Jorie Graham 1951–
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.
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.
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.
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."