Zeese Papanikolas


When I first got Fernando’s email announcing the forthcoming celebration of Irving’s eightieth birthday my initial thought was: Irving is eighty already?  Because of course to say that Irving was eighty meant that I was past sixty-five and how could that be?    But then that thought was quickly followed by: Irving is only eighty?   He seems to have been around for centuries, since his poems have been part of the furniture of my memory and imagination forever.   This is less about chronology than about how lines and passages from them have a resonance that puts them outside of the limits of the occasion of their writing.    There is a quality in these poems, often, of the wonder and beauty and uncanniness and sometimes frightfulness of the world that manages to both call up the way the world first appears to a child with the deepening understanding of long experience and so many of the poems are both old and young at the same time.   In one of those haunting lines Irving speaks of “the first Brooklyn of the senses’ – that is the sort of awakening I am talking about.   Another of my favorite passages is one Irving used as the epigraph to his Collected Poems:

Oh why

is the soul sent on errands

in the dark?  with its list

of names, its fist of pennies,

its beating heart?

I’m not sure if any one has noted, too, that Irving’s poems can be profoundly political.  Political in a very deep sense, rooted in a dense humanity that calls up the manifold life of the city – the polis.   If you can’t answer the question of the soul’s errands in the dark, at least you can keep asking it, asking it in a multiform of ways, voices, occasions.  I once wrote him that what I like about his poems is the quality of being unconsoled.  Irving doesn’t let his poems leak away in some final dribble of philosophical acceptance.   The poems are political too in that there can be a clarifying anger in his writing, as well as the pathos of inconsolation.   Very often, too, there is great tenderness.

Irving has been giving his unvarnished opinion of my various pieces of writing for almost fifty years.   I mollify myself by imagining that he has been providing the same service to others as well.   The tragedy is that he’s often right.  So, happy birthday, Irving.  And many more unvarnished years.

Zeese  Papanikolas