Working Poet

Poems 1934-1969

by David Ignatow
Wesleyan University Press, 272 pp., $7.95

The poems of David Ignatow are wry, they are about ordinary working life, and yet they are continually overlaid with a wisdom that is not so much from experience as from courage and intelligence. He might be called an urban Robert Frost, showing on the surface a simple soul, but beneath is always the finely honed blade of a witty, cynical, very perceptive and knowing man. I always hate to invoke the name of Frost in discussions of contemporary literature, since he is now so much out of vogue. But I will not cater to narrow minds on the subject of poetry.

Ignatow’s real mentor in tone and style is, of course, William Carlos Williams (whom it is fashionable to like, right now). He too glorifies the living fully of each mundane daily act. Celebrating the ordinary. And yet David Ignatow is not just a Williams disciple. His life, as an urban Jewish bankrupt businessman living through an economic depression, not having enough money to go to college, having a son confined to a mental institution for life, living around petty and stupid people, and having to moonlight at night on depressing jobs such as admissions attendant in a hospital, gives a kind of wicked desperation to the brevity, the wit of the poems. He seems to be saying: “By God, I’m going to stick out this miserable life and find something to love in it somehow.”

This desperation sometimes pushes the poet, without his realizing it, into an imaginative, almost surrealistic perception of the world (I think of poems like “How Come?” in which gigantic soap bubbles cover New York and then the whole country, “The Bagel,” “Last Night,” “News Report,” or “Versical Response”), but most often his poems are simple factual statements. What makes them memorable is their double-edged endings, almost always showing Ignatow’s attempt to declare to himself that life is bearable—life may be ironic but it isn’t so bad—while gently and sweetly showing how utterly unbearable it is.

No other poet I have read has so little self-pity, so much humility, and such an unbearable reality to deal with. His reality is precisely the one poets almost never experience or even think about. The nonintellectual petty bourgeois who must struggle from day to day in a world where his own values are measured by money yet never make enough of it himself. Intellectuals have a built-in resistance to the world of money. We can call it foolish, false, unreal—give us our books and papers and we survive. But 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. Many of Ignatow’s best poems are very short. Let me quote one here:

I stand and listen, head bowed,
to my inner complaint …

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