Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Poet Alvin Feinman

I count myself among the many who, until recently, had never heard of the poet Alvin Feinman (1929-2008). Thanks to Princeton University Press, which this past July published Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, my gap in knowledge is being filled.

Cover Art

Feinman, whose work is described by literary critic and friend Harold Bloom as "as good as anything by a twentieth-century American", was born in Brooklyn, New York, and taught at Bennington College in Vermont. He published just two books: Preambles and Other Poems (Oxford Press, 1964) and Poems (Princeton, 1990; reissue, 2014). The Poems include the former collection as well as additional poems. Feinman was not prolific (note the 26 years between the two books). Nor did he publish in literary periodicals.

Feinman's wife, the late Deborah Dorfman (1934-2015), who taught at Temple University, Wesleyan University, and the State University of New York at Albany, edited Corrupted Into Song, which is available as a hardcover, paperback, and eBook. (View Table of Contents.)

Princeton describes the new collection as the "definitive edition of Feinman's complete work"; included in Corrupted Into Song are 57 of Feinman's published poems and 39 unpublished poems that were found among Feinman's manuscripts.

Bloom, currently Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University, contributes a foreword to the collection that examines Feinman's influences (these include T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens) and regards Feinman's poetic achievements in relation to those of poets John Ashbery, James Merrill, John Hollander, and A.R. Ammons. James Geary, deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard University, and a writer, provides in the introduction both biographical information and brief critical assessment. 

Some of my first impressions on reading a selection of Feinman's works: The poems are compact with detail, their meaning not always readily or easily discernible. Frequently, they are multi-parted; use of enjambment propels the reader onward, one stanza to another, with no end-stop until the concluding line. The lyricism and often-sensual imagery draw deeply on the physical and natural worlds and keep one reading, simply for the beauty of the language: "[. . .] if I closed my eyes I'd hear / Again what held me awake all night / Beside her breathing: a rain falling [. . . .]" (from "November Sunday Morning"), and "[. . .] the hawk / Resumes his yielding balance, his shadow / Swims the field, the sands beyond, / The narrow edges fed out to light, / To the sea's eternal licking monochrome." (from "Pilgrim Heights").

If you pick up a copy of Corrupted Into Song, read it aloud, read it for its music, appreciate it for what Reginald Shepherd says such poetry "can do"*, and not just for what it says. (*See Shepherd's "Criteria" in Boston Review.)

Read a sample poem from Corrupted Into Song. Look inside the collection at GooglePlay.

Listen to Harold Bloom read from Feinman's "November Sunday Morning", one of the poet's most often cited poems, and "Relic" at the Princeton University Press blog


Alvin Feinman Obituary

Reginald Shepherd, "In Memoriam Alvin Feinman, 1929-2008", Poetry Foundation (This essay also appears at Shepherd's blog.)

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at Alvin Feinman" in Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors, Edited by Jeffrey Skinner and Lee Martin (Available on Kindle at Amazon)

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