Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of Allen Grossman, who died about three weeks ago at the age of 82. Grossman was known (dubiously, though perhaps understandably?) as a poet’s poet, and I think his work bears out this reputation to a certain extent, if only because it can be at times more gnomic, enigmatic, or obscure, with references at times to mythological personages that might hauntingly bewilder, and a strongly oracular and sometimes portentous voice that seems strange and at odds with our (for lack of a better word) postmodern jouissance, our hybrid predilections, even our distrust of voice because of its implications of a unitary, non-porous identity. In the wonderful book The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers, Grossman talks with poet and critic Mark Halliday about this dynamic of his (Grossmans’s, though also Halliday’s) voice, although “talks with poet and critic Mark Halliday” seems somewhat a tepid and mild description for representing the muscular, dynamic, full-throttle elegance and sophistication and sustenance that this dialogue between these two men inspires and provides. The Sighted Singer is a book that astonishes. It incorporates two separate dialogues the poets had, one in winter, and one in summer, with ten years intervening between the talks. One of the pleasures of such a format (the emphasis on the seasons, the awareness of time passing, then ten-year interval between the talks) is keeping abreast of the two poets’ philosophies of teaching, reading and writing, as they undergo changes within and without the dialogue. The discussion isn’t always neat or tidy, and the poets importantly disagree about many things. But the whole book has so far carried such a robust flavor, and its Socratic template is inspiring and thought-provoking and refreshingly different from most academic books on poetry.
The last section, which I haven’t reached or read yet, is a treatise on poetry by Grossman, and I’m ridiculously excited to read it, for Grossman it seems to me is a master teacher, and perhaps a master poet as well. Critics have grumbled about his nostalgia for High Modernism, his refusal to give up his own masters (Stevens, Yeats, Hart Crane), and generally his high style, which does at times seem like a throwback to a time-period that is no longer with us, except in glimmers and glimpses. Jason Guriel, in the pages of Poetry magazine, even wrote about Grossman, “A poem, though, needs more of its maker than a big mouth.” Yet I want to argue in this blog that Grossman is actually wonderfully contemporary, that his big mouth can be powerful and inspiring, and that we lose an important voice when we forget this poet’s contribution to the form. To do this I want to look at a poem, “By the Pool,” from Grossman’s 1979 book The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River. The poem reads,
Every dwelling is a desolate hill.
Every hill is a desolate dwelling.
The trees toss their branches in the dark air,
Each tree after its kind, and each kind after
Its own way. The wind tosses the branches
Of the trees in the dark air. The swimming
Pool is troubled by the wind, and the swimmers.
Even though this is not a tower, this is
Also a tower.
Even though you are not
A watchman, you are also a watchman.
Even though the night has not yet come,
The night has come.
I love the title of the poem, how humorously understated it is – “By the Pool” – as though nothing in the poem were large-mannered, as though Grossman were simply chronicling the banal details of some pastel retirement, say. But “By the Pool” immediately takes on a grandeur when the poem begins with the statement, “Every dwelling is a desolate hill.” The phrase rings and reverberates, wringing out of itself a bitter but important solitary truth – that aloneness is at the heart of who we are and what we do, that every dwelling, both inner and outer, carries at the center of its most secret heart a separateness, a desolation, an unendurable endurance, a sort of pungent suffering resilience. And yet Grossman’s mind is large and perspective-taking, so that the next line, like a cubist painting, pivots around to a new perspective using similar materials: “Every hill is a desolate dwelling.” And how different the twang of that line, though how similar, too! “Every hill is a desolate dwelling” has a different connotative repertoire, a different way of signifying, and one senses the importance to Grossman of dialectic, the significance of perspective-taking and -making, and the resounding differences that accumulate and ensue when only a few words are changed in an already strongly reverberating sentence and line.
Then there is a subtle shift, and the second stanza tells us of the “trees [tossing] their branches in the dark air, / Each tree after its own kind, and each kind after / Its own way.” It is as though Grossman were describing us, describing our responses, dark and instinctual, to the fact that every dwelling is a desolate hill. We are like these trees, crying out, tossing our branches in the dark air, although we cry differently, and seek out of our desolation different reasons for living and moving. Notice how beautifully and seemingly simple these lines are, though they are shadowed by something darker and more gnomic: “The wind tosses the branches / Of the trees in the dark air. The swimming / Pool is troubled by the wind, and the swimmers.” Perhaps this is a nod to Whitman’s bathers, perhaps not. Either way, nothing is untouched by the wind, which winds and wings and pours and enters into the most secret crevices. Even the swimming pool, that banally blue David Hockney image-trope, is nothing if not ruffled by this corner-less wind.
The poem, as we continue reading, winds up being an ars poetica – “Even though this is not a tower, this is/ Also a tower.” Probably an allusion to Hart Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,” we can see the interesting way in which this image simultaneously takes on shape and dissolves in front of our eyes. Like an Ashbery poem, we cannot exactly pin it down – it is concrete yet nebulous, both a tower and not a tower, and therefore Grossman is articulating the very essence (if there is such a thing as essence) of metaphor, its shape-shifting quality, its reclusiveness and elusiveness, its unwillingness to be categorized or categorizable. We, too, like the tower, cannot be pinned down. We are therefore living metaphors, vigilant sentries, who must be watchful as the poem is watchful. Finally, in the last stanza, we hear and see the repetition of this formula, the “even though you are….you are not” in the lines, “Even though the night has not yet come, / The night has come.” It is a powerful and even perhaps somewhat redemptive ending, unless we read the night as something not redemptive but desolate. However we read it, the poem has used what appear like the simplest materials to convey an utterly powerful and sophisticated vision. So I’d like to end with a short poem I wrote about and for Grossman, in thanks to this great poet:
Grossman, your hills are too alive
with quixotic vivified musings. Hold my hand,
here, old dark master, your mind like
a wide cold rock, labyrinthine,
echoing its warm fields to the mind of memory.
Throw in your towel, or don’t – either way
in the schvitz of my mind
we lie together on the cold grey slab
and out backs are smacked red
by the palm trees of the place.
Grossman, the world smells like an old bathroom.
Lend me your paw. Together
we shall ascend the hill.