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Limits of The Sacred, Limits of Representation

For Allen Grossman, a poet of prodigious gifts and the most recent winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, a successful poem does not merely give voice to human experience. It is an expression of human existence itself.

Although often noted for its influences from High Modernists like William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens, Grossman’s poetry also owes much to Jewish theology and history. A new recording — recently released online by Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room — of Grossman reading from his latest collection, “Descartes’ Loneliness” (New Directions, 2007), demonstrates the Jewish roots of his work, as do his 2009 essays, “True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing” (University of Chicago Press).

Not Descartes: Allen Grossman, author of ?Descartes? Loneliness? (New Directions, 2007), caught here in mid-thought. Image by COURTESY OF NEW DIRECTIONS

At the center of Grossman’s work is a tension between two competing ideas: on the one hand, his conviction that poetry is the best way to preserve what is human given our propensity for self-destruction, and on the other, his keen awareness that art’s depiction of life can never be life itself. On one side of this equation weighs the Holocaust’s terrible lesson in civilized annihilation. On the other side are lessons learned from the Jewish prohibition against creating idols.

Grossman, who was a college English professor for 50 years, was able to find a place for his Judaism in his work while at Brandeis University, where he taught for 35 years. “I was able to integrate two aspects of my life [at Brandeis]: my disposition toward poetry and my disposition toward Judaism,” said the 78-year-old poet, speaking by phone from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Calling poetry “inherently didactic,” Grossman, who also taught at Johns Hopkins University after leaving Brandeis in 1991, explained that teaching was as much a part of his poetic project as writing. “Teaching and poetry sprung from the same motive for me,” he said. “They are both deeply part of my personality. I adored teaching.”

Students of Grossman’s, and I was once one, reciprocated this dedication. His sense of poetic urgency and imposing presence left a lasting impression, and many revered him for his vast intelligence and an original voice that mixed gravity with humor. “For many, studying with Grossman became a discipleship,” said Maeera Shreiber, a former student of his and now a professor of English at the University of Utah.

Grossman was an exacting mentor, known equally for his ability to intimidate as for the generosity and respect he showed students. He could at the same time be “very difficult” and “yet capable of enormous acts of kindness and compassion,” added Shreiber in speaking by phone to the Forward.

“Difficult” and “compassionate” may also describe Grossman’s writings. Intellectually demanding and written in an elevated style, Grossman’s poems are also replete with specific, poignant details from his life. When Grossman won the Bollingen in 2009, the judges wrote of his work that it, “embraces the co-existence of comedy and tragedy, exploring the intersection of high poetic style and an often startling vernacular.”

Whereas overt Jewish references are few and far between in Grossman’s earlier poems, they are more apparent in his later poems. In “Descartes’ Loneliness,” which meditates on solitude in the face of death, the God of Judaism has a palpable presence. Among the 16 poems recently recorded at Harvard is “I Am That I Am.” The title, taken from God’s response to Moses (“I am that I am”) when Moses asks God’s name at the burning bush, is evidence of the inscrutability of a God who seems to equate himself with sheer existence. He, like “being,” cannot be represented.

The poem pitches this sort of ineffable God against Descartes’ God. When Descartes considers how he can be sure the world outside him is not just an illusion, he finds assurance in a God who would not trick him. Grossman finds no such assurance. “Better a deceiving god than no god at all,” the poem declares at the outset. By the end, though, even this is not enough. “But do I exist?” asks the speaker in the poem’s last lines, “This is what you must assure me of. What / you are for. But you do not assure me.” Grossman’s God cannot even assure the speaker that his own mind is real.

The Jewish insistence on a God without corporeal form, argues Shreiber in her book, “Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics,” may make the Jewish poet Grossman’s sensitivity to language’s limitations “even more intense.” This is because, writes Shreiber, “the fact of material being” and the completely un-material Jewish God creates a particular tension pointing emphatically to the painful gap between what can be imagined and what can be seen.

As the essays in “True-Love” demonstrate, Grossman is acutely aware of the gap between lived, changing experience and its static representation in art. In one essay, Grossman explores how artistic creation is inherently destructive, freezing what is fluid and thus changing it irrevocably. In another essay, Grossman asks, “What sort of witness to history and experience is art?” Although it must do its job of transmitting history, at one remove from lived experience, art can never completely bear witness.

“Jewishness is a kind of communal identity for Allen based in a shared account of sacred history, rather than a shared sense of ethnicity,” said Shreiber. Indeed, Grossman, who has never lived as a religious or parochial Jew, has explicitly written against Jewish poetry where “Jewish” refers to ethnicity.

Grossman’s debt to the Jewish experience goes beyond “sacred history” to lived history. Born in 1932, Grossman’s youth was dominated by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, two events that illustrated hitherto unfathomable human capacities for destruction. The Holocaust came to play a central role in Grossman’s poetics.

“He knows what people can do to each other and holds that, in the shadow of such knowledge, poetry is the most effective means of preserving the sanctity of persons,” said Susan Stewart, a poet and longtime friend of Grossman’s, who teaches at Princeton University. “It is best to see if there is a crisis in the world today to which you are addressing yourself,” is how Grossman described his poetic project.

“How to Do Things with Tears” (New Directions, 2001), Grossman’s most overtly Jewish volume of poetry, is dedicated to Holocaust survivor Ilona Karmel Zucker. The dedication instructs us to “Remember what she remembered.” The impossibility of this injunction — to have someone else’s memories — points again to the gap between history and its representation. The poems, writes Grossman, “say something about the common sadness of living and dying in the world.”

In the opening essay to “True-Love,” Grossman addresses Adorno’s famous dictum “No poetry after Auschwitz.” Taking his cue from Celan’s claim that only through poetry could he reorient himself after the Holocaust, Grossman — based on his reading of another Celan scholar — declares, in absolute opposition, “Only poetry after Auschwitz” and advocates for a new poetics for our time.

“He believes strongly that poetry is the most capacious form of knowledge. More capacious than reason and more capacious than the senses,” said Stewart. When Grossman dedicated himself to his craft, he became the poet who uses poetry to think.

Grossman’s understanding of the frailties of language is visceral. While still an undergraduate, he experienced a crisis during which he found himself unable to speak. He moved to Chicago on a leave of absence, and by the time he resumed his studies some two years later, he had found his voice both literally and literarily.

Grossman grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Minneapolis. His father owned a Chevrolet dealership and was not much given to reading. But his mother, who had managed a lending library before her marriage, had “intense high-cultural ambitions for her elder son,” said Judith Grossman, Grossman’s wife and herself a retired English professor and novelist. It was in high school that Grossman first began writing.

The family was well off, with a nanny for the children. And while his parents spent the summers on cruises or vacationing in Cuba, Grossman and his younger brother stayed on a farm in Gibbon, Minn. Images from those early years on the farm often appear in Grossman’s poems; indeed nature and the pastoral play an important role in shaping his mythology.

Grossman attended Harvard University, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English in 1956. It was while at Harvard that Grossman first studied the Bible and Biblical Hebrew, taking classes at the Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School), because Harvard did not offer Hebrew classes. He also studied Latin and Greek. Grossman earned a doctorate from Brandeis in 1960, and a year later he published his first book of poems.

At Brandeis, Grossman quickly became legend. “As soon as I got to Brandeis as a graduate student, I heard about him, as a thorny, grumpy genius,” said Mark Halliday, a poet and professor of English at Ohio University, who collaborated with Grossman on two books of poetics. “Allen has the most amazing ability to think anything to its theoretical foundations. Speaking with him was stimulating, invigorating, but also flattering and intimidating.”

In the poem, “My Radiant Eye,” also in “Descartes’ Loneliness,” the speaker is “approved” as a poet, because he understands what is and is not permitted “in a desolate synagogue.” The poet knows that where the sacred has been abandoned he may not supplant it, but can only read, teach and “deliver eulogies for the community,” says the poem. “The secular and sacred are radically contradictory categories, and poetry is on the whole secular,” concluded Grossman.

In the space where the sacred stood, Grossman has brought poetry and teaching. This, too, may have Jewish roots. The destroyed Temple was replaced by the shul, where learning is as much at home as worship.

Talia Bloch’s poetry has recently appeared in The Antioch Review, The Southern Review and elsewhere.


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