Issue 86 |
Winter 2001-02

About Jorie Graham: A Profile

Jorie Graham is the kind of poet whose life is nothing less than cinematic. She was born in Rome in 1950 and grew up there. Her father, Bill Pepper, was the head of the
Newsweek Rome bureau; her mother, Beverly, is a sculptor famous for her totemic structures. As a child, Jorie hid inside old churches; she helped out on Antonioni films as a teenager. She went to French schools, and to the Sorbonne, but was expelled for taking part in student protests. So she transferred to New York University, where she studied film with Haig Manoogian and Martin Scorsese.

It is there that Graham's attentions turned, literally, to poetry. Passing a class taught by M. L. Rosenthal, she heard a snippet of a T. S. Eliot poem: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me." She went into the classroom, amazed at the way the sound of poetry in English sang to her. And, in the manner of one whose life is marked by such defining moments, Jorie Graham became not only a lover of poetry, but also a poet herself.

Now fast-forward thirty years. In that time, Graham has written nine books of poetry. She has also won almost every fellowship and award an American poet can win, from a 1979 Discovery/
The Nation award to a MacArthur "genius" grant and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, for
The Dream of the Unified Field. She was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1997, and just last year left the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she had been on the permanent faculty since the early eighties, to be Harvard University's latest Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (a position held previously by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney). At Harvard she joined Helen Vendler, the famed scholar who discovered Graham's early poems in
The American Poetry Review and has been at the fore of the many critics championing Graham ever since.

If her life has been cinematic, Graham's poems have shown a masterly patience and discipline. One can clearly see an arc to her oeuvre. Each new book seems to implode, and expand upon, the form of the previous. There are commonalities in the poems, though, like the narrator's need to be both enraptured by and constantly describing the world, which is most often natural but can move fluidly to the social. There is also a continued dialogue between lofty paradigms of myth, philosophy, or religion, and commonplace images and experiences. The voice of the poems contains the charge of the ecstatic and the restraint of the ruminative -- and this has held constant, despite Graham's turn to a more open and complex style.

Her first book, 1982's
Hybrid of Plants and of Ghosts, shows an attention to craft and a seriousness reminiscent of early Robert Lowell or Adrienne Rich. The poems are crystalline in their concision. Her obsession with describing being via the abstract and the pragmatic comes into play, too, from the book's title (taken from Nietzsche) to the much -- discussed poem "I Was Taught Three" -- "names for the tree facing my window / almost within reach." Graham's trilingual upbringing, her hybrid sensibility -- Vendler has aptly noted that Graham is a European poet transplanted to America -- perfectly prepared her to speak, through her poems, in a manner that is both lush and hauntingly other.

Like Lowell and Rich, Graham has elaborated and complicated the formal constraints of her poems in ensuing books. Critics have described these poems as "difficult"; in response, Graham asserts that they are imagistically clear but that the form of the poems -- the throughway, if you will -- invites the reader to perceive -- or even "read" -- in a new way. Graham often jokes about being unable to think without holding a pen, and indeed she is famous for her repeated drafts; in later poems one can see how such drafting pushes at the limits of composition rather than seeking to contain it. Her poem "The Scanning" speaks of how such work leads to the newness of the sensual: "The brain extended its sugared fingertips. / Itching to create something new. / Slightly, profoundly, the riverbottom gleaned." It is the work of a mind committed to seeing as fully as possible, and of a poet fully committed to the process of finding.

Graham's poems often follow their thoughts to unexpected places. "Salmon," from
Erosion, begins with "I watched them once, at dusk, on television, run." Through a series of shifts, the adult narrator watching television transforms into a child watching lovers from the other side of a shuttered window. This final scene allows for a truly cathartic reckoning:

What is the light

At the end of the day, deep, reddish-gold, bathing the walls,

The corridors, light that is no longer light, no longer clarifies,

Illuminates, antique, freed from the body of

The air that carries it. What is it

For the space of time

Where it is useless, merely

Beautiful? When they were done, they made a distance . . .

Such a gesture is reminiscent of the "sliding / beneath a big black wave" in Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" -- the moment when observation turns metaphysical. However, Graham's poem further questions the girding, both physical and philosophical, of the psyche, and the disjunctive logic of "Salmon" seems more a natural process than the heightened questioning of Bishop's poem.

Graham goes much further with a formal complexity that seems to embrace disjunction as well as a structure relative to itself. When one considers the body of her work, it is a grand experiment of form she continually makes good on. To wit, in
The End of Beauty, the poem "Self Portrait as a Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]," with its numbered bits of narrative from the Christian myth, creates not so much a sequence but a perceiving of time -- a catastrophic event in the process of happening. "The Phase After History," from the book
Region of Unlikeness, accomplishes the same thing while moving from the "two juncos trapped in the house" to a suicidal student who tried to cut his face off to the narrator's
thinking, which in itself becomes a scene. This kind of lyric splicing is incredibly difficult to pull off, and Graham does so through tone -- a tone at once desperate and intimate.

In her latest book,
Swarm, this disjunction becomes a formal spacing -- a literal openness on the page, a figurative appeal to silence, as in "Underneath (Upland)": "Oh my stringed thing, throat, / when was it I first took this pencil and wrote out / this emptiness you hold now to your ear. / Listen: the other place is in it still." Even with her syntax stripped bare, Graham manages to create fully formed, resonant poems -- poems whose imagery still seems at once visible and metaphysical. One can only wait with anticipation for her next collection of poems, many of which she has written at her home on Martha's Vineyard.

This body of work would be enough to explain Graham's stature, but it would not fully explain her importance. For that, one must also examine how she serves poetry. She not only edited the 1990 edition of
The Best American Poetry series, but her own anthology,
Earth Took from Earth, a compilation of one hundred poems in the English language. She served as the poetry editor of
Crazyhorse for four years and, since 1990, the
Colorado Review; in addition, she has been a contributing editor at
Boston Review, Conjunctions, and
Denver Quarterly. She has judged many book contests, including the National Poetry Series and the Walt Whitman Award. Finally, she founded -- and for a long time ran -- the DIA Center reading series in New York City. Anyone who has heard her give introductions -- often mini-essays -- to other poets' work has witnessed her capacious, accurate, and learned passion for poetries of widely differing intents.

Graham's new title at Harvard fits: her gift for rhetoric and oratory is unrivaled among America's poets, as proven by her brilliant lectures and readings at colleges, universities, literary centers, and conferences across the country. She is the kind of speaker one can imagine getting everyone and anyone -- from farmers to heads of state -- to love poetry, and the kind of teacher who would prove invaluable to both beginning students and experienced talents. At Iowa, Graham became the guiding force of the poetry program. Now, at Harvard, a generation of young writers is being wowed by her pedagogy. She is known to spend an hour in workshop on a single poem -- trying to get at, and work with, its underlying impulse. She moves deftly from poetics to prosody in her critiques, and with a focus that makes her reading all the more powerful. One-on-one, she bedazzles her students with insights and revisions -- and she's helped turn many an M.F.A. thesis into a prize-winning first book.

Above all, Graham is democratic: she loves to quote Pound's maxim that good poems need to be written, and it doesn't matter one damn bit who writes them. She has spoken, publicly and repeatedly, of the need for American poetry to neither entrench itself in various camps nor allow critics to do so at the poet's expense. The journals and books she's edited showcase her love for aesthetic diversity: for instance, her
Best American Poetry runs the gamut from Amy Clampitt to Nathaniel Mackey, and
Earth Took of Earth contains such varied poets as Anthony Hecht, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage, as well as a Navaho Indian chant. She can talk of Tu Fu, Emily Dickinson, James Tate, and Lyn Heijinian in the same breath -- and with equal amounts of brilliance. What she does demand of all poems -- even the ones that practice in heady parataxis and polyphony -- is clarity, ambition, and heart.

Graham champions poetry as the saving grace of the republic, and she demands that it be taken that seriously. For example, she speaks of such difficult topics as abortion and the Holocaust in her poems, understanding full well that their difficulty lies in how they push the limits of expression. Yet, she celebrates poetry -- as a teacher, editor, and speaker -- with a passion that is equally earnest in its exuberance. She sees this as a matter of vocation: to not only write essential poems, but serve as an ambassador for multiple American poetries as well.

Robert N. Casper is the publisher of jubilat
and the cofounder of the jubilat
reading series. He lives in Brooklyn and works at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.