Jorie Graham Graham, Jorie (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jorie Graham 1951–

American poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Graham's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Graham is considered to be one of the most innovative and intellectual poets alive today. Her efforts to restructure lyrical poetry, intensely personal style, and focus on metaphysical questions about self-knowledge and history have garnered her considerable attention and respect from critics, readers and colleagues.

Biographical Information

Graham was born in New York City on May 9, 1951, to Curtis Bill, a scholar of religion and theology, and Beverly Stoll Pepper, a noted artist. Raised in France and Italy, Graham's constant exposure to European churches and art would later influence her poetry and play a crucial role in her collection Erosion (1983). Graham was educated in French schools, which she credits with predisposing her to abstraction, and attended the Sorbonne. She returned to the United States as an adult and received a B.A. from New York University in 1973 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1978. In 1983 she married James Galvin with whom she has a daughter, Emily. Since her graduation in 1978, Graham has held positions in English departments and writing workshops at numerous universities. Since 1983 she has been employed at the University of Iowa as a workshop instructor and professor of English. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field (1995), she has been awarded several grants, three Pushcart Prizes (1980, 1981, 1982), the American Academy of Poets Prize from the University of Iowa (1977), the American Poetry Review Prize (1982), the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as numerous other awards. In 1997 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Major Works

Graham has written seven volumes of poetry, all of which reflect her intensely personal voice and her preoccupation with metaphysical questions. Throughout her career, Graham has been interested in the seamlessness of life and the way in which its structure is distorted by efforts to impose a narrative or history upon it. She has constantly striven to understand the meaning of an event while simultaneously feeling the experience of it. In her poetry she has focused on dichotomies: being and knowing, body and mind, beauty and ugliness, eternity and history. But while her poetic voice has remained distinct and recognizable, her writing style has evolved. Her first two collections, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) and Erosion, reflected the modernist tradition of Mark Strand and Amy Clampitt. Building on the work of Wallace Stevens, Graham deftly weaves images, ideas, and emotions while making intricate associations between such activities as writing, sewing, gardening, and, particularly in Erosion, painting. However, with The End of Beauty (1987), Graham marked a distinct shift in her work. More ambitious and indeterminate than in her earlier books, Graham introduces such devices as blank spaces and algebraic variables in the place of words to question the concept of the poem as a closed unit. Using mythical and historical figures, Graham examines self-knowledge and the nature of life. In her subsequent three volumes of new verse, she has built upon these changes. In Region of Unlikeness (1991) she juxtaposes common daily experiences with historical ones to explore the meaning and importance of events; in Materialism (1993) she responds to quotes from great thinkers in Western Civilization; and in The Errancy (1997) she focuses on angels, among other images. Throughout these works she continues to develop on unusual poetic style and to explore the nature of time, event, and self in modern society.

Critical Reception

From the first publication of her poems in journals, Graham has attracted the attention and praise of critics. Her efforts to self-consciously focus on the nature and purpose of poetry and her work in reshaping lyrical poetry by moving away from narrative have earned her respect from scholars and fellow writers. As Sanford Pinsker writes, "her work has been impressive, influential; indeed, it has so changed the landscape of what contemporary poetry is, and can be…." Critics such as Mark Jarman and James Longenbach note the unusually distinct and personal style of writing Graham has developed, likening her to Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Longenbach states, "Graham has not simply forged a style; she is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a style…." However, not all responses to Graham's work have been favorable. Critics such as William Logan found Materialism disappointing and Jonathan Holden thought the work too somber and melodramatic. Many critics agree that Graham sets such difficult challenges for herself, as well as the genre, that she often falls short. Bonnie Costello criticizes Graham for using the same words too often, for replacing words with blanks, and for failing to hold the attention of her readers. However, these same critics agree that when Graham is successful she is unrivaled. As David Baker writes, "I can think of no other current American poet who has employed and exposed the actual mechanics of narrative, of form, of strategic inquiry more fully than she has—at least no other readable poet—and no other poet able to deploy so fruitfully and invitingly the diverse systems of philosophy, science, and history."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (poetry) 1980
Erosion (poetry) 1983
The End of Beauty (poetry) 1987
Region of Unlikeness (poetry) 1991
Materialism (poetry) 1993
The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994 (poetry) 1995
The Errancy (poetry) 1997

Elizabeth Frost (review date March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Countering Culture," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 6, March, 1984, pp. 11-12.

[In the following excerpt, Frost reviews Materialism and explores Graham's manipulation of Western philosophy, praising her handling of difficult ideas.]

Jorie Graham, a Euro-American, ponders … dilemmas centered on the theme of cultural inheritance. Uncomfortable with the perceived gap between language and the material world, she wonders, "Is this body the one / I know as me. How private these words?" These two books diverge in tone and intent, but they share a concern central to women's lives: wresting a female identity from the vast store of white male traditions.

In this fifth collection [Materialism], Graham is even more rigorously philosophical than in her previous books—most recently, Region of Unlikeness (1992) and The End of Beauty (1987). At stake here is the whole body of Western thought. The "materialism" of her title refers not to American middle-class values (although Marx does make an appearance in one poem), but to the physical world—to matter and life in their troubling otherness and flux, and to our attitude toward that world, including our own bodies. As in most Western philosophy, there is a marked distance in Graham's work between subjective experience and the objective world. Lines from the poem "Subjectivity," in which she explains her use of the third person to refer to herself, capture this divide: "I say she because my body is so still / in the folds of daylight." Physicality can even become a mere afterthought. An aside in a poem called "Invention of the Other" runs: "(the body! she thought, as if she had forgotten it)."

Apparently we risk losing awareness of what is most basic to our existence—the body itself—and the culprit is rational thought, represented by the philosophical tradition, here given a voice. Graham has included passages from (among others) Plato, Bacon, Dante, Wittgenstein, Whitman, Benjamin and—only slightly out of place in this procession—McGuffey (from his New Fifth Reader of 1857). It is a bold gesture, one typical of Graham's restless poetry, to include landmarks of Western thought and then, in effect, talk back to them—to challenge even as she exploits the familiar mind/ body split.

Although most of the quotations are separate from the poems, Graham does carry on a dialogue with them and the "great works" they stand in for. Excerpting can be a form of rewriting, and her selections often undermine the writer's original intentions. I was surprised to learn that the great nature-lover, Audubon, detailed the killing of "specimens" that served as excellent subjects for his sketches. One anecdote found here involves a buffalo—an ironic reminder to the contemporary reader of our destruction of this country's native inhabitants: "The head was cut off, as well as one fore and one hind foot. The head is so full of symmetry, and so beautiful, that I shall have a drawing of it to-morrow." In Graham's excerpt, Audubon's fine...

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Askold Melnyczuk (review date Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mind of the Matter: CAT Scanning a Scat Singer," in Parnassus, Vols. 12-13, Nos. 2, 1, Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter, 1985, pp. 588-601.

[In the review below, Melnyczuk compares Erosion to Graham's earlier writing and finds the poems in Erosion more urgent and arresting.]

Fishing for subjects in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Jorie Graham casts a wide net. Her catch includes trees, birds, language, paintings, self-portraits, philosophers, wildflowers, recherché facts about the habits of squid and the like. The list is various enough to suggest a genuinely restive and curious sensibility. Better still, the play of the...

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Marianne Boruch (review date March-April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The End of Beauty, in American Poetry Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March-April, 1987, p. 22.

[In the following, excerpt, Boruch praises Graham's poems for their mystical, abstract quality.]

In Recitative's interview with Donald Sheehan, Merrill makes the distinction between Eliot, whose poems put "civilization under glass," and Stevens, who "continues to persuade us of having had a private life." Jorie Graham in her astonishing third collection, The End of Beauty, manages both. Like many of Dunn's poems, these are loose meditations, flung onto the page, staged accidents. Yet they are often enactments—frightening and ceremonial as...

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Helen Vendler (review date 21 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mapping the Air," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 50-6.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler argues that Graham expands on her earlier work, pushing forward her style of lyrical poetry.]

Like [Adrienne] Rich, Jorie Graham, a younger poet now teaching at the University of Iowa, uses vignettes and anecdotes, but to raise metaphysical, more than ethical, questions. Graham's grand metaphysical theme is the tension between existence and death. These are its ultimate terms; but the tension is also expressed as that between other polarities, such as continuity and closure, indeterminacy and outline, being and temporality, or...

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Bonnie Costello (review date 27 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Big Hunger," in The New Republic, January 27, 1992, pp. 36-9.

[In the review below, Costello argues that while Graham's style has changed in her first four books, her philosophical quest remains the same.]

"Poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values," Jorie Graham argued in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990. It competes with the comforts of "story," which sprays "forward over the unsaid until it [is] all plot," and it competes with the power of images, our culture's "distrust of speech and of what is perceived as the terminal 'slowness' of speech in relation to the speedier image as a medium of sales." Poetry has...

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Bonnie Costello (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 373-95.

[In the following essay, Costello considers the visual images at the center of the poetry in Erosion.]

Jorie Graham emerged in the 1980s as a major poet, distinguished for her philosophical depth, her sensuous vision, the grandeur of her style and themes. In a decade of poetry stigmatized for its shrunken ambition, or sidetracked by politics and ideology, she celebrated the spiritual and metaphysical reach of art. In her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), Graham limited her meditation primarily to tentative reflections based on natural...

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Helen Vendler (review date 11 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ascent into Limbo," in The New Republic, July 11, 1994, pp. 27-30.

[In the following review of Materialism, Vendler discusses Graham's rhythm structure and the connection between structure and subject in these poems.]

Jorie Graham, brought up in Italy by American parents and educated in French schools, has published five books of verse, beginning with Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts(1980) and continuing with Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991) and her newest book, Materialism. The poetry has always been strikingly ambitious in subject matter, genre-exploration and metrical invention....

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Peter Sacks (review date 5 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What's Happening?," in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, p. 16.

[In the following review of The Dream of the Unified Field, Sacks praises Graham as a writer who is pushing poetry in new directions.]

"Man has already begun to overwhelm the entire earth and its atmosphere, to arrogate to himself in forms of energy the concealed powers of nature, and to submit future history to the planning and ordering of a world government. This same defiant man is utterly at a loss simply to say what is; to say what this is—that a thing is." By the time Heidegger wrote those words, soon after the first use of nuclear weapons, he had turned his attention...

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Jonathan Holden (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Materialism, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 71, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 170-72.

[In the excerpt below, Holden praises Graham's use of intellectualism and tone in Materialism.]

Jorie Graham, in Materialism, runs the same risks as [Patricia] Goedicke—higher risks because her poetry is pronounced from an Olympian height. Graham is the Henry James of our poets, dramatizing time and again how language and ultra-sophisticated European civilization both tantalize and obscure what Stevens refers to in the final line of "The Man On the Dump" as "the truth: The the." Paradigmatic of a Graham poem would be, from the earlier book Erosion, "Two...

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James Longenbach (review date 21 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Identity, Vision, Style," in The Nation, Vol. 265, No. 3, June 21, 1997, pp. 40-2.

[In the review below, Longenbach praises Graham's writing in The Errancy as mature and argues that it is her best work to date.]

Jorie Graham stands among a small group of poets (Dickinson, Hopkins, Moore) whose styles are so personal that the poems seem to have no author at all: They exist as self-made things. Each of her books has interrogated the one preceding it, and The Errancy feels like a culmination. It is her most challenging, most rewarding book. Graham has not simply forged a style; she is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bedient, Calvin. "Postlyrically Yours." The Threepenny Review XV, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 18-20.

Compares Graham's poetry to that of Jane Miller and Carolyn Forché.

D'Evelyn, Thomas. "Two Contemporary Poets." The Christian Science Monitor (12 August 1987): 17.

Compares the theoretical abstract poetry of Graham's The End of Beauty with the traditional, concrete poetry of Elizabeth Jennings.

Isaacson, Lisa. "Ad Interim: 2000—A Delayed Reading Lightly Attended." Denver Quarterly 28, No. 4 (Spring 1994): 136-41....

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