Sad news via Publishers Weekly that poet Allen Grossman has passed away. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s at 83, according to this story and his son. I’m not a poetry professor or specialist, but I know beautiful words when I read them. Grossman’s poetry and fantastically wandering, evocative essays – a sort of poetics, also a sort of autobiography – caught me when I first read him. Completely by chance.
I was at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University in summer of 2000. The point of me being there was to continue – in a big push – to reinvent myself as an intellectual. Trained in European philosophy, especially the French postmodernists and early phenomenology, I’d made the decision to turn my attention to the Americas with special attention to the Caribbean and African-American traditions. For me, the bridge concept (I wasn’t interested in a clean break, but instead some careful, thoughtful transition) was theorizing trauma in Holocaust studies and varieties of historiography in 20th century Jewish critical theory. SCT that year would be reading and discussing trauma studies, with one seminar by David Carroll that ended with Édouard Glissant.
So, I was off.
I met fantastic people there, including most seriously my spouse and sometimes collaborator. For those friendships and that singular love, so very grateful for chance and luck!
I also met and talked a lot with Allen Grossman. He was everything you think of when you think of a poet: bombastic, dead serious, unpredictable, sensuous, critical, attentive, daydreamy – here is a nice appreciation of his work. Asked him about Derek Walcott, whom I was reading seriously at the time, and Allen swung his hands around and yelled “his language is too sensual, I can barely read the words!” Yes. That is true!
Before I got there to SCT, I read some of Allen’s poetry and essays. I read everyone on the faculty seminar lists. But wow did his poetry stick with me. It is everything. I read this often when I think of what it means to think, then begin to write:
Asking Allen Grossman about writing and thinking and books and ideas was like enrolling in a master-class on the solitude and intensity of thought and expression. We chatted regularly by chance on the Cornell campus while walking around. We had lunch three times. I remember each one because I left and went back to my summer dorm room to write like crazy. Just inspired me. He wasn’t interested in the Africana studies stuff I was pursuing, but my background in 20th century Jewish critical theory gave us a common vocabulary. That is, it gave me a starting point for listening closely.
His poetry is also intensely sensual. I’ll leave this here as a close, saying, yes, rest in peace Allen Grossman. And thank you for your words on the page and for shouting and ranting and inspiring me when I needed it, was ready for it, and in love with it.