Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman
Excerpted from Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman by Alvin Feinman, with an introduction by James Geary. © Princeton University Press. Introduction © James Geary. Reprinted by permission
From the introduction:
When Alvin Feinman died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages. Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, had been transcribing and editing this manuscript for several years by the time I contacted her in the summer of 2014. I studied with Alvin, who taught at Bennington from 1969 to 1994, during the mid-1980s and had always wondered if he had written more poetry than what had been published during his lifetime. Talking to Deborah, I discovered that indeed he had. The manuscript contained dozens of poetic fragments and 48 unpublished poems in various stages of completion.
Deborah and I decided to put together a complete edition of Alvin’s poetry—the text of the 1990 edition of Alvin’s only other book, Poems, plus the unpublished work we deemed in finished form. Deborah had almost finished editing the unpublished poems (we decided not to publish any of the fragments) by the time she died in the summer of 2015. Vivian Heller, a colleague and former student of Alvin’s, and I completed that work. The result is Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, published by Princeton University Press this summer with a preface by Alvin’s lifelong friend Harold Bloom and a biographical-critical introduction by me. Together with Poems, the work appearing in Corrupted into Song for the first time establishes Alvin as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, alongside Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common.
When Alvin Feinman arrived at Bennington College as a literature instructor in the fall of 1969 he was not yet 40 but, to students, already seemed immensely old. His face was lined and grave, his teeth yellowed by nicotine stains, his voice sonorous and low, with deep Old Testament overtones. Everything about him was solemn, deliberate, slow. A brooding presence at the seminar table, he 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. His teaching method came not from years of lecturing, but from a total devotion to poetry. Alvin taught as he read: painstakingly, meticulously, utterly. “His way of speaking about poetry seemed like something so basic to human experience,” says Vivian Heller ’76, who studied with Alvin from 1972 through 1976 and was his Literature and Languages Division colleague from 1988 to 1994. “It was not an intellectual exercise, but like life itself, as deep and irreducible as nature, an essential form of human expression.”
Alvin slowed things down. He wasn’t finished with a poem until every line, every word was scrutinized, every punctuation mark felt. A student review of a 1972 Romanticism class, written by Ted Mooney ’73, now a novelist and short story writer, begins, “All agree that the course continued at a snail’s pace, and that, as before, we dined occasionally on escargot for our pains. Which is to say that the substance of the course has been indefinite, insight occurring rather than accumulating; it’s hard to know where we have arrived. But the flashes along the way have been more than valuable, and the trouble to weave them together seems worth the taking.”
The pace was glacial, but after Alvin’s attention receded students found new depths and details glittering across a poem’s surface. “You owed the work your best effort, your best self,” is how Christina Rago ’75, who studied at Bennington from 1970 to 1974 and was a member of that 1972 Romanticism class, describes Alvin’s pedagogy. “The respect you give the poem is your full and complete attention and all of your critical acumen. That’s what made the classroom come alive.”
Kathy Halbreich ’71, who attended Bennington from 1967 to 1971, says simply, “Alvin taught me to read.”
Preambles was regarded on campus with a mixture of apprehension and awe. The poems are metaphysically dense and can be daunting, but the language and lyricism are ravishing. Alvin was reticent about his own work, though, and didn’t publish again until Preambles was reissued, along with a handful of additional poems, in 1990. Why the 26-year silence? Was Alvin still writing? Everyone wondered; few dared ask. Though Alvin had not a trace of pretension or hauteur, there was something forbidding about him, a quality Daniel Myerson ’73, a student in the early 1970s, experienced as “vatic irritability.”
To get near enough to ask Alvin if he was still writing was a fearsome task. The closest I ever came was during a discussion of Hart Crane that took place at one of our weekly student-advisor meetings. I worked with Alvin on my senior thesis, a collection of original poems and aphorisms plus an essay on Crane’s poetry. I said something about how tragic Crane’s suicide was because it deprived us of the great poetry he would have written had he lived. “I’m not so sure,” was Alvin’s stark reply. I understood him to mean that Crane was already spent as a poet when he took his own life, his best and only worthwhile work already behind him. I couldn’t help but think, then as now, that Alvin was also speaking of himself.