"So There Were These Two Jews.": The Poetry of Irving Feldman

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In an extraordinarily graceful essay in The Poetry of Irving Feldman: Nine Essays edited by Harold Schweitzer (Bucknell University Press, 1992), Denis Donoghue begins his observations almost apologetically: "I can't claim that his people are my people, his God my God; I can't speak of the Holocaust, I can't claim to stand within a particular representative privilege by the war, except in the sense which must be notional that we are all, whatever else we are, human. We have sympathies, correspondences, certain powers, however limited, of imaginative identification." And he goes on to claim a relation with the poetry that is, as he calls it, "provisional in perhaps limiting senses."

My own relationship to Irving Feldman's poems is different, closer but still with a reach. Feldman was born in 1928, so his experience of World War II was more vivid than mine. His Bar Mitzvah would have been in 1941, a hell of a year to come into moral responsibility. Mine, in 1948, was a couple of months before Israel's declaration of independence--a much more hopeful time. My mother was born in Brooklyn, where Feldman comes from, but she'd moved up, so that I am a native of Westchester County. Feldman went to City College ("Football, baseball, swimming in the tank!/We got money but we keep it in the bank."), while I was sent off to Andover and Yale ("Boolah, boolah!").

We both made our debuts as poets in 1961, when Atlantic/Little Brown published his Works and Days and Scribner's brought out my Suits for the Dead in their "Poets of Today" series. My copy of Works and Days has its dust jacket still intact, and that sports a blurb from John Crowe Ransom, "Irving Feldman is a very sound poet [whatever the hell that means: perhaps that he is not a loony like Lowell and Jarrell and some of the other students Ransom found clustering around him], and I would not care to limit the extent of his triumph when I think about his promise as a poet. [Again, this is gnomic at best, meaning that Feldman is not so dreadful that one can't imagine him going on to write something of value someday.] I should remark particularly upon the rapidity with which he develops his natural talent. [What other kind is there, sir?] He has great versatility, and a very obvious passion for the art."

But the blurb's words don't matter. It's the signature that counted. As probably the words of my first published poem don't matter so much as that they appeared in John Crowe Ransom's Kenyon Review. This makes us, in some vague way, kin. We were both bright kids, at any rate, and we have both grown up to be Jewish American poets. There are differences of course. He confronts the Shoah and I don't, or at least not directly. In some ways, I am afraid to do so. I also have reservations about my right to talk of such things. I wasn't there and for me, it is, just barely, history. I only heard about it later. On the other hand, I also have a sense that anything one talks about now is in the light (or darkness) of that, so one needn't address that subject directly. It is in the air we breathe, a faint sickening odor of burning flesh. (The title poem of my collection, Crossroads alludes to the destruction of the Jews in Poland, but only to say that we missed that. Our family came here to a better life--and it was here that my mother was bludgeoned to death by a burglar and died unhistorically and alone. And I do recognize that in extremis, in times of the most profound grief and despair, the Holocaust is what comes to mind as the gold standard of suffering and evil.)

Feldman's "Pripet Marshes" and "To the Six Million" are among his best known poems, and I admire them. But I am, in various ways and to differing degrees, uncomfortable about them--but not in the way that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the writings of Primo Levi or in the company of friends who were in the camps and have numbers tattooed on their arms. "The Pripet Marshes," the more successful of these, is probably one of the dozen or so most interesting and powerful poems of our generation. …