Jean Garrigue came to prominence at the end of what some consider to be America’s last great literary era. Born just before World War I, her first book appeared in 1944, and she wrote and published steadily and strongly during the 1950’s and 1960’s, when American literary culture, as evidenced by the relative health of literary journals, was not yet in full decline. Befriended and enthused over by such luminaries as Marianne Moore and Delmore Schwartz, Garrigue only slowly gained the confidence to match her perfectionist aspirations. The selection of her poetry (she was also a fiction writer and critic) presented in this volume traces Garrigue’s path from fastidious formalist to relaxed virtuoso, sometimes a bit long-winded but often capable of passages and poems of sustained brilliance. At her death (from Hodgkin’s disease), she left behind an abundant and unusual poetic record of her keenly introspective and wildly romantic self. Twenty years later, this new collection gives her remarkable accomplishment a new, living shape for a new generation of readers.
Throughout, Garrigue’s art is ornamented and allusive. She does not fit in with any notion of modern plain style. Not a conventional prosodist, her lines tend to be measured; not a builder of chiming stanzas, she nevertheless adroitly uses local rhymes as an occasional device for emphasis. Her earlier work relies on a four-beat (tetrameter) line and is characterized by a sense of high polishing rather than spontaneity. Obsessively pressing for the transformation of images and events into feeling, Garrigue’s fine intelligence fights to overcome itself and is often successful. When she fails, in the earlier poems, it is because her craft subdues rather than releases the inspiring passion. Sometimes, Garrigue seems to have too much intelligence, too much knowledge about poetry, traits that served her well in her short book about Marianne Moore published in 1965.
Garrigue’s ambition is enormous, and in her initial collections many poems seem to suffer from a paralytic fussy artifice fed (or choked) by that ambition. Had she attempted less, one believes, she could have more readily succeeded. As Michel Eyquen de Montaigne knew, however, ambition is not a vice of little people.
Garrigue’s poems, scenic and lyrical, have metaphysical yearnings. She often reads like a secular, modern John Donne. Reared under the spell of T. S. Eliot, as were other major moderns of her generation, Garrigue fashions a poetry of semantic density, allusiveness, and intellectual richness that owes much to the aesthetic that Eliot created. The influence of Wallace Stevens is notable as well. Reading the Selected Poems, one finds Garrigue trying to find a distinctive voice within the new haute literature of Eliot-Stevens modernism. She succeeds.
In her poetic maturity, Garrigue’s work becomes more personal and dramatic in subject and mode: incantatory, crisp, profound in attitude and irony. The influence of Dylan Thomas is overlaid on that of Eliot and then fought through to an even more assured ringing of Garrigue’s own voice. In some poems, unmarked sentence endings create run-on structures that are held in check by a more varied yet emphatic verbal music. More and more, Garrigue succeeds in finding ways to release passion. Her lines become both longer and more varied. In one volume, Chartres and Prose Poems (1970), she extends her risk-taking by experimenting with the hybrid form.
Her later work exhibits a much greater sense of spontaneity and improvisation. It also communicates greater humor and ease. This development is not always advantageous, as many of these poems lose the edgy power of Garrigue’s struggle with form, a struggle kept in proper proportion to other forces in the middle period of her career.
Although Garrigue was a lyrical poet, she was not a miniaturist. Her songs are elaborated and sometimes overstuffed, and much of her work is not immediately accessible. Garrigue is a demanding poet, a maker of difficult thought often wrung through difficult syntax. Indeed, few poets benefit more than Garrigue (though Emily Dickinson comes to mind here) from having their poems voiced by the reader in search of the affective conjunctions of cadence and syntax. The patient reader invariably is rewarded.
Many of Garrigue’s most intriguing poems grow out of travel meditations. Places and vistas inspired her, and she can discover, in the high modern fashion, correlatives of emotional states in newly beheld images of sculpture, architecture, gardens, and landscapes....
(The entire section is 1872 words.)