The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. –V. Nabokov
Poet and scholar Allen Grossman has done as much to further our understanding of poetry as he has to contribute to its practice. His books of poetry include The Harlot’s Hire, The Ether Dome, and Descartes’ Loneliness (to name a only a few); his critical works span concepts from love and the sacred to life’s contingency and the exercise of choice.
Born in 1932 in Minneapolis, the son of a Chevrolet dealer, Grossman attended Harvard and gathered many honors including the MacArthur “genius” grant. He did not place his work in any particular poetic community, but his work brings together philosophy and narrative in ways that some identify as both modern and Romantic. Intense yet effortless in its study, telling, and transformation of experience, his poetry has what Nabokov describes as “a radiance...in the very marrow of thought.” Robert Fitzgerald appreciates this distinctive quality in Grossman’s language: “falling as unlaboredly on the page as light falls through a framing window on a wall.” On June 27th of this year, Allen Grossman died.
One of his many revered ideas is that of the bitter logic of the poetic principle. In The Long Schoolroom, he describes an ineluctable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what the poem is actually capable of doing. Grossman describes the poetic impulse as one generated by a longing to transcend the human and finite; a poet wants to create a poem because she cannot accept the conditions this world offers. So the poem comes from a kind of voracious hunger: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life ...” (Thoreau, Walden). By merely coming into existence, the poem acts against this longing that brought it forth, reinforcing the very structures the poet may have sought to revise. Grossman locates this bitter logic in a violence arising from the terms of social participation, the terms of language itself.
Foredoomed as soon as he throws himself into the effort, the poet does not get his way; Eurydice turns back; the poem does not bestow its gift. Roethke describes a feeling that could well model the bitter logic of Grossman’s poet near the end of his poem The Marrow:
Yea, I have slain my will and still I live
I would be near; I shut my eyes to see;
I bleed my bones, their marrow to bestow ...
This story is too often assumed to be one of sacrifice and despair: up to two quarts of one’s actual marrow can be harvested at one time to great effect. Why not, then, harvest the radiant (if ephemeral) marrow of our thought for the work of poetry? Roethke and Grossman portray a poet who (in spite of the absurdity, or because of it) uses whatever means possible to write. And though the result may fail to serve as a gate to eternity, it need not fail to bear witness and work on this world in some way.
Michael Clune, author of Writing Against Time and a student of Grossman’s, reflects on how, in spite of their bitter logic, certain poems will nonetheless be of use in this world, the one that counts: “The sickness of literary flowers may be a problem for literary technique. The sickness of living flowers is a problem for philosophy. And this philosophy ... has been the constant practice of a literature that doesn’t want to imitate life, but to transform it.” Clune’s insistence on the alignment between the pragmatic projects of poetry and philosophy (both somewhat at the end of the line, theoretically speaking) is a worthy one and likely one drawn from experience.
Many who have turned to books out of some kind of need know that this transformation does not occur, but for some the desire for it is enough. “There is light there and mystery and food./Come and see it./Come not for me, but for it.” (Ashbery, “Just Walking Around”).
In his book The Sighted Singer, Grossman describes poetry as an act against our vanishing: “The making of poems is a practice — a work human beings can do — in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world. The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.” The traces of Grossman’s work, like that of many of the authors he honored, will continue to act on our culture and art for many years to come.
A memorial event will be held for Allen Grossman at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA on October 19th.
Andrea Applebee is a poet based in Durham, NC. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared and are forthcoming in Absent, Ditch, Ocean, Hot Metal Bridge, Boog City, So and So, Big Bell, Fox Chase and other magazines. Her work has explored themes ranging from the nature of objects and the body to geology and weather, and she is currently working on a manuscript grounded in the study of local plants. Andrea teaches writing at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and has taught critical and creative writing for the past six years with a focus on photography, philosophy, and poetics. She holds an MFA in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Pittsburgh. She grew up in Charleston, SC and attended college at Davidson in North Carolina. Andrea appreciates epistemologically revolutionary poems.