Obituaries

Allen Grossman, at 82; award-winning poet was longtime Brandeis professor

Dr. Grossman taught for 15 years at Johns Hopkins and 30 years at Brandeis University.

Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Grossman taught for 15 years at Johns Hopkins and 30 years at Brandeis University.

In the opening of his 2007 book “Descartes’ Loneliness,” Allen Grossman wrote: “Our human life is distinguished from other life by language. Poetry is the ancient artistic form of language, our distinction.”

With an intellectual and creative range that allowed him to speak different dialects of that artistic language, he wrote poems that were at ease in more than one tradition, sometimes bringing High Modernist and Romantic influences to bear on a single piece of writing. His often imposing formal demeanor was apparent in the structure of much of his work, but also present were wit and humor.

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“Allen thought poetry was of the highest importance in preserving human, and humane, presence in the world – what he called ‘countenance,’ ” Tom Sleigh, who teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Hunter College in New York City, wrote in an e-mail. He added: “And yet, the poems could handle every range of experience. His comic, loving elegy for a dead friend, ‘The Department,’ does everything that the plain style can do, and does it at the highest possible level.”

Dr. Grossman, a former longtime Brandeis University professor who was awarded the Bollingen Prize, one of the top honors in poetry, died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease Friday in a Chelsea nursing home. He was 82 and had lived in Cambridge and, before that, in Lexington for many years.

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The poet and critic Lloyd Schwartz, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Dr. Grossman’s poems “had this wonderful combination of high, almost Old Testament rhetoric, and a sort of comically deflating everyday language.”

At Brandeis, where Dr. Grossman taught for more than 30 years, he could be found at his office desk surrounded by books that climbed high toward the ceiling. Clad in a suit and tie, and often smoking a pipe, he read or wrote by the light of a lamp that seemed to illuminate little more than the words before him.

A formidable presence to students who visited, he “was a genius with an amazingly powerful mind,” said Mark Halliday, for whom Dr. Grossman was a doctoral adviser at Brandeis, and who now teaches at Ohio University. “His mind always pressed toward the most central truth he could possibly reach. He was never satisfied with a provisional truth.”

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“I’m one of 30 or 40 or 50 people who will tell you that he completely changed my life,’’ added Halliday, who co-wrote with Dr. Grossman “The Sighted Singer,” a book on poetics.

Dr. Grossman, who also taught at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for 15 years, received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, known as a genius grant, in 1989.

He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and in 2009, Yale University’s Beinecke library awarded him the Bollingen Prize. The award put him in the company of past winners such as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, and Louise Gluck. The panel called Dr. Grossman “a profoundly original American poet whose work embraces the coexistence of comedy and tragedy, exploring the intersection of high poetic style and an often startling vernacular.”

Born in Minneapolis, Allen Richard Grossman was the older of two sons whose father owned a Chevrolet dealership and once sold 500 cars in a year. Part of Dr. Grossman’s impetus for leaving the Midwest was simple. “He didn’t want to sell cars,” said his wife, Judith, a novelist and short-story writer.

Dr. Grossman’s mother had run her own lending library before marriage and was a powerful presence in her son’s life.

In a series of interviews with Halliday collected in the 1981 book “Against Our Vanishing,” Dr. Grossman said poetry was as “necessary to me as life itself, to construct a world consistent with the desire of a world which I encountered in the heart and soul of my mother.”

He graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, both in English. He received a doctorate in 1960 from Brandeis, where he began teaching while in graduate school.

His first marriage, to Meryl Mann, ended in divorce. They had two sons, Jonathan of Lowell and Adam of Somerville.

Judith Spink was a graduate student at Brandeis, though not studying with Dr. Grossman, when they met.

“In those days, when you had a conversation with him he was so full of ideas you thought the top of your head was flying off,” she said. “His mind was very exciting.”

They married in 1964 and had three children: Bathsheba of Somerville, Austin of Irvine, Calif., and Lev of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Of Dr. Grossman’s work, the poet and critic Robert Fitzgerald wrote “the reader who takes up these poems will appreciate at once the altogether distinctive beauty of lines and phrases . . . falling as unlaboredly on the page as light falls through a framing window on a wall.”

Dr. Grossman’s poetry books included “The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River,” “How to Do Things With Tears,” and “The Ether Dome and Other Poems: New and Selected.” His poem “The Piano Player Explains Himself” begins:

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.

“Poets are persons aware of aloneness and competent to speak in the space of solitude,” Dr. Grossman wrote in the opening pages of “Descartes’ Loneliness,” the italic emphasis his own.

Nevertheless, “for a man of such gifts and accomplishments he was absolutely interested and focused in what you had to say,” Sleigh said in an interview. “He was never the kind of person who would monologue on and on. He also had a really loud raucous laugh, and when you could spark that, he had such an unbridled sense of hilarity.”

Schwartz described Dr. Grossman as having “kind of a living presence of an Old Testament prophet.”

“There was something other-worldly about him, and yet also very earthy,” Schwartz said. “He had a very distinctive voice that was very powerful, very rhetorical. He almost chanted, and this wasn’t just with his poems, though it was very much so with his poems.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Grossman, who in addition to his wife and children leaves a brother, Burton of Minneapolis; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

As Dr. Grossman’s illness progressed, “he forgot being a poet before he forgot being a teacher,” his wife said. “Right up almost to the end he remembered being a teacher, and that’s what he missed. When you weigh the two things, yes, as long as he could write, he was a poet, but he valued teaching even more.”

In a 2010 interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, four years after retiring, Dr. Grossman said that “teaching and poetry sprung from the same motive for me. They are both deeply part of my personality. I adored teaching.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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