The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) was my poetry teacher at Bennington College in the 1980s. He made a huge impression on me as a teacher, with the purity and integrity of his engagement with poetry, and I consider his poems to be among the greatest written by an American in the 20th century, rivaling the work of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common. I collaborated with the late Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, Harold Bloom, Alvin’s close friend from their grad school days at Yale, and Alvin’s former student and colleague Vivian Heller to bring out Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, just published by Princeton University Press. Harold Bloom wrote a preface for the book, and I wrote a biographical/critical introduction.

Alvin only published twice: his debut, Preambles, in 1964, and a reissue of that book, Poems, which contained a handful of additional poems, in 1990. When Alvin died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages. Deborah had been transcribing and editing this manuscript for several years by the time I contacted her in the summer of 2014. The manuscript contained dozens of poetic fragments and 47 unpublished poems. Deborah and I decided to put together a complete edition of Alvin’s poetry—the text of the 1990 edition of Poems plus 39 of the unpublished poems.

Alvin’s writing demands a thoughtful approach, Elizabeth Lund wrote in her review in The Washington Post, “the speaker doesn’t just describe a moment, he tries to re-create it, as in the lovely poem “Waters,” in which he notices “Sunlight stitching the water —/ an oar silverly lifted./ And blue, and yellow, and red boats drift —/ like pleasures in a mind that needs no center.” These poems do have a strong center, which springs from the speaker’s intelligence, his measured rhythms and use of rhyme, and his sometimes detached outlook as he examines the world around him and always knows that “Something, something, the heart here/Misses.” Light is a recurring theme, and shapes the gorgeous “Stills: From a 30th Summer,” one of many poems that show why Feinman’s work deserves a broader audience.”

Here is a small, lovely poem from the book:

Song of the Dusting Woman in the Library

What is it holds the scholar to his desk
These nameless days, and through the long
Uncounted years? Is it the use of tears
He works to understand? Is it the song
He seeks that has not yet been sung?

And will he sing then when the tome
Is shut, the last word’s echo in his brain?
And will he weep then when the last
Idea is hung, when he has wrung
The name, the origin, the issue of each pain?

According to Bloom, “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.

Harold Bloom and I, with a copy of Corrupted into Song, on July 8, 2016

In researching my introduction, 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 Moore describes of creation taking place before one’s very ears and eyes. His poems recount intense emotional, intellectual, even spiritual experiences that catalyze similar experiences 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. The great challenge and reward of Alvin’s poems is that in reading them one participates in their making.

Listen to Harold Bloom read “November Sunday Morning” and “Relic”, two of Alvin’s greatest poems.

Aphorisms by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter, on one of the all-time great aphorists, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach …

It may be that everyone already knows how good the aphorisms of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) are. But I just got acquainted with her work through the book Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder. Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorisms (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116-118) are terse and tart, but not acerbic. She touches on numerous themes, many dealing with human psychology and relationships, many related to men versus women. By the standards of her times, she could certainly be classed a feminist: “When a woman says ‘each’ she means each person. When a man says ‘each’ he means each man.”

Many of the great themes are tackled in her aphorisms, truth, beauty, love, religion, morals, class, society, governance, duty, etc. Because she was also a writer of poems, plays and fiction, many of aphorisms are related to the arts or being an artist: “As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.” And she has some aphorisms that relate to our current election season: “In order to fill a public office brilliantly one needs a certain number of good qualities, but bad ones too.”

I have a method for keeping track of important passages in the books I’m reading. I put a little tick mark in the margin near the passage, then I record the page number on an index card (which doubles as my bookmark). As long as the index card stays in the book, I can go back and revisit key passages. Turns out that when reading this book I had put tick marks on practically every page, often marking several aphorisms per page that I wanted to note and revisit at some point. Here’s a sampling from her 582 aphorisms:

We generally learn how to wait when there is nothing more to wait for.

Beware of those virtues which people praise in themselves.

There are more truths in a good book than the author even intended.

Fools usually know best what the wise doubt they can ever learn.

People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.

The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert the skeptic.

You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.

It is a characteristic of the great that they demand far less of other people than of themselves.

The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.

You’d like to know what your acquaintances say about you? Listen to what they say about people more worthy than you.

Fighting for something is better than begging for it.

A gradual retreat is often worse than a sudden fall.

The scale we measure things by is the measure of our own mind.

Think about what has to be accomplished; forget what you have already accomplished.

I regret nothing, says arrogance; I will regret nothing, says inexperience.

We always have to keep learning, at the very end we even have to learn to die.