How is it that an accomplished poet and scholar, beloved by generations of students, whose work has enjoyed the praise of no less than Harold Bloom, remains, at 76, something of a poet's poet, a secret hero to a few rather than an enthusiasm widely shared?
Allen Grossman's reputation, such as it is, may be owing in part to his difficult-to-classify poems, which never fit neatly into the fashions—confessional writing, myth and deep image poetry, language writing, the current fascination with irony—that have swept the American poetry scene at one time of another in recent decades. His style mixes high modernism—Wallace Stevens's penchant for abstraction, Williams's intimacy with landscape, Auden's elevated diction—but there's also a touch of the devil-may-care duende of Lowell, who was one of Grossman's early poetic touchstones. Most striking is a mysterious visionary quality that recalls Blake, though Grossman's philosophical engagement with poetry itself—which he calls “the ancient artistic form of language, our distinction”—is all his own. Grossman's new book, Descartes' Loneliness, is a summation of his work to date, confronting everything from the big questions to the family history with his genial mix of humor and solemnity.
Born in 1932, in Minneapolis, Grossman grew up in a family that provided him with what he terms “no prior sophistication”—his father owned a Chevy dealership. But education paved the way toward sophistication of a sort: “I did insist on going to a private school, which made it possible for me to subsequently go to Harvard.” There, he studied with Archibald MacLeish.
Despite his humble beginnings, Grossman now presides over an impressively artistic family. He has two sons from an earlier marriage, and with his second wife, the novelist Judith Grossman, he has three children, all of whom are extremely accomplished in the arts: their daughter is the sculptor Bathsheba Grossman, and their twin sons are Time critic and novelist Lev Grossman, and Austin Grossman, video game designer and author of the recent novel Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Grossman taught at Brandeis for 35 years before moving to Johns Hopkins, where he taught from 1991 until his retirement in 2006. “I've never taught writing poetry as if it were a formal course; I don't believe in that,” says Grossman. “I've always taught the reading of poetry.” Yet Grossman has been a mentor to countless young poets over the years—he willingly offered private tutorials to anyone who asked. One such poet is former student Joanna Klink, whose second collection, Circadian, was just published by Penguin. “He was a mentor to me as I started writing poems—the most generous reader of my work,” says Klink. “I don't know any other poet on the planet who, in his art and in his life, gives so much and so freely.”
Descartes' Loneliness is indeed a generous book. Grossman says, in his prose afterward, “we—you and I, each one of us alone—discover the world for the first time, and therefore, must think... as if no one had ever thought about the world before.” The title poem, spoken by a kind of everyman Descartes, boldly declares, “... You are not alone” but proceeds to question that assertion, as if speaking for the addled modern mind: “But in fact, toward evening, I am not/ convinced there is any other except myself/ to whom existence necessarily pertains.” This uncertainty is the loneliness that the book attempts—if only by sharing it—to assuage.
Other poems enact late-life resurrections of Grossman's mother, Beatrice (who “rented out books to ladies./ But she read them first. That way she knew whether/ there was not, or (preferably) was, anything/ 'disgraceful' in them”) and fathe, Louis (“he once sold 500 new cars in one year”). The excellent “Shipfitters” is among the most unusual confrontations with the inevitability of death in contemporary poetry: “... The boat was made by learned felons/ in Nanking prison on the Yangtze, all dead,/ but in their time they knew how to make a boat... //... I said to myself: 'That will be my death-ship/ when it comes time.'—And now the wind rises.”
“I don't think there is any entirely secular poetry,” says Grossman, who also maintains that “writing poetry does not come from an impulse of self-interest.” Certainly, without subscribing to any particular creed, his poetry is religious inasmuch as it invites both poetry's faithful and its doubters to hope that, though the winds may be rising, they are “the winds of heaven [that] blow the great ship home.”