Remembering James Longenbach: Jennifer Grotz

In honor of poet James Longenbach, who died on July 29, the Friends of Writers Forum will post remembrances by his close colleagues in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Jennifer Grotz was also his colleague at the University of Rochester.

I met James Longenbach in 1995 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where he had come to deliver a lecture and where I was attending a workshop as a fledgling poet. I distinctly remember being struck by the profound clarity and elegance of his mind. He was speaking in that instance on the poetry of Jorie Graham, a lecture that would later become a chapter in his Modern Poetry After Modernism, but his thinking on many poets, from Ezra Pound to C. D. Wright, as well as on most any and every formal aspect of poetry, consistently astonished. Reading Jim’s critical work as well as his own highly accomplished poems never fails to revivify and deepen my own relationship to poetry.

What is it about his mind that was so luminous? I find myself wanting to say that his thinking had fingers, by which I mean it was nimble, yes, that it had a patient, gentle way of untwisting knotted or muddied questions about literature and language. Also a way of brushing away the unnecessary or inessential. “Mystery,” Jim would say, “depends on clarity and is the opposite of confusion.” Also in those fingers was a signature sleight of hand–an extraordinary sense of sprezzatura in the presentation that kept the mystery and power of language intact. One found oneself reading Jim’s prose not only for its content, but for its style, its quality of sound. “Prose,” he once wrote, “is the sound of language organized in sentences.” Poetry, on the other hand, “is the sound of language organized into lines.” Jim wrote marvelous sentences as well as lines.

Which brings one to his poetry, including his most recent book, Forever. As its name suggests, a great deal of the late poetry wrestles in unforgettable ways with time and tense (in language) and finitude (in life itself). So often Jim is using the poem as a space where time–like our human consciousness, simultaneously inhabiting the present as well as memory–collapses into a constant lyric present. Take as a small example the beginning of a poem simply titled “Thursday”:

Because the most difficult part about making something, also the best,
Is existing in the middle,
Sustaining an act of radical imagination,
I simmered a broth: onion, lemon, a big handful of mint.

Here, as in many of Jim’s finest poems, the literal and figurative collude so that the making of a risotto–“each grain of rice,” the poem goes on, “releasing its tiny explosion of starch,” is convincingly equivalent to “sustaining an act of radical imagination.” Though Jim’s poems so often revel in the details of the quotidian, they likewise traffic in the strange, sometimes bordering on the absurd or surreal (and reminiscent of another Rochester poet he admired and wrote on, John Ashbery). ” If only once, if ever you have the chance, / You should climb a volcano” begins a love poem called “112th Street.” It continues:

Will you make it to the summit—
The flying slag, the potholes
Red as an open wound?
Of course you will, it’s easy; everybody does.

There was no better person to correspond with about poems–or anything, really. His emails were wickedly funny, newsy, playful, sometimes gossipy. Jim was a voracious reader and loved to exchange poems-in-progress. One of the most gratifying parts of having him as an interlocutor was both the speed and alacrity with which he’d respond to a draft of a poem–or the draft of an entire book!–usually within a couple of hours, always within a day. He did this not only with me but with many other poets and writers. His comments were generous, descriptive, precise. His editing suggestions were always in service of making the poem sound more like you–or like itself–than sound like him. In such moments, one always recognized the light touch he had that he also brought to bear in the classroom and in the workshop setting. Not only was he one of the most legendary workshop leaders in American letters, he had made himself so without ever having been a student in a workshop himself.

Being his friend and colleague has been one of the most significant privileges of my life. He has left an extraordinary body of work that rewards close and repeated reading. I will be reading and teaching his work–poems and prose–for the rest of my life.

–Jennifer Grotz