On Sunday, October 19 there will be a service at Brandeis University for the memory of the poet Allen Grossman, who died last June 27. I am tempted to call Grossman one of the last great American modernists. During a time when poetry was being dissolved into a play of power differentials, historical-political agendas, personal musings, and trivial deconstructive animadversions, Grossman seemed like a character from the wild Romantic bygone. Aside from his grey hair being pulled back in a short ponytail, he looked every bit the aging academic in tweed or corduroy; but no one who ever heard Grossman read left with that impression. The man proclaimed poetry, like that old recording of Yeats going off to Innisfree's bee-loud glen; "like an Old Testament prophet," I've known more than one person to say. Despite what you might think about that sort of elocution -- now that it is out of fashion, it seems to remind us, for no very clear reason, of bad Shakespearean actors -- Allen Grossman was absolutely convincing at it. (What is more, he could do this while remaining familiar, earthy, heartbreaking, and very funny.) If that tradition is still alive (and I'm not sure it is -- the only other reader I ever knew to use such a style was Ginsberg, which makes me wonder if it is a coincidence that these two late holdouts were both Jewish), it is due in no small part to Grossman's defense of it. He was sure that the over-cautious delivery of poems that he saw spreading was a sign of poets' self-protection -- from their public, but especially from poetry itself, in all its raw danger. Grossman thought this self-protectiveness was the symptom of our avoidance of a deeper crisis in representation itself. The task he set himself was to face that crisis and think it through. This was not a wistful wondering about on what restricted terms we might still hope that poetry matters; it was a warning about what "mattering" means at all, and what the consequences are if poetry doesn't.
Grossman was of the same generation as many of the so-called Confessional poets (he was born in 1936, the same year as Sylvia Plath), but his career took a different arc, although he mined as deeply as any the autobiographical, even turning back towards his early poetic self in his late publication Sweet Youth, which juxtaposed many of his first poems with those he had lately written, in a kind of unfolding dialogue between past and present, as the young man and the old man "meet and acknowledge one another for the first time and pass on a stair -- one going up and the other down."
Over his career Grossman not only produced poetry in the strong mode of late Modernism, he elaborated an astonishingly rich ars poetica. This enterprise has a tremendous theoretical range, unmatched in breadth or depth by any similar body of work in the past half-century. Through all this work of a lifetime -- profound wrestlings with predecessors from Homer or Caedmon to Stevens and Dickinson, and unflinching meditations about the problems of poetics under the conditions of late capitalism and the nuclear age -- Grossman never stints from asserting his basic faith: he fully believed that poetry still was, or could be, a kind of sacred vocation. Although he didn't talk about the Muse as White Goddess, there was still, from Grossman as from Graves, the same utterly serious and unapologetic straight talk about the power of poetry, with nary an overblown word. If you didn't see poetry that way, fine. Grossman wasn't going to wear himself out arguing with you; but he was quietly sure you were cheating yourself.
Grossman's deepening concerns can be traced over the length of his whole career, but three crucial installments in that oeuvre are found in The Sighted Singer, which is, I swear to you, one of the great, weird works of poetics in the West, to rank alongside the Biographia Literaria or In the American Grain. The first two portions of The Sighted Singer are records of two sets of conversations, a decade apart (in Winter of 1981 and Summer of 1990), between Grossman and poet Mark Halliday. In these talks, Halliday and Grossman transmute respectful and serious disagreements into a compelling, but open, assessment of the stakes for poetry. They don't converge upon a single vision, but let their mutual demurrals and unfinished trains of thought hang there like the minority views in a Talmudic tractate. After that comes the third part, Summa Lyrica -- a different sort of work, sprawling and systematic at the same time, a very strange sort of -- well, I'am tempted to say "gnosis," despite the Bloomian appropriation of the word. The first section of Summa Lyrica opens with a magisterial declaration:
Immortality IIf there is a more ambitious way of commencing a work of poetics, I do not know what it is. But the work is not merely ambitious; it is full of poignancy, depth, close analyses, erudition, refusals of stock response. It is profound but it is not portentous, and does not elaborate simple responses. In fact, Grossman believed that the notion of "sufficient response" to our human dilemma was a snare. As he wrote in an appendix to his late volume How To Do Things With Tears,
1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.
1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.
1.2 The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge—poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not “I” speaks but “language speaks” (Heidegger). The function of this knowledge is to rescue the natural will at the point of its death, that is to say, at the point where death arrests its intention.
1.3 Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world.
1.4 The kind of success poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”
The poet...opposes the satisfaction of supposing that thinking is innocent....The conviction of "sufficient response" ("what will suffice," "answerable voice," "closure") is peculiarly delusive. Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice.Or, as he enjoined elsewhere in the same volume:
Do not be content with an imaginary God.This question of the new in poetry is also what accounts for the title of The Sighted Singer, a reversal of the traditional trope by which the poet's gift of prophecy was counterbalanced by blindness (e.g. Tiresias, Homer, Milton). This revision of a tradition in which he was so deeply grounded was not lightly undertaken. His were very high stakes, and Grossman did not claim he had won; only that there was no honor or praise in pretending the stakes were otherwise. For Grossman, when one reads a poem as a poem, one is seeking "the presence of a person," and personhood is (I think) the center about which his project turns -- what he called "the hard problem." Immortality. A non-imaginary God. From beginning to end, Grossman's work is a sustained engagement on the terms of this problem. He did not offer easy solace, and he did not despair.
Remember what he remembered.