his other poems. Rather than create a persona as narrator, Ignatow himself is obviously the speaker, confronting life and the human condition. In another poem, “Communion,” he sees little in human experience to inspire communion.

Then let us be friends, said Walt, and the graveswere opened and coffins laid on topof one another for lack of spaceIt was then the gravediggers slittheir throats being alone in the worldNot a friend to bury.

In “Communion” he creates an ironic contrast between himself and nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, who greatly influenced him. However, Ignatow considers Whitman optimistic and his own view of life realistic. Although he regards language as paramount in his writing, he also regards his work as a vehicle for moral leadership in that it points out—in his own words—“the terrible deficiencies in man. Whitman spent his life boosting the good side. My life will be spent pointing out the bad.” “Against the Evidence” reflects on the harsh realities of life, yet it reiterates the poet’s choice of life over death or defeat. Ignatow has said, “My avocation is to stay alive. My vocation is to write about it.”

The spare, direct images of William Carlos Williams also exerted a strong influence over Ignatow. Ignatow has noted that what he appreciates most in Williams’s work is the “language of hard living.” In “Against the Evidence,” the evidence to which the poet refers consists of elements of hard living, especially “estrangement.” His alienation is represented by the direct, though unresponsive, images of his books, the stars, the breeze, the steps, and the polite smile on the face of a fellow human. He also develops this theme in the poem “Wading Inside,” in which he bemoans the dearth of human interaction: “Guilty, my oppressor/ and I go separate ways/ though we could relieve each other/ by going together as Whitman wrote/ With our arms around each other.”

While much of Ignatow’s poetry carries a message similar to that of “Against the Evidence,” it often does so in a darker, angrier manner. In “Epitaph” he speaks of his father: “There were not hidden motives to his life,/ he is remembered for his meanness.” He contrasts love and life in “Rescue the Dead,” picturing love as a kind of madness: “To love is to be led away/ into a forest where the secret grave/ is dug, singing, praising darkness/ under the trees.” Life itself, on the other hand, is sanity: “To live is to sign your name,/ is to ignore the dead,/ is to carry a wallet/ and shake hands.”

“Against the Evidence” is, at first glance, relatively mild. When one considers elements of nature such as the stars and the breeze, one is lulled into a placid, almost peaceful mood. Only when one thinks of these images as sterile and uncommunicative, when they are joined with the “polite” but uncaring smile, does one experience the stark isolation that the poet confronts in the rest of the poem. The poem is a model of understatement; however, this very understatement underscores the aloneness of the narrator and the despair that grips all humanity at different times. Although he experiences this loneliness, he struggles to take action:

I stroke my desk,its wood so smooth, so patient and still.I set a typewriter on its surfaceand begin to typeto tell myself my troubles.Against the evidence, I live by choice.