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David Ignatow is a poet known for turning autobiography into art and examining the self’s relationship with the environment. He offers both the enlightening spectacle of a man who has paid for his accommodation with life and a body of poetry combining deep-felt emotion, intellectual penetration, and a considerable technical facility. In addition to creating his own poetry, Ignatow worked as a poetry editor for American Poetry Review and The Nation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe economic slump that affected North America, Europe, and other industrialized nations around the world from 1929 to 1939. This long global downturn was the worst financial disaster ever experienced by the western world. The economic distress led to the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt put into place a number of interventions designed to stabilize the American economy, including using increased government regulation and sweeping public works projects to stimulate a recovery. His Works Progress Administration, established in 1935, offered work to the unemployed on an unprecedented scale. Despite his efforts, economic stagnation and widespread unemployment continued. it was not until the outbreak of World War II that the American economy started to improve. It was during the Great Depression that Ignatow came to maturity and formed the basic ideas that would appear in his later writing.
David Ignatow was born in Brooklyn on February 7, 1914, and spent most of his life in the New York City area. As a child, his parents openly discussed their anxieties about the family business. This made a lasting impression on Ignatow. As an adult, he recognized that he valued personal freedom above material success, and so opted not to join the family business after graduating from high school. Instead, he left home and took jobs that allowed him time and leisure enough to write poetry. Many of his later works would rail against materialism and other trappings of the modern world.
Early in his career he worked in a butcher shop. He also helped out in a bindery in Brooklyn, New York, which he later owned and managed. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, he sought employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a journalist. His father helped him with the funding to produce his first book, Poems,in 1948. Although the volume was well received, he had to continue working various jobs and find time in between to pursue writing. These jobs included work as a messenger, hospital admitting clerk, vegetable market night clerk, and paper salesman. other books followed, such as The Gentle Weight Lifter (1955) and Say Pardon (1961).
Finding His Voice
The Gentle Weight Lifter resembles Poems. Personal, familial concerns are largely absent; the attack on the system is still present, although more sharply focused, as in the succeeding volume on business. For example, Ignatow adopts the role of the enraged executive to striking effect in ”I Want”: ”I’ll tell him I want to be paid immediately. / I’ll sue him, I’ll tear down his place, / I’ll throw a fit.” On balance, however, this volume is quite different from Poems. Instead of actual social abuses, The Gentle Weight Lifter centers on the inner sense of alienation such abuses create. The general effect of The Gentle Weight Lifter is one of distance and impersonality, certainly not one of glossing over reality. Ignatow never wanders so far again, however, from the contemporary scene, and in the later volumes his parable poems are set in the present.
The parable technique dominates Ignatow’s social poetry in the early 1960s. A parable is a tale meant to convey a message or lesson to the reader. While Say Pardon contains several straightforward business poems and Figures of the Human (1964) includes some equally straightforward pieces on the evils of money, Ignatow directs his creative rage toward the broader subject of violence and social dissolution in the America of the Vietnam era. He employs a style with a distinctly surreal quality (”we’re a kind of surrealist nation,” Ignatow has stated).
Ignatow’s next book is widely considered his finest. More ambitious in style and thematic scope than Figures of the Human, Rescue the Dead (1968) makes obvious the essentially Romantic orientation of the poet. The collection depicts the achievement of a personal redemption, but before doing so Ignatow brings all to mind and reviews the agonies presented in his earlier poetry. The first of the book’s six sections treats the subject of parents and children.
Ignatow’s later volumes, Facing the Tree (1975) and Tread the Dark (1978), explore the self’s complex relationship with nature. Humanity is both part of nature and not a part: to sense one’s kinship with nature is comforting (but may be lethal); to perceive one’s difference from nature may increase his sense of self (but is lonely). On one hand, both books feature the consoling, Whitman esque idea that since humans are part of the natural pattern of cyclic renewal, they never perish entirely. The second section of Tread the Dark can be seen as a celebration of suicide. The volume concludes with a section of poems about poetry, a subject Ignatow has addressed occasionally in his previous work.
Ignatow’s work defies ready categorizing, and he has, in various pronouncements, rejected association with many of the prominent literary movements of his time. He disclaims identification with the proletarians of the 1930s, with the New Critical poets of the 1940s and 1950s, and with the confessional poets of the 1960s as well, although his agonized poems on personal relationships often seem confessional. Instead, he points to William Carlos Williams, another free verse poet, whose use of the American vernacular has clearly influenced Ignatow’s style, often termed ”plain,” ”prose-like,” and ”unrhetorical” by his critics.
Ignatow has written poetry on all aspects of both his personal and social/political experiences, and while the relative emphasis on these two categories varies from book to book, a dual focus has remained broadly typical in his career. Ignatow’s social poetry manifests a certain topicality: in the 1930s, he wrote poems about the Depression, in the 1940s, about World War II, in the 1960s, about Vietnam. More generally, the early work tends to concentrate upon the evils of business, while the later presents a more surreal vision of social violence and insanity. Ignatow’s double focus on social and personal matters is evident in his earliest work. His 1930s poetry collected in Poems 1934-1969 (1970) plays the topic of the Depression against unabashedly romantic views of sexual love. The poems of the 1940s treat the war and also the marital state, in which sexual excitement has given way to a dull domesticity.
Ignatow’s literary career consisted of a range of jobs. He edited American Poetry Review, Chelsea Magazine, Analytic, and Beloit Poetry Journal, and held the post of poetry editor for The Nation. The many schools and universities he taught at include Vassar College, the University of Kentucky, Columbia, and New York University. After serving as president of the Poetry Society of America from 1980 to 1984, he was poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association in 1987. Ignatow was the recipient of many awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the John Steinbeck Award, and a Bollingen Prize.
Works in Literary Context
When asked to name his influences, Ignatow replied, ”The modern poet most influential in my work was William Carlos Williams. Earlier influences were the Bible, Walt Whitman, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Hart Crane.” In Williams, as in the works of Peruvian surrealist Cesar Vallejo, Ignatow most appreciated ”the language of hard living; the universal language,” which is perceived ”in the lines of the poets where you can feel the mind running like an electrical current through the muscles,” he told Paris Review contributor Gerard Malanga. To do this, Ignatow employed a meditative, vernacular free verse to address social as well as personal issues.
Free verse poetry relies on the irregular rhythmic cadence of recurring phrases, words, and sounds rather than the conventional use of a set number of stressed and unstressed syllables per line. Free verse may or may not use rhyme. When it is used, it is with great freedom. Unlike conventional verse whose unit is measured by the foot or the line, free verse units are larger, sometimes running as long as a paragraph. Free verse was widely used by twentieth century poets. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams all employed free verse in their poems. As indicated by this list, free verse allows a great variety of subject matter and tone as well as modification of language. In an interview published in Boundary 2, Ignatow said of his method that he ”must try to structure the poem without losing the unstructured, random, elemental quality of things as they happen.”
William Dean Howells, one of realism’s greatest advocates, defined realism as ”the truthful treatment of material.” Realists, then, are believers in pragmatism. The truth they seek to find and express is a pluralistic, or diverse, truth. They believe in democracy and the subjects they choose to describe are common, average, and everyday. Realism’s chief subject matter is the surface details and minor catastrophes of middle-class society. Realists are broadly optimistic and their tone runs from comic and satirical to grim or somber.
Works in Critical Context
Direct statement and clarity were two of Ignatow’s primary objectives in crafting a poem. Fidelity to the details and issues of daily life in Ignatow’s poetry won him a reputation for being highly autobiographical. The poet Robert Bly said of Ignatow, ”In form, David Ignatow is a master of the natural or non-academic style pioneered by Whitman and William Carlos Williams. In content, he is a master also, this time of the harsh perception, the self-judgment reluctantly made.” Bly also remarked, ”I find him a great poet and a friend of the soul.” Ralph J. Millsobserved in Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry that Ignatow
has placed himself in the tradition of those genuine poets who have, in independent ways, struggled to create a living American poetry from the immediacies of existence in this country, from the tragedies and potentialities of its legacy, and from the abundant music and vitality of its language.
Mills also asserted, ”Authenticity speaks to us from every line of Ignatow’s poetry, reaching into our lives with the force and deliberation of the seemingly unassuming art which he has subtly and skillfully shaped.”
Living is What I Wanted: Last Poems
David Ignatow was, in writer Gerald Stern’s words, the ”gatekeeper between life and death.” Nowhere is that more apparent than in Living is What I Wanted: Last Poems, the poet’s twentieth and final collection. Vibrant with what Harvey Shapiro called ”the life of struggle,” the poems address the imminence of death honestly and boldly, acknowledging its necessity and its mystery. Ray Olson of Booklist noted that in this collection, Ignatow ”look[s] back on, over, and squarely at life.” Olson went on to praise the book for its ”simply wise and elegant pieces.”
- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
- Ignatow, David. The Notebooks of David Ignatow, edited by Ralph J. Mills. Ohio: Swallow Press, 1974.
- Ignatow, Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1975.
- Ignatow, Open between Us, edited by Ralph J. Mills. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1980.
- Ignatow, The One in the Many: A Poet’s Memoirs. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
- Mills, Ralph, J., Jr. Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1975.
- Poetry Foundation Online. David Ignatow (1914—1997). Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://www. poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3396.
- Web Del Sol. David Ignatow Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://www.webdelsol.com/ignatow/.
- Boa Editions, Ltd. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems by David Ignatow. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://boaeditions.org/bookstore/details.php? prodId=102&category=0&secondary=&keywords=.
- Poets Org. David Ignatow. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http: //www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/777.
- Shadowing the Ground. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://www.upne.com/ 0-8195-2195-7.html.
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