Irving feldman: distinguished UB Professor
Being alive in 2004 is such an amazing and time-consuming experience that we often fail to take note of our surroundings. We get so wrapped up in our lives, worries, and problems that we miss the bigger picture. We see our professors as simply teachers; beings who do not exist outside of the realm of scholastics. For us, their reality is confined to the three hours that we spend with them each week. It is a pity that we simplify our worlds in this way, and we miss the opportunity to discover people like Irving Feldman.
Feldman is a Distinguished Professor of English here at the University at Buffalo, and will be retiring this January after a long and prolific career. However, he is first and foremost a poet. “I began making poems when I was four years old,” he remarked during a recent phone conversation. “By the time I was 14, I expected to be a writer… eventually, fiction writing fell by the wayside and poetry writing became more and more important.”
Feldman attended the City College of New York, and after graduating in 1950, entered the work force. “I had a lot of blue-collar jobs around New York City so that I could have time for my writing,” he said. After realizing that such a life was not for him, Feldman returned to school and received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1953 and then “sort of fell into teaching.” His first appointment as an instructor came by way of serendipity as he called an old professor for a recommendation, and someone else answered the phone; the call ended with the offer of a teaching job at the University of Puerto Rico. “Teaching was a way of getting out of all the awful jobs I was in,” he recalled.
Following numerous stints at several different schools, including his work as a Fulbright Scholar at the Université de Lyon in France, and a professor at Kenyon College, Feldman came to the University at Buffalo in 1964. He’s stayed here ever since, simultaneously teaching classes and publishing his poetry, and in 1990 was named a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English.
Anyone who talks to Feldman can easily ascertain that poetry is his passion. When questioned about whether or not he will continue writing after his retirement, his simple answer is, “of course,” as if he has been asked if he plans on breathing or sleeping as well. His poetry has garnered him much acclaim and critical success; he has been a finalist for the National Book Award myriad times, and has received fellowships from both the Academy of American Poets and the MacArthur Foundation. Michael Basinski, curator of the poetry collection found in Capen Hall here at UB calls Feldman, “a friend of poetry, poets, and the poem. His work inspires those of us who work in the nation of poetry.”
His verses are distinctly his own, but as he willfully admits, “one takes here and there, of course.” He finds the notion of an “influence” to be dismissive, and rather describes them as “writers by whom you become possessed.” For Feldman, this included two men – Irishman William Butler Yeats, and the quite different German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. He also cites Frenchman Jules Laforgue because he “freed me from Rilke without becoming an absorbing influence.” As a result of his careful study and admiration for his predecessors, he has distinguished an important niche for himself in the world of contemporary poetry.
When he writes, he draws from a bevy of places, stating that, “inspiration finds you, it’s something that happens. Sometimes it’s a phrase that strikes you… sometimes it’s a kind of voice you hear, which is very important to me because my poems are all about these voices.” Feldman’s work has been lauded by critics because of his mastery of language ranging from the biblical to the conversational, his Yiddish flair for the comic, and his profound lucidity and social insight. He tackles varied subjects in his work, ranging from his youth in New York to fine art and the Holocaust, all with a personal style that is by turns witty, ecstatic, ardent, biting, and, at times, heartbreaking.
Feldman feels that everyone has the innate ability to see the world as the poet does, stating, “Everyone has inspiration all around them every minute. It’s what you do with it.” Judging from the laundry list of books that Feldman has had published, he does a lot with it.
The talent and profundity of the faculty here at UB is astonishing if students are only willing to step back for a moment and take note of the fascinating people they see instructing them each day. One need only go onto the internet and do a simple name search to realize that they could be studying under the next J.M. Coetzee (Nobel Prize winner for Literature and former UB professor) or Irving Feldman. For those not fortunate enough to have studied under Professor Feldman before his retirement this winter, there is a slight consolation; this Wednesday, October 20, he will be doing a poetry reading on campus. The reading will take place at 8 p.m. in 250 Baird Hall. Feldman will read from the half-century retrospective of his work, Collected Poems 1954-2004. So why not take a chance and discover one of UB’s many treasures; you never know, it might just change that busy life of yours forever.