Academic journal article Chicago Review

Abstraction Resisted (or, H Still H)

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Abstraction Resisted (or, H Still H)

Article excerpt

When I started work toward my Ph.D. at Brandeis University in 1977, I hadn't heard of Allen Grossman, but within a few months I had caught on to what everyone around me seemed to know--that he was an awesome genius as a thinker about poetry, and a powerful poet, someone at that time mysteriously under-recognized on the national scene (his first volume of poems with New Directions, The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River, was to appear in 1979), a man to be reckoned with, a walking Mind, simultaneously intimidating and intensely encouraging to serious students.

Two years later he became my dissertation director; meanwhile I audited several of his courses, and assisted him in one undergraduate lecture course, and wondered constantly how much of his view of poetry could become mine. In 1980 he proposed that we try a book-length interview in which I could offer queries and challenges to his long-brewed and passionately articulated ideas. The result was Against Our Vanishing (Rowan Tree Press, 1981). A decade later Grossman proposed that we try a new set of conversations in which I would have more to say, and these 1990 conversations appear along with the 1981 text as part of The Sighted Singer (Johns Hopkins, 1991).

I was forty-one in 1990; Allen Grossman, born in 1932, was fifty-eight.

Another decade has passed. I'm still trying to figure out what I do and don't accept in Grossman's philosophy of poetry, and what I do and don't want to emulate in his practice of poetry. The chance to contribute to a collection of essays on Grossman edited by Daniel Morris led me to write the present essay, which I offer not as a scholarly work but as one poet's effort to come to terms with the poems of a powerfully different poet.

My favorite poems by Allen Grossman are the ones in which something--some particular thing--has refused to melt into a category of thought; in which some particular person, or event, or object, has defied generalization, and has thus successfully resisted the immense pressure toward abstraction exerted by Grossman's genius. Somehow the particular thing has withstood the tremendous G-force pulling all experience into such cosmological paradigms that most images seem either only symbolic ("she has descended with the ice / Beneath the shadows of the pleasure boats / And dwells in the metal with the ancestors. / Her tears mingle with the freshness of the streams...") or only momentary illustrations or decorations of ideas. In my favorite poems by Grossman, the particular thing has somehow remained a holdout.

The criterion I advocate is so deeply at odds with the essential direction of Grossman's effort that my list of these favorite poems is short--I'm thinking mainly of six poems: "Pat's Poem," "The Holdout," "The Department," "The Prothanation of a Charioteer," "Sentinel Yellowwoods," and "Mary Snorak the Cook..." Alongside these there are a dozen or more passages in other poems that tantalize a reader like me with glimpses of specific life.

Meanwhile, there are certainly other poems and passages in Grossman's oeuvre whose force affects me albeit in ways harder to explain or justify. "O Great O North Cloud" is such a poem; "The Patience of the Darker Lover" is another. There is a spirit I sometimes call "nutty-spooky" that imparts a disturbing energy of dark warning or of alarming celebration to such poems. I look forward to essays by other readers that will sort through these effects in Grossman's poetry and help us see where they are most significant--without just floating above the poetry on the plane of tremendous ideas.

But when I undertake to write about Grossman's poetry, asking myself what matters most to me in it, I circle back to those six poems listed above and to the issue of non-dissolvable particularity. Thus I find myself writing exactly the essay that H (Halliday) would write. It's the obvious H essay that would be predicted by any reader of the conversations between Grossman (G) and me that constitute Against Our Vanishing in The Sighted Singer. …

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