John and I still hold dear the memory of seeing poet Allen Grossman give a reading in an old classroom at the University of Washington. His rather staid professorial appearance (right down to the suede elbow patches on his tweed jacket) belied what was to come, as he brought forth poems of incredible majesty and intimacy, their stunning metaphysics threaded through with sharp humor and profound sorrow. Much of his work sings with a biblical richness, and he read it beautifully, with all the power and nuance it deserved. After the reading, John and I were stunned, and Professor Grossman was sweating. In the hallway following, I was so moved I said to him (keep in mind we had already met and talked), “I have to touch you,” and rested my hand on his arm. “That,” I said, “was rock-and-roll.” A crazy compliment, perhaps, but a few weeks earlier I’d attended a concert that lacked all the thrilling risk, intelligence, and lyricism this bespectacled scholar had just offered us as we sat in our narrow wooden seats. It was a transformative experience and an introduction to a poetry I have since turned to again and again and which I know has shaped my own work. Allen Grossman died on June 27 at the age of 82. I’ll share below a poem of his we’ve placed in the typewriter in our window.
“The Caedmon Room”
Upstairs, one floor below the Opera House
on top of the building, was the Caedmon room —
a library of sorts. The Caedmon room
was empty of readers most of the time.
When the last reader left and closed the door,
I locked it and moved in for life. Right now,
I am writing this in the Caedmon room.
Caedmon was an illiterate, 7th century
British peasant to whom one night a lady
appeared in a dream. She said to him, speaking
in her own language, “Caedmon! Sing me something!”
And he did just that. What he sang, in his
own language, was consequential — because
he did not learn the art of poetry
from men, but from God. For that reason,
he could not compose a trivial poem,
but what is right and fitting for a lady
who wants a song. These are the words he sang:
“Now praise the empty sky where no words are.”
This was Caedmon’s song. Caedmon’s voice is sweet.
In the Caedmon room shelves groan under the
weight of eloquent blank pages, histories
of a sweet world in which we are not found.
Caedmon turned each page, page after page
until the last page — on which was written:
“To the one who conquers, I give the morning star.”
— Allen Grossman