Poet and critic Allen R. Grossman occupies a unique position in contemporary American letters: though influenced by the modernism and post-modernism that shaped so many poets of his  generation, Grossman did not align himself with any one poetic community. Instead, his poetry is often described as coming out of the modern Romantic tradition of lyric poetry, and he writes in a high style, reflecting the influence of William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane. According to the late poet and critic Reginald Shepherd, “Grossman shares the Romantic and High Modernist exalted idea of the poet’s vocation and of the power of poetry to engage and encompass the world on equal terms … Though his poetry is not devoid of irony or even humor, Grossman is never embarrassed or ironic about the greatness he believes poetry to be capable of making apparent, nor about his own ambitions to approach such greatness, although in his view its attainment is impossible: to write the perfect poem would be to reach the end of poetry.”  A noted scholar as well as a poet, Grossman’s book The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Writers and Readers (1992), which he wrote with Mark Halliday, remains a kind of cult classic of poetics. The work addresses the philosophical implications of lyric poetry and lays out Grossman’s own understanding of the nature of poetic address.

Grossman was born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He earned his BA and MA from Harvard and his PhD from Brandeis University in 1960. He taught for many years at both Brandeis, where he was the Paul E. Prosswimmer Professor of Poetry and General Education; and Johns Hopkins University, where he was the Emeritus Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. His many honors and awards included a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, the Bassine Citation of the Academy of American Poets, the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book The Ether Dome (1992), and, in 2009, the prestigious Yale Bollingen Prize. He also served as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.

Invested in lyric poetry’s impulse to embody experience precisely, Grossman’s poetry also displays a distrust of its ability to fix feeling accurately. In books like A Harlot’s Hire (1962) and The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River (1979), Grossman began to formulate his poetics in poems that were at once narrative and philosophical. Grossman's The Ether Dome was described by critic William Doreski for the Literary Review as representing “a long devotion to poetry not as a quasi-career but as a way of understanding the world.” Grossman’s later work has also received praise for its continued devotion to exploring the intersections of poetry, philosophy, and autobiography. In the Boston Review, James Longenbach described How to Do Things with Tears (2001) as Grossman’s “wildest creation yet.” The material in this book, Longenbach claimed, could have filled ten books. Though the poems are “stuffed with characters, voices and idioms,” there is a unifying voice, Longenbach wrote, that makes a singular statement: “Poetry is what we do with memories, and remembering is what we do with tears.” In Descartes’ Loneliness (2007), Grossman imaginatively inhabits the figure of Descartes and the precepts of his philosophy, penning letters to Princess Elizabeth. However, the book is also concerned with Grossman’s own family history. As Publisher’s Weekly noted, these more personal lyrics showcase Grossman’s “interest—or better, faith—in poetry's capacity to perform distinctly human acts of preservation.”

Critic Geoffrey Hartman wrote, “Grossman's poems, a continuous act of confrontation, brave comparison with verses that today are sacred as verse, untouchable in their strength.” Scholar Robert Fitzgerald added, “The reader who takes up these poems will appreciate at once the altogether distinctive beauty of lines and phrases. . . falling as unlaboredly on the page as light falls through a framing window on a wall.  The prosodic or musical achievement is itself a rare one amid the poetries of the time, and like most fine art comes of long study and the intense exercise of choice.

Grossman died in 2014.


  • A Harlot's Hire, Walker-de Berry (Cambridge, MA), 1962.
  • The Recluse and Other Poems, Pym-Randall (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
  • And the Dew Lay All Night upon My Branch: Poems, Aleph (Lexington, MA), 1973.
  • The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River: A Book of Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1979.
  • Of the Great House: A Book of Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1982
  • The Bright Nails Scattered on the Ground, New Directions (New York, NY), 1986.
  • The Ether Dome and Other Poems New and Selected, New Directions (New York, NY), 1991.
  • The Philosopher's Window and Other Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1995.
  • How to Do Things with Tears, New Directions (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man, Old and New 1953–2001, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Descartes’ Loneliness, New Directions (New York, NY), 2007.


  • Poetic Knowledge in the Early Yeats: A Study of the Winds among the Reeds, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1969.
  • Against Our Vanishing: Winter Conversations with Allen Grossman on the Theory and Practice of Poetry, Rowan Tree (Boston, MA), 1982, revised and expanded as part 1 of The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers (also see below), Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1992.
  • The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1992.
  • The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle (Poets on Poetry), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.
  • True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing, University of Chicago Press, 2009.


Works represented in anthologies, including The Best American Poetry series (including 1988, 1991, 1992, and 1993). Contributor to literary periodicals, including Massachusetts Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review, and TriQuarterly.

Further Readings

  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets since World War II, Sixth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998, pp. 148-158.
  • Williamson, Alan, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984.
  • Morris, Daniel ed., Poetry's Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman, National Poetry Foundation (Orono, ME), 2004.
  • Booklist, September 15, 1995, Janet St. John, review of The Philosopher's Window and Other Poems,pp. 131-132.
  • Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2001, review of How to Do Things with Tears,p. 551.
  • Literary Review, winter, 1993, William Doreski, review of The Ether Dome and Other Poems,pp. 250-252.
  • Publishers Weekly, March 26, 2001, review of How to Do Things with Tears,p. 85.
  • New Republic,December, 1978.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review,autumn, 1969.
  • Yale Review, July, 1996, Langdon Hamer, review of The Philosopher's Window and Other Poems, pp. 168-178.
  • Boston Review, http:// bostonreview.mit.edu/ (April 8, 2002), James Longenbach, review of How to Do Things with Tears.