Allen Grossman Wins Bollingen Prize in American Poetry

A three-judge panel has named Allen Grossman the 2009 winner of Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.

A three-judge panel has named Allen Grossman the 2009 winner of Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.

The Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, established by Paul Mellon in 1949, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. Previous winners include Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, E. E. Cummings, Louise Gluck, Adrienne Rich and Jay Wright. The prize includes a cash award of $100,000.

The judges described Grossman as “a profoundly original American poet whose work embraces the co-existence of comedy and tragedy, exploring the intersection of high poetic style and an often startling vernacular. His most recent book, ‘Descartes’ Loneliness,’ is a bold and haunting late meditation, comparable to Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece, ‘Winter Words.’”

Grossman was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1932, and educated at Harvard University, where he received an MA, and at Brandeis University, where he earned a PhD in 1960. Grossman remained at Brandeis as a professor until 1991, when he was named the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. He retired from teaching in 2005. His many collections of poetry include: “A Harlot’s Hire” (1959), “The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River” (1979), “The Bright Nails Scattered on the Ground” (1986), “The Ether Dome and Other Poems, New and Selected 1979-1991” (1991), “How to Do Things with Tears” (2001), “Sweet Youth” (2002) and “Descartes’ Loneliness” (2007).

“A distinguished teacher of poetics and literature, Grossman has influenced three generations of American writers,” the judges said. “He has characterized the lyric poet as an individual who, ‘by means of this art, seeks to speak with the utmost seriousness about the totality of what he experiences,’ and Grossman himself has been refreshingly restless in that pursuit. In ‘Descartes’ Loneliness,’ he achieves a precarious balance between an aspirational vision and close attention to the world at hand. The poems progress with comic flair, dramatic inquiry and, at times, rage, through remembrance toward understanding. The figure they make is large and difficult, and the results are wholly singular. Carrying a weight that is rare in contemporary poetry, their music provides a deep-seated solace to their stark sentence.”

This year’s judges were Frank Bidart, poet and winner of the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, Peter Cole, poet and visiting professor at Yale University, and Susan Stewart, poet and professor of English at Princeton University.

For further information, please contact Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry, Yale Collection of American Literature:

Three poems by Allen Grossman, from “Descartes’ Loneliness,” reprinted with permission of New Directions, 2007.

Now the sun sets and all the ways grow dark.
Persistent warble of a bird at my window,
in the dark. March 18, 2001—
my conviction of my own death. (“Get Ready!”)

Beginning with someone else’s death, a word,
and ending with the other death, my own,
the first word of the next life is “death,”
and the last word of this one is not yet

thought upon. But elegy is the song.
Teacher, do not set enigmatic tasks.

Upstairs, one floor below the Opera House
(top floor of the building), is 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, seventh-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.”

A gust of wind has blown the window open.
Where in the world is the scene of instruction?
Is it a mountain top? Is it a bed?
Or this long road down which we walk together,
the two of us—well acquainted. But also

strange to one another who, nonetheless,
are going the same way for a few miles
with the expectation of parting soon
without disappointment at a place we both
know of. (You! Look there!” “And you also! There!”

We two?”—More than two? Perhaps. But not fewer.
Two at Least. Each one correcting the direction
of attention of the other: “Look there.”
“There?” “Yes! Yes! Yes!—Nothing is known to one.
That mountain not. That bed not. This long road not.”

A gust of wind has blown the window open.
Look! Out there the apple tree is barren now.
The season has changed. Soon something will happen.
But where are you? Missing. Oh. When last seen?
—Now, cold rain. After that, silent in darkness, snow:

Where in the world is the scene of instruction?
In the Roman army, a soldier who has served
his time becomes a veteran, exempt,
and goes to fight afar. Before, there was
little time. And now there’s no time at all.

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