Allen Grossman occupies a peculiar position in contemporary American poetry. His poetry is very well regarded, and has built up a growing reputation over the years since the publication of his first book, A Harlot’s Hire, in 1961. Yet, although a book has been devoted to his work (Poetry’s Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman, edited by Daniel Morris and published by the National Poetry Foundation in 2004), and though he has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, he remains distinctly under-read. His work is not represented in any of the major anthologies of modern or contemporary American poetry, inclusion in which is one of the primary means of literary canonization.
Grossman is also the author of several books of literary criticism. These books are characterized by a more philosophical approach than that of contemporary practical criticism and a more humanistic approach than that of contemporary literary theory. Grossman’s most important critical work is The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers, which includes the Summa Lyrica, an ambitious work which lays out Grossman’s ideas of the fundamental nature of poetic structure, investigating the poem as both an object of thought and a means by which thinking occurs. This “primer of the commonplaces of speculative poetics” is one of the major works of modern poetic theory.
Grossman’s poetry derives directly and unembarrassedly from the High Modernist poetry of William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane, and through them from the English Romantic poets. He has consistently sought the elevated, vatic mode, in opposition to his contemporaries’ adoption of more vernacular and domestic modes. Grossman shares the Romantic and High Modernist exalted idea of the poet’s vocation and of the power of poetry to engage and encompass the world on equal terms. In Roger Gilbert’s words, Grossman’s “insistence on the visionary, prophetic dimension of poetic speech, and the intense rhetoric that accompanies it, may have led some readers and critics to dismiss him as an anachronism. But Grossman does not simply repeat Romantic modernism; he also corrects it, particularly in the sphere of morality” (The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English, ed. Ian Hamilton, 201). Though his poetry is not devoid of irony or even humor, Grossman is never embarrassed or ironic about the greatness he believes poetry to be capable of making apparent, nor about his own ambitions to approach such greatness, although in his view its attainment is impossible: to write the perfect poem would be to reach the end of poetry.
One reason that Grossman is unafraid to use the High Modernist grand style, and has been able to use it successfully, is that he does not claim to have achieved it: it remains an ambition. As Alan Williamson writes in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, “He is freed from constraint because he in no way claims the grand style as his personal property, as appropriate to his experience. On the contrary, the grand style becomes the type, like Stevens’ ‘central man’, of that adequacy—emotional, sexual, expressive, cognitive—to experience which his own individual life fails to attain.” I would add that no individual life attains to such adequacy; this is one of the wounds to which poetry attends.
Grossman’s poetry and prose both work toward what the title of what his first critical book, a study of Yeats’s early poetry, calls “poetic knowledge,” a phrase referring to the shared origins of poetry and of our lives as social beings. As Grossman writes on his web site, “Insofar as love wills the existence of what it loves, the principle of poetry is a collective and perpetually renewed act of love that brings the world to mind, and mind to mind, as the speech of a person—at the moment of the vanishing of world and persons, which is every moment of conscious life.” Love and knowledge and the relationship of the two—love as the highest form of knowledge, knowledge as love’s way of touching the face of the world—are his major themes. In keeping with this, Grossman often meditates on materials from Judaism and the history of the Jews—the Holocaust, the sacred law, the Kabbalah—though often in idiosyncratic or irreverent ways.
Like Yeats and other Modernist poets, Grossman makes a distinction between the “person” represented and representable in poetry and the “self” of everyday life, which resists but also demands representation. However, many elements from his life narrative, most notably mother and father, may be found in his work. His poems are at once personal and philosophical, and often have settings that are both actual places and mythical locales: the Midwest, especially the Minnesota of his childhood, often functions as this sort of paysage moralisé.
In his self-consciously theatrical poem “The Poland of Death” (from The Ether Dome: New and Selected Poems 1979-1991), Grossman seeks to raise his parents Louise and Beatrice to the level of myth or archetype. The two are named in the poem—proper names are a crucial means of preserving the person in Grossman’s work, as we see in such poems as “Mary Snorak the Cook, Skermo the Gardener, and Jack the Parts Man Provide Dinner for a Wandering Stranger,” also from The Ether Dome, or “Pat’s Poem,” from The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River (1979). This transformation serves both as an attempt to ransom his parents from the insult and injustice of death and to turn the particular story of one life into a more generally significant narrative. Grossman also engages in such a metamorphosis of his parents in the title poem of his collection Of the Great House (1982) and in “Bow Spirit” (also from Of the Great House), engaging in what the second section of “Of the Great House” calls the dream of rescue. “Poetry, in his view, is one of the primary ways in which human beings ‘affirm one another,’ preserving their voices and images ‘against our vanishing’” (Gilbert, ibid.). Poems make persons present to one another. This attempt to rescue personhood from the ravages of a world which seeks to erase personhood (and has developed the means and perhaps even the will to destroy all persons, a capacity of which the Holocaust serves as a gruesome example) is central to Grossman’s poetry.
Many of Grossman’s best and most characteristic poems are too long for me to reproduce here, but I present a selection of poems, from the whole span of his career, of which I’m very fond.
Tales of Odysseus
The hallucination of good weather
Can deceive only the young. Others
It maddens, when hair becomes
A crop of crocuses and terrible forsythia
Forks from fragile fingers. To be dead
Is easy and passes into habit,
But to live
Surpasses understanding. The outraged
Senses mourn when flesh unfolds
Like an unreachable conception
Wrapped in a stinking skin I lay all night
Rehearsing lies, until at dawn he crawled out
Blinking the bright windows of his eyes,
Foul, impotent, sinewy, and old.
I gripped him savagely, and he became
Bright water flowing to the sea:
Then a cold serpent, then a flowering tree.
At last he was a glorious woman. With a knife
I came upon the order of my life.
Conceive a coast shuddering and sublime,
And then a ship utterly cast away,
Its people poured like pollen on the waters—
Think then of rocks gigantic
And the unwatered deserts of the deep they guard,
And marvel how I came ashore
(Being neither wholly god nor wholly man)
My knotted beard wrapped around me like the veil
That Ino gave to one who could not love Calypso
Wholly beautiful. And know from this
That in the infinite patience of Poseidon
All our impatient imaginings
Are sealed at least,
As by an unimagined consummation.
Sweet sweet sentinel yellowwoods lutea lutea
Guarding my track morning and evening, and gracing the air
With odors and blossoms to the left on the side-hill
And the right near the wall. Sweet the one and the other.
Seven years not seeing them, seven seeing them but not
Knowing a name for them, and seven years naming them too.
Sweet sweet sentinels lutea lutea Cladrastis lutea
Odorous silent adorning lutes.
Now and then, how full
The world is. Look at the yellowwoods! Look at them
Lion-like watching the way, in the morning to work and
At evening to this kind of singing
Lion-like waiting all the more patiently now I have
Named them, come into the strength I can render account
Of the beautiful way I am not always sad.
The shadow of yellowwoods, even in autumn, even at
Evening. I am going to die soon, and their shadow foretells it
Enlarging the world.
I can see it without me.
Yellowwoods, the one and her brother, lion and lioness
Together without me, bereave me, bereave
Me as leaf-like my body.
If I do not look up as I pass, then they call to me
Sweet, and I stop and turn round and go back and stand still,
Breathing the fragrance. What was I thinking of? Lutea
Lutea, thinking my thinking I did not look up, and often
They called to the air, to the children, and nobody heard the
like a sleeper who
sleeps on into the sunlight
In a bed closed by curtains a family of women skillful
And comely sitting in sunlight embroider with birds that no one
Has seen, but only the women the widows and daughters neat
Fingers of sunlight with loving attention,
Birds and the flowers Arabian, and blazing with gladdening metals
sleeps on into the sunlight, in the dark
Of his dream. And he does not see the wind billows the fustian.
Do the yellowwoods suffer, the sentinel yellowwoods, in autumn
In winter do they starve on the shore of the sky?
At the gateway
Of evening, of lion-blood autumn, leonine death-gold of autumn
Adorning, the answer does come, in splendor of lutesong
Arising within me:
the soul is alone
—like the flowers of
Yellowwoods, lutea lutea, white pendant clusters sucked by the bees,
White fragrant gusts of milky spring rain.
I call to them, calling
Their call, the two lions, the call that they raise in me
Morning and evening, my words of their teaching: the soul is alone.
—Sweet sweet sentinels lutea lutea Cladrastis lutea!
Seven years not seeing them, seven seeing them but not
Knowing a name for them, and seven years naming them too—
The fragrance of flowers arising within me, sweet sweet
Breast-perfume seized by the mind.
Now it is winter, and the fustian
Of the leaves, that fine work of the sun, the winter wind draws
Back to the earth. But the sleeper is awake, and gone down
Singing his lutesong
This crooked path into the world and out.
(Forsaking the lagoons of bridged Atlantis)
To the mid-Atlantic ridge
where are the crazed
Magnetic fields and roped sheets, and stains
(The disordered fabric of the volcanic
Bed chamber) and the gigantic vermicular
and stare upon the great
Principle of the solid world—the original
Go down, for down is the way,
And grapple one stone syllable
Of all that frozen love’s discourse
Onto an iron dredge
and on it rise
(Borne on the enormous weight of its desire
For light and the air)
until it explodes
Upon the deck amid the astonished crew.
Then empty out the nets disposed about
Your person, and fill them with the pieces
Of that one vast syllable
and carry them
To Cahokia in East Saint Louis, where
My father was born who is dying now
(He was an honest man—mute as stone)
Place them on the top of Monk’s Mound
(Go you. I am his son. I have no words.)
Them off like a siren.
The Piano Player Explains Himself
When the corpse revived at the funeral,
The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul
Of the revenant passed into the body
Of the poet because it had more to say.
He sat down at the piano no one could play
Called Messiah, or The Regulator of the World,
Which had stood for fifty years, to my knowledge,
Beneath a painting of a red-haired woman
In a loose gown with one bared breast, and played
A posthumous work of the composer S—
About the impotence of God (I believe)
Who has no power not to create everything.
It was the Autumn of the year and wet,
When the music started. The musician was
Skilful but the Messiah was out of tune
And bent the time and the tone. For a long hour
The poet played The Regulator of the World
As the spirit prompted, and entered upon
The pathways of His power—while the mourners
Stood with slow blood on their hands
Astonished by the weird processional
And the undertaker figured his bill.
—We have in mind an unplayed instrument
Which stands apart in a memorial air
Where the room darkens toward its inmost wall
And a lady hangs in her autumnal hair
At evening of the November rains; and winds
Sublime out of the North, and North by West,
Are sowing from the death-sack of the seed
The burden of her cloudy hip. Behold,
I send the demon I know to relieve your need,
An imperfect player at the perfect instrument
Who takes in hand The Regulator of the World
To keep the splendor from destroying us.
Lady! The last virtuoso of the composer S—
Darkens your parlor with the music of the Law.
When I was green and blossomed in the Spring
I was mute wood. Now I am dead I sing.
I have been unable to reproduce the indentations in “Sentinel Yellowwoods” and “Lament Fragment.”
“Tales of Odysseus,” an early poem, is from Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man Old and New 1953-2001, a book in which Grossman’s younger and older poetic selves engage in a dialogue across the gap of time poetry spans. “Sentinel Yellowwoods,” “Lament Fragment,” and “The Piano Player Explains Himself” are from The Ether Dome: New and Selected Poems 1979-1991.
I'd like to thank Lawrence L. White for his invaluable input.