Allen Grossman

Allen Grossman (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University / November 3, 2005)

Allen Grossman,a prize-winning poet who spent 15 years teaching his craft to students at the Johns Hopkins University, died June 27 at his home in Chelsea, Mass. He was 82 and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"Allen was an inimitable instructor," said Douglas Basford, assistant director of composition at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and a former student of Dr. Grossman's at Hopkins. Remembering a class he audited in poetry and poetics, Mr. Basford recalled the instructor "probing and prodding to get, as he did in his critical prose, to the core of how a poem worked [and] what its implications were for the whole of the human spirit. ... He spoke to all of us poet-scholars-in-training with respect and yet with no holds barred."

The winner of a 1989 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, known colloquially as the "genius grant," Dr. Grossman was a prolific writer whose works of poetry and prose were collected in 15 books. The New York Times, in its obituary for Dr. Grossman, described his work as "brainy and lyrical and often written in a voice that might be described as conversationally academic. ... His subjects were large ones — love, mortality, the nature of humanity, the purpose of art in general and poetry in particular — and though his work was always serious and self-consciously grand, he also mixed lofty rhetoric with antic humor or sly wit."

Although regarded by many critics and colleagues as a "poet's poet," Dr. Grossman's first love was teaching, said his daughter, Bathsheba Grossman, a sculptor living in Somerville, Mass. Her father considered teaching a sacred duty, she said.

"Passing on the meaning and understanding of poetry was the most important thing to him." Ms. Grossman said.

Dr. Grossman came to Hopkins in 1991 as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and remained at the university until retiring in 2006.

"If you were looking for someone who could be poet, critic and teacher at the same time, that was Allen," said Richard Macksey, who has taught at Hopkins for more than 50 years. "He realized that poetry, and literature in general, could be performance. And he was a performer. … He could sound like what you think Walt Whitman should have sounded like."

His students often responded in kind. On the website ratemyprofessors.com, one former student noted, "He was not only the most brilliant professor I've ever had, but also one of the most affable. Many of my fellow English majors felt the same way: We would exchange Grossman-sighting stories the way we would have talked about celebrity sightings."

Said Dr. Grossman's daughter, "He could change people's lives in an hour of talking. He was well known for his speaking style. He was a spectacular lecturer and also reader."

A native of Minneapolis, the son of a car dealer and a woman who once ran her own lending library, Dr. Grossman received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard University. In 1960, he was awarded a doctorate from Brandeis University, where he taught from 1957 to 1991. He spent 1971 as a visiting professor at the Universitat HaNegev in Beersheba, Israel.

His accolades as a poet and teacher were many. Dr. Grossman received the Golden Rose of the New England Poetry Club, three Pushcart Prizes (1975, 1987, 1990), the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 1988 Sheaffer-PEN/New England Award for Literary Distinction. He received Yale University's Bollingen Prize, one of the top honors in poetry, in 2009.

As a teacher, he received the Brandeis University Distinguished Service Award in 1982 and was named the 1987 CASE Massachusetts State Professor of the Year. In 1999, his students at Hopkins presented him with a Distinguished Faculty Award.

While teaching at Hopkins, Dr. Grossman's work was published in the 1992 and 1993 editions of "Best American Poetry." In 1992, his book, "The Ether Dome and Other Poems," was one of 25 finalists for a National Book Critics Circle award.

In Baltimore, Dr. Grossman lived on University Parkway, about a 10-minute walk from his office on the Hopkins campus. As a longtime lover of the sea and sailing, his daughter noted, one of his favorite spots in the city was the Inner Harbor, where he would ride the water taxis just for fun.

A memorial reading in Mr. Grossman's honor is being planned for Brandeis University, probably in October, Ms. Grossman said. Details, when finalized, will be posted on the website allengrossman.com.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Grossman is survived by his wife, the former Judith Spink, whom he married in 1964; and four sons, Austin Grossman of Irvine, Calif., Lev Grossman of Brooklyn, N.Y., Jonathan Grossman of Lowell, Mass., and Adam Grossman of Somerville, Mass. He is also survived by six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com