The Unmade Edges of Language: On the Poetry of Alvin Feinman
James Geary: "Alvin’s poems exist at the extreme reaches of speech, the far outskirts of thought."
The poet Alvin Feinman’s copy of Three Novels by Samuel Beckett—the Grove Press edition—is heavily annotated. One underlined sentence, in particular, in The Unnamable, caught my eye: “The search for the means to put an end to things, an end to speech, is what enables the discourse to continue.”
Alvin Feinman wrote one book of poetry: the metaphysically dense, lyrically ravishing Preambles and Other Poems, which was published in 1964 and reissued, along with a handful of additional work, as Poems in 1990.
When Preambles appeared, Harold Bloom, a close friend of Alvin’s since their undergraduate days at Yale, said, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a 20th-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Bloom devoted a section of his 1971 book, The Ringers in the Tower, to Alvin, comparing him to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poems and poetics have so much in common. There is also a chapter on Alvin in Possessed by Memory, published a few months before Bloom’s death in 2019.
In part because he published so sparsely, Alvin remained little read and largely unknown when he died in 2008. But to those who do know his work, and to his former students at Bennington College, where he taught from 1969 to 1994, Alvin is still revered.
A brooding presence at the seminar table, Alvin always 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.
Students loved Alvin for his forensic reading, his immersive attention to individual words and phrases. 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. The late poet Reginald Shepherd, who studied with Alvin in the late 1980s, described him as “the only person in my writing life whom I could truly call a mentor.”
In the summer of 2014, I began working with Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, to edit scores of unpublished poems he had left behind. Deborah herself died before Corrupted into Song, the text of the 1990 edition of Poems plus the newly discovered verse, was published in 2016, leaving me as the steward of Alvin’s work.Students loved Alvin for his forensic reading, his immersive attention to individual words and phrases.
And so it was I found myself surrounded by dozens of boxes of Alvin’s books, thumbing through his copy of Three Novels by Samuel Beckett, examining the marginalia for any clues about this most taciturn of poets thoughts about writing.
Alvin’s underlining of that sentence in The Unnamable caught my eye because putting “an end to speech” was the peculiar goal of his own work and also characterized his lifelong discourse with poetry.
There is throughout Alvin’s work an awareness that poetic speech is beyond reach; coming to the end of the mind, he found not a palm there but a brick wall.
His greatest poems—“Pilgrim Heights”, “November Sunday Morning”—take as their starting point the impossibility of even beginning, hence the title Preambles. This dilemma is repeatedly restated—“all discursion fated and inept”, “The helpless span narration cannot close”, “such things as thwart beginnings”—but never resolved.
This tension plays out in ‘Poet,’ published here for the first time with two other poems, discovered among Alvin’s papers after Deborah’s death, along with dozens of other pieces unknown to me when she and I were preparing Corrupted into Song. Here, Alvin paradoxically defines the poet as “he / Whose lies / Sing the truths they disguise.”
In Alvin’s poems, two aspects of mind are always at work: one that writes and by writing tries to unite, and another that picks apart the very things the poem tries to connect. This constant stitching and unstitching gives the poems a tidal feel—they repeatedly approach a kind of closure, but inevitably recede just before reaching it. From “Preambles”:
The mind in everything it joins
And suffers to redeem apart
Plays victim to its own intent.
Alvin once defined the central insight and innovation of Romanticism as “the apprehension of the activity of the mind in constituting its world and its surroundings. The poet is consciousness that the mind creates the scene that it views.”
This consciousness blesses and curses: blesses because it meshes the writing mind with the world it seeks to create, the reading of a poem with the making of it; and curses because it requires of the poet and the reader a difficult double role—to be both participant in and observer of the creative process as it takes place on the page.Alvin’s poems are like that. They exist at the extreme reaches of speech, the far outskirts of thought, where language is continually made and unmade.
Speech ends when it freshly constitutes the world in a poem. The poem, in turn, freshly constitutes consciousness of the creating mind, thus eliminating the original need for speech.
“Poetry has to run the risk of mistaking itself for reality,” as Alvin put it in one of the notebooks I found among his papers, notebooks recording his thoughts on poetry and poetics, dating from around the time in the late 1950s when he wrote most of his poems.
Elsewhere in that same notebook Alvin wrote: “The work of imagination is stripping away dead significance … this is not destruction but creation. Intelligence and imagination are always opposed to orthodoxy which is the primacy of learning. But sensitivity consists in existing at the unmade edges of language.”
In Alvin’s copy of Man and Language by Max Picard, published in 1963, he marked this passage: “A perfect poem leaves us with the feeling that there can never be another poem. This one poem seems to pervade the whole world. Then, when another poem does appear, this one has the same effect: it seems to be the only poem in the world. The presence of a poem is so powerful that it shuts out all thought of other poems.”
Alvin’s poems are like that. They exist at the extreme reaches of speech, the far outskirts of thought, where language is continually made and unmade. Their great reward and difficulty is that in reading them one participates in their making—and their unmaking, which is all that enables the discourse between word and world to continue.
Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman by Alvin Feinman is available via Princeton University Press.