Arthur Efron

Irving Feldman, the Man Like No One Else in the Department.

In the nineties, Irving was just about the only person I ran into in our hallway encounters who could say anything about the work of Wilhelm Reich. I never understood what his involvement had been with the Reichians, back in his early days in New York, but I did realize that it was part of a past that was quite over, yet one for which he had kept some residual respect. This was reassuring, since practically no one else around here had any knowledge of Reich, unless it was something negative. Another colleague had launched some ill-tempered and simplistic attacks on Reich, both in a department colloquium and in a review of a book by Reich published some 30 or 40 years after his death. Irving conveyed a thoughtful attitude, and a knowledgable one, even though he said little about the Reichians.

Irving also knew of my interest in Anarchism. He surprised me by telling of an exhibit and symposium he was going to at Yale where the paintings of Barnet Newman would be shown and discussed. I hadn’t known that Newman had any connection with Anarchism, but from Irving I learned that he did. I believe Irving later showed me a postcard on which one of Newman’s paintings had been reproduced.

I just now recall Irving handing me an extraordinary commentary he had written for a William Carlos Williams poem that he had mentioned during one of our little hallway  conversations. The stapled-on note card says “Here’s the poem. Hope the marginalia doesn’t interfere too much.” I see that I wrote on the date: November 11, 1993. The poem is called “Brilliant Sad Sun.” Irving’s commentary was virtually sewn over the lines of the poem and onto its margins .I am reminded somehow of the word “Midrash” to describe what I saw. The depth and precision of Irving’s exploration of this poem confirmed what I (or anyone) would have known from being around Irving for years: his intense interest in the art of modern poetry.

Well, the marginalia is a little hard to read, written as it is in a small hand. I don’t think I read much of it at the time; it was the poem I was looking at. But I can make out Irving’s writing now. Especially good is the longish comment following Williams’s last  3 lines:

What beauty

besides your sadness—and

what sorrow

Irving writes: “But this final moment has no logical or narrative connection to” the earlier 22 lines. “It is in no way prepared for, not even an implied contrast. It is something miles away from the possibilities of that opening voice and the poet as he first steps forward.  And all the more touching, convincing, fresh for that. It is the climax not of an organized poem but of an emotional adventure.”

I would say that that response is a thing of beauty in itself.

But then there is a memory from way back, when Irving and I were both new to department. Somehow I had taken on the task of gathering signatures for a petition to be sent to the president of a college in California where a poet had been busted for pot. The man was going to lose his job over this stupid thing.  When I asked Irving to sign my petition, he gave my request a few moments of thought, but then said something like: No, he isn’t even a good poet.

I started to walk away, rather stunned and beginning to grumble. But then Irving called me back and said, Yes, I think I will sign that after all. If he can keep his job out there, then maybe he won’t have to come here.

It was a case of a man doing a good thing but only if he could present it, half-seriously  in an ungenerous  way. I can’t imagine anyone but Irving coming up with a reason like that. 

In April, 2007, the Knopf  email program, which sends me a poem a day for one month, and then lays off for about six months, included a poem by Irving that I found just admirable. It is titled ‘The City and Its Own,” and comes from Irving’s 1976 collection, Leaping Clear. I wondered how I could tell Irving of my admiration. I had not seen him for a long time, and I assumed that he had moved away after his retirement. I looked at the little telephone guide the department puts out each semester, and found that he lives right here in Buffalo. So, while the impulse was fresh, I called and talked with Irving. He of course was glad to hear that I liked his poem, but in his tone, I could hear that after all, this was an old poem of his, one that he could take as having been well-created and not in need of new praise.

“The City and Its Own” is a complex poem, one that I’m sure I do not fully understand. It is a kind of meditation on owning, on the obsessive need to make every last spot in a city into a possessed object.  The people of Manhattan transform themselves constantly into striding objects or “ideas” that are intimidating to the mind of a poor boy, 12 or 13 years old, who walks among them. I suppose I could stretch it now to connect with George Bush’s cheering for an “ownership society,” a term of ultra-ironic echoes nowadays in the crisis over home mortgages. But that stretch is not in the poem, though it may be foretold. The poem itself ends on an assertion by the poet who rises, and “dusting off my knees” decides  to “civilize an empty page”:

civilly I here proclaim our real estate,

ours in common, the common ground

of self, a mud maddened to marvel

and mingle, generously, in generation.



Still struck that day by the discovery of this poet living so near, I told him that the department was holding a celebration of sorts, that very evening.  It was to be a recognition of the recent retirements of  six of its professors. This event was going to be held in the Anderson Gallery.  I said I was going, and hoped he would come as well. He asked me a couple of questions about where the place was and whether he would need an invitation. I said he could just come—no invitation was required. Just to make sure, I called the department secretary who assured me that that Irving would be welcome.  And so I went, and the ceremony was interesting, but Irving wasn’t there. I missed him. Since that day, we have continued on with never having seen each other in any social situation except for those in the hallways of Clemens.  Yet it does seem that our contact over the years has gained its portion of meaning.

Irving, however is HERE! This collaborative tribute is going to reach him. 

I’m glad you are having your Eightieth Birthday, Irving.  Warmest congratulations!

--Art Efron