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In Memoriam Alvin Feinman, 1929-2008
I am still in the hospital, awaiting surgery on an abdominal fistula that refuses to heal on its own—quite the contrary—but it’s very important to me to have Robert post this piece.
The wonderful poet, teacher and friend Alvin Feinman died a few days ago after a long struggle with emphysema and Parkinson’s disease. Alvin was one of the most important people in my poetic life, and I would like to pay him some small homage here.
Alvin Feinman was born in 1929 and raised in New York City. Though he has been named by Harold Bloom as part of the essential canon of Western literature—Bloom has written that “The best of his poems stand with the most achieved work of his generation”—Feinman is not included in any of the standard anthologies of modern or modern American poetry, not even Cary Nelson’s recent Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which explicitly aims at recovering and rediscovering neglected writers. Nor is he listed in the purportedly comprehensive Contemporary Authors reference series.
Though always committed to poetry (including, in his words, “even doggerel narratives in early childhood”), he had originally decided on philosophy as a career, and did graduate work at Yale to that end, until he realized that the dominant analytical school excluded all the important philosophical questions. It was in poetry that those unanswerable questions, questions of knowledge, perception, and the relation between being and appearance, could properly be addressed. As Feinman somewhat jocularly told me, “I was, even philosophically, convinced that, as I liked to put it, if according to Aristotle, ‘Poetry is more philosophical than history,’ so is it more philosophical than philosophy. The work I’d have had to do in philosophy would be to lay out the grounds for privileging poetry—which indeed our era has been more or less doing—vide Heidegger, Rorty, Derrida, etc.”
Feinman’s first book, Preambles and Other Poems, was published by Oxford University Press in 1964 to praise from such figures as Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, Geoffrey Hartman, and Bloom. (Bloom’s discussion of this volume in his book The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition is the only extended treatment of Feinman’s work of which I am aware.) Now out of print, it was reissued with a handful of additional poems by Princeton University Press as Poems in 1990; that volume is also out of print. Feinman’s lack of a wider reputation is partly due to the unabashed difficulty of his poems, though as Harold Bloom writes, “their difficulty is their necessity” (The Ringers in the Tower, 315). But, given the popularity of other “difficult” poets, his neglect is mostly due to his distaste for the rituals of literary self-promotion.
Alvin Feinman is a true visionary poet, heir to Stevens and Crane in the modern line and, further back, to Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, poets who invented human consciousness as a subject matter for poetry. In Harold Bloom’s description, “the central vision in [Preambles] is of the mind, ceaselessly an activity, engaged in the suffering process of working apart all things that are joined by it” (op. cit., 315). Bloom calls this “a tragedy of the mind, victim to its own intent, which is to make by separations” (op. cit., 316).
Feinman’s poems demand much of the reader (at times resisting the intelligence almost successfully, as Stevens said that the poem should), but they offer many rewards in return, including dazzling imagery (light and the work light does is omnipresent) and dense, rich verbal music. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, and Feinman’s poems do so amply.
John Hollander has written that Feinman’s poetry explores the indefinable boundary between the visual and the visionary. In one of the blurbs for Preambles, Conrad Aiken wrote that Feinman’s was “true metaphysical poetry.” His poems constitute an epistemological and phenomenological investigation of the world, a probing of the surfaces of things that moves from seeing to seeing-into to seeing-through to the other side of appearances, exposing the luminous interior of the material world. As Bloom has written, the “opposition between the imaginative self and reality seems as central to these poems as it was to Stevens’ and as grandly articulated.”
Alvin Feinman is also the only person in my writing life whom I could truly call a mentor. I have had professors from whom I’ve learned, who have taught me valuable things about my work (sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently or even against their will). But few were truly formative, and fewer still were both consistent and constructive in their attention. For one thing, he was the first professor to understand what my poems were trying to do, even though they didn’t always succeed.
Alvin, with whom I did my undergraduate creative writing thesis at Bennington College, never did anything for me but help me write better poems. He never did anything to me but make me see that however pleased I was with something I’d written, it could always be better, had to be better if I were to call myself a poet. For Alvin, to be a poet was always an aspiration, not something that one could claim to be. I think if I’d have asked him he would have said, “I would like to be a poet.”
Alvin expected everything of poetry, his own and others’. As he once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?” There was no point in reading a poem unless it was great, and no point in writing a poem unless it (not you: it) aspired to greatness. He was especially alert to the occasions when a poem failed to live up to its own possibilities, when it fell away into the mundane from therevelations it proposed. Usually the poem failed by settling for the merely personal. For Alvin, one’s interest in oneself had no place in poetry, and in his poems one will find not face but mask. But it’s a mask more alive than the great mass of mere faces.
Alvin also helped me learn the difference between whether something was done well and whether it needed to be done at all. He warned against the dangers of what he called “fluency über alles,” of writing something because you can or because you want to. What you want has no place in poetry: only what the poem wants matters. He once said of a poem of mine that he saw little in it but my desire to write a poem, and he saw accurately. But Alvin also taught me to listen more carefully, to look more closely, to be more aware of the poem’s intentions. He was an exacting reader, and his is an example I am constantly trying to live up to.
I love all of Alvin’s poems, but this one in particular, the first poem of his I ever read, is one of my favorites.
November Sunday Morning
And the light, a wakened heyday of air
Tuned low and clear and wide,
A radiance now that would emblaze
And veil the most golden horn
Or any entering of a sudden clearing
To a standing, astonished, revealed…
That the actual streets I loitered in
Lay lit like fields, or narrow channels
About to open to a burning river;
All brick and window vivid and calm
As though composed in a rigid water
No random traffic would dispel…
As now through the park, and across
The chill nailed colors of the roofs,
And on near trees stripped bare,
Corrected in the scant remaining leaf
To their severe essential elegance,
Light is the all-exacting good,
That dry, forever virile stream
That wipes each thing to what it is,
The whole, collage and stone, cleansed
To its proper pastoral…
And smoke, and linger out desire.