Though born of American parents, Jorie Graham grew up in Italy. Many of her poems reflect this background, especially those about Italian Renaissance paintings and European mystics, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare of Assisi, and Saint Teresa of Ávila. She was educated at the Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy. She received a B.A. at New York University, where she studied cinema and began writing poetry. She received an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in 1978 and later became a member of the permanent faculty in the Writers’ Workshop, a program she directed for several years. In 1999, she began teaching at Harvard University as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory.
Jorie Graham is a cerebral and complex American poet whose early poems deal with such philosophical questions as the nature of reality and the divisions between mind and spirit and between spirit and body. Her later poems are no less complex but show a greater interest in myth and history. Most critics believe that Wallace Stevens has been her greatest poetic influence, although there are also many touches of Rainer Maria Rilke in her poems.
Graham’s background is unusual. She was brought up in Italy, although her parents were Americans. She attended a French school in Rome, and later the Sorbonne in Paris. She is trilingual, and in one of her early poems, she speaks of needing three different words to name a chestnut tree. She returned to the United States in 1969 to complete her university education and graduated with a B.A. from New York University in 1973. At first a film student, she was drawn to poetry when she heard M. L. Rosenthal, teaching at N.Y.U., read a T. S. Eliot poem aloud. She then received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa at its renowned Writers’ Workshop. She has taught at Murray State University in Kentucky and at California State University at Humboldt and has been a professor of English at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Harvard University. She has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a MacArthur grant and the Morton Dauwen Zabel award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Graham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1996 for her collection The Dream of the Unified Field.
Graham’s first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, was published in 1980. The title of the work is taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s definition of human beings, and a number of the poems deal with the divided human condition. For example, “The Geese” contrasts the instinctual and determined pattern of the flight of geese with the very different pattern of spiders weaving a web. Graham then contrasts both of these to humans, whom she sees as being in an uncertain state of “delay” rather than completion. Critics have noticed her desire for a Platonic ideal, a desire “to catch the world as idea,” but she turns away from the ideal to the body. Although she deals with philosophical ideas, her structures are not logical but associative and epigrammatic.