David Montgomery



Published on June 23, 1992
Author:    By DAVID MONTGOMERY - News Staff Reporter
© The Buffalo News Inc.

THE FIRST thing you have to do when you win a "genius grant" is think of something clever to say when the microphones and note pads arrive at your door with the inevitable, envious question:

What are you gonna do with all that money? So Irving Feldman, 63 -- being a poet and therefore good with words -- was ready last week after he learned a $369,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation was coming his way.

"I decided I would say something that would discourage any further questions," he says, a wry smile spreading across his thin face ahead of the punch line.

"Which is," he clears his throat, "quote:"

He waits for you to write this down exactly.

" 'Going to get hold of an RV and see America.'

"How does that sound? You don't want to ask any more questions, do you?"

Is he serious?

Of course, if Feldman does decide to go mobile and spend a year in KOA campgrounds, retracing his route from when he anticipated Kerouac and hitchhiked across the country at 17, the MacArthur people wouldn't care. This isn't like that old television series "The Millionaire," where using the money wisely is a kind of subtle test. MacArthur fellowships have no strings attached. One scholar who won a few years ago admitted he might build a patio.

Feldman, who is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo and rents an apartment on the West Side, figures the sudden windfall won't distract him from his art, even if it makes his physical circumstances a little more comfortable.

"If they said, 'Here's $369,000, please don't write for the next five years,' would I stop writing?"

No way.

Writing poetry "is a drive that's so powerful that if you've got it you're not going to be held back, and you're not going to be swerved," he says.

For richer, for poorer, Feldman has never been able to help himself from being a poet, with a doggedness that his more famous colleagues extol.

"He's the most private and modest poet I know," says Leslie Fiedler, the literary critic at UB. "He works absolutely alone. Slogging away at his poetry, he has a considerable body of work, and it's very impressive."

The poet is also a serious squash player, hitting the white-wall courts several times a week. "My other passion," he calls squash.

Even though winning a "genius grant" has its embarrassing side ("I put quotation marks around my head"), Feldman keeps it in perspective this way: "I've probably had 1,000 rejections along the way," he says, counting magazines, books and other submissions. "If you're going to take the good fortune as a measure of your worth, then you have to take your bad fortune as the same measure."

As he's saying all this, you realize his wit is dry and pitiless.

"If someone else had been named, I probably would have taken it with a grain of salt. And, in fact, others have been named all along.

Until now.

"So you become detached."

That is to say, you return to your apartment on the West Side, take off your shoes, put your feet up on the cluttered desk, lean back with a clean copy of a typed manuscript, and mess up the page with rewrites, so the page has to be typed again. This is how Feldman works. Slowly. "I reread a poem, and I know what every word is doing there, why it's there, how it got there, but I don't know how the poem got written."

As he's sitting there, looking almost relaxed, he writes stuff like this:

The light that took the snapshot of the world

shows them -- with a clarity not granted in

this life -- poised in sober expectation at

the intersection of the ordinary and

of Something Very Important, which has stopped them

to ask the way, then turns back with a question,

What were you doing when the world ended?

That's a stanza from his latest collection, published in 1986, "All of Us Here," a poem series that was inspired by George Segal's familiar white statues of people in everyday poses.

A couple of telling characteristics to note about this particular excerpt: It is imagining a nuclear holocaust. Much of Feldman's work is deeply informed by memory of the Holocaust during World War II and the specter of a nuclear holocaust in the future.

The stanza also gives a fair representation of Feldman's hard-to-label style. He uses simple language to form sometimes complex images, and he has an ear for dropping in the odd colloquial line that packs a wallop.

He says his influences are Rilke and Yeats, though critics have trouble placing him among any of the predominant movements of contemporary American poetry.

"There are the Black Mountain poets, the Iowa poets . . . " says Fiedler, ticking off noted writer colonies. "But he's just a Feldman poet."

Adds Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard in a telephone interview from New York: "He's one of the few American poets who can be wildly funny. But the most important thing about his work is how deeply it reaches into human experience."

Feldman is unusual among modern poets because he dares to permit "an ethical dimension in his aesthetics," says Harold Schweizer, an associate professor at Bucknell College who edited a collection of essays on Feldman's work.

But it's not cheap moralism. Feldman tends more toward troubled reflections on issues like the ethics of "spectatorhood" vs. engagement when confronted with modern horrors.

One of his biggest fans is essayist and novelist Cynthia Ozick.

"I defy anyone to read (Feldman's poem 'The Pripet Marshes') without tears," Ms. Ozick says in a telephone interview. "It's simply one of the most profound poems of our century."

That poem is one of the few occasions where Feldman deals explicitly with the Holocaust -- yet he chooses an unusual approach. He imagines he is an artist, and he is mentally placing all his friends and loved ones back in a Jewish ghetto, "the moment before the Germans come." Then he snatches them back to safety, adding sadly:

But I can't hold out any longer. My mind clouds over.

I sink down as though drugged or beaten.

Feldman's parents were Russian Jews who arrived in Brooklyn in 1906. His father sewed dresses in a factory. Feldman was born in Coney Island in 1928, and raised there with two sisters. He attended a technical high school to become an electrical engineer, but began writing stories at 14. He says there wasn't a thunderous moment when he knew he would be a poet.

"I never decided that I would be one," he says. "I lived my life in such a way that I couldn't be anything else."

That meant never taking a job that might lead to a career. He had held down 100 jobs, however briefly, by the time he stopped counting in his early 20s. Farms. Factories. Restaurants. Poetry. He published his first verse at age 21. The day he earned his diploma from the City University of New York, he was standing hip-deep in a bin of rags, which he was sorting for pay.

He got his first teaching job at the University of Puerto Rico in 1954. When he came to UB in 1964, he had just completed the work that would become his second book of poetry. He considers the move to Buffalo -- he arrived the same year as Fiedler and novelist John Barth -- a turning point in his creative life.

"I didn't begin to hit my stride until my late 30s, when I got to Buffalo," he says now, having completed six more collections since coming to Buffalo. "The English department has been a home for me, a wonderfully stimulating place, and remarkable, as English departments go."

And now, thanks to the Mac-Arthur Foundation, Feldman has been transformed in the public mind into a great, famous -- and rich -- poet.

On the other hand, his books are out of print.

He has been peddling a new collection, called "The Life and Letters" -- and he has already been rejected six times. Maybe the MacArthur publicity will help him find a publisher.

That's poetry for you. Feldman has written a few verses on the false realities of "fame" and "greatness," which these days are becoming entirely apt to his own circumstances. He considers himself a "mediocre" poet, meaning he didn't get it right the first time, and then burn out, like Arthur Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas. Instead, he has worked and sweated, alone and obscure in his room with his shoes off, and, he believes, he can develop into a better poet.

A haiku he wrote for the last collection puts it best.

His finger then, now yours

here, where master stopped, went back,

counted syllables.

Did you get it? The first line has too many syllables, an imperfect haiku. The great poet starts from scratch every time he confronts a new blank sheet, counting syllables, as it were.

"So much for greatness," says Feldman.