Feodor Dostoevsky stands in the snow before a firing squad at Semyonov Square, ready to die. John Allman is there.
J. Robert Oppenheimer stands in the New Mexican desert, ready to shield his eyes from the world’s first atomic blast. John Allman is there.
George Sand stands torn between her lover and her husband, ready to choose. John Allman is there.
Poets are cosmic bureaucrats; they can grant themselves waivers from the rules of time and space. In “Clio’s Children,” a book just released by New Directions, Allman explores man’s relationship to the modern state in poems written as though the poet had crept up beside great historical figures at crucial moments in their lives.
The transformation of pillars of history into columns of verse came about because Allman, 50, a New York college professor, grew weary of reading and writing “I” poems.
“I was looking for a grandeur and largeness in human action that I could not generate in my own life,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Katonah, N.Y. “The poems for me were an act of homage to people of real talent. Many of the poems are a search for what human greatness is.”
Before he could conduct the search for human greatness, however, Allman needed to search for great humans.
He spent six years on the book--most of it reading biographies and history books. A year after writing the first poem in the collection, “Dostoevsky at Semyonov Square, 1849" he decided to deal only with figures that represented the modern world, a period, he believes, that ended with the first atomic blast.
The research was, for a poet, alien territory--a lot different than drawing inspiration from the flight of bumblebees or the plight of lovers.
“I had never written like this before,” he grumbled, “all this planning in advance.”
The poems have few precedents. According to David Wagoner, editor of Poetry Northwest, one of the nation’s oldest and most widely read poetry magazines, Allman has written “a new kind of poem.”
Said Wagoner: “I don’t know of any other poems that enter the semiprivate lives of historical figures and, therefore, have to be imagined. It’s common in plays and novels, but it’s seldom done in poetry.”
However, he added, “I don’t think that contemporary poetry needs to move massively in this direction. It’s a special niche he’s exploring.”
Allman, who was more interested in moving readers than starting a movement, said that he did not want a quota system for the book--two women, two homosexuals, two blacks, two Jews--but kind of ended up with one anyway. He needed a woman, he used George Sand. He needed a homosexual, he used Marcel Proust. Those two served other purposes, as well: Sand represents Romanticism, Proust represents the end of the fin de siecle way of life and offered a chance to mention World War I.
He ended up with 23 characters; it would have been 25, but he found Lenin “much too detestable” and could not find much to like about H. G. Wells. He began with Dostoevsky, knocking off the lead poem in six weeks. But he gradually began to branch away from focusing on the relationship of the individual to the state. In poems about Polar explorer Roald Amundsen and the Wright Brothers, he said, “I began to write about men of action . . . people who had done remarkable things.”
A poem about Frederick Douglass allowed Allman to cover slavery and emancipation, one about Emma Goldman offers a look at Red baiting and totalitarianism, one about Antonin Artaud concerns madness. The rest of the subjects are Crazy Horse, William Morris, Anna O (a Swiss feminist and patient of Freud), D. W. Griffith, Madame Curie, Michael Collins (an Irish Republican), Marcus Garvey, Mohandas Gandhi, Kaethe Kollwitz, Mao Tse-tung, Bruno Bettelheim, Eugene O’Neill and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Reading six or seven books before sitting down to write each poem, he said he was on the lookout for epiphanies.
“I was looking for the moment that would best represent that something important in the person’s life and something important in history,” he said. In his poem on Bettelheim, Allman’s poem concerns the time the German psychiatrist spent at Dachau in 1938. The first verse:
Run. Run. Inside the Jourhaus, they erase your name. The nearest face blurs into a voice, shrieking you cannot replace your broken glasses here. You can’t see the sleeve of the new man you are. In the distance of rattling cattle cars, a sudden engine takes away your breath, grizzled men sneer. A tyro, your number is too high. They tell you about the old days, when the smart ones died. Ten miles from Munich? Earth’s end seemed further toward darkness, the edge of a Polar sea, beyond habitation. Your head aches. You’re bleeding from your side. If you faint, they will carry you off, into the space between trees, their final empire.”
The Bettelheim poem took six months to perfect, he said, and is more like a short story or a novella than a poem.
“The file I have on the Dostoevsky poem is a couple of hundred pages,” he said. “You generate a lot of paper before you get everything reduced, distilled. . . . With the long poems, I had to have patience. These weren’t lyrics you could just dash off and send out. It seemed to be a special gestation process.”
The lesson on patience came late. At first, he wasn’t sure he could last. “After about three years I began to wonder about the wisdom of what I was doing. . . . But there are always three people in the poet’s world: The writer, the writer’s friend (for Allman, the supportive friend was fellow poet and Rockland Prof. Dan Masterson) and the audience. I was the torment of my wife and daughter, because the house was filled with biographies. My mind was filled with random information that spilled out over the dinner table.”
The book was rejected by nine publishing houses--including Princeton University Press, which had published his previous book of poems, “Walking Four Ways in the Wind.”
The Dominant I
“They were looking for lyric poetry, narcissistic poetry,” Allman complained. “All the (writers’) workshops of this country are dominated by the letter I . ‘ I did this, and I did that. Only the smallness of experience.’ ”
Publishers were also afraid the poems required too much background of readers. New Directions suggested that Allman furnish brief notes at the back of the book to provide some perspective. But Allman believes that the poems can be enjoyed and understood without notes, in contrast to the masterpieces of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
“That smirking kind of erudition that would be proof of the author’s smarts--I don’t have any patience with that kind of thing,” Allman said. “When you read a Pound or Eliot, you have to duplicate their reading experience, but I hope that (“Clio’s Children”) isn’t that thick. . . . My plan was always that the poems would be accessible on the second or third reading, that they are dramatically accessible and tell you what you need to know about the conflict.”
Allman’s own life would make a fair post-modern poetic epic. He grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. His father was a truck driver, his mother an elevator operator. The couple had grade-school educations, and Allman almost repeated their experience. He dropped out of high school.
Interested in science, he worked as a lab technician for Pepsi. Thinking he’d like to become a chemist, he obtained his high school diploma in night school, then studied biology at Brooklyn College at night.
“I was very confused,” he said, “because at the same time I was reading D. H. Lawrence and Freud, and they seemed a lot more interesting than chemistry.”
Moved to Los Angeles
He moved to Los Angeles and worked as a technician in an engineering firm until he realized that he belonged in the humanities.
“The other guys in my office would leave work at night and watch TV. I’d go home and read Goethe and Dostoevsky,” he said.
He went home to New York, graduated with a BA in English literature from Hunter College in the Bronx, then went to Syracuse University for a master’s degree in creative writing while his wife studied for a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies.
The survivor of Hell’s Kitchen and Pepsi’s kitchen has, since 1971, settled into a tenured position teaching English and creative writing at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y. His wife is dean of undergraduate studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. A daughter, Jennifer, 22, sells jewels for Harry Winston Co. in the city.
To concentrate on his own gems, Allman says he is going to quit teaching creative writing and concentrate on poetry. He is disillusioned with the teaching process.
“I’m tired of telling people how to write,” he said. “I think they would be better off on their own.
“There is a creative writing industry that gives employment to writers, it produces lots of people who are competent writers and poets, so it’s better to have more artists than fewer.
“But I worry that it’s getting a little too professionalized, that someone looks for the right friends, the right publishers, the right degree. I worry about the groupiness and the uniformity of it. I’ve had it. I want to feel fresh when I come home. It was making me stale.”
The book “Clio’s Children” was anything but uniform and gave the author a bonus that sales figures won’t show.
“The virtue of doing this book was that I got an education in history that I always wanted,” he said.