Blogging through Allen Grossman, Part 1: The Role of Poetry

Blogging through Allen Grossman, Part 1: The Role of Poetry

by Micah Towery on February 9, 2010

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in The Other

First, I want to say it is an honor to be blogging with so many great minds and poets. Some of you I’ve met in person, and many of you I haven’t. I hope to get to know all of you, at least virtually. It will be fun to see where blog goes. Now, onto my first post!

I’ve been reading through Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer in the last few weeks. The book is actually a combination of two works: a series of conversations Grossman had with Mark Halliday and Grossman’s own summa (literally) on poetry. Much like the Angelic Doctor himself, Grossman provides many interesting terms, definitions, and distinctions that are worth pursuing. Even better, Grossman and Halliday often disagree, and this back-and-forth opens the terms up even more. Forgive me as I muddle through these ideas myself.

So….where to start?

I think I’ll begin with what immediately appeals to me about Grossman. Grossman is interested in the idea of “persons.” Recently, I began to encounter the philosophical concept of “person” through the work of Erazim Kohak, whose book The Embers and the Stars closes with the importance of the person. The person, I guess, could be seen as a basic unit of value. Animals have personality (cue the Pulp Fiction scene), and folks like Peter Singer consider animals to be persons, but let’s not go there (at least not yet!).

Grossman, too, sees persons as “value-bearing,” and he differentiates persons from “selves” along this line of value. The self is something that can be discovered or found. The self is what Freud parsed: a hurricane of secret desires, phobias, and complexes. Persons, however, are what poets write about; they are “artifacts.” Now, to say it is a construction of sorts, does not mean it has no “presence.” I don’t think of this construction as a mask, a falseness, something that obscures, but rather the actuality of what we perceive when we encounter other selves. In other words, I experience “Micah Towery” as a self—myself. You, however, encounter me as an object (in the Thomistic sense), but more: a person. You encounter my presence through my writing.

How does this connect with poetry? Grossman says that the role of poetry is the preservation of the images of persons. But it is more than just a way of remembering a person, who they were, their achievements. The poet is more than just a historian:

Horace’s assertion that the heroes before Homer were inlacrimabiles, incapable of being wept for, does carry with it an implication different from the mere suggestion that Homer was the principle of the transmission of a message [the recovery of the image]. It suggests that there’s something fuller, and more consistent with the whole nature of the person as precious, about the holding-in-mind by the poem of the picture of the person.

Some people often speak about poetry being purposeless; “art for art’s sake” it is said. I think this is usually a protective stance against reducing art to pure utilitarianism. It is still striking, though, that Grossman has no problem ascribing certain tasks to poetry: the preservation of images, and making those images present.

This brings me to another aspect of Grossman that appeals to me: his discussion of images. I use the word “image” in a more theological sense, as I am speaking from the Christian tradition. Theologically, the image is more than simply a picture. Humans are made in the image of God (who, incidentally, is a person—three actually). Eastern Orthodox Christians have long spoken of icons as a “window to the divine.” Even Christ was called an eikon (image) of the invisible God by St. Paul. (I would be very interested in hearing from other religious—or non-religious—traditions and seeing how other streams of thought think about the idea of the eikon/image.)

So, in my understanding, Grossman is advocating the poetry as an art against “forgetting.” The comparisons between Grossman’s concept and Forché seems inevitable. Forché’s poetry is a poetry of “witness.” Is this a purely historical witness? Or is it about the preservation of persons as Grossman states it? This is a question for those of you who know Forché better than I do.

That’s all I have for my first post here. Feel free to debate, tweak, or denounce in the comment section below. There are just so many things to discuss in Grossman that I suspect this “blogging through” will take quite a long time…I look forward to a lively discussion.

  • Adam Fitzgerald

    Loved the post, Micah. Tim Donnelly, my teacher at Columbia, was a student of Grossman, and is very fond of showcasing the astuteness of AG’s mind as well as the pertinence of his work.

    Tim brought in Grossman’s poem about ship building, the title escapes. I know he considers AG one of the most important living poets, as well as thinkers about poetics. He seems to me very akin to Susan Stewart, as a theorist on poetry. I sadly however have not read any of his books or his poems, so I should remedy that.

    I’ve been aware of him ever since I bought Hart Crane’s letters, however, edited by Landgon Hammer. On the back, he blurbs triumphantly how Crane’s letters — like Dickinson’s and and Keats’s —form with his poems a complete work.

    As for something to peck at, peskily, is this division of Self and Persons. It doesn’t seem to lack in nuance, but I wonder what gives it urgency, in Grossman’s eyes, for insight into either composing or interpreting poems?

    In one way you describe it, Grossman seems to be recreating the division of subject and object, ala Kant, or self and other, ala Levinas – but putting the distinction towards poetic ends. Are there then only images of persons, no images of selves? Can a poetry of selves be written? If we encounter ourselves only as selves, and everyone else as persons, what does this mean then about a poet encountering his own work?

    As for Forché, I must admit to always having been rather skeptical about the notion of poetry as witness. Surely, some poets are, or have been amassed under that label. Take Paul Celan, for example. But Grossman’s distinction at least seems to stress that as selves, we die, and all that are left our images, like Stevens’ postcards from the Volcano. And at least the way people bandy about the “witness” imperative, makes it seem—sentimentally so?—that selves, more pertinent and precious than images, must be saved in poetry. Touted. Raised. Praised. Amen!


  • Micah Towery

    Hey Adam

    Future blog posts will probably hit on this idea, but Grossman talks about “selves that aspire to be persons” in poetry. He also talks about feminists and other such categorized poets as groups that aspire to be persons…or something along that line. I’d be interested in hearing what Donnelly thinks about Grossman’s distinction. My characterization of it may be totally off, as well…but I think it comes down to this: we cannot say that a poem (even one we’ve written) is or captures, in any sense, our self. At most, we can say that we’ve captured a “construct” of ourselves (and I use the term construct with as few negative connotations as possible), and have impressed the image of that upon the poem.

    There may be a analogy between the person/self distinction and the language/speech distinction of Saussure’s that Grossman builds upon later in the book. Language is the collective rules and history of speech that belongs to a community. Speech, however, is a specific artifact that has ingested all those rules and been “made.”

    I don’t know if that clarifies it. It’s an issue I hope to clarify for myself.


  • Stewart

    Kitaro Nishida, in An Inquiry into The Good talks about the person/self distinction and, as a Zen Buddhist, considers (false) self something to transcend, but personality to be the highest realization of who one really is, specifically in art and poetry. In fact, Nishida goes so far as to say that, because the ground of existence (“God”) is personal, the fullest realization of our true nature will therefore be personal — even though this transcends ego as saints and bodhisattvas have been for thousands of years.

    The artist, for Nishida, expresses the fullness of his personality while abandoning self in the creative act — much like the experience of the loss of self in the “numinous” experience of the divine presence, or before an icon. The most interesting thing for me is that personality is championed by a Zen Philosopher (yes, that is generally considered an oxymoron, but that is what Nishida is).

    Does this relate to what you’re talking about, Micah?

  • Michael Snediker

    i have many thoughts about dear, dear monsieur grossman. for one his insistence on the non-separability of being a poet and being a theorist, that persons of this generation cannot choose, or be cozened into believing in this false distinction. which relates, if obliquely to AG’s lovely observation that poetry commits to the preservation of the images of persons. somewhere between being a person; and being a person with a poetic relation to one’s self and the world; and being a person with a theoretical relation to one’s self and one’s world, we find ourselves in a conundrum. a theoretical relation to one’s self (ecce psychoanalysis) might in some ways be the schism (depending on the theory’s vocabulary) that poetry tries to heal. i think here of AG’s distinction between those poets who seek to capture the song of the nightingale (Keats) and those poets who are the nightingale (Crane), and how in the latter we find, for all its difficulty, a form of realism as persuasive as it is unfamiliar. Which marks ontological fungibility as it flirts with poetry as both buoying and dissolvent (i blame the catachresis on Crane, trying to work his way outside his parenthetical).

  • Micah Towery

    @ Stewart: That’s an interesting point, and the irony of a Zen Buddhist advocating personality is indeed strange. How does his concept of person relate to Grossman’s? Grossman doesn’t view the self as false, as I understand it. Perhaps unknowable to some degree, but not necessarily false. As to abandoning self in the act of writing/creation, I haven’t finished Grossman yet–so we’ll see.

    @Michael: I, too, am often frustrated at poets who shun theory. Interesting exchange between Halliday and Grossman coming up about why one writes poetry (as opposed to any other sort of writing). I suspect many poets today could not give a solid answer that accounts for their poetry. Not that anyone is forcing them to…and maybe that’s the problem? Maybe that should be the topic of the next post: why poetry, as opposed to any other sort of writing?

  • Deborah


    You perhaps have already read, but w.j.t. mitchell’s what do pictures want might be of interest also.

    Best, D

  • lewis

    1. this is a great discussion! And a great site overall; thanks @micah for introducing it to me and vice versa.

    2. @micah and adam: I love this take on “presence” and its mediation through writing. Some of my research now is taking another look at mediated and virtual presence, especially tracing how the figure of a person/ality might be constituted through productive acts of communication (including poetry, although i have been focusing on digital media like search engines, reference sites, remediations of analog works, advocacy websites, and remixes of a database of that person/ality’s oeuvre). What i find most striking in your articulation of presence is its constitution in artifacts – i wonder what you think of the social/economic/political/historical networks of relations around the production of those artifacts, like the publishing/book world – how do those factor into the act of witnessing, or its subjective embodiments?

    3. @stewart: Thanks for bringing in Nishida! To anyone who is interested in more of his work, I’d highly recommend the essays “Human Being” and “The Standpoint of Active Intuition,” and i think the essay “Expressive Activity” is key here. All are translated by the incomparable Bill Haver up at Binghamton, and his notes are extremely helpful.
    For example, in Expressive Activity (1925), Nishida begins to articulate his position on that “object of art” as the point of relation between “pure apperception” and “poiesis”; “In this world, all actuality subsumes activity within itself; each must be free personhood (jinkaku), activity becomes its means, and becomes incomplete or imperfect expression” – that is, in the act of poiesis, a person is embodied in the objective artifact of an understanding between subjects. I find this idea thrilling – “thinking thinks thinking itself,” and writing writes writing itself… So much for “making time for art,” and so much for “inspiration”. This is not art for the SAKE of art, so much as art for the sake of LIFE. damn, son. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite obscure philosophers.

    4. @deborah: YES – Mitchell’s is a great essay, and I for one think it ties in REALLY well with this discussion. I’d also highly recommend Lev Manovich’s treatise on visual culture and media studies, “The Language of New Media.” In terms of driving poetry into a new medium, the work being done up at SUNY Buffalo’s EPC, among many others, totally throws some old-media assumptions into chaos. I wonder what you all make of the digital artifact of electronic poetry? Surely both concrete/visual works and the sheer scope of hypertextual possibilities give you some kind of a reaction?

    5. sing the body digital



  • Micah Towery

    You all are bringing up so many interesting ideas and thoughts about these issues…I wish I could address them all. In fact, many of the things you’re bringing up do come up later in Grossman, so I will save any significant discussion of them then. In particular, Grossman does address the idea of “inspiration” later in a very interesting way, so there will be some stuff for Lewis to chew on there.

    But in response to a couple different things mentioned…

    1. Haven’t read Mitchell…I’ll try and check it out if I get a chance.
    2. Lewis brought up a good question about how social / historical / etc. circumstance affects the way we “artifact” ourselves. I think they clearly do. Some of this will come up with issues about “inspiration” and the authority of poetic speech, but it seems clear that we “ingest” our surroundings and they become part of the way we are “artifacted.” Grossman’s distinctions here, I think, will be very helpful. It seems to me that his ideas provide an interesting rebuttal to the PoMo idea that language and meaning are obscure.
    3. One last note: Thomistically (as in Aquinas), “subjective” and “objective” differ greatly from our modern understanding (though they are related). I will do my best to delineate my meanings when I use them.

  • Pingback: Immortality (Blogging through Grossman, Part 4)

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