With the death of Allen Grossman on June 27th, we have lost one of our greatest poets, as well as one of the most original thinkers about the art of poetry in recent times. A legendary teacher (first at Brandeis, then at Johns Hopkins), a MacArthur fellow, a Bollingen Prize winner, Grossman combined a bold lyric style, a visionary, mythopoeic sensibility, and a unique critical intelligence; the result is a body of poetry and poetics of the highest order. If Grossman is not as well-known as he might be, if he is still regarded as a “poet’s poet,” it may be due in part to the complex and challenging nature of his work, to his elevated rhetorical stance, and to the rigorous claims he makes for poetry’s cultural significance, all at a time when poetry has come to be seen as a minor art, increasingly marginal and of little enduring importance. Passionate and intellectually uncompromising, Grossman’s dazzling arguments for poetry’s continuing contribution to the making of human value inevitably summons us to renew our own thinking about poetry, at a time when its traditional functions, however they may be understood, are being radically called into question. We can find no better guide than Allen Grossman.
I only met Allen once, spending part of a day with him in Washington, DC at an Association for Jewish Studies conference where Daniel Morris, Maeera Shreiber and I had organized a panel in his honor. Yet his work has profoundly affected my poetics, and probably (without going too far down the paths of influence) the sound, shape and concerns of my poetry as well. When I was deep in the study of Jewish American poetry, leading to my book Not One of Them In Place, he represented one pole in a critical dialectic, the other being occupied by poets in the Objectivist tradition, such as Reznikoff, Oppen, Harvey Shapiro, and Michael Heller. Grossman’s rare rhetorical power, his ability to synthesize modernist and romantic poetic discourses, always strikes a powerful chord in me, much like the power of Robert Duncan, whom he otherwise in no way resembles. Here, I would like to explain, as directly as possible, what makes his work unique, why it is so moving to me, and most importantly, why it should be read.
Grossman’s understanding of poetry is fundamentally social. Acutely sensitive to the psychology of human needs and desires, he never ceases to listen for the reciprocity in the voicing of poetic utterance: how and why the poet sings to his or her audience, and how that audience responds. As he declares in The Sighted Singer (1992), “When a poem is truly present in the world, it is present in the form of an interaction which is as profound and extensive as the social order itself.” The author of such poems writes them out of a sense of sacred vocation, a calling from above, and in creating these poetic interactions, reproduces “the profoundest human covenant, which is the covenant of language through which they give and obtain the world simultaneously, and only obtain the world when they give.” Drawing from his deep knowledge of Jewish tradition (and constantly working both with and against “gentile” models of poetic representation), Grossman fashions a postmodern poetry of holiness, a mode of sacred utterance that paradoxically maintains its religious status even when the notion of divinity is called into question or perceived as infinitely withdrawn. Moreover, Grossman’s best work is infused with a delightful charm and humor, and a gentle compassion for ordinary people and daily experience that is rarely seen in a lofty poetry of mythic symbol and prophecy.
“Poets,” writes Grossman in the afterword to his last collection, Descartes’ Loneliness (2007), “are persons aware of aloneness and competent to speak in the space of solitude—who, by speaking alone, make possible for themselves and others the being of persons, in which all the value of the human world is found. But never assuredly—never without the saying of it (it does not ‘go without saying’), which saying is what the poet can do, if he is any good at all.” This dialectical formulation—between solitude and sociality, between self-conscious isolation and the cherished presence of others—is at the heart of Grossman’s understanding of poetic value, or to put it more bluntly, his understanding of what poets are good for. The poets’ “saying of it” puts them to the test. No poetic utterance is ever assured; its efficacy is always in doubt, but ironically, it is in that doubt that its value is to be found. Furthermore (and this is a particularly humbling notion in an age of instant poetic notoriety), for Grossman, “Poems create poets….The poem is therefore the cause of the poet insofar as the poet is a person who is an object of attention. What distinguishes the poet from other persons is his or her knowledge of the rules of manifestation. The poem is a thing made which makes its maker.” Personhood is constantly renewed and repaired by poetry, but becoming a poet is not really a matter of personhood per se. Rather, it is a status bestowed upon an individual when that individual enters into the linguistic covenant. The poet “is the person who has enacted the deed of presence” through the making of a poem.
One of Grossman’s most persistent tropes is “Mind” or even “Great Mind,” sailing across seas, traversing deserts, climbing the heights, descending into the underworld—and frequently ending up in the Minnesota of his youth, where it reencounters characters and situations which are gradually revealed to be much more than they seem. A spiritual quester in the High Romantic tradition, the mindful poet as Grossman imagines him seeks the elemental truths of being that are to be found in the daily rituals of secular life. As he explains in the introduction to his most uncanny book, How to Do Things with Tears (2001), “Poetic knowledge is useful KNOWLEDGE (knowledge that helps out with tears), but only when it encounters, and forces, into visibility (puts where you can see), whatever it is that resists your will to know and to love.” This emphasis on visibility is why for Grossman, the modern poet, unlike the blind singer of tradition, must be a “sighted singer”: the song of the sighted singer enables us to see and to acknowledge that other persons are present and that the human image is preserved. But in this passage, Grossman also emphasizes that poetic knowledge involves a forcing into visibility. Poetry constitutes an agon, and Grossman’s poems are notably confrontational. The self is posed against an other (even when that other is an aspect of the self), and there is the potential for high argument and psychic violence that sometimes borders on the sacrificial. Psychoanalytically, we may say that the poem enacts an overcoming of resistances in order to bring knowledge into consciousness, in order to bring what is not consciously known into the light.
Grossman’s most ambitious poetry, especially in his late work, unfolds in the form of longer, interconnected sequences, part narrative, part dramatic. Although never departing completely from the lyric mode, the poetry grows increasingly dialogic, sometimes dipping down into the vernacular, sometimes rising to prophetic heights, and often featuring encounters between the poet and other figures who appear and reappear from poem to poem, book to book. Grossman’s most direct modern precursors are Yeats, Stevens, and Hart Crane, but my guess is that ultimately, he must be read as a Blakean poet, constructing his own syncretic myth derived from Jewish and Christian religious traditions, visionary poetry going as far back as antiquity, and the peculiar figures and incidents of his own life, especially his youth. But whereas Blake’s central myth is that of cosmic man falling into division and seeking to be remade, Grossman’s myth is that of the poet him or herself, called into being, recognizing his or her destiny, and seeking to fulfill the responsibilities of the poetic vocation.
And it is because of this myth, which represents, as I understand it, the existential task of the poet, that Grossman’s poetry of the last twenty years of his writing life is so forcefully prophetic but also, as I mentioned previously, so warmly humane. In poem after poem, weird visionary formulations resolve into cheerfully mundane episodes from daily life, and vice versa. These negotiations generate a sense of the uncanny, Freud’s unheimlich, in which what was once familiarly domestic returns to us as something threatening, strange, and charged with previously unsuspected psychic meaning. The length of most of these poems and their quasi-narrative dimension make them difficult to excerpt, and they depend in part on their cumulative progress for their ultimate effect. Here, for example, is the opening stanza of the relatively short “A Grand Caprice,” from How to Do Things with Tears:
In a Grand Caprice, cream, top of the line
with a real good ride, hands feet and air,
a legacy—memorial of Louis, maître de penser
of Minneapolis—I depart the Cities, where
I was thrown, southward to a town fragile, worn
thin as a bottom sheet, Enigma MN.
Louis is the poet’s father, who in “real life” ran a Chevrolet dealership in the Twin Cities. But he is also the “maître de penser” whose death, along with that of Grossman’s mother Beatrice, has been sanctified by their son in one of my favorite Grossman poems, “Poland of Death,” as well as in a number of others. A Grand Caprice is, as the poem tells us, a “top of the line” automobile, but it is also, in classical music, a relatively light, free style composition, and generally speaking, something done on a whim. The poet rolls out of the Twin Cities both in and on a caprice. Minneapolis is where he was “thrown”—the reference is to Heidegger’s complicated notion of thrownness, Geworfenheit, the existential, largely predetermined state of being in which we find ourselves in our lives, with little control. But in this case, the poet has found a vehicle appropriate for a road trip of discovery, heading toward the town of “Enigma,” where certain mysteries of life will be confronted.
Those mysteries, as it turns out, have to do with love, sex and death, as foreshadowed by the metaphor of the town “worn / thin as a bottom sheet.” In what follows, the poet enters the “Town Hall” of Enigma and overhears a conversation between two ghosts, a man and woman, husband and wife, who have loved each other, have had children, and have lived their lives in the face of their inevitable mortality. “There’s no world other than this common world,” declares the woman, “no pain, no joy other than this pain or joy.” “The least part of day,” she continues, “is eternal life. In your arms appearing / and disappearing I am completely happy.” The poem ends with these three marvelous stanzas:
Who’s there? The ghost of a good man. Dead.
Who’s there? The ghost of good woman. Dead.
There is nothing here but snow.”—“Take this kiss.
O my truth, do not try to remember me. Remember
instead the dark myth left empty at my death,
staining the worn bottom sheet, fragile, and thin.
Open the registry, Registrar! Write down this kiss.
The snow is filling the great plains of the dream.
The rivers stop their flow, the paths are nowhere.
Quick! Come away with me, Irene. Take a spin
in the cream. Do not remember me. Remember
instead my grand machine. Come away with me,
Your left hand on my mythy knee, my right
hand groping your truth. Pedal to the metal,
engine hitting on 8, windows down,
leather smelling good, Enigma fading fast.
(Bye bye, Town Hall!) Come away, O beautiful youth!
Our Grand Caprice, top of the line, drifts South.
Recall that for Grossman, the poem makes the poet: what counts is the deed. The “kiss” embodied in the “dark myth” is to be remembered, and not the speaker. Thus, in the abandoned Town Hall of Enigma, the poet calls upon the “Registrar,” who, like a recording angel, writes down and preserves that moment of love. The “registry” of the poem stands against the oblivion of nature as snow fills “the great plains of the dream” where “the paths are nowhere.”
And the poet? Accompanied by his beloved Irene (as in the old Leadbelly song), who appears frequently in the later work as alter-ego, muse and anima, he heads out of town, leaving Enigma behind, “fading fast.” The cream Caprice is a “grand machine,” an erotic vehicle that bears this couple south into the eternal youth of the poem. Poetry takes us into the Enigma of life, and beyond it. And it is here that I wish to end my memorial, with this vision of the sighted singer, “Pedal to the metal / engine hitting on 8 / windows down…” Allen, farewell.