Printer-friendly version

Publication Type:

Magazine Article


Dan Chiasson


The New Yorker, Condé Nast, New York, New York (2015)


Full Text:

March 30, 2015 Issue
Beautiful Lies
The poetry of Jorie Graham.
By Dan Chiasson

There are at least two “new worlds” suggested by the title of Jorie Graham’s “From the New World: Poems 1976-2014” (Ecco): one is hers, one is ours, and they measure each other. Between the covers is Graham’s “new world,” the one we find in her poems, charted for forty years and in eleven volumes. Meanwhile, the world outside—our world—has, from Graham’s point of view, become “new,” often in frightening ways. Graham’s poems make use of all the old lyric technologies, as ancient as the breath and the beating of the heart—rhythm, the managed intervals of line and stanza, the play of language against silence, and the transformations enacted by metaphor—enlisting them to measure a world of spawning complexity and change. But because she finds herself gauged by the world she gauges, a poetry that would seem almost too fine-grained for politics has become, in the past twenty years or so, a sui-generis account of global ills like species extinction and climate change—the “Sea Change,” horribly literalized by the rising oceans, that Graham, borrowing from “The Tempest,” identified in the title of her 2008 book.

Graham started as a poet of brilliantly dissected subjectivity, more attuned to the flaws and the anomalies in her point of view than in anything she witnessed. But something dramatic happens in the course of “From the New World,” as her meticulous frame-by-frame inspection of reality begins to yield evidence of, among other things, ecological peril. Graham has become a twenty-first-century nature poet the old-fashioned way, by counting cherry blossoms and returning birds. Lyric poetry, with its traditional itemizing of the natural world, flower by flower, cloud by cloud, has, in her work, become a forum for ecological consciousness.

Graham is a wizard at representing spatial environments, no easy task in a verbal art that largely avoids narrative. When a crow shows up in “Double Helix,” a new poem, it “makes the wall’s temporariness / suddenly exist.” The illusion of depth and dimensionality is achieved here by a version of what Keats, in his marginalia to “Paradise Lost,” called, admiringly, Milton’s “stationing.” The crow is seen against the wall, or, in a moving passage from a recent poem, “Cagnes sur Mer 1950,” Graham’s mother’s presence is projected against a screen of other memories:

    I am the only one who ever lived who remembers
    my mother’s voice in the particular shadow
    cast by the sky-filled Roman archway
    which darkens the stones on the down-sloping street
    up which she has now come again suddenly.

In a poem, the representation of space depends to an unusual degree on the management of actual space on the page. The poems in “From the New World” are exceptionally responsive to their placement on the page. Though Graham reads the work aloud beautifully, I think of her as a poet best appreciated through silent reading of the printed word. Graham’s free-verse poems draw and redraw their borders in space, adjusting as new sensation enters from the fringe. Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider” comes to mind: “It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself” onto the blank page, a “vacant vast surrounding.” In Graham, an industrious “scirocco,” “working / the invisible,” gives it form; a poet is a creature who thatches her lines across emptiness, driven to “go over and over / what it already knows.”

Graham, who is sixty-four, is the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. She was raised by American parents in Rome, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, film at N.Y.U., and writing at Iowa, where she received an M.F.A. in poetry. She has won almost every major literary award, including a MacArthur and a Pulitzer. She would be on anyone’s list of the most influential American poets of the past fifty years, but many readers, even those with the best intentions, find her work “unintelligible” and “deliberately intended to frustrate the reader,” to quote the critic Adam Kirsch. Graham, however, insists on, and has defended in print, her use of “associational logic,” a muscle rarely worked by prose: its “occlusion, or difficulty,” she wrote, “healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition.”

And so we have a standoff of the kind that has cropped up again and again in poetry at least since the nineteen-twenties. The idea that calculated literary difficulty is a positive feature that writers intend seems odd, but it comes with a distinguished provenance: it is associated primarily with T. S. Eliot, whom Graham counts among her first influences. Like Eliot, Graham has attracted her share of hecklers, as well as legions of accomplished exegetes. As will happen eventually, I think, with Graham, readers who reconsidered Eliot’s poetry with fresh eyes, after the tide of monographs receded, found him to be a poet of personal immediacy and ragged emotionality: “the victim,” as Randall Jarrell suggested, “of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions.”
CartoonBuy the print »

For Graham, those obsessions have been, from the start, unapologetically thinky. She is sometimes derided as a “philosophical” poet, though her poems that are most directly concerned with philosophy, such as those about Pascal and Heidegger, usually function as refutations of philosophy, or (and it amounts to the same thing) as applications of it to the moods and the senses, which abstract thought often, erroneously, supposes it can bypass. Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience. The titles of some of her books give you the idea—“Materialism,” “The End of Beauty,” “Place”—as do the titles of some of her best-known poems. “Reading Plato,” a poem from her second volume, “Erosion” (1983), is a partial rebuttal of Plato’s theories about mimesis. Graham describes a “friend” tying fishing flies, “his good idea, / what drives / the silly days / together.” Poetry is another good idea that drives the days together, a deception intended to trap “what slips / through my fingers, / your fingers.” Plato’s bad idea was to see art as a “lie,” the copy of a copy: the gods possess the original, nature knocks it off, and the poets assemble their counterfeit counterfeits. But Graham’s poem is the “story / of a beautiful / lie” (with the wordplay on “line”—fishing line, line of verse—intended), her attempt, modelled on that of the fishermen she describes, to “pass / for the natural world.”

Some poets’ concerns evolve throughout their careers. Graham’s own metamorphoses, as “From a New World” makes clear, have instead been driven by tensions that have remained consistent since her first work. In an early poem and one of her most anthologized, “The Geese,” Graham finds herself in a natural environment already scored by aesthetic orders: the geese that fly overhead in formation, “as urgent as elegant, / tapering with goals,” and the spiders that work “closest at hand, / between the lines.” Between these two grids, her attention shuttling from one to the other, human life takes shape in the form of Graham’s own “lines.” In “Thinking,” a poem from “The Errancy,” Graham’s volume from 1997, a nearly identical dilemma takes a different shape. A crow perches on a telephone wire:

    The wire he’s on wobbly and his grip not firm.
    Lifting each forked clawgrip again and again.
    Every bit of wind toying with his hive of black balance.
    Every now and then a passing car underneath causing a quick
    The phonelines from six houses, and the powerlines from three
    grouped-up above me . . .

If you make writing hew so closely to the object it describes, in this case a crow, then every “rearrangement” of the bird forces a rearrangement of language. The poem is called “Thinking” because it forces us to confront the difficulty of keeping that mental crow on its mental wire.

These adjustments taking place within individual poems are also broadcast across the arc of Graham’s career. Her early poems tended to be written in short, serrated lines that sometimes mimicked the canny movement of her subjects: a snake that “kept on / disappearing” or a salmon—“quick, glittering”—swimming up a narrow channel. Later, Graham lengthened the lines but shortened the stanzas, which were sometimes numbered like slides or specimens. More recent work is written in violently alternating long and short lines, which results, oddly, in an effect not of duration but of volume, as though two people were sparring over the controls. This extraordinary stylistic range stems from Graham’s wish to make a lavish formal show of her epistemological turbulence, her poems’ provisional victories over their own inefficacy. An epigraph from the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, which Graham used for “The Errancy,” applies to her work as a whole: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” Every poem, Graham suggests, is part net and part wind, its finely knotted phrases and lines straining to “hold,” for longer than an instant, the presence passing through them. The poems often end in ellipses, dashes, or other forms of open-ended punctuation, not out of some vague allegiance to indeterminacy or “post-modernism” but for the same reason that Wile E. Coyote often looks so baffled while chasing the Road Runner: the prey, Graham’s quicksilver mental activity, has once again thwarted its language traps and bolted into the next canyon.

Because her poems enact the states—bewilderment, estrangement, panic, elation—that they describe, they are unusually subject to their own mental actions. Graham is sometimes faulted for language that is fuzzy or provisional; she is perhaps most notorious for poems that leave actual blank spaces or x and y variables where meaning apparently cannot, in the moment, be supplied. If there is one quirk in her writing that has fed her detractors, it is the use of these lacunae, as though the poet had forfeited her role as a kind of dowser or metal detector, looking everywhere for language’s buried substrate. But the poems need gaps and ciphers because Graham’s subjectivity, responding in the moment, requires placeholders, a way of representing intuitions that aren’t made of words, or not yet. Such gaps have become especially pronounced, and especially important, in poems like “Futures,” from “Sea Change,” in which Graham sees, in a blighted pond, not only the perceptual evidence of ecological destruction but also the Western philosophical structures (“master & slave”) that underlie it, as well as its sickening consequences: “the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable, & radioactive waste in it.” Far from insulating the poems from the pressures of the real world, these passages have confronted them by showing how language frays under culturally and historically adverse conditions.

This book conveys how poetry might function not as a well-wrought urn or cri de cœur but as an extension of the senses into realms where crucial sensory witness has been largely impossible. There are four new poems here, among the finest that Graham has written, and the first to be published following her recent diagnosis of cancer. We have many devastating poems about illness and mortality, but few that monitor the bleak sensorium of a modern hospital room, where the depersonalizing conditions of the “new world” are brought terrifyingly close to the body. “Prying” shows Graham, the great mover through space, restrained, prone, at the mercy of medical machines and their beleaguered captains. Here is its opening:

    As if I never wake from this blackout again, again this minute they lay it
    on the wheeling transporter, so silent, then the surgical table,
    my body, my citizen, anesthesiologists back from coffee break, cables
    on mylar headrest taking my head down now, arms into armlock,
    then positioners, restraints—day talk
    all round—the guidewires in, the intravenous ports, the drip begun.

It is a classic Graham environment, with its “cables,” “ports,” “restraints,” and “drips,” versions of all of which Graham once encountered in the world at large, and found cause, often, to celebrate. She has always sought, through the envoy of the senses, commerce with what she has variously called “the world” and “the real.” Now, in these latest poems, that mission circles back to its point of origin. The body in illness—the old, familiar body—has become the ultimate new world.