Poems to Spur Reflection

While searching for some novels at Bird Library recently, I discovered a poetry collection by an author whose work I would like to share. David Ignatow’s Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, Ltd. 1999) drew me in with its short poems, spare language and universal themes of family, advancing age and death.

I was also attracted to the small, black and white author photo to the right of the title; with his white hair, glasses and mustache, I felt an immediate affinity for David Ignatow. He seemed like a great uncle who would serve you lemonade on the porch of his house in the summer while discussing his crop of tomato plants.

The publisher’s note in the back of the book indicated Ignatow wrote most of the poems in the collection in 1996, a year before his death at age 83. He was born in 1914, raised in Brooklyn and passed away at his home in East Hampton, New York, on November 17, 1997. He wrote several poetry collections, served as a poetry editor and professor and earned numerous honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Robert Frost Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.

In Living Is What I Wanted, Ignatow reflects on his life and presents truths accessible to any reader; you don’t need an MFA in creative writing or a Ph.D. in English literature to understand or appreciate these poems. The most prominent subject is death, which seems to hover like the figure in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; yet Ignatow does not run from death, but rather greets it head on, accepting the inevitable.   

Here are a few selections from the book:

Staying alive

Reason for living.
I don’t have any.

What is your reason for not having a reason?
Is there a difference?

Are you that sour on life?
Can I separate one from the other?

What is your strategy for staying alive?
Isn’t being oneself enough?

Is it worth living without a reason?
Do I have a say in the matter?

Would you prefer not to have been born?
Did I have a mind of my own then?

Would you rather be dead now?
Do I have a choice?

Then you are opposed to suicide?
Isn’t living hard enough?

Then to live is to be brave and on the move.
Are you telling me?

What would you recommend for others?
Can’t they make up their own minds?

Then you should be congratulated.
Have I said something exceptional?

All living is lying

All living is lying:
we are unable to say what this life is.
We speak about it in metaphors
as if it could be other
than what it is, and even of ourselves
we say we are like this or like that.

Patient we wait
so that
once dead
we’ll know perhaps just who we were,
with others thinking back on us.

Where I built my house

Does being born matter
now that I am leaving it behind? Where
is a world I can go to
other than this ground
on which I walk and where I built my house?

Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.

Into the circle

To my friends I am in good health
and voluble, but I have moved
into the circle, after many years
in sun and shadow, having walked
as does a sightseer, in no fixed direction.

Into the circle I stand looking back
on that life. I cannot leave
nor seem to want to. As though programmed
I look out in an act of living.

Presence in an empty room

I must accept aches and pains of the body
if I am to accept
my presence in the empty room,
with no motive for being
in an empty room, and so
with no motive for being. If
I can accept aches and pains,
I exist.

Ignatow, David. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (American Poets Continuum). Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1999.