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Allen Grossman

Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.


diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.


Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.

First things, first. Full disclosure: Tom Sleigh was my teacher and thesis advisor at Hunter College.

* * *

Tom Sleigh’s method is art, but his end is anthropological. His vision is fully humane, an attempt to catalogue people, events, and his own place among them. Because of this, one might be surprised that this collection begins with a three part series of poems that picture a lively army scene populated by  cats. In this opening poem, readers find the sheer pleasure of reading Sleigh’s poetry. His idiom is musical, yet speechly:

Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.

Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging
Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.
Hundreds of them sniffing or licking
long hind legs stuck in the air…

The sounds ring back and forth along these lines, resonating with one another in a way that feels formal yet unrestricted: the various ringing sounds in these two stanzas are the closest poetry come to creating to a musical chord–the EEs, the EDs/ETs/ITs, the INGs–all rising and falling go back and forth like a metronome. There’s even some subtle bits of chiasmus (“cURled Up under gUn tURrets”). All this in the first two stanzas of the book.

I’m tempted to reproduce the whole poem, if only because its self-evident mastery could complete this review (If you want, you can find the rest of the poem here).

There is one question, however, that I have about this poem: why the cats? Does Sleigh betray his “calling” as a poetic anthropologist? Let me answer this question by means of another discussion: formality.

Sleigh’s poetry is often noted for its “classical” nature. I take this in two ways: first, Sleigh’s poems are drenched in classical allusion; second–and I think this is more interesting–there is a formality that extends beyond formalism in Sleigh’s writing. I am not totally sure how to express what I mean, but I think Allen Grossman gets at it when he says “all speaking is action which has a history” (from The Sighted Singer). What we call “formal” is an awareness of that history transferred by various ways in the writing: sometimes this comes as a poetic form, sometimes as an awareness of meter and sound a sort of imitation of forebearers (while, nonetheless, giving it a particular, perhaps unique, voicing). To me, this quality provides a very loose scale by which I can classify writers. There are some writers whose writing is more aware of this “formality” and there are some writers whose poetry seems to have very little concern for it, though I think we all participate in it, whether we like it or not.

Sleigh’s relationship to formality is not that of a purist who exalts the “tradition” as the benchmark of perfection. I would argue that Sleigh’s formality plays two roles in his poetry. First, it lets him put down one of the balls a poet juggles in the act of writing (and editing). For example, a poet who is translating is free from concern about the content of the poem–that is, the images, ideas, etc. already exist within the original poem, and content-wise, the poet is not concerned with generating “new” content. Put simply: the question of “what do I say next” is already answered while translating. Sleigh’s formality is often musical: in this sense, he does not have to ask himself, “what sound comes next” because the dictates of formality can answer that question for him. Now–Sleigh plays with this, of course, as is evident from the above selection: some lines have end-rhyme, some don’t; some lines are rhymed couplets, others are an ABAC scheme. Sleigh’s formal play is made possible by the form, in that we might not recognize his poetic choice otherwise. Inasmuch as we note Tom Sleigh’s writing to be “classical” (i.e., to openly have a relationship with formality), we come more to see Tom’s artistic ego/daimon at work.

The second way that Sleigh uses formality is as a way to interrogate his writing. When writing with formal intentions, one makes a choice: do I sacrifice this word/line/idea for the sake of the form? Inevitably there comes the choice to follow, break, or bend the demands of formality. This connects with the first point. Sleigh’s play with formality creates a rich musical texture, and it also is capable of revealing the actions of a poet in creating the work. Thus we see that Sleigh’s anthropology cuts both ways. Not only is he “documenting” others, he is documenting himself. Formality, in this case, allows Sleigh to achieve a reflexivity and self-awareness without the cloying injections that deliberately remind the reader of the existence of the poet. A dramatic mask need not be about the falseness of an actor; indeed, its presence can create a duality that highlights the actor.

So we can say that Sleigh’s role as an anthropologist is still in effect because he is documenting his own place as a writer among his poetic subjects.

But still, cats? It seems perhaps that Sleigh abandons his anthropological post with this one…let’s see.

After introducing an orgiastic, “big pregnant / female” cat who vamps in front of the horny (“cat fuck yowl” is one of the most memorable lines from the whole book) army cats, Sleigh instructs us to

Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,

women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
Then come back out of it and sniff
her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.

It’s one of the many clever leaps in this poem series; we become part of the undeniably enjoyable act of gawking at the exotic (oriental?). It’s a bit like T.S. Eliot directing a scene from Indiana Jones (or Lucas/Spielberg directing Cats). The poem also sets the stage for the rest of the book. We remember that the Middle East has its own history of empire, a classical age before Islam, before Christianity, when the division between East and West was more porous.

Follow the poem to its end. As the series continues, the poems become decidedly less cat-oriented. By the end of Part III, the cats are no longer anthropomorphized; the “I” (a decidedly different one) re-enters the poem after a long absence:

And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity–

who stare down the enemy, barbarians
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.

Readers of Tom Sleigh’s essay “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry” should recognize in Sleigh’s Protean subjects something he spoke about in that essay:

Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more….the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.

And the winner [of who disrelates most to a stable subject] is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again?….What is [Life Studies] but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American Life?

I apologize for chopping that passage up so badly (I highly recommend reading it–if only to read one of the most interesting justifications of Anne Bradstreet as a great modern poet you’ll ever see). The picture of Lowell in Ashbery’s relief is fundamental to seeing how Sleigh sees selves, subjects, characters, I’s, You’s, etc. working in poetry. The self-not-as-self in Ashbery can become gimmicky at times because it’s what you expect. The self-not-as-self in Lowell, however, is almost unnoticeable at first. The more you sit with the poem, however, the more the disconnects and fractures begin to show. Lowell’s depiction is more prized to Sleigh because it exists as part of a deeper texture, and is thus more capable of exploring the problematic aspects of self-hood.

I’ve said all that to say this: Sleigh’s poem “Army Cats” displays the same shifting: first we are only readers, then we are gawkers; first the cats are human-like, now the cats have become cats. Most noticeably, the I which established perspective among the army cats in the beginning has been drawn out and now ponders them, almost as objects in a history book. Commands come out of nowhere, completely new voices enter and leave the poem–yet it all flows unnoticed in the being of the poem. You only pin it down when you go back and objectify the poem, pick it apart and analyze it.

Combine the formality I spoke about earlier with the shifting self and one can see that Tom Sleigh is writing, fundamentally, about the same unstable self as Ashbery and others. Yet he does them one better, I believe: Sleigh uses formality to interrogate itself. Rather than creating new ways to enter the poem in order to critique the old ways, Sleigh expands the use of the “old ways,” showing that such formality is actually robust enough to transcend itself in a way.

If it is true that the highest art hides its artifice, then Sleigh is clearly a master; yet he even does not let us as readers fall prey to this dictum. Careful readers see that he never hides his artifice, but carefully documents it. Thus, we see that in using these cats, Sleigh is still in the business of anthropology: it’s an anthropology of himself and of us as readers.

There’s also a connection between these shifting selves and the way that Sleigh weaves allusion and history into his poetry. “Beirut Tank”–a poem that matches Bishop for craftedness–creates a textured, multi-layered subject, which is the result of other voices and histories blending together:

Staring up into the tank’s belly
lit by a bare bulb hanging down
off the exhaust, a mechanic’s hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. The tank is nothing
like the ones the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank’s armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.

What begins as the voice of an observer, slowly becomes the voice of the mechanic. Perhaps the speaker is just repeating what they’ve heard. Or perhaps they are actually becoming the mechanic in a way. This shift happens more noticeably in these lines:

The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he’s cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea to bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves Arak

and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it’s gonna blow.

Who knows how many possible voices are blending together to create the speaker of this poem? Here the speaker is really a series of selves who are speaking in a semi-narrative arc.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the first two poems of this collection. There are, of course, many things to say about the rest, but the first two poems–for me–set the tone, ambitions, and goals for the rest of the work. In “Army Cats” we must confront our own selves and ask what is the meaning of the way we are drawn in; the answer is not always comfortable. In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh’s careful attention to stories and details and his ability to weave in narratives testifies to his effort and observational powers.

Other poems to pay attention to on your own reading are “The Games,” “The Spell,” “The Chosen One,” “Money,” “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” and “Mingus Reborn as Mingus.”

CBC has an excellent radio show called Ideas, which is surprisingly high brow stuff. In particular, Ideas has been running a series based on McGill University’s Making Publics Project. CBC’s series of the same title has been tracing for listeners the origin of the modern public. It’s worth listening to from the beginning, but if you’re short on time, the last three episodes on Dutch painting, Elizabethan/Jacobean theater, and the formation of public through theater have all been especially worthwhile.

The last in particular is worth a listen if you’ve followed some of my blog posts on Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer. Grossman uses J.S. Mill’s idea that the speaker in lyric poetry is “overheard.” He is alone in his own mind, his own reverie, yet the lyric poet allows himself to be overheard by the audience, his readers. Compare this with the discussion in the Making Publics podcast about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy which begins “Now I am alone…” . In this, too, Hamlet self-consciously reveals his inner thoughts to an audience he does/n’t know is there. Perhaps this soliloquy is a proto-modern lyric?

How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?

I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.

Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?

Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:

The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.

There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).

On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?

Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)

To Sestius

Horace (trans. David Ferry)

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.

But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”

There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.

On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).

(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)

I’ve decided to change my strategy for blogging through Grossman. Not only is it almost impossible to try and successfully capture the first part of the book in any systematic way (the conversation shifts too rapidly and it’s almost maddening to trace any idea), but the second part is so lovely and systematically broken down, that I keep gravitating toward it. So I’ll leave the first part of the book for those of you who desire to read it (very much worth it). Instead I’ll be blogging through Grossman’s “Summa Lyrica,” which is the second part of The Sighted Singer.
Grossman begins his Summa by speaking about immortality:

The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of will….The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against the access to other consciousnesses….The kind of success which poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”…Immortality is the simultaneity of meaning and being. Immortality can be discussed only in relation to persons….Neither immortality nor persons are conceivable outside of communities.

According to Grossman’s understanding, we must first understand that poetry is a tool, a “machine that speaks.” Poetry is not an end in itself (and perhaps, by extension, art is not an end in itself). Yet the purpose it serves is not a political, economic, but rather social. It is “moral work” in service of persons.
This is because the only success that poetry is capable of is that of “immortality.” Thus, it would be impossible to put poetry and art in the service of other ends.
As far as the poetry of immortality, I immeidately think of of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonographthe rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers—and my own imagination of a withered leaf—at dawn—Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,the final moment—the flower burning in the Dayand what comes after,looking back on the mind itself that saw an American citya flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—

What is interesting to me about this poem, is the way that Ginsberg seeks to immortalize not only his mother, but also all the objects that are present in his grief. He names them, and sometimes it seems as if he feels compelled to expand upon them (“Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph”) as a way to help preserve them. I wonder how much Ginsberg’s attempts to preserve objects (ultimately in the service of preserving persons) fits into Grossman’s scheme? Is it possible that Ginsberg is using all these objects to create a sort of pseudo-community, a sense of there-ness, that gives him the ability to speak and preserve his mother?
The idea of community in poetry seems very important. It certainly fits in with my idea that we write more from what we share than from what separates us. Yet Grossman insists also that poetry (indeed poetic knowledge) comes at the price of the abandonment of the will. The poet says “Sing, muse…” and hence gives up something in order to speak with the gravitas (and knowledge) of the transcendent.I am less enthusiastic about this latter idea. Grossman says in his conversations with Halliday that this poetic daimon is “the voice not of the self but of that transcendental artifice that I have formally called ‘personhood.’” A speaker seeks to attain personhood (and hence immortality). Yet this can only be possible if the speaker is willing to give up “self” and allow it to be overcome by that which is transcendental. This is where Grossman’s distinction between “self” and “person” gets dicey for me. If self is what I am, my consciousness (in the Freudian sense, I suppose), then where does this “person” come from, and how much is it actually me? What makes us willing to give up self for person in poetry? I suppose it is the attempt to breach the limits of our autonomous wills (death).
Some of this unease also has to do with my unease of the Freudian conception of self. Let me quote from JPII’s essay “Thomistic Personalism”:

A hallmark of Descartes’ view of his splitting of the human being into an extended substance (the body) and a thinking substance (the soul), which are related to one another in a parallel way and do not form an undivided whole. We can observe in philosophy a gradual process of a kind of hypostatization of consciousness: consciousness becomes an independent subject of activity, and indirectly of existence, occuring somehow alongside the body, which is a material structure subject to the laws of nature, to natural determinism. Against the background of such parallelism, combined with simultaneous hypostatization of consciousness, the tendency arises to identify the person with consciousness.

What Grossman refers to as “self,” I think, is what JPII describes as the result of the “hypostatization of consciousness.” I suspect Grossman is trying to get past the inherent limits of the Cartesian view of the human being by thinking of “Person” as some sort of transcendental leap that is allowed by the “machinery” of the poem. Yet, I suspect this distinction between person and self is not ultimately helpful and only furthers the unhelpful Cartesian formulation. For Grossman, persons are value bearing, undeniably moral. Yet the modern emphasis on consciousness is inherently subjective. Hence he must find a way to valorize the person over and above limits of consciousness. Poetry, he believes, allows him to do this.
Yet it seems to me to come at a cost: the moral person is still an admitted fiction. Doesn’t this designation of “fiction” castrate Grossman’s project? Why must we value the fiction over the reality? Is reality not actually beautiful?

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.


…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.

In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.

By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:

Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.

And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.

In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”

In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.

I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.

I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.

It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.

OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).

Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?

Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.

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.