My Teacher Arguing with the Trees

My Teacher Arguing with the Trees

When he came to teach my creative writing class at Southampton College in the late 1960s, David Ignatow had already won national praise for his books. But a tight budget brought him to the Springs, where he lived in the woods in the only house then on 17th Street. He’d grown up in the City, and the trees surrounding his house made him uneasy. “They’re like prison bars.”

At first he’d tried to understand them, without success. He wrote poems. One began, “About my being a poet, the trees certainly haven’t expressed an interest, standing at a distance. I’d expect that at least they’d try to learn something new besides growing their leaves….”

*

Sitting in the woods across the picnic table from him I said: “My last year in boarding school, I hid in my dorm room and read more than 1,000 books!”

“What?” He winced, putting down his forkful of tinned salmon. “You actually read 1,000 books in one year?”

“Well, perhaps, not a thousand….” In fact, I’d meant, I’d read maybe fifty or sixty books.

“Fifty, sixty or 1,000?” he demanded. “Which is it?”

Why should he care? I’d said “1,000” for effect, the way medieval historians reported the casualties on the battlefield. If I didn’t care about the exact number, why should he?

But he frowned as if I’d hurt him. “How can you use language so irresponsibly?” he wanted to know.

“Well,” I retorted, “you write in your poem, ‘This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves. Perhaps I missed a leaf or two…’ You’re not going to tell me you actually did the counting. Maybe my books are like your trees.”

“Impossible. You want me to believe that you read a specific number of books in a year. My exaggeration is a higher truth; yours is just a lie. Anyway, a writer uses language at all times forcefully, saying exactly what is intended, nothing more. Why don’t you understand that?”

*

I stopped off at his house with a new poem I wanted him to see.

“He’s teaching at the college today,” said his wife. “But come sit at the typewriter and wait for him.

In the next room I could hear a radio announcing the death of General Eisenhower. She was surprised. “I thought he’d been dead for years.”

We listened together as the announcer read off a list of complex funerary events. She remarked on how chilling it all was. “They couldn’t wait for him to drop dead.”

That gave me an idea. She encouraged me to use her typewriter. “Go ahead,” she said. “Type all you want.”

My father had admired Eisenhower and always voted Republican. At his death I’d been fascinated with the preparations for the funeral, especially the process of embalming the corpse. I was thinking as much of my own father’s funeral as of Eisenhower’s while I worked at the typewriter.

Ignatow returned from teaching in an acrimonious mood. After supper (canned salmon on dry lettuce; water), he motioned me to hand him the poem.

I gave him the one I’d arrived with, something I’d worked on for weeks. This, I wanted him to know, was finally the real thing.

He made chomping sounds, cleaning his teeth with his tongue as he read. When he looked up it was with a sour expression. “This is crap,” he pronounced. “Why are you wasting your time with this garbage? You can write better than that.”

I was devastated. I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if he’d shoved me backwards through the wall; that I was being pinned to the menacing trees in his angry forest.

“Come on,” he chided. “You can talk. You’re not going to die.”

But I couldn’t talk, his condemnation so forceful, unexpected. To play for time, I opened my notebook and offered up the new poem I’d written about Eisenhower. It wasn’t much. I’d just been having fun with it. But that’s all I had.

He grabbed it. His expression softened and he looked up from the typewritten sheet. “Now, this is something,” he said. “This should be published. Why didn’t you show me this the first time?”

*

He asked me to help with a poetry magazine he was editing. The manuscript pile was daunting. We waded through it for many hours. Later, at dinner, I suggested we go to a poetry reading at Guild Hall.

“Aw, come on,” he sighed. “Do you really want to go to some reading after all the crap I’ve made you look at today? Okay. We’ll go. But if I don’t like it, I’ll give you a signal and we’ll leave.”

I was surprised at his attitude. Having arrived at our destination, he led me to the back of the gallery, to seats nearest the exit. “The best seats in the house,” he confided, eying the exit door.

He held court until the first reader reached the podium. Several young poets came up to him for autographs and blessings. The lights went down and he tugged at my sleeve. “I’ve had enough,” he whispered. “Let’s go,”.

“But no one’s read yet.”

“All right. You stay. I’ll meet you back at the house.”

He glided to the door; a silent, practiced exit.

When I returned he was sitting outdoors on the patio with a pile of manuscripts. “You know,” he observed, dumping the pile into the trashcan. “There are more people in the world writing poems than there are who’ve ever read one.”

*

I was on the way back from an appointment and decided to drop in for a visit. Without knowing it, I had barged into a fight. “Never mind how many girlfriends I have,” he was assailing his wife, who was red from crying. “I’ve worked hard and I deserve as many as I want.”

Some years later, his last mistress told me, “Say what you want. Sometimes he was a bastard. But he was never, never untrue to me.”

*

“I regard this poet as if he were my own son,” he once wrote recommending me for a teaching job.

Then once, at three in the morning, when I found I had no place to sleep, I inched my car down his rocky drive, being as quiet as I could, intending to sleep in the trees, but the tires on gravel made a racket.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed, holding a flashlight to the car window. “You’ve scared us half to death. Get the hell out of here and don’t come back until you’re sober!”

*

Allen Ginsberg was reading at the library in Southampton. but in his old age even a modest staircase was impossible for Ignatow. I’d driven him to the library, but we’d need someone to help get him up and through the door. Happily, Ginsberg was in the street and recognized Ignatow. Between us we hoisted him over the steps, our arms interlaced in a fireman’s carry.

Ignatow’s health continued to decline. Yet one day I saw him walking down Main Street, smiling and waving at people in the shops. “What’s happened to you?” I asked.

“The doctors,” he told me. “It’s a new medication. I feel great!”

Indeed, the next time I saw him, he was driving his car, running a traffic light.

One afternoon I brought him the news: Allen Ginsberg had died.

“Ah,” he answered. “That’s too bad. But then he was quite elderly, wasn’t he?”

*

Ignatow was dying, laid out in a rented hospital bed in his writing room. He turned to me and declared, “I’m here to die.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I looked out the window, at the trees, in silence.

“I’m enjoying the view,” he said. “I finally understand the trees. They’re like the crib I slept in as a child. They won’t let me fall to the ground.”

Finally I asked if there was anything I could do for him.

He thought for a bit. “Yes,” he answered with his sly smile. “Trade places with me.”