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Poet remembered for spirit and passion

By Clayre Benzadon

Section: Arts

October 24, 2014

On Sunday, Oct. 19, a memorial event for poet Allen Grossman was held in the Mandel Center for the Humanities, where the room was filled by alumni and more, commemorating the huge influence that he had on their lives. Allen died at the age of 82 this June due to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Grossman was born in 1932 in Minneapolis, MN. He attended Harvard and received his Ph.D. from Brandeis in 1960. He then taught at Brandeis, where he was the Paul E. Prosswimmer Professor of Poetry and General Education. He has also received many awards, including three Pushcart Prizes (1975, 1987, 1990), the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim (1982) and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1985).

At the beginning of the presentation, the audience listened to a recording of Grossman reading his poetry aloud. According to his wife, Judith, who spoke at the event, his poetry was much different later in his life compared to the pieces that he wrote in his early years. Yeats, who was his first master in verse, largely influenced him. Emily Dickinson’s “I cannot live with you” also was a huge inspiration on his own works.

One of the poems that the crowd listened to was titled “Wash Day,” which describes the beauty in the ephemeral and specificity of the pastoral settings and objects immersed in it.

Mrs. Grossman recalled an early memory of how she took on the job of reviewing his first book of poems in the student newspaper. She knew little about American poetry, but she was assigned to the job because none of the undergraduates wanted to review his works.

Another funny moment that she spoke of was the time they started dating. They went on a road trip in the spring, driving together from Minneapolis to California on famed Route 66. While they were exploring the caves in Missouri, “a tour guide came over and politely asked us what language we were speaking. I admitted I had an accent but it was still English,” jokingly referring to the fact that they were speaking in poetics the whole time.

Later on, she then remarked that one of the biggest difficulties that she faced was seeing her husband when he “forgot he was a poet long before forgetting he was a teacher.” His life was fractured by a schizophrenic breakdown, and in one of his letters sent to his wife, Mr. Grossman wrote: “I entered Harvard with a strong desire to become a rabbi. I felt a sense of purpose and a sense of health. I left with a poor sense of health and with my purpose swallowed up in self-knowledge. I only wish now to learn.” He was grateful to Brandeis for enabling him to become part of the disposition of poetry and Judaism. One of Mr. Grossman’s most memorable features was that he always wore a white shirt, necktie and suit. He dressed formally, even in private, in order to honor poetry.

“Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing … The making of poems is a practice—a work human beings can do—in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world. The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.” Mr. Grossman said this as a way to describe the importance of poetry, a way in which a person is able to learn more about themselves and the world around them.

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