Written by Appreciation, Feature, In-Depth, Poetry

Victim of his own intent: On Alvin Feinman

“My ambition, nonetheless, is that someday in the distant future, just one lonely reader will wander the shelves of a library and discover a slim volume of my poetry, taking inspiration from my work in the way I found it in Alvin Feinman’s.”

How many poems he denied himself
In his observant progress, lesser things
Than the relentless contact he desired.
—Wallace Stevens, “The Comedian as the Letter C”

When I was in tenth grade, rummaging through books at the local secondhand sale, I chanced upon a copy of The Contemporary American Poets, a pocket-sized anthology edited by Mark Strand and first published in 1971. The book showcased a generation of American poets that emerged between the late ’40s and 1970. As I soon learned, Strand’s book attempted a more inclusive approach than the so-called “anthology wars” which immediately preceded it, when competing poetry anthologies in the ’60s drew staunch battle lines between traditional or academic verse and the avant-garde. Strand’s collection represented an easy-going attitude that embraced diversity and aesthetic pluralism, though, as with any anthology, it had its inevitable proclivities and oversights.

To an awkward high school kid in the rural backwaters of southern Delaware who was just dipping his toes into literature, the range of poetics in Strand’s book felt intoxicating. This was the mid-’90s, a short-lived era when independent coffeeshops cropped up with poetry readings and jazz nights, an auspicious and heady time before Starbucks and cell phones. For the better part of that year, the anthology became a talisman I carried everywhere to ward off provincialism. I searched public libraries and used bookstores for poets from Strand’s anthology. Back in those pre-internet days, I hunted down a surprising number of these poets, which exposed me to earlier writers such as Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Charles Baudelaire. I learned that my library even subscribed to a few literary magazines and contained a small shelf of post-1970s poetry, as well. In school, I started skipping classes to sneak off to read a poetry collection or to write my sophomoric verses.

My favorite pieces from that anthology were by Alvin Feinman, “Pilgrim Heights” and “November Sunday Morning.” Even now, it’s hard to pinpoint what made those severe, ascetic poems stand out. At first blush, before I interrogated the poems’ hermetic meanings, I was entranced by their hypnotic cadence, which gave to their language the onrushing intensity of meter without its dulling regularity. There was a perfect rightness in the way that each sound fit together, propelling the reader onward through the lines, inward toward a meditative rigor.

These two poems expressed a transcendental yearning for some revelation—a rapturous moment of standing in a cleansing light—balanced against a sobering retrospective view that such light had already fled, likely never to return. At its outset, “November Sunday Morning” announces:

A radiance now that would emblaze
And veil the most golden horn
Or any entering of a sudden clearing
To a standing, astonished, revealed.

I remember furtively reading these lines in my tenth-grade physics class. The teacher was preparing the class for a version of the double-slit experiment that he would demonstrate later that day. Feinman’s lines about a radiance that can disclose new truths echoed in my head while I watched the experiment. A laser beam, passing through two small slits, produced a diffraction pattern of bands on the back screen, evidence, the teacher claimed, that light acts as a wave function. However, the light enters the slits at discrete points, as would be expected of a particle. Light is thus simultaneously both wave and particle, a mystery that confounds us even as it unveils our world. A radiance that emblazes and reveals.

No matter how many times I reread them, the poems surpassed my exegesis. I went on mumbling lines into the night, obsessed and dazzled, writing unconscious imitations all my life.

But more of Feinman’s poems were nowhere to be found. Later, at college, with its two libraries, each with massive stacks, I still couldn’t discover Feinman’s work or any word about him. For years, whenever I slipped into a used bookstore or library, I would search for Feinman. After college, visiting a friend, I finally stumbled upon a book of his in the Boston Public Library. His out-of-print first collection, 1964’s Preambles, was reissued as a slim volume in 1990, simply titled Poems, with a small number of newer pieces. Feinman had written only half a dozen pieces in twenty-five years, so exacting were his standards. The title poem of that original collection greeted me on the first page, a work as inconsolable as it is astounding. The first stanza offers an idea of its radical fragmentation that remains somehow intuitively unified:

Vagrant, back, my scrutinies
The candid deformations as with use
The coat or trousers of one now dead
Or as habit smacks of certitude.

The driving rhythm cohered a subconscious texture of sense as the lines tumbled down the page, and I tried to puzzle out a rational sum from its seeming disorder. The poem’s sonority acted as a siren-call leading me onward, invoking an ordered reckoning among its florid ruin. Indeed, the perceptual and philosophical work of breaking and fusing the world as one adjusts to reality is what I began to see as the poem’s conceit. At any rate, I continued to scrutinize the slim volume all day at the library.

A few years later, after I moved to New York City, another Strand—the bookstore, no relation to Mark—provided me with Feinman’s work. Many weekends, I’d take the subway from Brooklyn to pick over the remainders, reviewer’s copies, and dollar books piled in the carts outside the shop windows, then go inside to poke around the worn shelves winding through the vast complex. The Strand was a hodgepodge repository where the shipwreck of literature cast up its flotsam and driftwood. One Saturday, I found the pale blue dust jacket of Feinman’s Poems tucked away on a high bookcase. I pulled up a stepladder and plucked it from its spot. I finally possessed the book, though one might say that it took possession of me. A few years after that, I lost the book when I moved out of an apartment after a breakup. But the absence of the book, too, felt fitting, as the poems remained elusive, haunting me with their twofold theme of desire and dispossession.

Eventually, I ferreted out a few facts about Feinman with the help of the internet. Feinman almost never published in literary journals, never succumbed to any hoopla of self-promotion. The one book he published was thanks to a friend he met while in grad school at Yale, the literary critic Harold Bloom, who handed a thin sheaf of the unknown poet’s work to his publisher, promising to gather blurbs for it from prominent critics and writers. Many today might see this not as Bloom’s generosity, but rather as evidence of the old-boy network that advanced careers through back-room nepotism. Yet that these poems reached anyone at all is perhaps a small miracle, considering the indifferent regard Feinman had for the marketplace. Coming from a long line of Litvak Talmudic scholars, Feinman had a sacred veneration for the word and little concern for his professional reputation.

Feinman believed that the individual writer was a thing apart from the exalted work. He sought to listen to the voice within the word, committed to what the poem required rather than to following his political aims, aesthetic prescriptions, or egotistic whimsy. Reading his best work, one can almost believe that each syllable was uttered by a sibyl. After Feinman’s initial effort, though, he squandered the rest of his creative life in diminishing returns. According to his wife, the literary critic Deborah Dorfman, he passed many years alone in his room, depressed, listening to the blues and classical music. After the ecstatic impulse that issued in his first book, he spent his remaining days—whole decades—diligently revising a few lines, ultimately thwarted by his high standards. He once warned a student against “fluency über alles,” suspicious of the mere technician’s assembly kit that could cook up the lesser thing. He coveted total contact. His bitter faith was always to a better poem. But such lofty demands ensured his long defeat. One could say he fell off the map, but that would presuppose his career was ever on one.

For me, his small body of almost perfect poems is a monument to faith: a faith in aesthetic value and the terrible demands that it places on the artist. Feinman turned his back on the snobbery and hobnobbing of the literary scene in a relentless pursuit of the poem itself. Authors meant little to him—they were simply midwives for bringing forth the living demons of their work. He never courted an audience. A strong poem would create the readership it needed.

And yet, the impersonal spiritual quest underlying Feinman’s poetry remains an ideal which gains in importance for me as time goes on. He was a latter-day eremite who absconded from worldly struggle to practice the contemplative life of art. During his later years, he tended to the eggplants in his garden, fussing over the mulch of old poetic scraps and whittling down a few lines he’d written decades ago. While many might deride this attitude, his lifelong trial involved waiting, once again, for the brief illumination afforded by the transports of apt and rapturous language, the lost paradise of a true poem.

Poetry is not a product. A poet is not a brand. And one reason we look toward poems is for their suggestion that there might be values apart or within material existence that could redeem our own intuitions of and yearnings for transcendence. If there is nothing beyond the naked war of power, then perhaps all art, all philosophy for that matter, is just rhetoric, vanity, or self-deceit. It’s a proposition I take seriously, but I feel obliged to at least pretend otherwise. Still, are there not times when one must package one’s poems, submit them to the hoi polloi, or trade them in the public arena? For Feinman, perhaps not. But this position also seems untenable. Poets shouldn’t be so pure that they have to remove themselves entirely from participating in the exchanges of the noisy agora. Scribbling tawdry lines on cocktail napkins, publishing lesser poems, and mixing with the voices of the crowd is how the business of writing happens for most of us, after all. Without such ordinary drudgery, there also might not exist the great monuments and memorable passages of literature.

During my MFA, many of my peers focused on submitting to journals, finding agents, winning book deals. Roughly a decade ago, higher-ranked creative writing programs increased their emphasis on professionalization, trafficking as much in the niceties of career management as the nuances of craft. My mentors only half-mockingly called this the “po’ biz.” Prizes, first-rate publications, and prestigious fellowships denoted success. The pressure created an unspoken divide. While some talented students grew disaffected with the careerist mentality, soon ceasing to write altogether, others doubled down and hustled. For what it’s worth, my program’s reorientation worked, if you judge by the fact that more than half my workshop peers have gone on to become published authors and members of the professoriate. But are these the ends for which one writes? My reaction at that time involved thumbing my nose at publishing vogues and institutional imprimaturs. I produced work that had no chance of seeing print: on the one hand, verse dramas and elaborate forms like canzones, on the other, experimental long poems that depended on impossible-to-replicate page formats. I held an attitude, I now see, that, as good as the work of my peers was, their pursuit of the trappings of success made them beholden to conventional standards. I wanted to ruthlessly reinvent the terms by which the world could be perceived.

Illustration: Jess Shadrick

Like Feinman, I eschewed the whole literary racket. For two years after my MFA, I refused to submit any work. At the same time, I made a pact with myself to write for at least a few hours each day. I sought to test the limits of my chosen medium, but to do so, I practiced daily, much as a musician plays scales, a painter sketches nudes. I suspected that I had been performing for my workshops, perhaps at times even trolling my fellow writers’ comfortable aesthetic predilections. However, I didn’t want my work to become reactionary—like a good deal of what passes for the avant-garde—nor did I want to accede to the meretricious demands of the marketplace. This, too, was a period when I lucked into an artist’s residency, which gave me tremendous freedom. In retrospect, the work I produced in this period, though sometimes adventurous, lacked both polish and pungency. Much of what I wrote was merely exercises, and, in the absence of a potential readership, I often fell into an epistolary mode, addressing a friend or lover with embedded in-jokes or emboldened shorthand—a disjointed thicket of sticking points. I needed, instead, to write for myself and strangers. Not my immediate workshop peers nor some far-off, aggrandized view of posterity. My habitual isolation resulted in a forced fluency, a grind as inauthentic as courting publication. Feinman’s seclusion, I concluded, was not for me.

Hayden Carruth, in a cursory review of Preambles, remarked: “The poems are difficult; some are so difficult they are laughable.” Feinman’s book struck Carruth as unconvincing, extravagant, artificial. Carruth, like many readers today, preferred a poetry that felt approachable and idiomatic, whose intricacies were woven under a surface immediacy. What I continue to learn from Feinman, however, is that difficulty by itself is not off-putting if tempered by a keen awareness of rewarded pleasures, whether these be musical, emotional, or intellectual. Revision must be careful not to sacrifice the irrational energies of a poem to the plodding logic of sense, grammar, and clarity. After all, many newspaper squibs suffer those virtues without ginning up any moxie or imagination. Gaps invite the reader to leap. Such vaulting moments, arranged choreographically, compel an ecstasy of frisking thought, a dance composed of the innumerable flights and fallings of contemplation. Every bound, every pivot divulges, in Feinman’s words, “the helpless span narration cannot close.” We turn to poems for shivers and thrills, insights, sightlines, spillage, proof of living. Madcap, hopped-up diction or cock-a-hoop syntax is sometimes the most direct means to produce such results. I ruminated on these and other takeaways during those two years after my MFA. Ironically, the same year I began my writerly self-isolation was also Feinman’s last.

Alvin Feinman died in 2008, after having taught literature at Bennington College from 1956 to 1994. When the college underwent a reorganization in 1994, several faculty members were let go. Feinman, who had demurred from publishing another book despite prodding and often neglected the formalities of paperwork, was among them.

Feinman’s teaching style had been, by all accounts, moody and brooding. He would sit beside two cups, one filled with black coffee and another for his cigarette ash, and read aloud a single line, then take a long, melancholic drag on his Parliament while the class waited in silence for what felt like ages. In one Milton class, he gave an hourlong exposition on the prefix “dis” while in another course he spent two weeks dissecting a single line from Pindar. But if this level of attention felt unbearable, it was the same relentless stress he placed upon his work. The image of raptors twisting apart the still-living corpse of a small rodent in one of his early poems, “Relic,” could likewise capture his patient, finicky, implacable ravagement of a text:

like lovely deadly birds [twisting] at a living thing
trying to work apart something exquisitely, unreasonably joined.

He would apply every resource of his razor-sharp intelligence to undoing the intricate structures of poetic figures. Yet, in the end, he knew that the life-force binding the body of a work remains inscrutable. The poem invites serious explication only to defeat it, never relinquishing its final secrets.

Although Feinman’s teaching style was a throwback to an earlier era, it nevertheless parallels my most revelatory moments of formal education: a few old-school seminars in which Beowulf or The Prelude were read aloud, then scrupulously picked over, line by line, syllable by syllable, until various shades and glimmers of meaning aligned in a premonition of evasive coherence. As a teacher myself, I recognize that the contemporary classroom cannot focus only on dry lectures and meticulous close reading if students are to stay engaged. Yet, perhaps now more than ever, students require the steady attention and quibbling exactitude that such methods from a bygone age cultivated, given that their classes increasingly consist of catchy video clips, internet skimming, and personal sharing.

Feinman’s belief in the continued pertinence of ancient texts might feel outdated, his pedagogy might seem passé, and his ruminations might never have a chance against the glitchy media environment that students now inhabit. Students increasingly demand classes that emphasize pop immediacy, practical relevance, and vocational skills; yet, ironically, the slow examination of histories, values, and the subtleties of expression has only grown in importance. How would Feinman have dealt with students for whom comment trolls and status updates, accusations of fake news, and entrenched civic dissension are their norm? Feinman was a limit case of the gloomily musing professor, removed from day-to-day affairs, even in a former era. But as universities move in the opposite direction, I find a certain wisdom in his donnish demeanor—indeed, even a political usefulness in his cautious investigation of small details.

Feinman’s complete poems, Corrupted into Song, was posthumously published in 2016, edited by his former student James Geary and Feinman’s wife, Deborah Dorfman. This final volume contains his lone older book along with a few new poems, occasional pieces, unfinished drafts, and fragments. Feinman’s towering early period cast a lifelong shadow on his development. His posthumous work often feels as if it laments the impossibility of fulfilling his aspirations. “Let the silence silence its own ache,” reads a line from one late poem. At other times—as even Harold Bloom, his most persistent critical champion, admits—the ebullience and high-flown diction of his late work often feels strained, nearly lapsing into self-parody. Feinman strives toward such a pure poetic consciousness that his work oftentimes fails to incorporate the particularities and textures of the material world. The pressure he exerted upon language in heightened moments issued in a handful of exemplary pieces; however, such energy could not be sustained over the course of a lifetime. Still, few poets have written work as sublime as his best pieces.

When I encountered the new volume of his complete work, I was surprised that Feinman had continued writing poems. I assumed that his complete disappearance from the literary scene indicated that he had simply given up—or the lyric impulse had given up on him. Instead, throughout his lifetime, he’d nearly doubled his output since his first book, quietly persisting in the shadowy backwaters to believe in his calling, even if some of the work originated as outtakes from his earlier period. Then, I admit, I was disappointed. Many of the unpublished poems were second-rate, overwrought trifles, though a few small gems stood out (“Backyard, Hoboken, Summer,” “A Motive for the Fallacy of Imitative Form,” and “Song of the Dusting Woman in the Library,” for instance). Eventually, I concluded, a handful of indelible lyrics is all we remember of even the most prolific poets. A few fragments snatched from the darkness were enough.

The poet Henri Cole remarks that, “for a time, Alvin Feinman was a maker, a majestic poet who came to embrace his own intolerable limitations, his own dead-end.” In light of Cole’s backhanded compliment, I ponder whether Feinman is more a role model or cautionary tale? Ideals of the insoluble absolute leave one little in the way of resolution for doing the daily task of putting pen to paper. Poets must find ways to become reconciled with experience since, in the end, that is all one has.

As much as Feinman inspires me, he nonetheless occupies an ambivalent place in my literary pantheon. If his retiring temperament and obscure work put him ill at ease within a previous generation, then his devoted art-for-art’s-sake credo places him entirely beyond the pale of our current scene. Feinman insists that the fiery essence of great poetry is not fluent skill or technique. Not unlike Socrates, Feinman became a martyr to his fierce belief in a supernal truth that exists outside the marketplace. His trust in divine enthusiasm betrayed him when the fickle muses fled.

What keeps the writer at his task, Feinman asks, “is it the use of tears / he works to understand?” The writer hears the “last words echo in the brain” from some ancient bard, a true poet, and the sordid writer—like the dusting woman in the library—is left to sop up spilled ink, reciting the sorrow of that impossible song.

While my own workaday method as a poet may produce more material, none of it has reached the level of Feinman’s most outstanding pieces. It’s little better than a pile of scratch. Especially when compared to the irreverent, the errant revelry of a poem like “Summer, Afternoon” in which “the air hears… the day’s gamegame.” On a walk through what I imagine might be Prospect Park, the vatic speaker notices a lattice of light descending from a shadowed leaf. The image is overtaken by a regenerative, overwhelming energy of ever-cambering greens which

Array and hold
Their silent chord,
To where the vergemost
Quibble at clear nothing—there
Is not a purer ledge of opening; nothing
Here is not enough to be without
All need to ever argue for.

No, my poems have not achieved that level of eminence.

My ambition, nonetheless, is that someday in the distant future, just one lonely reader will wander the shelves of a library and discover a slim volume of my poetry, taking inspiration from my work in the way I found it in Alvin Feinman’s. I have a lingering sense that, at least in poetry, only the best counts—that poetry is not only a descriptive term but an evaluative one. Poetry is the thing made with such justice that it shapes the contours of presence and human possibility. Feinman’s scrupulous reserve briefly achieved the embodiment of a new form of consciousness. He then walked the rest of his days on earth mourning his vanished revelations, desperate to be lavished again with a moment of blissful insight.

And yet, some overreaching aspiration—of language purified, of myth rewritten, of bridges wrought by fire—must be suffered to forge a genuine poem. Feinman’s work stands as an antidote to today’s chatter of social media. If his work remains unpopular, it does so willfully. His singular attention to the medium of language as a forum for the contemplation of difficult truths sustains a hope in a readership as diligent as it is delighted in the long labor of unraveling linguistic and philosophical complexities. For all its apparent insularity then, his oeuvre testifies to the promise of a community, premised on the sustaining and deepening significance which a serious work of art can communicate.

Alvin Feinman was painfully aware of this dialectic between the isolated word and the pluralistic world, one which it was his fate to anticipate in Preamble’s first tottering steps. “The mind,” he wrote, “plays victim to its own intent.”

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