Monday, June 02, 2008

On Jorie Graham

There is an interesting review by Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books of Jorie Graham's Sea Change (ECCO /HarperCollins, 2008).* Vendler writes:

"To some readers Graham has seemed difficult, diffuse, oblique, unnervingly changeable. It is true that one does not walk easily into her poems, since they are not, in the usual sense, openly confessional, political, or ideological. They have of course revealed aspects of her life (as child, daughter, lover, wife, mother) as well as places she has lived (Italy, France, the United States), but they take the form of montage rather than sequential narrative. And although Graham has confronted current issues (from perpetually alert B-52s to homelessness to colonialism) that distress a large number of Americans, a poem raising one of these issues, far from being predictable, is likely to include not only introspection but also myth (classical and religious) and historical instances of repellent or thrilling human action (from Inca sacrifice to Greek games at Delphi). Graham is an intellectual poet writing in a society hostile to intellectuality; her range of reference and liberty of expression have sometimes baffled reviewers."

She continues:

"The reader is delighted, in Graham's mobile lines of flashes and sparks, by recognizing in them the stratified intensity of poems-in-process, illustrating the 'innumerable compositions and decompositions' described by Keats."

My sense of Graham is somewhat different. As a poet, she relies almost entirely upon her thought processes, arrayed across a long line that Graham herself refers to as "visionary." What she has turned away from is the constructed poetic image. Although a wide range of historical and intellectual referents are contained within her poems, there is nothing cinematic about her work. Few scenes are ever developed, character is largely absent, Graham seldom enters--or attempts to enter--the mind of another. One rarely feels located in time, place, or scene and the only "person" one finds in her poetry is the mind--lately, not even the physical body--of Jorie Graham. The larger problem with this is not Graham's erudition (seriously, Jorie; keep talking--we'll all try to keep up with you), it is that Graham's intellect has developed--or always had--a hushed, humorless reverence for itself as oracle, and not much genuine empathy for those laboring beyond her own synapses.

The ability to mediate depends, at some level, upon the willingness to engage. How effective, how compelling, how necessary is an oracle who lacks genuine engagement with the human world--with the poor sots who make their burnt offerings and look to the oracle for wisdom and advice?

With that said, I continue to find myself interested in some of the formal aspects of Sea Change--for example, how Graham makes the longer line work in her poetry.


"A Powerful Strong Torrent" by Helen Vendler, The New York Review of Books (June 12, 2008) pp. 64-67.


Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

I remember really enjoying her first book as an undergrad -- a classmate, also a poet, was in love with JG's work and loaned me that book, before heading off to Breadloaf expressly to meet her -- but I haven't been able to get too excited about any of her more recent work.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Collin said...

I'm totally uninterested in new work. It's like a big circle jerk and she's the only one in the circle. I'll take mine cinematic, please.

4:46 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

Matthew and Collin:

About 10-or so years ago, in a profile of Jorie Graham in the New Yorker (I think it was) John Hollander said, "She is writing beyond my capacity to read her."

That still seems (to me) not-necessarily a compliment.

7:14 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:37 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

ERRATA NOTE: The New Yorker website only has an abstract of the 1997 Jorie Graham profile, not the entire text. From looking at that Abstract, however, it appears that it might have been Richard Howard, rather than John Hollander, who made the comment I remark upon, supra.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Oh, to be an intellectual poet. Then you get to be "an intellectual poet writing in a society hostile to intellectuality" -- as opposed to an readable poet, writing between the Scilla and Charybdis of a society hostile to poetry (thanks to all the intellectuals) and an academy of intellectuals hostile to anything but intellectuality. I'm being facetious. But really -- it seems labeling polarizing toward greater mental gymnastics, and away from the 4,000-year-old tradition of human elements in written poems, isn't exactly advancing the art.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Macy Swain said...

So glad to see your thoughts -- and those of others here -- I just got caught up with your blog. I've struggled to try to "get" Jorie Graham's poems for years, and your comments were very interesting to me, Greg, especially "How effective, how compelling, how necessary is an oracle who lacks genuine engagement with the human world..." Way back in the 90s, I reviewed The Errancy for the Free Press, and I began "This review has to start with a confession. I don't understand half of Jorie Graham's poems." Half would be pushing it, actually. But after wrestling through that book, I finally concluded (perhaps out of self-aggrandizing pride) "Her work stands against all the dried up, lying, calcified, boring and bureaucratic language that threatens to engulf us. Perhaps it's part of a necessary salvation to risk getting lost in what she has to offer. As she writes in "Against Eloquence": 'Didn't you know it's upstream? Don't you know you're supposed to look?' "
But I find I've lost my taste for that degree of abstraction, that difficulty, that detachment. Compare her, for instance to the recent Bob Hickok poem about Michigan, "Primer," in the New Yorker. Anybody see it? It's wildly original and funny -- and also has some heart.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Brian Campbell said...

No matter, never mind. It sounds like a yawn. Our anti-intellectual so-called society is also strangely anti-sensual and anti-emotional, to elevate poets like this. To me a poem to really work has to fully engage the entire being, mind and body.

Speaking from prejudice, of course. I've never read her work, just your description. I trust we're coming, psychologically speaking, from similar places.

12:57 AM  

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