In an era of lyric poetry in minor modes and moods, Jorie Graham’s work is strikingly grand in scope. Her imagination is both galactic and intensely particular, at times more reminiscent of Dante than of her contemporaries. She is also an extremely self-demanding poet, one who attempts to think where thought cannot seem to go, and to feel what seems too painful to feel. The poem, Graham has said, should be an act in the present tense, which holds genuine risks (instead of risks invented for the sake of the poem) and thus holds the possibility of personal transformation.
After an apprentice volume in lyric moods and miniatures (poems, for example, about her mother’s sewing box and her own pencil sketches of wildflowers) and after the superb volume Erosion, Graham began to write what she calls “books”—breathless, ferociously intelligent cascades of language—rather than individual poems. The sections of these volumes do have titles but are recursively structured so that they avoid self-containment. The End of Beauty and Region of Unlikeness flow like vigorous and troubled rivers of incalculable force. Their architecture as volumes, their substance, and their streaming prosody make these two volumes innovations of a high order.
Graham’s creativity has secured her a MacArthur Fellowship, recognition from the Academy of American Poets, the Bernard F Conners Prize for Poetry (1989), the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1992), the O. B. Hardison, Jr., Poetry Prize (1996), and several Pushcart Prizes for individual poems. The Dream of the Unified Field was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1996). Graham served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003. She was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 and to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009.
Blazer, Alex E. I Am Otherwise: The Romance Between Poetry and Theory After the Death of the Subject. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 2007. Daley writes about poetry and theory in the works of Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Barrett Watten, and Graham. In the section on Graham, he describes what he terms “hollows and voids” in her poetry.
Gardner, Thomas. A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. In this work on the legacy of Dickinson, Gardner provides an interview with Graham, one of the four contemporary writers he finds most influenced by Dickinson. He also analyzes Graham’s Swarm.
_______, ed. Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Thirteen essays on Graham have been gathered in this volume, which covers eight of her poetry collections. Looks at how the poet is being viewed at the present time and speculates on her future legacy.
Graham, Jorie. Interview by Ann Snodgrass. Quarterly West, no. 23 (1986): 151-164. An intense and highly illuminating interview in which Graham talks about many aspects of her poetry, from her poems about paintings to her aesthetic forebears to her ideas about the genders and their role in her self-portraits.
(The entire section is 416 words.)