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Ira Sadoff

1945–

Ira Sadoff was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 7, 1945, of Russian-Jewish ancestry. He earned a BA in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University in 1966 and an MFA from the University of Oregon in 1968. In 1975, he published his first collection of poetry, Settling Down (Houghton Mifflin).

Since then, Sadoff has published several poetry collections, most recently True Faith (BOA Editions, 2012) and Barter (University of Illinois, 2003), which delves into his personal past, specifically concerning love and bereavement, as well as the historical and global past, referencing Beethoven, Vietnam, and the fall of communism. Other recent collections include Grazing (University of Illinois Press, 1998), from which poems were awarded the American Poetry Review's Leonard Shestack Prize, the Pushcart Poetry Prize, and the George Bogin Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America; Emotional Traffic (David R. Godine, 1989); A Northern Calendar (David R. Godine, 1981), which charts the arrival and passage of the seasons; and Palm Reading in Winter (Houghton Mifflin, 1978).

About Sadoff's work, the poet Gerald Stern has said, "Nowhere else in American poetry do I come across a passion, a cunning, and a joy greater than his. And a deadly accuracy. I see him as one of the supreme poets of his generation." And on awarding Sadoff the Bogin Memorial Prize, the poet Alan Shapiro said, "Beyond the energetic syntax and the astonishing range of idiom and tone, what I so admire in these poems is the just yet always unpredictable weaving together of individual and collective life, the insightful, almost seamless integration of personal experience in all its unredemptive anguish with the heterogeneous realities of American culture."

Sadoff is also the author of three works of prose, most recently History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture (University of Iowa, 2009), which, through the work of poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Frank O'Hara, argues that poets live and write within history; An Ira Sadoff Reader (Middlebury, 1992), a collection of stories, poems, and essays about contemporary poetry; and Uncoupling (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), a novel.

He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1973, he was a fellow at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and in 1974, he was the Alan Collins Fellow in Poetry and Prose at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. His poetry has been widely anthologized, most recently in The Best American Poetry Series, in 2008.

Sadoff has served as poetry editor of the Antioch Review, and was cofounder of the Seneca Review. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and in the MFA programs of the University of Virginia and Warren Wilson College. He previously served as the Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.


Bibliography

Poetry

True Faith (BOA Editions, 2012)
Barter (University of Illinois, 2003)
Grazing (University of Illinois Press, 1998)
Emotional Traffic (David R. Godine, 1989)
A Northern Calendar (David R. Godine, 1981)
Palm Reading in Winter (Houghton Mifflin, 1978)
Settling Down (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)

Prose

History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture (University of Iowa, 2009)
An Ira Sadoff Reader(Middlebury, 1992)
Uncoupling (Houghton Mifflin, 1982)

By This Poet

14

Seurat

It is a Sunday afternoon on the Grand Canal. We are watching the sailboats trying to sail along without wind. Small rowboats are making their incisions on the water, only to have the wounds seal up again soon after they pass. In the background, smoke from the factories and smoke from the steamboats merges into tiny clouds above us then disappears. Our mothers and fathers walk arm in arm along the shore clutching tightly their umbrellas and canes. We are sitting on a blanket in the foreground, but even if someone were to take a photograph, only our closest relatives would recognize us: we seem to be burying our heads between our knees.

I remember thinking you were one of the most delicate women I had ever seen. Your bones seemed small and fragile as a rabbit's. Even so, beads of perspiration begin to form on your wrist and forehead — if we were to live long enough we'd have been amazed at how many clothes we forced ourselves to wear. At this time I had never seen you without your petticoats, and if I ever gave thought to such a possibility I'd chastise myself for not offering you sufficient respect.

The sun is very hot. Why is it no one complains of the heat in France? There are women doing their needlework, men reading, a man in a bowler hat smoking a pipe. The noise of the children is absorbed by the trees. The air is full of idleness, there is the faint aroma of lilies coming from somewhere. We discuss what we want for ourselves, abstractly, it seems only right on a day like this. I have ambitions to be a painter, and you want a small family and a cottage in the country. We make everything sound so simple because we believe everything is still possible. The small tragedies of our parents have not yet made an impression on us. We should be grateful, but we're too awkward to think hard about very much.

I throw a scaling rock into the water; I have strong arms and before the rock sinks it seems to have nearly reached the other side. When we get up we have a sense of our own importance. We could not know, taking a step back, looking at the total picture, that we would occupy such a small corner of the canvas, and that even then we are no more than tiny clusters of dots, carefully placed together without touching.

My Mother's Funeral

The rabbi doesn't say she was sly and peevish,
fragile and voracious, disheveled, voiceless and useless,
at the end of her very long rope. He never sat beside her
like a statue while radio voices called to her from God.
He doesn't say how she mamboed with her broom,
staggered, swayed, and sighed afternoons,
till we came from school to feed her. She never frightened him,
or bent to kiss him, sponged him with a fever, never held his hand,
bone-white, bolted doors and shut the blinds. She never sent
roaches in a letter, he never saw her fall down stairs, dead sober.
He never watched her sweep and murmur, he never saw
spider webs she read as signs her life was over, long before
her frightened husband left, long before
they dropped her in a box, before her children turned
shyly from each other, since they never learned to pray.
If I must think of her, if I can spare her moment on the earth,
I'll say she was one of God's small sculptures,
polished to a glaze, one the wind blew off a shelf.

On the Day of Nixon's Funeral

It's time to put the aside the old resentments; lies,
machinations, the paranoia, bugs in telephones,
the body bags, secret bombings, his sweaty upper lip,
my cousin Arnie, too dumb to go to school,

too virtuous to confess he'd give blow jobs
for nothing at the Paramount, so he lost a leg
in Da Nang. Now it's time for amnesiacs to play
Beethoven's Eroica by Nixon's casket.

To applaud his loyalty, to grant a few mistakes,
to honor his diplomacy, him and his pal Kissinger
who bombed the lush green paddies of Cambodia.
And now for a few lyric moments as I wait patiently

for my fiftieth birthday. Wood ducks decorate the pond
near this farmhouse, and in the marsh I've spied
a meadow lark, a fox, a white-tailed hawk who soars
above the Western Mountain peaks. Oh, I'm in love

with the country all right. So I can forget my friend
Sweeney, who shot Congressman Lowenstein
because the radio in his tooth insisted on it.
I remember the march on the Pentagon in purple,

a proud member of the Vegetarian Brigade. I was drugged,
as many of us were drugged, as my parents
were drugged by a few major networks, by a ranch house
and an Oldsmobile. I once spit on Hubert Humphrey,

threw a brick through Dow Chemical's plate-glass door.
I wrote insane letters to Senators, burying them
in moral rectitude: I got a response from one:
Senator Kennedy — the dead one — whose office wrongly

argued for slow withdrawal instead of Instant Victory.
I remember Tricky Dick in Nineteen Fifty-three:
I'm eight years-old, frightened and ignorant,
lying down before my parents' first TV: my aunts

and uncles sitting in a circle, biting their nails,
whispering names of relatives awaiting trial, who,
thanks to Nixon, lost their sorry jobs. You can see why
I'd want to bury this man whose blood would not circulate,

whose face was paralyzed, who should have died
in shame and solitude, without benefit of eulogy or twenty-one
gun salutes. I want to bury him in Southern California
with the Birchers and the Libertarians. I want to look out

my window and cheer the remaining cedars
that require swampy habitats to survive. To be done
with shame and rage this April afternoon, where embryonic
fiddleheads, fuzzy and curled and pale as wings,

have risen to meet me. After all, they say he was a scrappy man,
wily and sage, who served as Lucifer, scapegoat, scoundrel,
a receptacle for acrimony and rage — one human being
whose life I have no reverence for, which is why I'm singing now.