(Poets and Poetry in America)

In turn metaphysical, allegorical, satirical, and lyrical, at once emotional and cerebral, indignant and compassionate, Irving Feldman’s verse boldly defies categorization. With a moral earnestness grounded in his generation of Jewish American writers’ profound reaction to the Holocaust, the poems, despite their rich variety, share a significant imperative: to define the value of the soul in a universe appallingly uninterested in such larger implications. What good, Feldman asks, is searching for clarity in a world of crushing brutalities and casual tragedies, a world defined by random death and a Kafkaesque absurdity? Feldman conceived of the Poet, always uppercase, as a troubled (at times caustic) moral visionary, defining the unsettling position of the inquiring eye and curious mind in a dark time.

That Feldman’s poetry refuses easy surrender to the inevitability of pessimism, that it celebrates the value of speculation on the difficult history of the Jews, defines the intellectual satisfaction of his poetry for those readers willing to engage its obvious erudition. Influenced by modernism and by its deep investigations into a wide variety of forms and poetic lines, Feldman’s work reflects a restless experimentation with and a deft mastery of virtually every traditional poetic form from haiku to lyric, from satire to allegory. His verse expands the musical range of language while maintaining a tight structure; he crafts poetic lines that reflect his belief that the work of the poet is to sculpt language into meaningful order. Unlike the Beat poets, who came of age in the same bohemian neighborhoods of 1950’s New York City, Feldman found in the traditional forms of poetry a satisfying assertion of aesthetic privilege.

The Pripet Marshes, and Other Poems

Although Feldman had established his reputation with Works and Days, and Other Poems, that collection, with its cool cerebral interrogation of philosophical issues, did not anticipate Feldman’s follow-up collection, published a scant four years later. Like novelist Philip Roth, to whom Feldman is often compared, Feldman here adopts a more intimate voice, the voice of a Jewish American who came of age during the revelations of the Holocaust, the voice of the generation of witnesses who were distant from the actual events yet very much part of their implications. The empowered poet executes tightly designed lyrical constructs while the larger world defies such logic and exposes the poet’s helplessness.

The prologue celebrates the omnipotence of the poet-creator shaping entire worlds within the rich confines of the imagination, and subsequent poems...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)