In keeping with his early allegiance to the nonpersonal poetry of high modernism, Irving Mordecai Feldman has been reluctant to share information about his own life; readers are expected to engage the poems. Not surprising, then, little is known about Feldman’s upbringing. The son of Russian Jews who had come to the United States only twenty years earlier, Feldman was born in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, just before the Great Depression. As Feldman was growing up, his family maintained its religious traditions for strength and consolation. As the disturbing news about the rise of Nazism filtered back to the United States from Europe, Feldman anxiously followed the fate of European Jews.
A precocious reader with an alert and curious mind, Feldman distinguished himself in school. Because of limited financial resources, Feldman attended the nearby City College of New York. He completed his bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 1950 and received an M.A. from Columbia in 1953. During his time in New York, Feldman relished the coffeehouse world of the urban bohemians, the lifestyle of bold artistic expression and defiant individual creativity amid a larger world perceived to be drab, complacent, and shallow.
From 1954 until 1956, Feldman taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Pedras. There he met and married avant-garde sculptor Carmen Alvarez del Olmo. In 1957, Feldman, a Fulbright fellow, taught at the Université de Lyon in central France. He returned the following year to teach at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio. In 1964, Feldman accepted a position at the State University of New York at Buffalo, becoming distinguished professor of English before retiring in 1994. Known for his contrarian spirit in vigorous classroom discussions and for his demanding expectations from those young poets he chose to mentor, Feldman became an institution at his university and in the Buffalo community. All the while, Feldman pursued his poetic endeavors and maintained a considerable network of acquaintances among his generation of poets—but stayed resolutely in the margins. Even the MacArthur grant did little to encourage Feldman to pursue celebrity. Although he occasionally gave public readings (most often at the Buffalo campus where he taught), Feldman regularly turned down requests for interviews, preferring the poems to speak for themselves. On his eightieth birthday, the university created a tribute Web site that included messages from former students and colleagues and numerous testimonials by critics and poets who lauded Feldman’s moral vision and the range of his formal expertise.