Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968
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.
Graham’s second book of poems, Erosion, is no less complex, although the swerve to body is more prominent. The poem that most clearly defines her point of view is “At Luc Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.” The poem deals with the painting by Signorelli of the Resurrection; Graham lived in Italy in her early years, and references to Renaissance painters are common. The assumption of body at the Resurrection is a perfect example of her thought. After describing the Resurrection in the painting, she focuses on the autopsy that Signorelli did on his own son in order to gain the knowledge of body so he could render it faithfully. Graham asserts that only accuracy in art can “mend” the wounded mind, as it does for Signorelli. Beauty is, as she claims, a “contained damage.”
Many of the poems in The End of Beauty are based on major myths from the Bible and Greek mythology, showing a significant change in focus for Graham. There are, for example, poems on Adam and Eve, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Apollo and Daphne. The Adam and Eve poems are especially interesting, since they focus on the moment of change. This is once again a movement from unchanging spirit to all-too-human body. It is also a movement into history or narrative in which nothing is planned or determined. This concept is especially important to Graham, with her focus on gaps and indeterminacies rather than resolutions. “Hurry and Delay” portrays the weaving and unweaving of Penelope in the Odyssey and is a perfect metaphor for Graham’s own poetic practice. Another poem describes the creative method of Jackson Pollock as working from chance to pattern; no matter how random the creation may seem, pattern and form emerge. However, Graham refuses closure and sees those patterns as less than complete; she ends the poem with an ellipsis rather than a period.
Region of Unlikeness, Graham’s fourth book of poems, shows a definite movement into the problems of history. One poem is in fact called “History”; another, called “From the New World,” deals with the Holocaust. Many of the poems in this book do not have a definite closure and include gaps within lines. In addition, Graham uses one-line stanzas that conflict or contrast with the other numbered stanzas. The structure mirrors the complexity and indeterminacy of her thought.
In Materialism, Graham’s style and structure continue to be challenging and difficult. As the title suggests, the poems focus on the material nature of humankind and the physical world. She sees humankind’s material nature to be surrounded with limitations as she contrasts it to a “bush”: Graham changes from a poet who longed for a Platonic ideal to one who limits her poetic analysis to the material.
The poems in The Errancy derive from the notion that “erring” offers an opportunity to learn from mistakes, and thus “errancy” promotes movement, change, and discovery. Swarm marked a turning away from mythological and biblical themes, although some critics felt that Graham had not yet found an adequate replacement metaphor and thus her opacity of style overwhelmed the content of the poems. In Never, concern with nature, the environment, and current warnings of global disaster preoccupy the poet. One reviewer noted the influence of A. R. Ammons in Graham’s structure, especially the use of the colon as a fulcrum dividing her lines.
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