David Ignatow Ignatow, David - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poems 1948

The Gentle Weight Lifter 1955

Say Pardon 1961

Figures of the Human 1964

Rescue the Dead 1968

Earth Hard: Selected Poems 1968

Poems, 1934-1969 1970

Facing the Tree: New Poems 1975

Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly, 1975

The Animal in the Bush: Poems on Poetry 1977

Tread the Dark 1978

Sunlight: A Sequence for My Daughter 1979

Open Between Us, edited by Ralph J. Mills, 1980

Whisper to the Earth 1981

Leaving the Door Open 1984

New and Collected Poems, 1970-1985 1987

Shadowing the Ground 1991

Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994 1993

Night Drawings: Poems 1995

I Have a Name 1996

Gleanings: Uncollected Poems, 1950s and 1960s 1997

Living is What I Wanted: Last Poems 2000

The Notebooks of David Ignatow 1973

The One in the Many: A Poet's Memoirs 1988

Neil Weiss (essay date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Poets,” in Commentary, Vol. 8, June, 1949, pp. 611-12.

[In the following excerpt, Weiss remarks on Poems, noting Ignatow's concern with the lives of the urban working class.]

If last is the position of honor in an omnibus review, then it belongs to David Ignatow. That he is a poet at all is a modest but encouraging testament to the resiliency of the poet in a difficult place and time. He lives honestly at the bottom of a world and manages to make poetry out of it. But it is a healthy bottom, far below fakery and the “literary world”; and though it has been said of Ignatow that he is the kind of poet who may confuse art with artifice, we'll...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lives of the Poets,” in Poetry, Vol. 98, No. 4, July, 1961, pp. 247-48.

[In the following excerpt, Mills offers a favorable review of Say Pardon, stating that Ignatow offers a mature, personal verse.]

… Mr. Ignatow's Say Pardon is the best of these books if one thinks of the uniform quality of the work: the singularity of the poet's speech and the fulfillment of his themes within its bounds. This is his third collection, which certainly accounts in part for the settled quality of the tone and style. And that tone and style, as well as the material of the poems, appear to be such that we can guess Mr. Ignatow will be content to explore them...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

James Wright (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Plain Brave Music,” in Chelsea, No. 12, September, 1962, pp. 135-39.

[In the following essay, Wright describes the language from Ignatow's first three collections as pure and powerful.]

The poetry of David Ignatow has so far appeared in three books: Poems (The Decker Press, Prairie City, Ill., 1948), The Gentle Weight Lifter (Morris Gallery, 1955), and Say Pardon (Wesleyan University Press, 1961). A number of periodicals have also printed his work; but it was not until quite recently, I believe, that his work began to receive the critical attention that it deserves. I suppose the first of his volumes is out of print by now. But by...

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Victor Contoski (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time and Money: The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in The University Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1968, pp. 211-13.

[In the following essay, Contoski traces images of money in Ignatow's poetry, presenting it in terms of the poet's cosmology.]

Europeans know an American saying that summarizes our country for many of them: time is money. They may not know the saying in English, but it is readily translatable into any language and remains one of America's chief contributions to the culture of the world. David Ignatow, perhaps because he is a businessman himself, is particularly sensitive to the role of money in our society, and his treatment of money...

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Crunk (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Work of David Ignatow,” in Sixties, No. 10, Summer, 1968, pp. 10-23.

[In the following essay, Crunk chronicles Ignatow's career, revealing ways in which his poetry has changed and improved.]

We expect a poet to take pleasure with his words, as he would with his own hands and body. His body shapes the words, until the style of his poem has become the style of the pleasure he takes with himself. David Ignatow takes few pleasures with himself. His poems describe a world of unresponsive faces and emotions. In place of people, guilt; in place of light, brick tenements, and a wall. Ignatow hammers against the wall flatly, undramatically. Yet he carries odd...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nothing Hidden,” in The Nation, Vol. 210, 1970, pp. 470, 472-73.

[In the following review of Poems, 1934-1969, Mills praises Ignatow for revealing his most personal insights and exhibiting tremendous honesty.]

“The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts,” William Carlos Williams once observed. This impressive gathering of thirty-five years of David Ignatow's poems bears out Williams' remark. The important terms—“human value,” “intense vision” and “facts”—are descriptive of the kind of poetry Ignatow has produced so consistently, and too frequently without the recognition won by some of his...

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Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Circumscriptions: The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 164-86.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro theorizes on the impact of brevity and common place subject matter in Ignatow's critical appeal.]

David Ignatow began his poetic career announcing that he was “a man with a small song,” and the years since Poems (1948) have seen him extend the ranges of his poetry but never the magnitude of any single work. His individual poems are all “small songs,” and it is as a totality that they amount to something approaching a major voice. Randall Jarrell's remark in a review of The Gentle Weight Lifter...

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David Ignatow With William Spanos (interview date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Ignatow: A Dialogue with William Spanos,” in Boundary 2, Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 443-81.

[In the following interview, Ignatow discusses New Criticism, the popularity of his poetry, and the relationship of his writing to other poets.]


Mr. Ignatow, you've been writing good poetry—a small number would even say major poetry—since the 1930's, but you have begun to achieve the recognition you deserve only in the last few years. To what do you attribute—what shall I call it?—this “failure” of sympathy? Were you writing a kind of poetry that ran against the imaginative grain of your generation? I'm thinking,...

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Richard Lavenstein (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Man with a Small Song,” in Parnassus, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1975, pp. 211-22.

[In the following excerpt, Lavenstein finds fault with Ignatow's writing in Facing the Tree, Selected Poems, and The Notebooks of David Ignatow, accusing the poet of “intellectual slackness.”]

Over thirty years ago David Ignatow proclaimed himself “a man with a small song.” Now, many years and several books of poetry later, it remains a slogan of accurate description, a motto of modesty which, even as a banner (and how our poets love them), bespeaks a man nervous and uncertain, worried about the dynamics of lyric rather than length, asking finally to be judged...

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Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of David Ignatow,” in Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 289-97.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro examines the philosophical underpinnings of Ignatow's poetry.]

Goethe's view of style as resting “on the deepest fundamental ground of knowledge, on the essence of things,”1 and the discovery of this essence in a connaturality of reality and subjectivity lie behind Robert Bly's choices for The Selected Poems of David Ignatow. The decisions have been, in Bly's case, further transmogrified by the writings of Carl Jung, who makes no effort to hide the influence of Goethe and German...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Earth Hard: David Ignatow's Poetry,” in Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 67-133.

[In the following excerpt, Mills examines the issues that underlie Ignatow's writing as well as the method by which the poet achieves his impact.]

Earth hard to my heels
bear me up like a child …

—David Ignatow

Multitude, solitude: identical
terms and interchangeable by the
active and fertile poet.


David Ignatow is a latecomer, a dark horse in contemporary American poetry, chiefly because he was never recognized—nor did he think...

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Calvin Bedient (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Four American Poets,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 359-61.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient suggests that the success of selected poems in Facing the Tree indicate the quality that Ignatow might achieve.]

David Ignatow … began where Philip Levine began and has remained there, outside the great unities. The son of an immigrant Jew, he decided early that he would “never be able wholly to identify” himself with the country; and since his “business and family life” have proved a “tragic course,” as he painfully and repetitively observes in his Notebooks, he has concluded that “we stand alone …...

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Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Ignatow's Post-Vietnam War Poetry,” in Centennial Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 219-27.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro urges readers to see Ignatow's anti-war poetry as part of a larger world view.]

Audiences are likely to view David Ignatow's work in terms of Rescue the Dead (1968) and his various protests against America's involvement in Vietnam. The view is understandable, given the nearness of the volume's publication to Ignatow's appearance on the national scene and the liberal and anti-Vietnam War tones of the book and Ignatow's verse during the late sixties and early seventies. But the view wrongly fits Ignatow's...

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Diane Wakoski (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Ignatow: Three Appreciations,” in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 35-37.

[In the following excerpt, Wakoski extols Ignatow's contribution to a uniquely American style of poetry.]

Williams said that David Ignatow is “a first-rate poet … to whom language is like his skin.” I would add that David Ignatow is a first-rate poet whose work represents what is most American in 20th century poetry and whose work, like Williams', uses an American rather than a neo-European or “new-England” language.

It continues to be a disease in this country to worship those things European and English as more cultured, more...

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Linda W. Wagner (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Ignatow: Three Appreciations,” in American Poetry, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 37-41.

[In the following excerpt, Wagner argues that Ignatow creates a personal bond with his readers that gives his works greater resonance.]

Taking our cue from Ignatow's poems themselves, I would like to stress that—much as we love the poet—our attention falls on the words, the lines, the open and yet always coercive form of Ignatow's poems. Those poems give us insight, direction; they express the anger and the joy of living; and they also provide a map for our own voyage of discovery. From “Stages,” “I am somewhere left behind in a dream / that did not...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Very Few Faces of God,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, March, 1987, p. 18.

[In the following review, Carruth remarks favorably on the poetry collected in New and Selected Poems, 1970-1985.]

“The soldier is convinced that a certain interval of time, capable of being indefinitely prolonged, will be allowed him before the bullet finds him, the thief before he is caught, men in general before they have to die. This is the amulet which preserves people—and sometimes peoples—not from danger but from the fear of danger, which in certain cases allows them to brave it without actually needing to be brave.” This wisdom from the world...

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David Ignatow With Leif Sjöberg (interview date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Interview with David Ignatow,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 143-62.

[In the following interview, Ignatow discusses the influence on his writings of various poets including Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.]

Leif Sjöberg

Why does Whitman play such a large part in your poetry, especially in your earlier work?


Whitman has never ceased playing a large role in my poems. One has only to read the more recent book, Tread the Dark, published in 1978, to recognize how importantly I take him and his work and ideas....

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Robert Bly (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “David Ignatow and the Dark City,” in American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Harper & Row, 1990, pp. 87-100.

[In the following excerpt, Bly examines the themes that have typified Ignatow's work.]


David Ignatow has broken free of a naïveté so typical of American poets. Whitman is his master, along with William Carlos Williams, but he sees that Whitman's insistence that we are all brothers, and friends, or should be, will lead directly to murder and insanity.

Let us be friends, said Walt …
and cemeteries were laid out
miles in all directions
to fill the plots with the old
and young, dead of murder,...

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Robert Buttel (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jangling & Gritty,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 16, No. 5, December, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review of Against the Evidence, Buttel praises Ignatow's voice, which Buttel argues depicts the reality of American urban life with gruffness and insight.]

In a photo on the front cover of Against the Evidence, David Ignatow stares out sternly at potential readers, as if to warn off those desiring to find ingratiating poems characterized by lyrical grace or elaborate design. In “Hello,” a brash broadside, he satirizes such poetry, ridiculing the presentation of a national award to a prominent poet for the perfect form of his poems:...

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David R. Slavitt (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eastward Ho!,” in New England Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 198-99.

[In the following excerpt, Slavitt reviews Against the Evidence, finding some of the works sentimental and flat but a few flawless.]

… I wanted to close with a few pleasant words about David Ignatow's book [Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994] which represents most of a lifetime's work in poetry. Here and there, I was able to find some fine small poems, like this one.


In place of you
the moon is a presence
in my room I must turn
my back on to sleep
in the dark.


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David Wojahn (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994, in Poet, Vol. CLXV, No. 4, January, 1995, pp. 219-21.

[In the following excerpt, Wojahn reviews Against the Evidence, which, he argues, is primarily about money, family, and mortality.]

Since David Ignatow began publishing in the early 1930's, his career has spanned ten presidential administrations, and four wars. He has witnessed the waxing and waning of literary modernism, and has come to enjoy the status of Grand Old Man. With the exception of Stanley Kunitz, no prominent American poet of today has been gifted with such a long career; but Ignatow's longevity seems not to have tempted him...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Gary Pacernick (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of I Have a Name, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 72, Spring, 1998, pp. 169-70.

[In the following review, Pacernick contends that the poems in I Have a Name contain the best elements of Ignatow's earlier work as well as a greater sense of acceptance and maturity.]

In Cry of the Human, his remarkable collection of essays about contemporary American poets, Ralph J. Mills, Jr. takes the book's title and epigraph from a passage of David Ignatow's poetry: “… to be alone, to eat and sleep alone, to adventure alone: cry of the human …” In his long introductory essay, Mills writes “the contemporary poet recreates himself as a...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Ignatow, David. “The Beginning.” In American Poets in 1976, pp. 130-42. Edited by William Heyen. Indianapolis, Ind. Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1976.

Chronicles Ignatow's struggles and desire to become a poet despite family circumstances.

———. “Living with Change.” In Literature & the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, pp. 193-208. Edited by Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981.

Recounts incidents in Ignatow's life pertaining to race, teaching, and writing.

Lewis, Joel. “Souvenirs from a...

(The entire section is 549 words.)