Against Our Vanishing: On the Loss of Allen Grossman by Christopher Kondrich


“Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing,” wrote Allen Grossman to preface The Sighted Singer, a volume containing his conversations with Mark Halliday and Summa Lyrica, a treatise on poetics and personhood that, to my whole being, is a singularly beautiful, eloquent and courageous work of aesthetics and humanism. This opening sentence, which has stayed and buoyed me ever since I first encountered it, is a door he left ajar to a way of valuing humans and our “right of presence,” to envisioning aesthetic creation as a social, not solitary enterprise, and to understand poetics as the labor, the process of making humans out of bodies. It is “our” vanishing—neither solely his nor mine—and it is a power, a principle of power, that provides us with the integrity and love to keep “the image of persons as precious in the world.”

We need this power, this purpose, because all moments are moments of vanishing. It gives us the means of maintaining humanness in the world despite what Grossman called the “bitter logic” of representation and the failings of what representation requires (distinctions, differences, etc.). Of course, vanishing is inevitable; we are aware of this. We cannot keep someone from vanishing, and, so, we are summoned, whether we like it or not, “by deep unconscious memory,” by one another, by a theologic voice calling out “as from the above” for us to respond (“Caedmon, sing me something!”) and we do so by making poems (uncanny artifacts of the present in representation’s dialect) as “a last recourse before despair.” Indeed, poems are the last recourse and the products of this last recourse, Lot and his wife, turning each other into salt.

When I first encountered this notion from “My Caedmon: Thinking About Poetic Vocation” about the poem being “the last recourse before despair,” I was extraordinarily moved. The sentence in the essay that precedes it, which describes how “the speaker in the poem is moved to begin speaking by the failure of God to make sense,” resonated with me far beyond my own spiritual hang-ups. When combined with Grossman’s proclamation that “poetry is always theologic,” this “failure of God to make sense” does not elicit dissonance. I see both ideas getting at the tension in our marrow, the question of why the world is like it is. I see these notions collaborating to provide the gravity, the intimacy, the stakes of the poetic endeavor that connects us as participants to the “our” in “our vanishing.”

The more I read of Grossman’s work, the more I experience poetry as he explains, as “riveting because of the implicit promise of secular techniques of negotiating the violence within discourse, which means renegotiation of the relation between the individual and the collective.” This is not a mere fanboy’s admiration; this is an unveiling of the world by a bearer of truth. And although Grossman’s proclamations—about “the violence within discourse,” about “bitter logic” and poetry’s sanctified state as artifact—may seem arch to some, I believe they are exactly what we need to keep our culture’s Devaluation Machine™ at bay. I’m referring, of course, to capitalism and the rapid decline of species, but I’m also referring to careerism, to “social” media, to that which keeps “the image of [the individual] as precious in the world.” I do think poetry should mean something, not through some ethically questionable didacticism or banal equivocation, but in the way it should demonstrate love (or at least an attempt to fissure the wall between self and other) despite (and to spite) vanishing’s resourcefulness.

I believe this, truly. It informs my own poetry, my editorial decisions and my being, and I don’t care if this makes me stodgy or strange. I read and write in order to reach outside of myself, and I look for this reaching in the work of others. I find it in “The Tide,” “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen” and “Trying to Write a Poem About Gandhi.” I find it in Citizen and People on Sunday. I find this reaching and am strengthened by it. Although these poets, all of whom I admire, may not know they are or even care to be upholding the integrity of Allen Grossman’s work, they help me to value, to understand our “right of presence” and all that is working—actively, with vanishing on its side—against it. When Grossman wrote, “the poet represents the mind in the act of defending us against itself,” he surely meant work akin to that of these poets.

I would argue that Grossman himself is also applicable, and majestically so. In “The Great Work Farm Elegy,” the poem that opens The Philosopher’s Window, Grossman writes,


Our face and the form of our bodies, are not
Known to us. And the elevation of the golden house
We build is unknown to us. And the gods of the house
That stand inside, are, as I have said elsewhere,
Enraged. Judgement has not yet been passed, nor
The sentence written, nor the harvest carried home:
But the fields are white with the risen grain.


This evocation of unknowing, of that which has not yet been, is a reaching similar to that of the poets mentioned above. It recognizes the world as one of institutions (religion, language, civilization), but, through this sense of unknowing and the not yet, it leads me to realize how poetry “by its nature always escapes or exceeds them.” And so we must harness—as O’Brien and Conoley do, for example—the poetic principle as a means of escape (even if what we are escaping to is as indiscernible as the song of Wordsworth’s solitary reaper), of exceeding the institution of the individual self no matter the futility.

This futility, this inevitable vanishing, is not so terrible. What’s more terrible is not vanishing. That “world making and person making ... is both possible and impossible: possible in fact—there are, as I say, both persons and poems—but, strictly, logically, materially, as a matter of deliberation, impossible—destined to fail,” gives us a “state of affairs” to describe. It took the work of a poet and philosopher as insightful, as daring as Allen Grossman for us to realize this. When he writes, “poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing,” maybe, by vanishing, he doesn’t mean death, but a kind of erasure of need. True vanishing would mean not only the elimination of the theologic voice asking us to sing, but also the elimination of it as a possibility, of the “deep, unconscious memory” out of which it springs, calling. Without a need for such “strangely guarded and endangering empowerment,” we would truly vanish.

This, perhaps, is what we should put our most social, most reaching work up against. There is the world, a “state of affairs” to describe; there is also the human being, the image of which we must keep precious. Thank you, Allen, for calling out for us to sing something that gives gravity and intimacy to our song.