What differentiates a great poet from a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual. In this moment, the issues of the self become one with the universal.
—Dorothea Laskey, from Poetry is Not a Project
In the fall of 1999, I sat down in Allen Grossman’s “Poetry: A Basic Course” a neophyte. Grossman, ur-professor and poet, lectured in a slideshow theater sunk in the middle of Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins. He wore a tweed jacket and clipped his wild gray hair back with a Goody barrette. That day, “Westron Wynde” lit the screen, beamed into the dark room with an overhead projector:
Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!
Grossman read it aloud. He explained it. He quoted at length from other poems that descended from it. He shouted it and rolled it around with his plush lips. He spit and he flailed and he raised his arms above his head in exaltations and his buttoned jacket hitched above his belly and with his next emphatic point he jerked his jacket back down where it belonged (bad jacket!). I did not know then, nor do I know now, what he was talking about. I drowned in the rain that day. But I was riveted: the small raine down can raine.
I made the messenger bag I carried to that first day of class. I sat on the floor with a notebook for a template, tan-colored denim, purple grosgrain ribbon, and a psychedelic mushroom patch (truly). I had no pattern, just a sense of how big the thing should be and that it needed a flap and a strap. The pieces fit like magic. When I finished, I carefully—very carefully, I have awful handwriting—copied the text of my favorite poems onto the inside of the flap with an ultra fine Sharpie. One was “Night Poem #3” by Ntozake Shange. Another was “sweet spring is your/time” by E. E. Cummings.
Those poems defined me as a poet, as an appreciator of poetry far more sophisticated than my plebeian peers. Of course, in reality I was still surfing the high romance of pubescent girl. And nobody was so romantic as E. E. Cummings:
but any two are perfectly
alone there’s nobody else alive
(such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes)
Nobody else alive—god, so romantic. How I longed for that kind of love, that satisfaction of my every need.
But it was Shange’s Nappy Edges that spoke to my lived experience of high school. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “nappy” or who “Amiri Baraka” was or even where Oakland was, really. But I knew without doubt that I felt what Tz felt in “Night Poem #3”:
if you cant remember dreams/ i cant be yr friend
if you dont
you direct yr spirit to make connections/
leave me on the wharf
callin sea gulls
I spent most of high school callin sea gulls, desperate to make connections with (oh so many) an inappropriate boy or, worse, a self-distancing friend. Ntozake Shange explained nothing so much to me as my own life. I wasn’t callin sea gulls when I read that book. There was someone waiting to keep the appointment.
These poems stitched and fixed the patternless pieces of my internal world. And I knew nobody else alive but myself and those like me.
In another early lecture, Grossman recited “The Tyger”—from memory, always from memory. A phlegmy cough rattled in his chest, and we feared each exhalation would be his last. William Blake’s illuminated plate, on the overhead, glowed in the dim room:
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
This Tyger business bore no resemblance to Tz or E. E. Nothing I loved about poetry lived in that poem. But that hour was a tour de force of recitation, story-telling, lecturing, riffing, coughing, gesturing. Again, a seemingly small poem grew as Grossman coupled link after link of significance across the English canon.
Of course, Blake’s subject was far from small. He took in and turned backwards (he was an engraver, remember) and revivified the whole of the universe: the Lamb, the Tyger, the immortal hand framing the grand external world. Like Blake, like Grossman, I set to hammering the links of the universe, made chains forged of the couplings I gleaned from Grossman’s overwhelming knowledge. This chain was sturdier, wilder, and far more slippery than the scattered personal stitches between me and Tz, me and E. E.
Those foundational poems Grossman loved and taught share an element he delivered in unique force: galloping rhythms, meters that ride through your chest like a knight on horseback. For him, poems were first and above all made of music.
After class one day, Grossman offered to read my poetry. His advice was to “count something”: I had yet to figure out where my lines should end, and most poets did that “by counting something.” The advice wasn’t helpful to me then. I’m not sure how practical the advice is to me today, either. Counting rarely leads me to my line breaks—but counting is crucial to my love of poems.
Reading The Philosopher’s Window, now, barely a week after Grossman’s death, I know his advice was heartfelt and dear to him. I hear his counting, feel it shaping his lines:
But whether I come by the desert path
Or the meadow way, or through the cornfield
Or the mellowing rye, to the ocean’s edge,
I have nothing to say to the Constant Nymph.
I do not have her page. I cannot find it.
(The mortal duty of profound discourse
Is lost to me. This monument, my grave.)
—“Then, we must take another road (why not?),”
She whispers. “The long way round this time—by boat.”
Grossman’s iambs are effortless. And his line breaks serve his wit—“The mortal duty of profound discourse/is lost to me.” Mostly, though, these poems sing the way “Sir Patrick Spens” and “The Tyger” and “Leda and the Swan” sang to me fifteen years ago, through my ears and my chest and on to my brain. The best poems come the long way round.
As a senior I studied the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake in a small seminar with Grossman. That fall was bad—there is no better word than, simply, “bad.” I was losing myself to a depression that locked me inside my body and out of my mind. I was in love with a boy who had spent the summer in Peru snorting cheap cocaine. Now, back in Baltimore, the coke wasn’t so cheap. We took the Blake seminar together.
I finished only two of my five classes that semester. I wrote no poetry. I had nothing to say to the Constant Nymph who stands over the speaker in The Philosopher’s Window. I, too, could not find any page—I barely read anything unless it was assigned, and even then I skimmed it.
I made an appointment to meet with Grossman, forced myself from bed, and kept the appointment—in body, if not in spirit. His office was large but claustrophobic with books. Bookshelves, utilitarian ones made of metal and sharp-edged screws, crowded all four walls. A long table ran down the middle. And Grossman’s bike, with its wicker basket, leaned against the shelves.
I sat across from the table from Grossman, trying to hide the Paxil tremors. I told him I was unable to finish the course. I have no memory of what I admitted and what I elided. My face told the story well enough. He told me there was nothing really to be done but what I was doing. If I had to take another road, there was no reason why I shouldn’t. I would complete the work when I could complete the work.
I’m not sure Grossman knew my name beyond its presence on his roster or my signature on the office hours sign-up on his door. And that makes me love this moment all the more. For him, it didn’t matter who I was: it mattered that I sat with him in need of compassion. And he had it. He knew the world—had walked the desert path and the meadow way—and he saw my tiny place in it. He graciously let me take the long way round.
My husband forwarded the news of Allen Grossman’s death to me: complications of Alzheimer’s. I’ve been reading The Philosopher’s Window since then, listening to his music and delighting in his weirdo sensibility, which turned a boy into a bird who literally squawks every few pages. I haven’t spoken to Grossman in over ten years, and I rarely think of him except to remember or recount the marvelous show he put on every time he lectured. But this death breaks my heart. Alzheimer’s is an especially cruel death for someone who once held what seemed to me the entirety of the world in his mind. I hate to picture him, sitting somewhere anonymous, his own mind having left him on the wharf callin sea gulls.
It was in Grossman’s classroom that I learned to read poetry. The poetry Grossman taught me was more than a personal experience; it was me and Tz and Blake and Sir Patrick Spens—and E. E. Cummings and W.B. Yeats and their assiduously counted march of iambs—all of us forged into a great, redoubling chain of innocence and experience. I understood how the individual became universal, how “the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual.”
I wonder how many students Grossman touched, how many poets, how many plebes living their strange little lives in their respective corners of literature and the lowbrow. I wonder who else trembled in the forests of the night sitting at Grossman’s knee. I wonder how long his death will send shimmers along the chains of the world before his passing passes.
And I want Grossman’s passing to be violently felt and patiently lived through. For the small raine down to raine and the westron wynde to blow. For the stars to throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears.
And I hope, one day, to meet him—the long way round—again.