An Alphabet of Poets – I is for Ignatow (and Bly)




I wish I understood the beauty
in leaves falling. To whom
are we beautiful
as we go?

I lie in the field
still, absorbing the stars
and silently throwing off
their presence. Silently
I breathe and die
by turns.

He was ripe
and fell to the ground
from a bough
out where the wind
is free
of the branches

David Ignatow (1914-1997) from Against the Evidence: selected poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1993

You would think, because he is considered by some to be one of the “great” 20th Century American poets, that David Ignatow, would be well-known to contemporary readers. Say, like William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman or Robert Bly. But based on my experience I expect he will be a new name for many. And that is in spite of numerous honours including the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, The Bolingen Prize and the John Steinbeck  Award.

By luck I had one of his books in my library, not, because I have read much about him or seen his name a lot, but thanks to Robert Bly who introduced me to Ignatow through a small poem printed in a limited edition chapbook in 1997.

Attempting To Answer David Ignatow’s Question

I wish I understood the beauty
                                                                     in leaves falling. To whom
                                                                     are we beautiful
                                                                     as we go?

We are beautiful to the Mother as we go.
There are mysterious roads in jade that
Old men follow,
Routes that migratory birds walk on,
The circle dances
Iron filings do,
The things we cannot say.
Salmon find their way to old beds;
Sleeping bodies are not alone.

Robert Bly  from Holes That Crickets Have Eaten in Blankets, BOA Editions Limited, 1997

Bly’s poem was my introduction to Ignatow. The tiny Haiku- like or, if you will, imagistic poem of Ignatow, quoted by Bly, grabbed me right away. I have never forgotten it. It haunts me the way an important poem does. But it was only when I decided to profile Ignatow in my Alphabet of Poets for National Poetry Month that I began to discover more about him and his poems.

My first discovery was that the lines of Ignatow’s in Bly’s poem were from a three-part poem and that poem was dedicated to WCW, who I realized had to be William Carlos Williams. The poem was written after Williams’ death in 1963. This makes sense of the third stanza and honours Ignatow’s debt to Williams whom he cites, along with Whitman, as one of his most important poetic influences.

Ignatow wrote 16 books of poetry, three prose collections and edited a number of other collections in his long career. That output is even more impressive considering he spent much of his life into his early fifties working in a bindery, butcher shop, hospital ( as an admitting clerk), journalist, market night clerk and paper salesman. And later he began teaching at university and became an adjunct professor at Columbia in 1968 and became a senior lecturer in 1977 at 63! A full life lived to the lees!

His poetry, made more commanding by its spare, plain-spoken style, is rooted in the gritty matter of everyday living, its bumps, bruises and its joys and disappointments. And not just the small personal disappointments but the bigger ones of social injustice, violence and war. While at times meditative, he could also be trenchant and acerbic. While looking through his work I was surprised and delighted to see a war protest poem dedicated to Robert Bly.

All Quiet

For Robert Bly
Written at the start of one of our bombing pauses over Vietnam

How come nobody is being bombed today?
I want to know, being a citizen
of this country and a family man.
You can’t take my fate in your hands
without informing me.
I can blow up a bomb or crush a skull –
Whoever started this peace
without advising me
through a news leak
at which I would have voiced a protest
running my whole family off a cliff

from Against the Evidence

Bly, on the jacket blurb of Against the Evidence, salutes his poetic friend: He tells truths that are so bitter they seem sweet. I find him a great poet and a friend of the soul.

While Ignatow did write longer poems and was noted for his prose poems I am so taken by his earlier, imagistic work in the style of those first lines that dropped so deep and fast inside me. Lines that echo as they keep falling even now:

I wish I understood the beauty
in leaves falling. To whom
are we beautiful
as we go?

Here are some others:


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

I can so relate to this poem. I smile in rueful memory of writing a hate poem to MountMcKinley, its brooding, malign presence, on the dirt-encrusted back windscreen of a station wagon in Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska in 1974.

The Signal

How can I regret my life
when I find the blue-green traffic light
on the corner delightful against the red brick
of my house. It is when the signal turns red
that I lose interest. At night
I am content to watch the blue-green
come on against the dark
and I do not torture myself
with my shortcomings.

Ignatow may be a master of plain style but that style does not obviate mystery, does not make his work simplistic. Here is a poem that one commentator claims as his best:

Rescue the Dead

Finally, to forgo love is to kiss a leaf,
is to let rain fall nakedly upon your head,
is to respect fire,
is to study man’s eyes and his gestures
as he talks,
is to set bread upon the table
and a knife discreetly by,
is to pass through crowds
like a crowd of oneself.
Not to love is to live.

To love is to be led away
into a forest where the secret grave
is dug, singing, praising darkness
under the trees.

To live is to sign your name,
is to ignore the dead,
is to carry a wallet
and shake hands.

To love is to be a fish.
My boat wallows in the sea.
You who are free,
rescue the dead.

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