I spent part of the summer before I went away to college at Brandeis University. That was back in the mid-'60s, when Brandeis was just beginning to feel its oats, and when Waltham, the city where it's still housed, was just a sleepy little townlet that seems light years away from the high-tech enclave it is today. I was taking summer courses in literature — just for the hell of it, but also to help ease me into the college mode — and it seemed to me that I'd died and gone to heaven. This is what I'd been waiting for, a place where books were read and valued, and people spoke of them with reverence and insight.
I had cherished so many things — great books, clear writing, the power of words and ideas — that many adults at the various schools I'd attended had paid lip service to, but I wasn't fooled. From elementary school on, it seemed to me that those students who were most valued — both inside school and out — were the math and science kids. They were considered the really intelligent ones. Everyone may have insisted that reading and writing were important, but I still contend they were simply mouthing pieties. English was a subject to be mastered, perhaps; math and science were training for life.
But during the time I spent at Brandeis, I understood deep in the fiber of my being that I'd found paradise. There were courses on the Jewish American novel, on modern poetry, on the American theater since World War II — and I couldn't have been happier. I woke each day with a sense of intellectual excitement that I don't think I've experienced since then. (Of course, real college, not this idealized, compressed version, wasn't just made up of literature classes; it took years to get to that kind of set-up, and by then, the sheen had worn off a good bit.)
There were wonderful professors teaching that summer — Milton Hindus, for example, who lectured on father-son relationships in the Jewish novel. I couldn't get enough of it. He had a quiet command of his subject and was easeful in his erudition. (I discovered later that he'd written a wonderful guide to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past that was a great help to me when, in my late teens, I first tried to scale that fearsome fictional edifice.)
Then there was Allen Grossman. At first sight, standing at the lectern, he seemed unprepossessing, hesitant even — the picture of the preoccupied, slightly rumpled professor. The only thing I knew about him that first day was that he was the real thing — a published poet — though I hadn't yet read any of his work.
Then he began to speak, and whatever I'd thought about his demeanor was banished. I've experienced commanding lecturers since that time, but Grossman's performance that day was a true and sterling event, yet without a touch of artifice — and it riveted the rest of his audience as well. When he finished, some of us broke into spontaneous applause, but the earlier Allen Grossman had reappeared by then and would have none of it. But by then we all knew that lurking behind his seeming diffidence was something spectacular, and we awaited it each day with sincere anticipation.
I've never forgotten Grossman, not only because I eventually sought out his splendid poetry, which has enriched my reading life significantly. But it meant a great deal to me that he took my opinions about reading and writing seriously, and was respectful of what I had to say. Adults don't often understand what that can mean to a young person. I know for a fact that he listened with the same regard to everyone who spoke to him, but I always liked to think that he took special care to lean in and respond to a young man who had dreams of putting words on paper, though wouldn't do so with any success for another six or seven years.
Clarity and Brilliance
Because of the care and attention he took that summer, I've always kept my eye out for his books as they've appeared over the years. But this is the first time I've ever reviewed his work, and the tribute is long overdue. I'm particularly happy it's come about with the appearance of Descartes' Loneliness, which has been issued by his loyal publisher New Directions, and seems in its use of language to have a clarity and brilliance all its own. (He retired from teaching in 2006; perhaps there's been more time to give solely to his writing, though I know he never would have regretted a moment he spent in the lecture hall — or, at least, he made it seem so).
In any poetry class you take — in any literature class, for that matter — instructors tell you to keep a sharp eye out when it comes to the title poem (or story) since it often holds the key to the meaning of the volume. (Or it may just be that the author is most fond of that particular poem or thinks it's a stellar piece.) But I don't believe I've read a poem recently that better leads and instructs the reader on how to assess the entire work that's in front of him than this one.
Many writers put the title poem last, as a summation; here "Descartes' Loneliness" is first.
Toward evening, the natural light becomes
intelligent and answers, without demur:
'Be assured! You are not alone … .'
But in fact, toward evening, I am not
convinced there is any other except myself
to whom existence necessarily pertains.
I also interrogate myself to discover
whether I myself possess any power
by which I can bring it about that I
who now am shall exist another moment.
Because I am mostly a thinking thing
and because this precise question can only
be from that thoughtful part of myself,
if such a power did reside within me
I should, I am sure, be conscious of it …
But I am conscious of no such power.
And yet, if I myself cannot be
the cause of that assurance, surely
it is necessary to conclude that
I am not alone in the world. There is
some other who is the cause of that idea.
But if, at last, no such other can be
found toward evening, do I really have
sufficient assurance of the existence
of any other being at all? For,
after a most careful search, I have been
unable to discover the ground of that
conviction — unless it be imagined a lonely
workman on a dizzy scaffold unfolds
a sign at evening and puts his mark on it.
As Grossman says of the title poem in a note at the end of the book, the Descartes who's alluded to is both the great figure of philosophy, who crafted the resonant, watershed phrase, "I think therefore I am," but also every person who approaches the world and tries to make sense of it.
There are numerous poems here that deal with Minneapolis, the place of the poet's birth, and with his relatives, many now long gone, who are called up not to be judged, but only understood against the background of the speaker's aging and the eventual approach of death. These poems are not maudlin elegies — there is not a bathetic note sounded in them — but rather are well-proportioned and moving in the supreme lucidity of the emotions they evoke. And I am not saying all this because the poet was kind to me once upon a time, though I am saying thank you at long last.