Poem of the Week, Arc Magazine
Updated: Jan 28
BY DAVID IGNATOW
This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves. Perhaps I missed a leaf or two but I do feel triumphant at having persisted in counting by hand branch by branch and marked down on paper with pencil each total. Adding them up was a pleasure I could understand; I did something on my own that was not dependent on others, and to count leaves is not less meaningful than to count the stars, as astronomers are always doing. They want the facts to be sure they have them all. It would help them to know whether the world is finite. I discovered one tree that is finite. I must try counting the hairs on my head, and you too. We could swap information.
Why I started to write Prose Poems
By David Ignatow
Well, the lyrics have limitations. I've found myself impatient with the lyric form. And that's the reason I changed my style, a rebellion against the traditional, contemporary, lyric form of, say, William Carlos Williams. I had had it that way. I found my language was responding to the form rather than to my sensibilities. I was getting a little too self-conscious about it. So I decided: Cut loose and give emphasis to the imagination rather than to the line. By “imagination” I mean also the intelligence within the imagination, giving the intelligence its opportunity to explore the imagination as far as it will go. Of course it has a form, but it's a form that constantly renews itself because the intelligence is restless. Emotions tend to repeat themselves over and over again, whereas the intelligence is constantly renewing itself, recreating itself. Therefore, I feel in the prose poems the emphasis is on the intelligence with an undercurrent of emotion. In the lyric form the emphasis was on the emotion and the intellect was the undercurrent. I'm also following Pound's rule, that poetry should be as good as good prose. That it's a vernacular, colloquial thing. And vernacular, the colloquial, doesn't sing. It talks. If you want to sing, then you write an elevated line, an elevated language. Occasionally, I'll do that. There are moments. But, on the whole, the contemporary tradition is talking. And if that's the case, then why not come out and use the prose line?
Biography: Born in Brooklyn on February 7, 1914, David Ignatow spent most of his life in the New York City area.
He was the author of numerous books of poetry, including Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, 1999), At My Ease: Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties (BOA Editions, 1998), I Have a Name (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1996), Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994 (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1994), Despite the Plainness of the Day: Love Poems (Mill Hunk Books, 1991), Shadowing the Ground (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1991), and New and Collected Poems, 1970-1985 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), among many others.
During his literary career, Ignatow worked as an editor of American Poetry Review, Analytic, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Chelsea Magazine, and as poetry editor of The Nation.
He taught at the New School for Social Research, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, Vassar College, York College of the City University of New York, New York University, and Columbia University. He was president of the Poetry Society of America from 1980 to 1984 and poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association in 1987.
Ignatow's many honors include a Bollingen Prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, the John Steinbeck Award, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters award "for a lifetime of creative effort." He received the Shelley Memorial Award (1966), the Frost Medal (1992), and the William Carlos Williams Award (1997) of the Poetry Society of America.
He died on November 17, 1997, at his home in East Hampton, New York.