Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

Born February 7, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian immigrant parents, Max and Yetta (Reinbach) Ignatow, David Ignatow had the misfortune to graduate from New Utrecht High School in 1932: “I stepped out of high school into the worst economic, social, and political disaster of our times,...

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Born February 7, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian immigrant parents, Max and Yetta (Reinbach) Ignatow, David Ignatow had the misfortune to graduate from New Utrecht High School in 1932: “I stepped out of high school into the worst economic, social, and political disaster of our times, the Great Depression.” He did enroll at Brooklyn College but lasted only half a semester, subsequently schooling himself in literary matters by reading Ernest Hemingway,Walt Whitman,Friedrich Nietzsche,Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, the Russian novelists, the French poets of the previous century, and the Bible. He worked in his father’s commercial pamphlet bindery, running a machine or delivering the finished pamphlets by hand-truck, and wrote stories and poems in his spare hours. Oppressed by the tedious labor, and by an ambivalent, often heated relationship with a hard-driving father, Ignatow envisioned literature as an escape. With his mother’s aid, he managed to secure an appointment as a reporter for the WPA (Works Project Administration) Newspaper Project. The year before, his short story “I Can’t Stop It” had appeared in The New Talent magazine, earning a place on Edward J. O’Brien’s Honor List in his The Best American Short Stories annual in 1933.

Ignatow was finally able to leave the family business and home in 1935, when he found a cheap apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, where he became a part of the literary scene and met artist Rose Graubart, whom he married two years later. Their son, David, was born in 1937. Financial difficulties plagued the young couple, and from 1939 to 1948, Ignatow was forced to work at a series of low-paying jobs, as night clerk at the sanitation department, as a health department clerk, as an apprentice handyman in the lathe workshop at the Kearny Shipyards in New Jersey, and, for five years, as night admitting clerk at Beth Israel Hospital in New York. It was during his last year at Beth Israel that his first collection, Poems, appeared and garnered an enthusiastic review from William Carlos Williams. Williams, in fact, emerged as a friend, as did Charles Reznikoff, and these two poets probably exerted the most enduring influence on Ignatow’s career.

The year 1955 proved to be crucial in Ignatow’s life. The Gentle Weight Lifter was published; he was asked to edit the Whitman Centennial issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal; and his son began to exhibit the signs of mental illness that would eventually result in his being institutionalized. A daughter, Yaedi, was born the next year, and Ignatow became closely associated with Chelsea magazine. In 1961, his third volume of poetry, Say Pardon, was published by Wesleyan University Press—destined to remain his publisher for almost two decades—but money was still a pressing problem, and Ignatow worked as a paper salesperson in the years between 1962 and 1964, also serving as an auto messenger for Western Union on the weekends. During the same interval, he spent a year as poetry editor of The Nation and gave a poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research.

The publication of Figures of the Human helped to earn him an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, his first significant token of recognition. This was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship a year later. In 1966, he also won the Shelley Memorial Award and was a visiting lecturer at the University of Kentucky. Other academic posts came his way: at the University of Kansas in 1966 and at Vassar College from 1967 to 1969. He then accepted positions as poet in residence at York College (CUNY) and as adjunct professor at Columbia University. Editorial assignments included extended stints with Beloit Poetry Journal and Chelsea, and in 1972, he was among the first associate editors connected with the founding of American Poetry Review, a connection that was dissolved near the decade’s end when he and a group of fellow editors resigned in protest over what they perceived as implicit unfairness in the magazine’s attitude toward women and minority groups.

In 1973, Ignatow was granted a second Guggenheim Fellowship, but the award that had the most to do with bringing his name before a broader audience was the Bollingen Prize of 1977. The publication of The Notebooks of David Ignatow—selections from his journals that the poet hoped, in vain, would result in a wider readership for his poetry—had made clear the terrible cost of being a writer, particularly an antiestablishment writer, in the United States. It also demonstrated with high principle, brutal candor, and almost claustrophobic narcissism the ultimate advantages and limitations of constantly translating self into truth. Ignatow’s career achieved ironic completeness with his election to the presidency of the Poetry Society of America in 1980. He died on November 17, 1997.

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