As a graduate student in English at Brandeis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was drawn to Allen Grossman’s theatricality and charisma, but also to his pragmatism and what I will be calling his radical simplicity. As Publisher’s Weekly has noted, Grossman lyrics showcase his “interest – or better, faith – in poetry’s capacity to perform distinctly human acts of preservation.” His example was not of the romantic poet chasing an elusive blue flower in the English Lake District. Instead, Grossman argued, poetry, traditionally, was how cultures disseminate history and myth, promote values such as honor, courage, and compassion, and confront loss and change. Grossman spoke of Hesiod, the ancient Greek lyricist whose poetry in Works and Days offered instruction on practical matters for an agricultural community comparable to a Farmer’s Almanac. Poetry was how people “across time” (another Grossman formulation) expressed hope, like a message in a bottle tossed into an ocean, that someone on the other shore (read symbolically, as in Dickinson’s poem “I cannot live with you,” as the gulf of “despair” between self and other) would care enough to listen and respond.
In the 1980s I had been a typical autobiographical storyteller in college at Northwestern and in the fiction writing master’s program at Boston University in the year before starting graduate studies at Brandeis. In stories, I was “acting out,” or, more generously, “working through,” private traumas including the death of my father, Ernie, when I was ten and he 45, and an emotional breakdown I suffered my sophomore year at Northwestern. I hadn’t realized until Grossman offered wide-angle perspective, that my stories were of a piece with innumerable calls into the wilderness uttered by lost souls in hopes of being heard, understood, loved. But Grossman’s message was actually more complex in its focus on intersubjectivity. The lyric concern, counterintuitively, was not on preserving the authorial image, but rather on protecting the image of the beloved, the “you” addressed by the speaker. This emphasis on the figure of apostrophic address was so, even as, ironically, we remember the name and face of Shakespeare, and not the “dark lady” whom the Bard considered comparing to a summer’s day (and decided not to), and even as he promised the beloved at the end of Sonnet 18:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
However unexpected, an apparently narcissistic lyric such as “When I have Fears” by John Keats was, Grossman stated, motivated less by Keats’s anxieties about mortality – he died at 25 –, and more by his concern that upon his death he will no longer be able to cast eyes upon, and put pen to paper to represent, Fanny Brawne, the “fair creature of an hour, That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the fairy power, Of unreflecting love.”
Grossman’s poetics was interpersonal and outer-directed, but also poignant because it expressed the reality that life is beautiful because fragile and inevitably involves (again, another Grossman term) vanishing. All that is human perishes and rots, wrote Yeats, in a comment Grossman, who authored a study in 1970 on Yeats’s early poetry, liked to repeat. Salt and ice make for the best packing. Symbolically, “salt and ice” referred to poetic form. In “Sunday Morning,” “death,” wrote Wallace Stevens, an American modernist touchstone for Grossman, “was the mother of beauty.” Grossman thus invoked a straightforward, but provocative, idea. Poetry was not, as I had thought, in the business of “self-expression” – as in the hackneyed creative writing teacher’s encouragement to find one’s “voice” – but rather in the business of constructing an image of self in a valued form he termed “personhood.” Grossman, as Micah Towery reports:
[S]ees persons as “value-bearing,” and he differentiates persons from “selves” along this line of value. The self is something that can be discovered or found. The self is what Freud parsed: a hurricane of secret desires, phobias, and complexes. Persons, however, are what poets write about; they are “artifacts.” Now, to say it is a construction of sorts, does not mean it has no “presence.” I don’t think of this construction as a mask, a falseness, something that obscures, but rather the actuality of what we perceive when we encounter other selves. In other words, I experience “Micah Towery” as a self – myself. You, however, encounter me as an object (in the Thomistic sense), but more: a person. You encounter my presence through my writing.
Towery emphasizes two key points about Grossman’s poetics. The first is that poetry is not narcissistic, but rather, as noted above in remarks about Keats, driven by a wish to imagine the beloved, as well as to elicit response from another. The lyric yearning was not for knowledge of self so much as it was for how to project an image of self that could be “encountered” by another. The second point is that poetry functioned through what Grossman called a “bitter logic.” By “bitter logic,” he referred to a fundamental, and apparently unbridgeable, difference, between my ordinary sense of self – flesh and blood Danny – and the representational image of “Danny” that might bestow upon me rights of appearance as a “person.” Because of the difference between self and personhood, lyric appearance entailed experiential loss.
Among suspicious Brandeis graduate students with a populist bent who’d never heard him teach, Grossman’s reputation was as a hermetic elitist. They may have passed by an open auditorium door while he lectured in bardic tones. In the hallways of Rabb, which housed the English department, they may have noticed his gray suit and tie (even on non-teaching days), smelled his pipe, and overheard him utter terms such as “crepuscule” and “liminal” in an elevated tone and with the long “a” sounds of someone trained in a New England Prep School even though he was a Jew from Minneapolis whose father had been a Chevy salesman. It was, from the outside, easy to caricature him as a Boston Brahmin wannabe. (I am reminded of the fact that T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis but in recordings sounds as if he were raised in an English manor.) Those who didn’t study with him may have assumed Grossman scorned popular culture, a prevalent area of scholarly inquiry among younger faculty and graduate students in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But part of Grossman’s genius was that he paid respectful attention to all sorts of cultural expressions, high and low. He regarded a line such as “Nothing compares to U” from a Sinead O’Connor (by way of Prince) song, as a meditation on what it feels like to have your heart broken, but also as declaring the inadequacy of lyric – of figurative language – to reduce suffering through the detection of common elements of feeling in apparently unlike objects. Nothing compares to you. No logic of substitution, no way to use language or imagery to displace loss. Loss is total, unavailable to redemption through imagination. When John Lennon was murdered in Manhattan in 1980, Grossman spoke of a headline he read in the newspaper: “The Day the Music Died.” It was, I knew, the line from Don Mclean’s elegy to Buddy Holly, “American Pie.” Grossman saw depth in the apparently saccharine remark. He noted the phrase concerned the death of “Music,” not the “musician.” When I fumbled in my pronunciation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, he reminded me of the Mel Brooks movie: “Frankensteeeen.”
Given his reputation as what one fellow graduate student who loved him called “The Grand Poobah,” Grossman’s appeal to me was, surprisingly, his ability to simplify poetic knowledge, boiling it down to fundamental truths. (The Grossman course the Teaching Company selected to tape for their Superstar Teacher series was called “Poetry: A Basic Course.”) In a definitional sense, he was a radical thinker if we remember the word “radical” means “root,” not “way out.” He was, by contrast to “way out,” “way in” because of his interest in discovering the foundational sources and traditional functions of poetry. One influential essay, which first appeared in TriQuarterly, focused on the masculine (Orphic) and feminine (Philomela) myths of poetic origination. His telling of the Philomela story in particular was enthralling and disturbing. It showed the relation between sexual violence – the rape of Philomela – that included the cutting off of her tongue by a mad king so she could not announce the perpetrator – and the displacement of voice to a form of writing as Philomela knits information about her assailant and is later transformed into a singing bird. The story fit Grossman’s thesis that poetry was a “last resort” precipitated by literal or figurative “blockage” and vocal disability. We recall Dickinson’s comment, “Because I could not say it, I wrote it out in verse.” Grossman’s ability to manage the incidents of poetry into archetypal formulas came out of structuralism as well as what Wallace Stevens in the “The Idea of Order at Key West” called the “rage for order” so typical of the High Modernist sensibility.
To illustrate his point about the link between poetry and loss, Grossman, again displaying a simplifying bent, divided poems about love into three temporal categories. Love poems could focus on anticipation (before), consummation (during), or conclusion (after). Why could one find in any garden-variety anthology countless poems or turn on the radio and listen to pop song after song (and he would include song lyrics as poems) about anticipating, as the Beatles sang in a euphemistic metonym, “to hold your hand”? And also, Grossman asked, why so many poems and lyrics about the actuality, as Neil Sedaka wrote, “that breaking up is hard to do”? Grossman pointed out that few great poems existed about the actual being in the moment of passionate love. (He cited Shakespeare’s “Phoenix and the Turtle” as an exception.) Why so few? Because, Grossman, following Saussure, answered – when did he not have a brilliant response? – of the absent-based character of language. Poetry was the bitter art because it solved isolation, but was also the intractable source of alienation from experience. Ironically, even tragically, words, brought forth to draw us together through communication, take the lover, even for that split second in which mind shapes feelings into words, away from fervor, now cooled into what Eliot called a “formulated phrase.” The language of love also was the language of loss. When I think of what a love poem expressing ardor might sound like, I imagine disco songs with ecstatic but incomprehensible and yet erotic utterances such as “Love to Love Ya Baby” and “I feel love” by Donna Summer or the deep moans of Barry White on “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” The moment of insatiable desire, disco hits announce, is no time for analytic reflection, but intense devotion to physical stimulation and emotional sensations that, the songs seem to say, defy language.
Given the “bitter” logic of poetry as based in absence, and specializing in anticipation and aftermath, but not equipped to satisfy our desire for representation as the equivalent of experience, I wondered what was the utilitarian purpose of poetry? Here Grossman noticed the intuitive way children played games involving poetic language. Such games, he argued, implicitly expressed the understanding that patterned wordings might create, at least temporarily, order and harmony in the face of an uncertain reality in which, as Yeats wrote, things fall apart.
Grossman asked us to consider the singing game, dating from the late Middle Ages, “London Bridge is Falling Down My Fair Lady.” Far from what Frost in “Mending Wall” would call “merely another outdoor game” that “comes to little more,” Grossman read ”London Bridge” as an essential example of his pragmatic theory. In poetry lectures, he made the children’s ballad seem as crucial an expression of human fragility as lyric masterpieces by Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. (In fact, Grossman, again with radical simplicity, divided poetry into two main formal subgenres: lyric and ballad. The lyric, he explained, was the high cult version of the verbal art because of its focus on individuation and interiority. We associate a specific author with “voice,” and the 10-position line approximates the length of a typical conversational statement. The ballad, by contrast, was the poetic expression of the “folk” because of its communal features – its four beat/three beat alternating measure is associated with low church hymnal –, and lack of certain authorship.)
His close reading of “London Bridge” was a classic instance of radical simplicity. Who pays attention to the words and situation of a nursery rhyme? It is about a symbol of culture, beauty, and the ability of ordinary people to move from one place to another in spite of the natural impediment of a river by way of a majestic human construct – The London Bridge over the Thames. At the same time, there is a crisis of catastrophic dimensions – London Bridge is Falling Down! We don’t know why it is collapsing, but the children intuit that the crumbling bridge illustrates a larger truth about the conflict between nature and culture. They notice – as, apparently, the aristocratic “Fair Lady” does not, and so needs to be alerted of the fact – that a brilliant material construct designed to assist citizens as they travel through the environment was itself vulnerable. Grossman went on to note the rhyme was not (at least not only) an expression of a speaker’s fears about personal upset. It attended to troubles faced by another vulnerable person: “my fair lady.” Continuing to “close read” the nursery song, he showed its art doubled as a motivational speech act – metrics and choreographic movements by performers – illustrate the message: “Build it up with brick and clay…”
Looking back at my academic history, I notice my search involved finding a Jewish male mentor to fill the void I felt after my father’s early death. Grossman’s personal history made it unlikely that he could deal with my early traumas because he was still overcoming his own. I came to learn his theory that poetry was a “last resort” for people in trouble who felt unable to communicate in a face-to-face encounter was not merely disinterested intellectual inquiry. As an undergraduate in the 1950s, he’d left Harvard because he lost the ability to speak. The legend, circulated among adoring and at times bewildered students, went that he ended up in Chicago, semi-homeless. The story continued that he spent the bitter Chicago winter wandering downtown streets. His only contact was a psychiatrist whom he saw irregularly. One of Grossman’s most accomplished mature poems is “The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River,” the title poem from a 1979 volume, his first with New Directions Press. The poem inaugurates the first section of the book, entitled “The Fame of Tears.” I mention the section title because, like a surreal version of Genesis in which the substance of God’s creativity is composed of tears, each of the poem’s eight stanzas involves a different part of the cosmos that is defined by weeping. In stanza one, the moon, stars, wind, and sea are composed of tears. In stanza two, insects and reptiles weep. As the stanzas continue the division of the world into weeping elements takes on an abstract, even philosophical, cast as concepts such as “Eternity” and “Time” and “Nothing” and “Ideas” cry. From the cosmic perspective of a world made of tears in the first four stanzas (the first half of the poem), Grossman in the second half hones in on what I believe – based on rumors of his vocal disability when he left Harvard to undergo psychological treatment in Chicago in the 1950s – to be the poem’s autobiographical dimension. Moving from celestial, to earthly, to metaphysical dimensions of a world made out of tears, Grossman in stanza five imagines, with the detachment of third person perspective, anecdotes of human weeping in urban, suburban, and modern industrial contexts that include “steam engines” and a “sad family/in the next house over” who cry so much that they are “staining the dim blind.” There is a “small boy in a coat” who sobs in a tent in stanza five, and the same boy appears in stanza six as he hears the “grieving sound of his own begetting” suggesting a psychosexual dimension to his bathetic audio visual reception of a mourning world. In the penultimate, seventh stanza, Grossman, writing in the present tense about an event that he will, in the final stanza, reveal to have been a memory, suggesting trauma as past and present indelibly blur, alludes to his mute wanderings in Chicago during his college years:
It is cold and snowing
And the snow is falling into the river.
On the bridge, lit by the white shadow of
The Wrigley building
A small woman wrapped in an old blue coat
Staggers to the rail weeping.
As I remember,
The same boy passes, announcing the fame
Of tears, calling out the terms
In a clear way, translating to the long
Dim human avenue.
Even huge fans, such as his student, the poet Mark Halliday, have lamented the abstraction in many Grossman poems. I think of the critique of his abstractionist bent – one indebted to his tonal similarities with Wallace Stevens – because I notice how drawn I am to the ending of “The Woman on the Bridge.” I am relieved when Grossman mentions the “Wrigley Building.” The Chicago landmark locates the tender and yet still cerebral (the self-conscious division of the cosmos into realms of tear-filled beings and units reminding us of Genesis) remarks in a “confessional” anecdote. The moment is especially moving because the emphasis is not on Grossman’s suffering, but rather on his witnessing the disoriented woman in the “old blue coat” who staggers to the bridge railing over the Chicago River. Even here Grossman – whose lone scholarly book concerned symbolism in Yeats – is working with archetypes rather than merely recalling quotidian private memories. One senses the “Wrigley Building” signifies the alienating “shadow” of urban capitalism and the unsatisfying realm of consumerism in which chewing Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum offers false promises of beauty, health, and pleasure. The “small woman” is less an individual from Chicago reacting to a specific (in the poem unspecified) history of pain than an allegorical figure who stands for the concept of Suffering. Those reservations aside, I am drawn to the image of college-aged Grossman, wandering in the snow in downtown Chicago, and coming across another sufferer. (I myself drifted down Chicago streets, disoriented, as a Northwestern student in the 1980s). One weirdly senses that the woman somehow represents the poet’s mother. Grossman would often comment that the poet’s task was to “translate” (a word he uses at the end of the poem) the “mother tongue” into literary language that produces that value-bearing conception of significant appearance that Grossman regards as “personhood.” One realizes the final stanza suggests the symbolic moment of initiation into poetic election. His task will be to “translate” the “mother tongue” of “tears” – the natural language of embodied lamentation over the human condition of separation and dissolution (even the snowflakes are melting into the river) – into a public expression. The poet invokes the Homeric term “fame” for distinguished recognition. As in Homer, fame entails a loss of natural being, but also dignity, if not redemption, to what had previously been an emotionally-rich, but not distinguished (everyone and everything is weeping) condition:
announcing the fame
Of tears, calling out the terms
In a clear way, translating to the long
Dim human avenue.
In the poem an isolated young man observes the woman in the frigid and alienating urban setting. Somehow, Grossman recovered from his inability to speak. Big time! In fact, his voice in lecture halls was so authoritatively booming that auditors believed he’d accessed the sources of inspiration that compelled ancient bards to recite tribal histories. Grossman’s voice represented supreme power and unquestioned authority over subject matter and stunned audience. Words poured out of his mouth in lecture halls, but I felt he needed an official forum and well-built auditorium as well as for the roles of lecturer and auditor to be clearly defined before he could begin his utterances. Grossman spoke a lot of words in lectures halls and office hours, but rarely, at least in my experience, in relaxed forms such as a friendly conversation over coffee. In fact, Grossman, mysteriously, once told me, “poets cannot have friends.” Another time, at a rare departmental picnic to celebrate a nice spring afternoon following a poetry reading, Grossman ambled over to the party in his ubiquitous suit and tie, however hot the day. He stood yards away from the rest of the group, smoking his pipe and looking off into the distance. I came up to him. “Why are you standing so far away from everyone else? Why don’t you join the party?” “I gave that up a long time ago.” I was his student as well as teaching assistant for a good four years, but I never was asked over to his house in Lexington or out to have a dinner with him at a restaurant in Cambridge. (This may say as much about my social awkwardness and inferiority complex as about Grossman’s impersonality.)
He wasn’t the type of beloved teacher known for inviting students over to his home for tea or port and chat or for holding seminars in a funky café. But like an evangelical preacher, he announced the good news of poetry as THE form to, in Grossman’s words, protect us “against our vanishing” by placing the ephemeral human voice into the sturdy time capsule of well-made lines and memorable rhythms of verse. And it did feel like preaching, to the converted (as in my case) or the unconverted (the great unwashed masses of Brandeis undergrads who needed to take his introduction to humanities courses). Myself now a long time professor of poetry at Purdue, it only becomes more astonishing when I think of his dedication to students. By contrast to my minimalist attitude towards Office Hours, my mentor, Professor Grossman, each week posted a sign up sheet on the door of his cave-like corner office in Rabb Hall. The sheet, and I am not exaggerating, consisted of rows of black lines assigned to fifteen minute time slots, that, taken together, added up to a minimum of fifteen hours a week of “office hours.” Each Monday morning, students, undergraduate, graduate, and even junior professors, would wait by the door, pen in hand, ready, like Christmas shoppers waiting for Black Friday deals, to ink their name to prime times, often taking three or four fifteen minute slots to guarantee an especially detailed private session. Often, after the official slots were filled, you would notice extra slots penciled in underneath the official black-lined time slots. And, inevitably, one would arrive early outside Grossman’s office for the coveted meeting only to hear his deep voice, heavy laugh, and the odor of pipe smoke in the midst of a current meeting that, inevitably, would be somewhere in the middle of a session. It was like an airport on a bad weather day, little planes like me waiting for the green light to jump off into the transcendent skies of Grossman’s healing vision of poetry.
Allen Grossman. The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River. New York: New Directions Press, 1979.
John Keats. “When I have Fears.” Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Helen Vendler, editor. Boston: Bedford, 1997. P. 17.
“Allen Grossman.” The Poetry Foundation Website.
Review of How to Do Things with Tears. Publishers Weekly. March 26, 2001, p. 85.
William Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (sonnet 18). Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Helen Vendler, editor. Boston: Bedford, 1997. p. 521.
Micah Towery. “Blogging through Allen Grossman, Part 1: The Role of Poetry.” The The. February 9, 2010.
William Butler Yeats. “Easter 1916.” Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Helen Vendler, editor. Boston: Bedford, 1997, p. 268.
Love Never Fails
(Notes upon seeing on my AOL homepage that Donna Summer is dead of lung cancer at 63)
For Allen Grossman
Were her cheekbones still erect when The Crow’s clanging gong released Ich bin ich?
What do I know of her tiny microphone other than this? Her delightful experience on my tongue triggers a resounding discharge, not a pardon.
Like all other remainders. Early summer morning at The Casablanca. Overheard, the synthesizer singing: Donna Summer is Acquittal, not Exemption.
LaDonna’s parents stare at the naked cake of flames reflected in the record, flown LAX to JFK, first class, a row of its own plus two for body guards from Hansen’s to Broadway. “This piece is not the child I protected in part and face to face,” said the mother, a teacher from Mission Hill. “This tongue is incomplete. I thought I had done such good parenting,” said the father, a butcher and Anabaptist.
More Light, Gertrude were not last words, nor Chantilly Lace, nor Spur, nor Tricks.
Dim all the lies of prophecy, Giorgio. What I need from you tonight is for you to sit with me a little bit longer, on the sofa, not that couch far away over there near the closet or that hard chair where you always seem to be or are. Closer. Closer. Please, Giorgio, it will be all right with Helmut, a little closer than oasis, that even please is my only remaining desire. Lay beside me on the cool tile of the bathroom floor. Pretend this is The Casablanca. Your reverb in my mouth will approximate what we still have to offer each other.
so Kim and I started slow dancing to McArthur’s Park...i got a hard on as Donna sang those surreal lines about a cake melting in the rain...the green icing...O MY God My first Slow Dance...but then the music is changing radically...it is stopping being a slow song any more...o please not..it is becoming a disco just like Last Dance just like On the Radio…how could I not spot the pattern of Donna and Giorgio...the crescendo of violins is building and the synth is waking up. and so I as usual giggle as Kim says: you knew it was disco, didn’t you? didn’t you? you knew the change was coming, right? you know how to disco, right? right? i laugh again kind of trying to twirl her around a self-consciously parodic exaggeration of saturday night fever
Does it still feel like love, Donna, to realize Giorgio’s autotunes no
longer occupy the zero point between poetry and ecstasy? And yet to stop
pretending to have withdrawn from poverty and hardship amounts to an admission that the toxic particles had not been sent, like a terrorist’s message, belatedly into your lungs as punishment for rumors of a single comment about the Gay Plague?
My advisor, Allen Grossman, proclaimed:
are situated on the horizontal (or temporal) axis either
BEFORE or AFTER
as no fool in his right mind would write a poem
AT THAT MOMENT
I hereby belatedly contest my advisor’s thesis. As evidence, I submit to you
“Love to Love You Baby” and “I feel Love,” along with certain parts of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby.” Donna’s “O” and “AH” is in my experience
the closest recorded representation in the Western lyric tradition of the ZERO
POINT BETWEEN POETRY AND ECSTASY thus destroying the deepest insight of my
advisor, Dear Allen, who IS alive, but cannot remember her name.