The City introduced a startling new poet to America when it led off the January, 1940 issue of Poetry magazine. Published under the byline David Wolff, the poem won the magazine's Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize that year, placing Wolff in the august company of such poets as Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound, Denise Levertov, WS Merwin, and Robert Lowell. "The City" inspired admirers including Allen Ginsburg, who praised “its ongoing inspired or unobstructed breath,” and Nelson Algren, who injected its nightmarish urbanity into his depictions of Chicago. But the poet David Wolff vanished almost as quickly as he had appeared, and without a continuing flow of work from its creator, “The City” failed to retain its deserved place in the history of American letters. By the end of the century, Wolff and his poem were remembered only by the few.
What fate stole a promising young poet at the dawn of the second World War? Not bullets and bombs, but cameras and klieg lights.
Fresh from Columbia University, Ben Maddow wrote by night about the urban nightmare he witnessed by day as a social worker in the slums of New York City. Using the pseudonym David Wolff to keep his supervisors in the dark, he composed poems to accompany documentaries produced by a socialist collective headed by the photographer Paul Strand. There Maddow found his true desire—film. When the Army moved him to Hollywood to produce training films, Maddow left New York City and David Wolff behind.
Writing under his own name, Maddow completed at least 27 screenplays, including “The Asphalt Jungle,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and the adaptation of William Faulkner's “Intruder in the Dust.” He wrote and directed several award-winning documentaries, several books of non-fiction and fiction, a play, and a short story, “You, Johann Sebastian Bach,” that won an O’Henry Prize.
As Ben Maddow's career flourished, David Wolff's slipped into the past, and “The City” slept in the yellowing pages of Poetry's archives. Known best as a screenwriter, Maddow continued over the years to nurture his private muse, and in 1991 he authorized the publication of "A False Autobiography," the harvest of five decades of his best poems (Available in paperback for $18.75, hardback for $28.75, from Other Shore Press, 95 Corona Way, Carmel, CA 93923). Maddow died in 1992.
With gratitude to Maddow's widow, Freda Flier Maddow, and to his friend and editor, Alan Marcus, Contrary reprints “The City” here for another century's children of cold sun and broken horizon. –ed.