How To Books
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How To Books
How to Do Things with Tears, by Allen Grossman. New York: New Directions, 2001. 98 pp. $14.95 (paper).
How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems, by Harvey Shapiro. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 76 pp. $12.95 (paper); $26.00 (cloth).

Although they are fundamentally different in terms of poetic style and sensibility, Allen Grossman and Harvey Shapiro have taken strangely similar paths, and the nearly simultaneous appearance of their new collections is hardly the first coincidence in their long and distinguished careers. Both men were born in the midwest, Grossman in Minneapolis in 1932, Shapiro in Chicago in 1924. Both went east for their Ivy League educations (Grossman at Harvard, Shapiro at Yale and Columbia) and stayed there, Grossman becoming one of the most charismatic and revered professors at Brandeis (he is now at Johns Hopkins), Shapiro working as a journalist, eventually editing the New York Times Book Review and serving as a senior editor for the New York Times Magazine (he recently retired). In 1961, both published elegant volumes which explore their religious and cultural heritage (Grossman’s A Harlot’s Hire, Shapiro’s Mountain, Fire, Thornbush), going back to biblical, talmudic, and kabbalistic sources to affirm the vexed but insistent connections that a New Critically trained generation of American- born Jews might have with ancient prophecy and psalm. As Grossman declares in a poem written in the voice of R. Hillel: “Once on a mountain God struck words in stone, / Now he has struck through flesh into the bone.” And as Shapiro asks of the Israelites fleeing Egypt: “Why then should they carry history / Like an ark, and the remembering / Already begun?” It was a moment when Jewish American poetry became a vessel for both revelation and remembrance.

That same year, a rather different volume appeared, permanently changing that poetic landscape: Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish. Both Grossman and Shapiro recognized its importance, the former reviewing Kaddish in Judaism, the latter in Midstream. For Shapiro, Ginsberg’s achievement is to be found in his ability “to capture a story and a period of American-Jewish life, a fat novel-full, in verse that never slides under the material it has to carry while it keeps the long breath that is his signature and the pure [End Page 116] impulse that is his gift.” Grossman, darker in his assessment but equally perceptive, declares that “Ginsberg represents a brilliant though uncertain invasion of the American literary community by the Jewish sensibility in the process of transcending parochial limits.” Both reviewers recognized that the possibilities of presenting Jewish experience in American poetry had been blown wide open, whether “Jewish experience” was to be regarded in historical, cultural, or religious terms. And indeed, forty years later, as these new volumes demonstrate, Grossman and Shapiro continue to think and write through their Jewishness, making it one of the many strands to be found in their work.

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Allen Grossman describes his new collection as “a HOW TO book”: “In this book the poet intends to say something, insofar as a poet can, about the common sadness of living and dying in the world.” Never one to shirk from a challenge, Grossman applies his high rhetoric and mythopoeic stance to the achievement of “useful KNOWLEDGE (knowledge that helps out with tears).” If nearly any other American poet declared as a goal the one that Grossman sets for himself in How to Do Things with Tears, the sheer chutzpah of the assignment would make this reader blink with disbelief. Yet Grossman has actually devoted his entire career to this task: he is one of our most provocative and original poet-critics (perhaps I should say, poet-pedagogues), and as The Sighted Singer and the essays gathered in The Long Schoolroom demonstrate, he knows more about the social uses of poetry than any engagé critic of whatever ideological stripe. As Grossman explains in the extravagant set of notes at the end of his new book, “poems, to be good enough to care for, must present to mind new knowledge. More precisely must present to conscious mind such knowledge as consciousness already is burdened with, and decide what is...