Answering a sacred call


March 17, 2002|By MICHAEL COLLIER

In the many parishes of the innumerable sects of contemporary American poetry, there are plenty of ministers and deacons but few high priests.

Allen Grossman is one of these few. He considers poetry to be a vocation in the oldest sense of the word -- a calling. One of his vocational models is the poet Caedmon, an illiterate shepherd who is commanded one night in a dream to "Sing me something." Caedmon responds with a song that recounts the creation of the world. Caedmon is called to a purpose that's higher and more mysterious than his own humble existence as a shepherd.

Who or what calls us to poetry is unclear, except that its source seems sacred. Once called, however, the poet has a responsibility to serve the calling and to sing the songs he is given. In his recently published book How To Do Things With Tears (New Directions, 2001), Grossman travels as far as he ever has in laying claim to the seriousness of the poet's vocation.

Grossman tells us How To Do Things With Tears is a "How to" book in which "the poet intends to say something, insofar as a poet can, about the common sadness of living and dying in the world." He does this, in part, by offering an "autobiography [in verse] of the SIGHTED SINGER, the American poet who has dreamed the dream of the poet's vocation."

Like a contemporary Caedmon, Grossman sings us a song that tells of his awakening to the sacred call of poetry and of his growing understanding of what such a life entails: "To find a pathway from natal accident (here? now? / why? no reason) / all the way to our mortal destination." A reader won't find this book an autobiography in any conventional sense. It is a book so filled with names, places, voices and shifts of diction that a reader at first is disoriented.

His poem "Dedicated to Irene at the threshold of the world" is about a woman, perhaps the poet's mother, who is bringing a child to term. This powerful experience -- "echoing odors of announcement" -- makes her aware of the limits or "threshold" of her world. It is through this awareness, "the moment when mind becomes intelligible to itself, " that poetry arises.

Of our senior poets, Grossman, the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, is difficult and inspiring. As I read his book, I am reminded of what one of my teachers once said about poetry: What we learn from it is not so much the nature of experience as the force of it.

-- Michael Collier

Dedicated to Irene

at the threshold of the world

Odors of peonies hold you, dilectissima,

echoing odors of announcement. "What ho!"

At the moment when mind becomes intelligible

to itself, it immediately reaches a limit.

The city falls down and meadowland blackens.

Dilectissima, your beautiful hair!

At the moment when mind becomes intelligible

to itself, the poem of the mind intelligible

to itself is heard echoing in the distance,

like odors of the garden we know of.

the road traverses blackened meadows, rises,

and disappears. -- I cannot comfort you.

Mother of every virgin, you are come

to term this time at the limit. What now?

What song? What words of a song? -- At the limit,

when the mind becomes intelligible

to itself, the first birth cry ever heard

is heard, because the poem of the sufficiency

of the mind has stopped. There is no sound.

But the cry, always going on, can now

be heard because there is no other song,

no echoing in the distance where the city

once stood and flourished. Only the poets' shout,

the poem of the mind at the limit of mind:

the erub, sacred thread, the edge beyond

which you cannot carry anything on the Sabbath,

not even a child, but do not be afraid.

Your hair is beautiful. The destination

of your breasts is toward the sea. Be assured

nothing will suffice. The mind has crossed over

and stopped cold at the threshold of the world.

-- Allen Grossman

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

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