Printer-friendly version

The Earth Took of Earth: Introduction
Jorie Graham

All anthologies are unfinished, format-compelled, personal documents. And, indeed, this is a book made, in the most literal sense, for my own use—as a reader, as an American user of the English language, as a teacher. When I imagine you, whoever you are, picking up this volume, I hope, most simply, that it will give you pleasure. 

The selections cut off at the generation born in 1927—a brilliant and diverse group. Unable to resist a certain shapeliness, and variety, I stretched the rules just slightly to include Rich and Walcott. For all the blind spots any arbitrary cutoff invites, this one has allowed for much more contemporary work than the project originally envisioned. Of course, at a certain point, in a situation where limits are so baldly declared, I was obliged to make absurd compromises. Edmund Spenser's Prothalamion or Hart Crane's Voyages? Richard Howard's or Gwendolyn Brooks's dramatic monologues? Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush or Jon Silkin's Death of a Son? . . . .

I wanted variety. I wanted to represent thrilling and useful and unsettling tensions. I wanted work by Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Australian poets, expatriate British poets, expatriate American poets, American poets writing in the British tradition, American poets writing against it. . . . I couldn't satisfy all such desires, and it became clear to me that if the collection were to stretch further, I would fill up most of the book with beloved work by my contemporaries. 

Finally, given its format of one poem per poet, this book clearly does not attempt to provide a full introduction to any given poet's work. This frees it to be a book about the nature and force of Poetry itself—frees it to tell the story of how that force has rippled, burned, danced, clenched, raged, argued, persuaded, and generally exploded through one remarkable language over a thousand years of its usage. "It really matters that great poems get written," crackles the wise remark attributed to Ezra Pound, "and it doesn't matter a damn who writes them." So here are some of the songs a people -the custodians and inventors of a great language—have sung (have needed to sing) to keep themselves spiritually, morally, and emotionally awake . . . 


Poetry is a language for talking about things that cannot really be "talked" about. So I began by ignoring thematics and concentrated on the writing. I looked for extraordinary imagination, unpredictable emotion, original apertures in a field of vision. I looked for depth of passion capable of nuancing image, phrasing, tone, and action. I listened for persuasiveness in a poem's voice—or voices; appropriateness, and its stunning defeats. I looked for amplitude and intellectual precision; for density, delicacy, power, and courage. I looked for beauty. 

Yet much of what I expected fell away as I began to feel my way to the story these poems unveil. The differences that loom large when one studies them critically—differences of period and style and stylistic ideology—began to blur and thin-out for me. What rippled and knotted-up this extraordinary thousand-year fabric of utterances turned out to be quite other matters. 

To my surprise, war was everpresent as a force coursing through and giving rise to (and shape to) these words. At times overtly, oftentimes by default, its advent, its occasion, the appalled memory of it, the impossible accounting for it, recounting of it, cast a formal (and sometimes a thematic) shadow over the poems. And everywhere the strategies the human soul resorts to in war's aftermath -listening to the heart, trying to fathom its indwelling belief in life, trying to wake it again to love after horror, or spiritual disease, or madness have asserted their presence in its chambers—shaped the narrative these voices, taken as a continuous song-of-songs, urged upon me. These culminate, perhaps, in the simple ironic acidity of Melville's pained account of "The March into Virginia" (July 1861)—“all wars are boyish, and are fought by boys"—or in the more enraged tones of Pound's 

Died some, pro patria, 

non "dulce" non "et decor" . . . 

walked eye-deep in hell, 

believing in old men's lies . . . 

daring as never before, wastage as never before . . . 

hysterias, trench confessions, 

laughter out of dead bellies . . . 

died a myriad . . . 

for an old bitch gone in the teeth, 

for a botched civilization, 

quick eyes gone under earth's lid, 

for two gross of broken statues, 

for a few thousand battered books. 

The second great figure that impressed me was the force of geography, and the effect of a changing perception, and then description, of the "known" world. The sensation of authority located in the subject self-writing these words is subtly jostled by the discovery of another place from the stable "sceptered isle, throne of kings" in which the song originally thralls. For the journey of Columbus, whatever else one may say about it, does more than set in motion the reinvention of the world into an interdependent community. As the imagination of journeying transforms itself from the rational search for a known destination to the dream of finding an unknown destination, it also transforms our linkage of objectivity and place. One can sense—as if by default—the acute presence of this invisible "new" world as its relativizing force begins to stain the poetry of Fulke Greville, Drayton, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Vaughan, and Traherne. One begins to sense anxieties regarding the origin and authority of the speaking voice. One hears a new passion for sentence breaking and more jagged, architectural reefs of structure.  One encounters brazen, electric enjambments, newly dissonant sounds, invasive dictions, strongly voiced phrasings that jangle the objectivity of form. 

Naturally, this collection also includes attempts to react to this geographic and spiritual decentering, attempts to embrace it in a slow allowance of oceanic poetics—antinomian poetics—openings to chance, to visionary energies, loosenings of rhetorical determination—and further tightenings into the island self. Until, of course, the fateful crossing occurs, that of one whole branch of the language itself, across an ocean of monstrous unknowability, moving ideas and emotions from the minds of an ancient, settled, island people, to the minds of a polyglot, unsettled, continental people. What language (except Spanish, perhaps) has undergone so mythic an evolution as the crossing of its nouns and verbs—of its very syllables—over such vast literal and metaphorical waters? I was struck by how much of the poetry written in America takes place on water, underwater, at the edge of water, overwhelmed by the mystery of water—drowning in it, wading into it, meditating along its shores. And although poets on both sides of this ocean continue writing to and for each other, one great strain of the language moves from "full-fathom five thy father lies" to "she sang beyond the genius of the sea." . . . 

This book ends up telling, in some respects, the story of this crossing. From Lydia Sigourney's pioneer crossing (in which she loses her infant to the sea), to Robert Hayden's slaveship crossing, Bishop's "memories" of travel, Stevens's attempt to hear into the waves themselves, Crane's desire to marry them altogether, to become literally the element that changed our voice, Eliot's mournful "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think that they will sing to me," Melville's monumental dream of the change-that-is-no-change wrought by the sea upon itself (a change so profound it seems almost unnoticeable), Whitman's oceanic intuitions, Dickinson's single, desperate spar on a shoreless terrain, Larine Niedecker's "Paean to Place (And the place was water)," Pound's water-soaked world where the Godly stains the human realm (and the classical, the modern), Walcott's sea voyage, his words salt-smeared, his lines taut sails—everywhere we are in the presence of a story in which a people are asked to undertake, in their language as well as in their flesh, an exodus from one understanding of the world, to another, almost diametrically opposed—and a poetry that has in its marrow the wild hope (and wisdom) that both extremes of vision, married—"in a singular, representative individual"—compel. 

"Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" Bishop asks. "Where should we be today? . . . Should we have stayed at home/ Wherever that may be?" 


From this perspective, the nagging need to question the identity of the self who "has" the experience of the poem becomes less a matter of intellectual polemic and more the natural anxiety of a people undertaking such a journey of self-invention. And, too, the question regarding where one's home is—what literal place, what cultural assumptions, what ideological point of origin—becomes a moving and dramatic question, acted out in some measure thematically, and in some measure stylistically. 

This communal song collects itself quite naturally, therefore, in installments of greatly varying aesthetic premises. Given the original island self, the hubris of conquest, the amazement of "discovery," the courage as well as the madness of exile, the mistakings of the "new" world, the remakings of the "old" world, the gnawing sense of the point of origin (or authorization) for one's very language being in a prior place—edenic or hellish, yet an original place—all colored by power, war, utopian idealism—and by the figures of "heroic" expansion, "virgin" land—by Newness itself—as well as by the realities of government theft, land devastation, class cruelty, racial brutality-there is no way only one kind of poetic truth could have emerged. The crossing of the language its passage through a thousand years of hearts, minds, throats—as well as, once "crossed-over," its vibrant new life as a multicultural language, suddenly enlarged by a Wondrous thicket of words borrowed from Native American languages, African languages, Dutch, Swedish, French, Portuguese, Norwegian, Spanish (not to mention words invented out of necessity by the polyglot colonists themselves—bullfrog, eggplant, snowplow, cold snap, popcorn, shingle, backlog)—eventually make of American English a world language, a living instrument that holds in its blood some portion of the whole "known" world combined, recombined, coursed-through with necessary urgent usage. 

This is possible, of course, because of the historical receptivity of English, but also because of its usage at such a crucial multicultural crossroad. Its very nature becomes colored by the unstoppable, materially necessary, and philosophically agreed-upon democratizations such combustible, mercantile interminglings necessarily engender. So that a language that has already produced more than its share of the greatest poetry on earth, thrust into circumstances that disturb its inherited, hierarchical modes of thought, deepens yet further with democracies of diction, tone, idiom, and imagery.... For although the signature American experiment with mixtures of high and low, sacred and profane, occasions blossoms in Dickinson and Whitman, although its at-once-vatic-and-practical-heart flowers in Crane, Pound, Stevens, Duncan, Berryman, it is seeded in 1620 in the charged, torn phrases of the Mayflower Compact, written the last night onboard ship, in harbor, at anchor: 

We whose names are underwritten, having undertaken a voyage to plant this 6rst colony . . . do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic . . . and by virtue thereof, to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony unto which we promise all due submission . . . 

Then they land, and soon new words start burgeoning—water-gap, gonorrhea, tomato, barrens—salt lick, underbrush, stampede, toboggan—(one can almost imagine the earth's thirst for such new words)—bluffs, backcountry, skunk, hickory—(and the new words getting shipped back home along with the rum, corn, tobacco, flax)—squash, raccoon, gopher, portagestoopwafflechowder—scrow—(and some words untransportable)—moccasin, prairie—(and some words untranslatable)—wigwam, powwow, remuda, buckaroo . . . 


I very much hope that listening to the range and complexity of this song-in-many-voices will serve as an antidote to the encampments into which American poetry seems to insist on organizing itself. For although one could argue that such border-definitions serve the tonic purposes of any manifesto-making, perhaps we have reached the limits of what such practices can avail. To my mind, to my ear, it is precisely against such politicizing and strangulation (and packaging) of vision, against all the dust and nonsense socially-restricted descriptions of our poetics invite, that a collection such as this sings its long, brave song. 

The people here are rich and poor, they die young, they live to be old, they are gay, straight, married, cloistered, interred, consumptive, alcoholic, secular, religious—their fathers beat them, their mothers scare them, they are loved madly, they are raped and tortured, they live quiet domestic lives, they die in trenches, they live at court, in caves, in exile, in jail, in pretty suburban houses—they are beautiful, they are maimed, they start writing young, they start writing late, they teach, sell shoes, work in gas stations, in advertising agencies, in museums, in libraries, in defense factories, in kitchens -they are explorers, seducers, upstanding citizens, fascists, Marxists, visionaries, lunatics—they travel freely, they have homes all over the world, they dream of owning a home -their children are suicides, they are accidentally killed, they live to bear children, these children flourish, those children rot. They live all this out in one beautiful, ever-changing language—of vocables, of forms, of assumptions, of beliefs, of idioms—all sinewed by depth of soul, a love of words, and a capacity for original, honest emotion. It is one rendering of how stubbornly we have tried to be what was once called, with some affection, human. 

And in the end, after the desperate conversation regarding "insiders" and "outsiders" has yet again defined its rules, who shall we term the insider here, in these pages? Is it Sir Walter Raleigh ruining himself funding imperial colonies that fail? Dylan Thomas drinking his heart away? John Berryman lecturing on Shakespeare till he is choked by fear and trembling and has to turn his back on the lecture-hall and sob? Emily Dickinson tending the kitchen? The outsider, here, is whoever has shut the valves of heart and mind, not tried to 6gure and state truth, not believed deeply enough in words. There are no outsiders in these pages. 


I picked, of course, my own indispensable poems. It wasn't possible to represent poetry written in corollary traditions: songs, chants and spells, blues lyrics, prose poetry, very long poems—although I did include one Native American piece obviously not originally written in English, but transcribed into it. It makes the book a more dynamic and, for my purposes, a more useful, teaching instrument—(the transition from the Navajo autumn-ritual song to Keats's ode To Autumn, in particular, was irresistible for what it describes by sheer proximity). The omission of the rest of Walcott's poem will, I hope, be forgiven, and entice the reader to fmd the breathtaking whole. 

I couldn't resist building in certain thematic, formal, or stylistic threads. Yeats, Sigourney, Kinnell, Goodman, Coleridge, for example, speak to their children. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Frost, Eliot, O'Hara give us dramatic monologues. There are war poems, love poems, meditations on the natural world, political poems. There are villanelles, sonnets written over almost the whole millennial stretch, poems built on conceits, odes, journals, rants, prayers, litanies, and elegies. There are poems that include prose, narrative poems, historical poems, confessional poems, surrealist poems. Lineages can be felt—rhythms like great currents passed down through the ligaments of the language—as well as the continuously rippling forces of religious schism, invention (Copernicus to Einstein), rede6nition (Leonardo to Wittgenstein). . . . 

But for just one moment—whatever their otherwise useful refinements—perhaps you will forget about romanticism, symbolism, surrealism, objectivism, imagism, modernism, postmodernism and read these poems for the mystery they hold. Perhaps you will find yourself reading them aloud, reading them to your children, your parents, your friends. Perhaps you will find yourself wanting to memorize one—wanting to recite it by heart. . . . It is my hope, that if you read these as a sequence—as a crossing—you will feel our common humanity rise again and again to the oftentimes joyful, oftentimes heart-silencing occasions of mortal beauty in the dazzling integument known as "English." 


...return to The Earth Took of Earth