Jorie Graham Graham, Jorie (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Jorie Graham 1951-

American poet.

Graham is a prominent American poet whose verse often begins in everyday experience before ascending into the realms of myth, philosophy and religion. Her work evolves with each subsequent book and demonstrates the strong influence of John Milton, as well as the poetics of John Berryman and Emily Dickinson. Graham is a champion of the art of poetry and her influence in the world of poetry is significant. She has spent the past twenty-five years teaching poetry as well as writing it, educating new generations of poets at some of the most prestigious writing programs in the country.

Biographical Information

Graham was born in New York City on May 9, 1951, to Curtis Bill and Beverly Pepper. When Graham was three months old her mother returned to Italy, where Graham grew up speaking multiple languages. Her father was the head of Newsweek's Rome bureau, and her mother was a painter and a sculptor known for her totemic structures. Graham attended French schools and then attended the Sorbonne where, in 1968, she was expelled for participating in the student uprisings. She transferred to New York University (NYU) to study film with Haig Manoogian and Martin Scorsese. It was at NYU that Graham discovered her love of poetry and began writing her own verse. She graduated from NYU in 1973 and attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, from which she would graduate in 1978 with a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry. Graham began teaching English and held posts at several universities until 1983, when she accepted a position at the University of Iowa. That same year she married poet James Galvin, with whom she would have a daughter, Emily, in 1984. She taught at Iowa until the mid-1990s, when she was named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University (a position held previously by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney). Graham has earned some of the most prestigious awards to be bestowed upon a poet. In addition to being named as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1997, a position she held until 2003, her many honors include an Academy of American Poets prize from the University of Iowa in 1977, a Discovery/The Nation award in 1979, and the American Poetry Review Prize in 1982. Graham has also been honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets (1991), and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1996 she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994.

Major Poetic 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. Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), Graham's first book of poetry, demonstrates, as critic Robert N. Casper has observed, “an attention to craft and a seriousness reminiscent” of the early works of prominent American poets such as Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich. Indeed, from the beginning Graham showed that she was a major voice in American poetry. Poems about painters and their processes—reflecting her life-long artistic interests and influences—can be found in her many of her books. Her second volume, Erosion, appeared in 1983. Many critics were not as impressed with this work, feeling it a mere continuation of her first book. In these first two volumes, 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. 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. Region of Unlikeness (1991) and Materialism (1993), furthered her experimentation with the stanza form and continued to probe the metaphysical realm. Throughout these works she continues to develop on unusual poetic style and to explore the nature of time, event, and self in modern society. In 1996 she published The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994, a collection for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Since receiving the Pulitzer, Graham has not let up, and the intensity and importance of subsequent works has not slowed. She consistently takes her poetry into new places, and in recent works such as Swarm (1997) and Never (2002), continues to solidify her place as a major voice in American poetry.

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. Reviewers note the unusually distinct and personal style of writing Graham has developed, likening her to Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. However, not all responses to Graham's work have been favorable. Because Graham's poetry moves between myth, philosophy and religion, it has often been labeled difficult. Some critics have found her work too somber and melodramatic. Many agree that Graham sets such difficult challenges for herself, as well as the genre, that she often falls short. However, these same critics agree that when Graham is successful she is unrivaled. Reviewers note that with each new book her work evolves and pushes into new places. While her poetry pays homage to the lyric tradition, a Jorie Graham poem is ever-shifting on the page, often flirting with prose in its line length, yet remaining, at all times, poetry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts 1980

Erosion 1983

The End of Beauty 1987

Region of Unlikeness 1991

Materialism 1993

The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994 1995

The Errancy 1997

Swarm 2001

Never 2002

Overlord 2005

The Best American Poetry 1990 [editor; with David Lehman] (anthology) 1991

Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language [editor] (anthology) 1996

James Ulmer (review date spring 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ulmer, James. “Air and Earth: Recent Books by Jorie Graham and Ellen Bryant Voight.” Black Warrior Review 15, no. 2 (spring 1989): 136-43.

[In the following excerpt, Ulmer offers a favorable assessment of The End of Beauty, stressing the influences on Graham's poetry.]

Graham's The End of Beauty and Voight's The Lotus Flowers are third books by poets who are embarking on distinguished mid-careers. Their contrasting methods represent divergent strains in contemporary American poetry. Graham's speculation and self-conscious emphasis on process enacting itself on the page derives from Eliot and the post-modernism of Stevens and Ashbery,...

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Mark Jarman (review date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jarman, Mark. “The Grammar of Glamour: The Poetry of Jorie Graham.” New England Review 14, no. 4 (fall 1992): 252-61.

[In the following review, Jarman surveys the first four of Graham's books of poetry: Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, and Region of Unlikeness.]

“The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” Eve's famous excuse suggests that she has not only been tricked but charmed. To use an old Scottish word, a glamour has been thrown over her eyes, in her case, the allurement of knowledge. For Jorie Graham, the beguiling serpent is time; its succession and linearity give birth to history. Her poetry seeks to...

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Lisa Isaacson (review date spring 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Isaacson, Lisa. “Ad Interim: 2000—A Delayed Reading Lightly Attended.” Denver Quarterly 28, no. 4 (spring 1994): 136-41.

[In the following review, Isaacson discusses Materialism, commenting on Graham's incorporation of earlier material—her own, as well as others'—into the poems in this volume.]

Not mere succession of Strokes,
Sightless Narration

(Pound, from “Canto VII”)

Jorie Graham's previous collection of poems, Region of Unlikeness, projected pursuit upon a compositional scene that included the earlier The End of Beauty. In the former's heavily forwarded book, epigraphs accumulated not to...

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Anne Shifrer (essay date June 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Shifrer, Anne. “Iconoclasm in the Poetry of Jorie Graham.” Colby Quarterly 31, no. 2 (June 1995): 142-53.

[In the following essay, Shifrer explores the influence of painters—their processes as well as their paintings themselves—on Graham's poetry.]

Poems about paintings are abundant in the works of Jorie Graham, especially in her second volume, Erosion, which includes poems about Piero della Francesca's “The Madonna del Parto,” Goya's “El Destino,” Masaccio's “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve,” and Luca Signorelli's “Resurrection of the Body,” to mention but a few of her ecphrastic subjects. Indeed, Bonnie Costello, in one of the...

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Andrew Hudgins (essay date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hudgins, Andrew. “The Honest Work of the Body: Jorie Graham's Erosion.” Shenandoah 46, no. 2 (summer 1996): 48-59.

[In the following essay, Hudgins examines several poems from Graham's second book, Erosion, and considers how her work has evolved psychologically and philosophically.]

In her first five books, from Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts in 1980 to Materialism in 1993, Jorie Graham has shifted from writing poems to writing poetry. She has moved away from crafting poems as complete objects in themselves and toward creating a sensibility that unfolds across poems. The distinction isn't new. It's a critical catch phrase that Keats...

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Mark Irwin (review date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Irwin, Mark. “Kite's Body, and Beyond.” Denver Quarterly 31, no. 1 (summer 1996): 60-7.

[In the following review of The Dream of the Unified Field, Irwin traces Graham's development and investigates recurring themes in her works.]


For over twenty years Jorie Graham has been producing poems that beautifully question that movement between body and spirit. While other poets may write about desire, Ms. Graham's poems are in themselves desire, inseparable from the very breath and air of it. If her earlier poems seem more accessible to readers, it is because their content, their sheer energy has not yet broken the seams of their...

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James Longenbach (essay date winter 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Longenbach, James. “Jorie Graham's Big Hunger.” Denver Quarterly 31, no. 3 (winter 1997): 97-118.

[In the following essay, Longenbach provides an in-depth examination of Graham's first four books of poems, exploring the relationship between language and sensation in these works.]

Jorie Graham published her first book only fifteen years ago, but she has already produced a body of writing that feels like the accumulation of a lifetime. There is not a great deal of work—only four books. But like Yeats, who early in his career cautioned suspicious readers that “it is myself that I remake,” Graham has been driven to turn against her own best discoveries,...

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Justin Quinn (essay date July 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Quinn, Justin. “Jorie Graham and the Politics of Transcendence.” PN Review 24, no. 6 (July 1998): 22-5.

[In the following essay, Quinn views Graham's poetic works as following a tradition that seeks to capture moments of Emersonian transcendence, while at the same time attempting to remain involved with the political.]


Jorie Graham belongs to a poetic tradition which attempts to encompass the most ecstatic moments of spiritual transcendence without absconding from political and social contexts. Her staunchest advocate, Helen Vendler, has placed her firmly in the meditative lyric tradition that is concerned above all with matters...

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Bin Ramke (essay date fall 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ramke, Bin. “Critical Mass: Jorie Graham and James Tate.” Denver Quarterly 33, no. 3 (fall 1998): 100-07.

[In the following review, Ramke offers a comparison of Graham's and James Tate's poetry, observing that both are uniquely American yet “seem sometimes to belong to no nation, no particular place.”]

Coming to terms with contemporary poetry might imply attending to who's listening to whom, and asking to what extent “the poet” is, in a dancerly simultaneity, both audience and auditioner. We are all embedded in what we like to call “mass culture”—aswarm with vibrating molecules, with the variously-voiced desire and delirium of “the...

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Willard Spiegelman (essay date fall 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Spiegelman, Willard. “Jorie Graham's ‘New Way of Looking.’” Salmagundi no. 120 (fall 1998): 244-75.

[In the following essay, Spiegelman discusses Graham's poetics in her earlier books, specifically how she experiments with ways of viewing the world.]

“Description is an element, like air or water.”

—Wallace Stevens, “Adagia”

Wallace Stevens' laconic aphorism might serve as a point of entry into the sternly alluring, fiercely defiant sensibility of Jorie Graham, who may now be the most important poet of her generation. But exactly what kind of poet is she? By turns descriptive, lyric, speculative, and...

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Charles Molesworth (essay date fall 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Molesworth, Charles. “Jorie Graham: Living in the World.” Salmagundi, no. 120 (fall 1998): 276-83.

[In the following essay, Molesworth explores Graham's poetics and detects both lyric and philosophical strains in her works.]

What does it feel like to read a poem by Jorie Graham? What do we need to bring to her poems, and what do they promise in return? The first impression is one of excess, in terms of style and subject matter. As she deploys (and enjoys) a host of rhetorical and stylistic markers, she maneuvers language nearly to the point of mangling it. She looks steadily at the world with a desire rooted in obsessive description, an almost maniacal...

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Robert N. Casper (essay date winter 2001-2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Casper, Robert N. “About Jorie Graham.” Ploughshares 27, no. 4 (winter 2001-2002): 189-93.

[In the following essay, Casper provides a short profile of Graham through a discussion of several of her books.]

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...

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Joanna Klink (review date winter 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Klink, Joanna. “To Feel an Idea.” The Kenyon Review 24, no. 1 (winter 2002): 188-201.

[In the following review, Klink offers a detailed examination of several of the poems from Graham's 2001 book, Swarm.]

And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.

—Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”

In one of Jorie Graham's earliest poems, “The Geese,” from Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, she writes about “a...

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Thomas Gardner (essay date 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardner, Thomas. “Jorie Graham's The End of Beauty and a Fresh Look at Modernism.” Southwest Review 88, nos. 2 & 3 (2003): 335-49.

[In the following essay, Gardner focuses on three modernist poems by Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot, and the ways that Graham engages them in the poems in The End of Beauty.]

In a 1987 interview given soon after the publication of her breakthrough book The End of Beauty, Jorie Graham spoke about her interest, in that volume, in the moment when the mind realizes it's not yet able to shape, and thus is forcibly awakened to, the larger world surrounding it. Referring to her poem “Pollock and Canvas,”...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Costello, Bonnie. “Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion.” Contemporary Literature 33, no. 2 (1992): 373-95.

Examines poems from Erosion in a discussion of Graham's aesthetics.

Gardner, Thomas. “An Interview with Jorie Graham.” Denver Quarterly 26, no. 4 (spring 1992): 79-104.

Conversation with Graham following the publication of The End of Beauty.

Otten, Thomas J. “Jorie Graham's _____s.” PMLA 118, no. 2 (March 2003): 239-53.

Examines what the critic refers to as “language's absence” in several of Graham's works, the absence being her...

(The entire section is 252 words.)