Feldman, Irving (Mordecai)

views updated

FELDMAN, Irving (Mordecai)

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 22 September 1928. Education: City College of New York, B.S. 1950; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1953. Family: Married Carmen Alvarez del Olmo in 1955; one son. Career: Taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, 1954–56; University of Lyons, France, 1957–58; and Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1958–64. Since 1964 distinguished professor of English, State University of New York, Buffalo. Awards: Jewish Book Council of America Kovner award, 1962; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1963; American Academy grant, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1980; Emily Clark Balch poetry prize, 1983; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1986; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1987; MacArthur fellow, 1992. Address: Department of English, State University of New York, Buffalo, New York 14260, U.S.A.



Work and Days and Other Poems. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Deutsch, 1961.

The Pripet Marshes and Other Poems. New York, Viking Press, 1965.

Magic Papers and Other Poems. New York, Harper, 1970.

Lost Originals. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1972.

Leaping Clear. New York, Viking Press, 1976.

New and Selected Poems. New York, Viking Press, 1979.

Teach Me, Dear Sister, and Other Poems. New York, Viking Press, 1983.

All of Us Here and Other Poems. New York, Viking, 1986.

The Life and Letters. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Beautiful False Things. New York, Grove Press, 2000.


Critical Studies: The Poetry of Irving Feldman: Nine Essays, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1992; "Lyric Suffering in Auden and Feldman" by Harold Schweizer, in English Language Notes (Boulder, Colorado), 31(2), December 1993; "'So There Were These Two Jews …': The Poetry of Irving Feldman" by David R. Slavitt, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), 34(1), 1997.

*  *  *

Irving Feldman's poetry strives, as one critic has said, "to infuse the tangible word with numinous significance." While such an attempt at transcendence is more or less doomed to failure—as Feldman himself seems aware—he has pursued it with wit, humility, and a refreshingly varied and agile poetry. "Life is unhappy, life is sweet!" concludes his newly born Gingerbread Man, ecstatic at the "thrilling absolute of original breath" ("As Fast As You Can," in Lost Originals), and Feldman's work is inspired throughout by this sense of tragic optimism.

The tragic heroes of his first book, Works and Days, are figures like Cato and Prometheus, overwhelmed by their fate and yet ultimately revenged, in the latter's case by humor: "the rictus of cosmic spite. / Then nothing really mattered—as his mirth bubbled off in a mist. / / O come to the mountain and see a suit of clothes on a nail" ("Non-being," Works and Days). Feldman examines the fates of heroes of all types, from the mythic Prometheus and the Gingerbread Man, to Charles Olson and the passengers on the Titanic, to the fictional Antonio, the inept Spanish botones, or bellboy (of "Antonio, Botones," in Leaping Clear), who becomes a paradigm of innocence and humanity passed over by progress.

Family and friends, Jewish society and customs, politics, religion, painting, and philosophy all take equal weight in Feldman's work, and as frustrating as this puckish diversity can sometimes be, it is welded together by his search for a transcendent knowledge—or at least a transcendent joy in the continuity and identity of life's faceted brilliance. As he says of the fat, balding athletes in "Handball Players at Brighton Beach,"

   So what! the sun does not snub.
   does not overlook them, shines.
   and the fair day flares,
   the blue universe booms and blooms

Amid life's coruscating reality there looms always a brighter ideal.

Like his subject matter, Feldman's technique is highly varied and his forms diverse. Although he often adopts or adapts the ballad, elegy, or other established forms, his writing has frequently turned to the vernacular line, and many of his later works are set in paragraphs. Even earlier, for instance in the title poem of The Pripet Marshes, he began to use prose stanzas:

Often I think of my Jewish friends and seize them as they are and transport them in my mind to the shtetlach and ghettos.

And set them walking the streets, visiting, praying in shul, feasting and dancing. The men I set to arguing, because I love dia lectic and song …

"Dialectic and song" is an ensign of Feldman's diversity, and many influences are present in his work, from the classical references of Works and Days to Whitmanesque songs or a bit of Olson's objectivism. Feldman has rarely rested in a single influence, and his real poetic kin are meditative poets like John Ashbery and Richard Howard.

Transmuting personal and intellectual experience in his highly dense, thoughtful poetry, Feldman clearly identifies the writing of poetry itself (in "Colloquy") with the project of transcendence, as even the titles Magic Papers and Lost Originals indicate:

   I have long wanted to confess
   but do not know to whom
   I must speak, and cannot
   spend a life on my knees.
   Nonetheless, I have always
   wanted to save the world

Through his dialectic and song Feldman tries to save the world not only in the political and religious senses but also in the sense of reclamation. "We wake to poetry from a deeper dream, a purer meditation—expanse of light in water pressing unquenched on our eyes" (second elegy in "New Poems," in New and Selected Poems), and he rejoices in the writing of poetry itself for its revivifying of the senses, its assertion of time's ineluctable continuity, and its appreciation of a moment's glorious effulgence:

   And the light
   off ridge, rock, window, deep
   drop) says,
        I leap clear.

—Walter Bode