Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Allen Grossman's poetry is tethered to an antiquity that he both honors and subverts. His pastoral poems, for instance, fly in the face of the form's historic purpose first set out by Theocritus in Idylls and followed by Virgil in Ecologues. For them, pastoral portraits of rustic shepherd life celebrated a lost and golden age. Grossman's vision is darker: "At that time the sheep called to him/From their wormy bellies, as they/Lay bloating in the field. He was/A pastoralist." Grossman's grand and bardic style echoes the High Modernist capital-T Tradition that bred both Yeats and Eliot (about whom Grossman has written). He leavens his work with the hilarity of honky tonk and the Borscht Belt. "The Piano Player Explains Himself" is an ars poetica, in which the piano is an actual Messiah -- as poetry is, I think, when it's played right.

When the corpse revived at the funeral,

The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul

Of the revenant passed into the body

Of the poet because it had more to say.

He sat down at the piano no one could play

Called Messiah or The Regulator of the World. . . .

Grossman's lyric strategies sometimes involve repeating themes with the biblical-sounding circularity of Eliot's "Four Quartets" (themselves inspired by Beethoven's late quartets): "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time."

In "The Work" Grossman sets out his purpose on the planet: to love, which for Grossman also involves writing:

A great light is the man who knows the woman he loves

A great light is the woman who knows the man she loves

And carries the light into room after room arousing

The sleepers and looking hard into the face of each

And then sends them asleep again with a kiss

Or a whole night of love

and goes on and on until

The man and woman who carry the great lights of the

Knowledge of the one lover enter the room

toward which

Their light is sent and fit the one and the other torch

In a high candelabrum and there is such light

That children leap up

unless the sea swallow them

In the crossing or hatred or war against which do not

Pray only but be vigilant and set your hand to the work.

Grossman's lighting of the candelabrum is meant to arouse the sleepers, inciting us to awaken into love. Amid the sweetness of children leaping up, he cautions us to be vigilant against evil, not only to pray but to act. I'd like to crown him one of our great Low Moderns; he's Wallace Stevens with stronger stories to anchor lame minds such as my own; he's Eliot without footnotes. Like all great poets, he faithfully serves both word and world -- and us.

(Allen Grossman's "A Pastoral," "The Piano Player Explains Himself" and "The Work" are from "The Ether Dome and Other Poems: New and Selected (1979-1991)," New Directions, 1991. © 1991 by Allen Grossman.)

Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."

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