David Ignatow 1914-1997
American poet and editor.
Compared to his contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, and W. H. Auden, Ignatow is not a well-known poet, nor has his work been extensively anthologized. However, some critics maintain that he is one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets—an unrivaled chronicler of urban, Jewish, and working life. Ignatow has been compared with Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, both of whom Ignatow acknowledged strongly influenced his writing. The debt to his predecessors notwithstanding, Ignatow has been praised for developing his own personal voice—by turns gruff, insightful, wry, and humorous—which he manipulated to best showcase the subject and meaning of each poem. While his career spanned the establishment of several poetic movements, Ignatow's work defies categorization. His poetry, which is intensely personal, focusing upon his own interpretation of and reaction to an event or situation, appears to have been written in isolation of his peers.
Ignatow was born February 7, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. While his mother was poorly educated, his father enjoyed literature, particularly the works of Russian writers. When Ignatow was a child his father would tell him the stories of writers such as Dostoevsky in a condensed and simplified form that he could understand. However, as the economic depression of the 1930s increasingly threatened his father's bindery business, home life declined. His father pressured Ignatow to quit school, although his mother strongly objected. Finally, after finishing high school and completing one semester at Brooklyn College, Ignatow was forced to quit school and work for his father. However, he kept the position for only a couple of years before securing another, menial, job. Anger at his father, disappointment in his failure to complete school, and the drain of working-class jobs prominently feature in Ignatow's writing. In 1938 the poet married Rose Graubart, a painter, with whom he had two children. While Ignatow's relations with his wife, from whom he was later estranged, and his son, who was institutionalized for mental illness, were strained, Ignatow enjoyed a close relationship with his daughter. Throughout these years Ignatow worked in such jobs as a journalist, messenger, and paper salesman. As late as the 1960s, after the publication of several volumes of poetry, Ignatow was still employed on the weekends as an admitting clerk at a hospital in order to fulfill his financial obligations. With his father's help in funding, Ignatow published his first volume of poetry in 1948, Poems. Although Ignatow served as co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal through the 1950s and worked briefly as poetry editor for the Nation in the early 1960s, he failed to achieve critical or public acclaim. He began teaching at various universities and became an adjunct professor at Columbia University in 1968, becoming senior lecturer in 1977. In 1968 Ignatow also became poet-in-residence and associate professor at York College of the City University of New York, where he became professor emeritus in 1984. Ignatow died November 17, 1997, in New York City. During his career Ignatow earned many prestigious prizes and grants, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the John Steinbeck Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and a Robert Frost Medal.
Common threads run through the more than one dozen books of poetry Ignatow published throughout his career. In general, he concentrates on urban life, on the lives of the working poor, and on the grittiness and violence of modern America. He features timely social issues such as the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the Vietnam War in his poetry. In addition, Ignatow's work is markedly autobiographical and confessional. Often, he writes of his own emotional reaction to a circumstance or event. His numerous poems about family relations, particularly with his father, son, and wife, resonate with guilt and bitterness. Despair marks many poems. However, Ignatow also is known for his wry humor, as demonstrated in pieces such as “Bagel.” Despite these commonalties, Ignatow's work has constantly evolved, as have his beliefs about the role of the poet and the nature of his craft. While Ignatow earlier stated that he rejected the European traditions of T. S. Eliot in favor of the distinctly American voice of William Carlos Williams, in later interviews he professed to see himself as a bridge between the two poets. In later works such as Facing the Tree (1975), Tread the Dark (1978), and Whisper to the Earth (1981), Ignatow increasingly embraces the subject of humanity and nature, moving further from his intensely urban focus. In addition, he adds metaphysical and philosophical components to his later works. Most notable is the greater sense of hope and joy with which he infuses his works beginning with his highly acclaimed collection Rescue the Dead (1968). While scholars have typified Ignatow's work as short poems written in straightforward vernacular language in free verse without formal structure or rhyme, many of his pieces are lengthy and incorporate intricate patterns. His numerous interviews as well as his critically acclaimed Notebooks (1973), reflections on his life and career, provide readers with many insights into the people and events that shaped his life, among them his years working in his father's factory, his troubled family life, and the influences of such sources as the Bible, Russian authors, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.
Acclaim and recognition have been slow to come for Ignatow. Despite frequent appearances in magazines such as Poetry, The New American Review, and The New Yorker, as well as the publication of more than fifteen volumes of poetry, Ignatow never achieved widespread notice, even among scholars. What is more, the reception his work did receive remained mixed throughout his career. Not only has the same poem inspired both hatred and adoration among reviewers, but often a reviewer will give a volume a divided assessment, citing poems that offend and others that are near-perfect. Reviews of Ignatow's first volumes of poetry centered on the stark vernacular, the troubled tone of the sometimes violent subject matter, and the intensely personal voice. Some critics were offended by Ignatow's matter-of-fact style as well as what they deemed distasteful subjects. Others praised Ignatow for tackling such important topics in an insightful and truthful manner, immediately noting the influence of William Carlos Williams. Williams himself gave Ignatow's first volume of poetry a positive review in 1948. Scholars concur that Rescue the Dead marked a turning point in Ignatow's career and represents some of his best poetry. Indeed, many critics maintain that pieces such as the title poem represent some of the greatest poetry of the era. By the conclusion of his life in the late 1990s, Ignatow had earned praise for his unique voice, his insightful and truthful look at modern, urban America, and his personal, unflinching examinations of family relations, suicide, and social change.