David Ignatow Ignatow, David (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ignatow, David 1914–

Ignatow, an American poet, employs deceptively simple poetic language to reveal what James Dickey terms "a strange, myth-dreaming vision of modern city life." Many of his poems are set in his native New York City. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

William Carlos Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in "Poems"], the best of them, ought to be printed on pulp and offered at Woolworth's, a dime a copy. They'd sell, too. For these are poems for the millions, in the cities and out of them, those who would read, and read poems too, poems such as these, if only they could get to them: manna in the wilderness….

[The] work can be respected by those who know what good writing means and yet it touches and illuminates the humblest lives about us—without that offensive patronage which uses humanity for the effects of art. When I first picked up the book I paged through it lightly in the usual way, but soon came to a poem that attracted me, "To a Friend Who Has Moved to the East Side." It starts:

          What did you expect you were getting?

That's enough, in a short review, to give the effect of my meaning. There's the language and there's the straight look that goes with it. From that point on I read with interest. But the Fifth Section convinced me that I was dealing with a first-rate poet. Here you will find five poems, the accumulated work of Mr. Ignatow's thirty-four years at the craft, whose tragic force, economy of language and plastic sense governing the words begin to shape up into something impressive. I was deeply moved….

[It is] from such a man as Mr. Ignatow, to whom language is like his skin, [that we must] look for those innovations which will set us upon our feet in our writing….

Mr. Ignatow writes of what he knows. Therefore most of the poems come from the New York City "underworld." There's no slang. Slang is mere escapism. But this is almost an odor, foul with love. Such poems as those in the Fifth Section would be understood by a North Dakota farmer's wife in January and cheer her against the snow….

Mr. Ignatow, in the best of the work, gives a new sense of a low, melodious humming.

William Carlos Williams, "Poetry with an Impressive, Human Speech," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1948, p. 50.

Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Ignatow's poems have an unusual openness to the consciousness of the collective. We are more used to poets open to the personal unconscious. If the "dark side" is thought of as a part of the personal unconscious, we notice that David Ignatow sees his dark side clearly only after he has seen it reflected in the angers and frustrations of the collective, when he sees it embodied in a stabber moving through a subway car. He is a poet of the community, of people who work for a living, as Whitman was too, but he is also a great poet of the collective. Reading him we experience in a deep way our union with the collective. (p. 127)

"Rescue the Dead" is a mysterious and marvellous poem, in which the meanings of "to live" and "to be dead" keep shifting, as well as the meanings of "to love" and "to be alive." There is some sort of ecstasy in the poem as well, perhaps from having faced these intricate ideas so imaginatively.

Like Rilke, Ignatow notices that human emotions are not becoming less insistent, but more insistent, and they have greater influence upon events. The sorrow cannot be dissipated. The stairs he goes down in a dream, if not "built by human hands," then perhaps were built by God, or by hard, chill instincts. The poem with those stairs in it is another hint that Western man is moving again into the nonhuman, into a state that interested the Greeks.

It is thought that rituals are a form that instinct behavior takes in human beings, modified by civilization. It is interesting that Ignatow has written three "Rituals."

His work says that we are caught in the collective consciousness, and therefore we are unable to rescue the dead, who now live helpless in that vast consciousness, longing to be rescued. "You who are free, rescue the dead." I think one of David Ignatow's loveliest qualities is that unlike Shelley, who claims he is free and we are all imprisoned, Ignatow does not claim to be free. He asks those who are free to rescue the dead. (p. 128)

Robert Bly, "An Afterword" to David Ignatow: Selected Poems (copyright © 1975 by Wesleyan University; reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press), Wesleyan University Press, 1975, pp. 127-28.

Peter Cooley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Ignatow can no longer be considered "anti-poetic." American poetry in the last few years has finally caught up with what Ignatow has been working on for years, and the flatness of his idiom, the decided effort to write out of the here-and-now, the search for a commonality between poet and ordinary citizen can be found in hundreds of his imitators. For Ignatow's influence to be so late in coming (his first book was published in 1948), he had to be ignored for years. He was. Perhaps only the "discovery" of William Carlos Williams, to whom he willingly acknowledges a debt, allowed Ignatow, too, to be recognized in the 1960's.

[Facing the Tree] is no radical departure from the Ignatow tradition but a development of it. The poet can assume now that we understand his basic aesthetic; that understood, he can sometimes step beyond it. This poem ["Content"] from Say Pardon is his famous observation on "what is":

                     I should be content
                     to look at a mountain
                     for what it is
                     and not as a comment
                     on my life.

Ignatow still likes to make a poem out of almost nothing, daring us to take it as poetry, to question its slightness. (pp. 473-74)

Like the Black Mountain poets—with whom he otherwise has little in common—he envisions a poem as one continuous speech, not image, unit. Ignatow, unlike Olson or Creeley, however, sees the poet as a definitive moral force; he is the witnesser of the thing, the thing as total experience, not image nor construct. (p. 474)

[His] plain speaking is deceptive enough to cause one critic mistakenly to insist, "nothing should be taken for more than it says on the surface," when describing this poet. Ignatow is shot full of tonal ambiguities and ironies in almost every poem, though, and paradoxes, too, if I can dare to pull on another term out of favor at the present. The prose poems in this volume contain his usual virtues, but their form stretches out the flatness we find in the verse and that parable-quality found in so many of his poems is slacker and more indulgent in his prose. (pp. 474-75)

Peter Cooley, "Visions and Revisions: Four Poets," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1976), Vol. XV, No. 4, Fall, 1976, pp. 473-80.∗

James K. Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Dry mustard with a tinge of dun" might well be used to describe the color of a good deal of the poetry in David Ignatow's Facing the Tree…. Ignatow is a poet with modest ambitions…. Ignatow, born the same year as Berryman and Jarrell, is clearly a poet of a different order. Berryman could not conceivably have written for Ignatow as Ignatow writes in "For John Berryman." The final stanza is compact of fuzzy sentiment, feelings of omnipotence and of self-righteous self-pity…. Yet it is not fair to say of Ignatow that flatness is all. There are poems which clearly establish a slender claim to survival. In "For Marianne Moore" he praises Miss Moore's affirming joy over flowers in her garden not yet named.

                         for though she saw
                 them it was not for her
                   to name them
                   and to lose their life
                   in words.

In such poems as "The Future," "Birds in Winter," and "Autumn," Ignatow's feeling for the mystery of existence does not lose its life in words. (pp. 351-52)

James K. Robinson, "Sassenachs, Palefaces, and a Redskin: Graves, Auden, MacLeish, Hollander, Wagoner, and Others," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1978, by James K. Robinson), Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 348-58.∗

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first poem in David Ignatow's ["Tread the Dark"] is "Brightness as a Poignant Light." We know its importance to him because he has placed it first and has taken his book's title from it. But beyond that it is important to the book itself, a statement of the major theme, and will become important, I think, to all who read it….

Notice that Mr. Ignatow has made his poem from the most conventional ideas in our culture: intellectual light, the darkness of reality, silence, the passing of generations. Notice as well the spareness of language, the absence of trickiness. In an age of artifice, such as we appear to be inhabiting, many may fail to respond to this conventionality and simplicity, which will be their loss, for another definition of poetry is a new perceiving of the roots of convention, a re-seeing. This is Mr. Ignatow's gift, to bring the inevitable conventionality of human response to new expression. (p. 14)

Each word of the poem is right, i.e., practical, practiced….

His poems are lyrical meditations, many in the shape of parables, which go directly to the sources of our fear, hope, hatred, etc. With never an expressly religious or philosophical word, he nevertheless speaks to us from the spirit of humankind that created religion and philosophy to begin with. And the spirit is genuine. It is new; not because of invention, since anyone can create a new metaphor or think up a new twist on...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Tread the Dark] contains some of the best work of [David Ignatow's] that I have seen. Ignatow … is contemptuous of "perfect form": in Poem 88 he mocks, in one of his few explicitly angry statements, the American poetry establishment which at one time made a virtue of well-groomed, fastidiously-wrought incapacity. It is hardly a revelation to say that Ignatow writes in the tradition of Whitman and Williams, and that he has developed a conversational, understated tone that would make a poem of his immediately recognizable anywhere. Yet in Tread the Dark, in the parable-like prose poems especially, there is a quizzical, highly intellectual consciousness at work, an intelligence that hides itself, paradoxically, behind what might be called the "simple speech" of everyday life. Ignatow's art isn't simple, however, any more than Williams's was. One encounters in their poetry the casual ease of common speech employed to record distinctly uncommon states of mind and the effect, when most successful, is far more striking than a well-wrought infinitely self-conscious poem of Wallace Stevens's…. Ignatow's poems in Tread the Dark seem to be almost exclusively about poetry, even when they deal, metaphorically with images far removed from the poetic consciousness….

Ignatow always reads like a confessional poet, which is one of the disguises he takes; he sounds defiantly personal, yet the reader comes away with almost no knowledge of his personal life. His vision is austere, as well as ironic and frequently self-deprecatory: you may think he is speaking of Ignatow, but how can he speak of Ignatow since his very identity is a mystery to him? There are many "I's" in Tread the Dark and they are all convincing….

[The] book is constructed like a journal: one has the impression of reading the poet's thoughts as they move, and change, from day to day. Images of death, pain, and despair appear to be transformed gradually into images of acceptance, even pleasure, but the transformation is certainly not a mechanical one, and it is not without that quirky reasonableness in the face of the unbearable that is a characteristic of Ignatow's poetry. (p. 28)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Joyce Carol Oates on Poetry," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 24, December 9, 1978, pp. 25-30.∗

Michael Benedikt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Ignatow has one of the strongest, strangest voices, and one of the most unique histories as a writer, of any contemporary American poet. Privileged with an extraordinary gift—that gift evident even in his earliest poems, published during the 1930's, but not represented in book form until two small collections published mid-century (Poems … and The Gentle Weight Lifter …), Ignatow was not really recognized as a major writer until the 1960's with [the] publication during that decade of three collections, Say Pardon, Figures of the Human, and Rescue the Dead. Today Ignatow continues to be both one of the most curiously rewarding and perhaps most unrewarded poets of his period. Like...

(The entire section is 973 words.)

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is an almost total absence of human sympathy [in Tread the Dark], of concern for others' suffering. The poems are utterly solipsistic, outgrowths of a single, self-conscious, meditating sensibility…. (p. 469)

Over the years, Ignatow has worked to become a kind of poet of the people, in the tradition of Whitman and Williams. In order to carve out his own territory, Williams had to attack the elitism and intellectualism of Eliot—and a refreshing attack it was. Ignatow has a poem here directed against the elitist and Platonic concept of "perfect form" in poetry. He makes some telling points—unless you are an upright citizen, stolidly middle-class, white, prosperous, you do not belong in the poetry of perfect forms…. The great American writers have almost always been rebels and outcasts, shaggy, writing poems and novels in a clearly imperfect form.

I sympathize. But this is an elitist book that violates its author's own concerns; it forms an exclusive little world of one. The only citizen is David Ignatow, who carefully excludes even his readers. Poem after poem is preoccupied only with the imagined death of the author—he meditates on his potential suicide, on his decay, on his inevitable alienation and isolation. Humanity finds all doors into this book locked. The sufferings of others, their deaths in a loneliness and a pain we can easily imagine because we see them every day—these are as nothing to David Ignatow. It is impossible to empathize with the cold, self-absorbed solipsist who speaks these poems, despite the obvious skill with which they were written. (pp. 469-70)

Peter Stitt, "Book Reviews: 'Tread the Dark'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 469-70.

Manly Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A reader will be struck at once by the call for attention of [the poems in Tread the Dark]—the way, in Heidegger's apt expression, that they "presence" themselves. The poems are convincing as authentic personae. Though they have one voice, Ignatow's, they are the different guises he speaks through: an abandoned animal in a cage, himself as his own child, an old man who regresses to an ovum, a suicide, a zebra, a wax figure in a museum, a vase, an explorer, a leaf. They reveal Ignatow's compulsion to accumulate all the things of the world in himself. But they will not stay there, separating themselves to sit regarding him from a distance, or inside his head.

The collection is in fact not...

(The entire section is 418 words.)