Jorie Graham 1951-
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.
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.
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.