When Alvin Feinman arrived at Bennington College as a literature instructor in the fall of 1969, he was not yet forty, but to students already seemed immensely old. His face was lined and grave, his teeth yellowed by nicotine stains, his voice sonorous and low with deep Old Testament overtones.
Everything about him was solemn, deliberate, slow. A brooding presence at the seminar table, he sat with two Styrofoam cups before him, one for black coffee and one for ash. After reading aloud a line of poetry, he took a long, melancholic drag on his Parliament and waited, in silence, for what felt like ages. Alvin taught as he read: painstakingly, meticulously, utterly.
Students revered Alvin for his forensic reading. He never got through more than half a syllabus, if that, during a semester, and tales of his immersive attention to individual words and phrases are legion. In one Milton class, he gave a two-hour disquisition on the philosophical implications of the prefix ‘dis’ in Paradise Lost. In the Poetics course I took with him in 1984, he spent two weeks dissecting a single line from one of Pindar’s Odes. Alvin wasn’t finished with a poem until every word, every line, was scrutinized, every punctuation mark felt.
The mystique surrounding Alvin’s own work was as compelling as his Talmudic teaching methods. Alvin’s poems—metaphysically dense and daunting, but lyrically ravishing—were regarded on campus with a mixture of apprehension and awe. Alvin was reticent about his own work, though, and only published twice: his debut, Preambles, in 1964, and a reissue of that book along with a handful of additional poems in 1990.
According to Harold Bloom, a close friend of Alvin’s since their grad school days at Yale, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Yet, in part because he published so sparsely, Alvin remained little-read and largely unknown when he died in 2008. Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, with a preface by Bloom, includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts after his death.
In researching my introduction to Corrupted into Song, I found a sheet of paper with a quote from Geoffrey Moore scribbled on it in one of Alvin’s copies of Preambles. Alvin wrote “of W. S.” (perhaps William Shakespeare) at the top of the quote, which reads: “One has a sense while reading him that creation is proceeding before one’s eyes. The whole is a continuous process, not a ‘talking about’ … so that, one receives through the aesthetic sense an impression of pure potency.”
Alvin’s poems convey the same sense of creation taking place before one’s very ears and eyes. “The Way to Remember Her,” like so many of Alvin’s poems, is an account of an intense emotional, even spiritual, experience that catalyzes a similar experience in the reader. “For a poet, it is never a matter of saying it is raining,” Paul Valéry wrote. “It’s a matter of … making rain.” The process is the poem, and vice versa.
When Alvin died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages, from which the unpublished poems have been drawn, poems I hope will establish Alvin as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, alongside Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common.
Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman is available now from Princeton University Press.The Way to Remember Her
Take only this, the hand, the flower
In her hand, imagine, do not look,
Her eyes, her lips, call that delight—
And burn the name of it.
Dispel the reasons from your lips
And what it comes to, lips, and eyes,
The held flower always in the end—
And burn the name of it.
And tear from what your voice intends
The word it tells you or the thought
Reminds, beginning, end, again—
And burn the name of it.
—Or burn that hand, the lips,
The eyes, the flower, all, all save
The knowledge, the desire that kills
And leaves the burning name of it.
Let be, forget the words we made
And rolled in celebration on our tongues
Lest it be deemed thus much a staying;
—The unbetraying ass sports heritage,
Dark donkeydoms inflect his braying—
Lest diction, surrogate—that faith
To shadow forth the old good grace
Round and total, gainsaying;
Told ghosts corrode the apostate pledge
Whose tropes are relic of our praying.
Forget. If not the flesh of praise
The word is a vain, self-mocking thing
However lyric, sweet the naying;
Let silence be, the parent dead,
A bloodless moon, cold tides obeying.
The sun beating on his brain
And a cat slouching on the woodpile
And flies nauseous with heat
He holds three eternal parameters
The habit of his eye repeats
The shapes he reifies
Let the silence silence its own ache
There is nothing but the plenum of a small red brain
The flies fall suppurant among the sticks
The cat prepares for life
As though the moveable could move
Even the impossible recedes
As though within the clot of brain
Were space or sun to make a world
To hold in a single thought reality and justice.—W. B. Yeats
The shelf is crowded, overflowed,
A yellow heap upon the floor.
The guardian out, or gone to sleep,
A puzzled wind goes from the door.
The wheel slips over, stutters, chokes,
The horses fled, the cart spilt on its side.
The lovers lift one burning face,
The moon cracks like a glass.
Here stands a pack of trees and here
A chimney breaks the evening’s back.
The young tear up their names into the stream,
Eternity will not inherit more.
How shall I portion history or
Take the senseless human task to heart?—
Many take down a golden mask
And weep, and how the tears
Seem golden on their cheek.
As though below that agony of gold
Were something dumber and without a name,
A thing that if it wished to speak
Would teach a way to tell
What gold may not exchange,
Where all are bound to ignorance
And death if death is that living thing
That cracks within the bell of speech
Or moans and tinkles
When winds thresh the rubbish heap.