David Ignatow Ignatow, David (Vol. 4) - Essay

Ignatow, David (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ignatow, David 1914–

Ignatow, an American poet, employs a deceptively simple poetic language to reveal the dreams and agonies of city-dwellers. Many of his poems are about New York, the city in which he has always lived. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Ignatow does almost completely without the traditional skills of English versification. He makes no effort to assure his lines rhetorical effectiveness; the import of each poem is thus far too dependent upon what is said, given in a low, gentle, spell-breaking murmur. At his best, however, Ignatow often seems a real primitive, with the small, serene vision of the Douanier Rousseau or of Bombois. His narrative gift appears to me to be worthy of encouragement, and I look forward, queerly, since concision and concentration are integral to Mr. Ignatow's successes here, to longer work….

Ignatow's poems … rank with the most authentic now being written. What gives them their unique power is a kind of strange, myth-dreaming vision of modern city life, and the ability to infuse the décor of the contemporary city with the ageless Old Testament fatality of death and judgment: to make the traditional moral issues of the race count in an environment where seemingly they have ceased to, and to give them a fitting dramaturgy of symbol and image which not only brings the reader into the situations Ignatow writes about, but makes him subject to the same unchangeable laws: judges him, doesn't let him get away untouched. There is no obvious brilliance of language; in Mr. Ignatow's use, words are merely a vehicle for recounting what happened: what happens. The dramatic impact of each poem hits you foursquare, always convincingly, and the whole thing, the incident, the judgment, is what you remember. Mr. Ignatow's is a "total poetry" in a different sense from that in which the term is ordinarily used; not like that, say, of Hopkins or Dylan Thomas or Mallarmé. Rather than being word-oriented, it is an inspired and brilliantly successful metaphysical reportage, with an "I-was-the-man" authority that shakes the involved beholder to his bones.

James Dickey, "David Ignatow" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 25-8.

In what is the best poem in [Rescue the Dead], a three line epigraph, David Ignatow announces a new course, a new thrust in his poetry: "I feel along the edges of life / for a way / that will lead to open land." He doesn't find the open land in "Rescue the Dead," but he does come closer than ever before by looking away from the almost surreal urban landscape of his earlier work and into himself, the inner landscape of pain, suffering, and the dark joy of love. It is a bleak, cold world that David Ignatow lives in, but in these new poems he finds a strength to endure even as he seems to deny as strongly as ever the idea of prevailing, of really finding open ground. "If I live through the night," he says in one poem ("The Hope"), "I will be a species / related to the tree / and the cold dark." A faith in a silent God, in love, in some inner force that will struggle to endure, these impel Ignatow's inner journey. If he cannot sing the dawn, he is able to know the night, write a strong poetry of that knowing, and perhaps even rescue the dead from the dark. The result is his best book of poems.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1968), pp. ciii-civ.

What can you say about a poet who has written consistently excellent poetry for almost thirty years, and whose best work, as it should be, is always his most recent? Ignatow has been ignored by the anthologists, probably because he has never fit into any of the various "schools" of poetry. In the 50's he was neither a beat nor an academic, and in the 60's neither a Black Mountain, "deep image," or New York poet. Hopefully, the publication of Poems 1934–1969 will help make him as well known as he should be. Ignatow's work is a product of deep and often critical emotion, intelligence, spontaneity, and craft. None of these is previous to the others; all are subsumed by a completely individual voice whose language is a perfect mouth—wholly responsive, immediate, and personal. His poems are aesthetically impeccable, almost in a self-sufficient way, but they have the immediacy and the impact of a person speaking directly to you…. For all of its sense of reality, this is a deeply mysterious poetry. Its mystery is, of course, man; which is to say, David Ignatow, and also the reader. I've never read a poetry in which there is such a direct and immediate interplay between the poet and the reader. Ignatow's poems have a quality of reciprocal honesty on both sides of the words, a clean pure fear like cold water which is almost a kind of hope, and which exists in Ignatow's heart and in the heart of the reader. It's this quality which gives Ignatow's words their edge, their austere precision, as if you were reading them always for the first time, no matter how old the message is. And it's this quality which makes Ignatow's work some of the very best, if not the best, as well as some of the most frightening, being written today….

John Vernon, in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 196-97.

The wide span of years covered by David Ignatow's collection [Poems 1934–1969] surprised me. I suppose most people think of him as I always have, as a poet of the 'sixties, for it was in those years that the Wesleyan poetry series brought to his work the wider audience it now has. It is evident from this book that Ignatow is one of those rare writers who begin somewhat out of step and end up decades later sounding unquestionably contemporary. The times have had to catch up with him. His language, which is without ornament and brutal in its honesty, does not date. Ignatow is a master of that tough urban tone that derives ultimately from William Carlos Williams. It must be granted, too, that he has at times the characteristic defects of such a style. Among the large number of poems presented here, a fair amount are simply very raw slices of life or flat-sounding aphorisms….

The problem is not that the language is so direct—that is one of Ignatow's chief assets—but that a photographic description has taken the place of an imaginative engagement with the subject. But this is a drawback which Ignatow is usually able to overcome, particularly in his later pieces. While his language has remained unsparing, his anger and his sense of absurdity have grown sharper. Now he denounces what he sees by means of a kind of deadpan fantasy….

Ignatow should be read for the power of his indictments, and for his pure lyric moments, which emerge like dandelions from the cracks in sidewalks…. Reading this book from beginning to end we can chart the growth of awareness in a deeply civilized man who has forced himself to speak the truth amid the wreckage of civilization.

Robert B. Shaw, "Poets in Midstream," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1971, pp. 228-33.

Ignatow speaks of the world in which a man, if he cannot provide for his family very well, is not a man. He has no books, papers, rationalizations, or arguments to run to. He has only a world of mean bosses, petty customers, and a poor life….

Ignatow talks about a reality few poets perceive, the world where books will not help to mitigate the pain. Perhaps it is precisely that workingman's view of the world (I do not wish to imply here that Ignatow's writing is uneducated and without literary content, but simply that the surface of the poem is always that of the mild-mannered, neatly and inexpensively dressed workingman of the city) which may account for the fact that David Ignatow does not receive the attention he deserves from the literary establishment, is not given national prizes. That establishment, even the avant-garde, is filled with bookish people like myself who, even if they have had to live in the workaday world, almost never think about it, escape from it as fast as they can, and in some ways never "sully" their poetry with it.

How brave of David Ignatow to talk about these things and attempt to make poetry from them. Surely that is the object lesson of Williams's own lifework, though he luxuriously had a more interesting and rewarding life to choose from. When Williams eats the delicious icy plums in his refrigerator he can transform the note he leaves to his wife into a metaphysical love poem. Ignatow's icebox is more likely to have rotten apples in it….

I suppose it is unusual that I who love complex, ornate images, the music of dream poems, and long discursive narrative argumentative poems should find David Ignatow's poetry so attractive. But there is an honesty, a wholeness of vision, and a simple humanity in the work which I am drawn to.

Diane Wakoski, "Working Poet," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), December 30, 1971, p. 26.

There is [a] strong feeling in Rescue the Dead that the poet is at odds with himself for, among other things, being in love and having an occupation. The division between the two selves—the one wanting absolute freedom and the one functioning in society—provides subjects for several poems. Whichever "self" is chosen, the person behind the poems is unhappy.

Other poems exploit the bizarre, cruel, and sad. The sequence of three "Ritual" poems offers a vision of humanity as confused, purposeless, and vicious. One asks after suffering through the atrocities in this sequence, why live at all? Its closing line, "for to live is to act in terms of death," is in a curious relationship to the volume's epigraph: "I feel along the edges of life/ for a way/ that will lead to open land." So far (nearly halfway through Rescue the Dead), Ignatow has not found it, and I am beginning to think this is one of the most depressing collections I've run up against.

Ronald Moran, in The Southern Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1972, p. 251.

Ignatow's poetry owes its success to the Cold War as Wordsworth's did to the French Revolution. The national hostility meshed with Ignatow's harsh intuitions about father and wife, and about day-labor in New York City; it emblematized his rage and helplessness aging toward death. His short, aggressive poems emerge from a mind he compares to an armed camp and a fortified tank. They often begin with some violent assertion or mad conceit, play with it a moment, then conclude abruptly, like the fist-fights they often carry as metaphors.

Because Ignatow trusts his own whims and keeps his lyric voice steady, even the most hyperbolic wit seems reasonable, as reasonable as the newspaper stories we train ourselves to read without flinching. Except that somewhere in our souls we do flinch, and Ignatow's poems are aimed at that human response.

Laurence Goldstein, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1972, p. 214.

Starting out as a youngster in the Thirties, [Ignatow] has produced steadily. Slowly he has gained recognition, and after the early years of struggle, wretched jobs, yearning for response, he has been received with a certain respect by his fellows and has in consequence been awarded fellowships, grants, and invitations to talk about poetry in one academy or another. But as far as the greater public is concerned, the name-dropping public not only of the coffee table and the book club but of the exam room (Name 3 Major American Poets, beat, black, breast-beating), his name might as well be Ignoto as Ignatow….

The Ignatow of these poems [Poems 1934–1969] is very like a man in a Malamud novel—no, more like someone in a Bellow novel. I do not mean that formally he is at all like either of those writers; I mean rather that he comes to exist for us as one of Bellow's people comes to exist for us, in Chicago or on the Upper West Side, uniquely and centrally American in the way that urban Jews have come to be taken as representative Americans.

Harvey Swados, "David Ignatow: The Meshuganeh Lover," in American Poetry Review, May/June, 1973, pp. 35-6.

In some ways it seems presumptuous to "review" the notebooks of David Ignatow. The book represents, it is, a man's whole life…. There is so much unhappiness, frustration, emotional starvation, literary uncertainty reiterated in the book that at first, certainly, I found it unbearable. The cri de coeur not only reached me; it deafened me, at first, to the singularity of Ignatow's achievement.

My first thought was indeed that Ignatow has no humor, no associates outside business and his family, no subject matter in the actual world outside this anxious round, no magic, no fantasy. And Ignatow is indeed all too strikingly a man of feeling, living in a world of feeling. The burden of so much "feeling"—by which I also mean the generality and conventionality of many emotional reactions to his hard life—the problem (and so one to us) of a man living in what is too often exclusively a world of feeling—this can be over-whelming in its reiteration, and Ignatow certainly relies upon reiteration in order to make himself heard—by God, by the reader, by anyone out there in the silent dark that often surrounds him.

The trouble with having so much self-inflicted feeling, the trouble with any mental world too much pressed down with conscious "feeling," is that in our tightly organized mental hierarchy feeling seems to have no "solution," as indeed Ignatow is the first to complain in these pages. If "poetry makes nothing happen," as a much cooler customer than Ignatow said, too often the emotion that goes into poetry is not happening. It is just there, stuck on the page like a man's academic credentials. And when the emotions are happening, as in Ignatow's notebooks and better still in his poetry, the reader minds getting caught up, shaken up. Too vulnerable oneself, afraid of the assault, I found myself at first recoiling not so much from "emotion" as from the sometimes numbing consistency of Ignatow's writing, the repeated unrelieved quality that he brings to his notebook….

So all this presents an amazingly tight, rigorously severe and punishing picture of a man just held in thrall, of a man who feels that his life is not his own, of a classic compulsive, tragically internalized Jew. Ignatow is beset even by efforts that seem to present no redemption, and unlike so many with his problems, he does not even have conventional intellectual access to these problems. Neither Marx nor Freud nor any other messiah of intellect comes into this record with a helping hand.

Yet The Notebooks of David Ignatow become, after the first shock of much unrelieved suffering, a fascinating, even haunting book….

Many of the passages are clearly arguments for a poem, a poem seems to get itself secretly written in the course of many a notebook entry, and the passages succeed each other, as Ignatow's poems regularly do, by falling into the same cadence, manner, issue. This desperate sincerity, this sometimes unbelievable humility of manner, is Ignatow's witting or unwitting way of making something of his life. Largely, I would guess, on the basis of what Santayana called "animal faith," or the sheer intuition that can present itself to a writer by the nature of his experience; that the experience alone will bring him home to the form he needs in order to redeem his experience in the form of art….

What impresses me … is the fact that with passage after passage of … homely, sometimes touchingly unreal, attempts to reason his "suffering" out, the important thing is the spell his life has on him and so on the journal-like continuum of moods, laments, startled observations, accidents and near-catastrophes that has put his life into his poetry. In Ignatow's Poems 1934–1969 we really get a book, put together from single poems, rather than a selection of poems. The poems in this book are amazingly uniform in quality, but they make a book, they become a successful long poem that could have been called New York and is indeed a better long poem than Paterson. Precisely because of Ignatow's docility, the modest, the sometimes unbearable self-denial, of the city poet who has come out of so much suffering, and is so much up against it still that line after line is really an attempt to propitiate the Gods.

Alfred Kazin, "The Esthetic of Humility," in American Poetry Review, March/April, 1974, pp. 14-15.

Notebooks is the diary of a search for hope, uncompleted, but unabandoned….

What distinguishes Notebooks … is its lethal honesty, its awareness that self-revelation in any book is only as valuable as the light it throws on human problems…. What makes the book both fascinating and painful is its power to force the reader down through a series of increasingly demanding levels.

Circumstance is the first level: the bafflement, anger, violence and periodic despair of a man who knows he is a fine poet, and who feels that everything … has conspired to thwart his very nature, let alone his poetry. This is such an important aspect of the notebooks that it might easily be mistaken for their core….

But below this level is the question of poetry itself, its nature, its justification. Ignatow is cold toward poetry-as-artifice, poetry-sufficient-unto-itself, poetry-as-personal-therapy…. Poetry must be an open door, must be rooted solidly in a sharing, a reinforcement of mutual understanding….

He wants his poetry continually flexible, constantly responsive to the nuances of the outside world, of that reality that "withers quickly without constant delicate attention."

But even at this point, an important—the most important—level has not been reached. The circumstantial struggle, the esthetic struggle, are preparatory to the final effort, that of forming a total life, a total human being. Again and again Ignatow stresses that the grim fight for survival must be in the interest of the ultimate establishment of a serene and voluntary order. "I want my life on the level of ceremony and innocence."

Josephine Jacobsen, "Drama of Hope," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 29, 1974, pp. 26-7.