Modernist Poetry in a Crowdsourcing Age

Modernist Poetry in a Crowdsourcing Age

Modernist Poetry in a Crowdsourcing Age

Jorie Graham resists classic pleasures like closure, a concept anathema to the poet and her country.


In her 2003 Paris Review interview, Jorie Graham evokes a radiant image from her childhood in Rome: a “huge marble statue of the reclining Apollo on the landing above the ballet class that we would run up the wide flight of stairs to, sweaty, after class, a gaggle of girls in black leotards, and lie on to cool off; he was so cold!” Years later, this constellation of sensuous details—black leotard and white marble; small, hot, dance-wrung bodies on one big, cold, static one—was transmogrified into a poem. Graham, now a mother, brings a forgotten black leotard through a snowy night to the slumber party where her daughter is. She watches the girl through a window as the white flakes dance around her—not like ballerinas, of course, but like the wild random things they are. And the poem, too, dances around, like the flakes—or the flocks of starlings she remembers, or the iridescence on a crow she saw in a painting; then suddenly she’s recalling her ballet teacher from Stalingrad, then suddenly she’s recalling the “very black Indian women” from Christopher Columbus’s diary, whom he captured on a night of snowfall. Because one of the women has a piece of gold in her ear, the ship’s admiral extrapolates that there is “‘…gold / in that land’—.” The poem ends abruptly on the dash, no lesson drawn from all these scenes, no closure, no affirmation of Yeats’s notion that “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” We’re not in Rome anymore, and there is no Apollo, god of measure and limit. We are in the New World.

In the essay “Jorie Graham’s Big Hunger,” James Longenbach proclaims her to be “as frustrating and problematic a poet—I mean this as the highest compliment—as Eliot or Frost.” Born in 1950 in the United States, raised in Italy, educated in France, and only returning to her native country as a young adult, Graham is, along with John Ashbery and Frederick Seidel, one of the very few living American poets to have advanced a worldly, Modernist model of the poem into the 21st century. She has seized for her own uses a patrimony rich with philosophical and linguistic experimentation, bypassing the sort of small-scale, homegrown free verse that has come to dominate the journals and university programs and public-radio stations of our time. Although she has not published collections of essays or lectures, she has taught for 30 years, first at Iowa and now at Harvard (where she inherited the Boylston Chair from Seamus Heaney), and has edited two major poetry anthologies, securing her influence on successive generations of poets and readers. Having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her first Selected Poems, she is now seeing the publication of her second. From the New World expands on the nearly 200-page The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994, which spanned her first five books; the new Selected covers the six books she has written since then, and presents four new poems as well. To remain a “frustrating and problematic” public figure for 40 years is a hard labor: Everything in the television and Internet age militates against it. To mine the legacy of the Modernists—specifically Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore—while making apt references to Pascal and Heidegger and Rimbaud and Rilke, at a time when the field of American poetry is becoming an adjunct of pop culture, is also a feat of integrity requiring an antisocial streak in our crowdsourcing age. And Graham has been warily celebrated for—or is it despite?—resisting expectations of speed, amusement, and digestibility. This also means resisting some of the classical pleasures of poetry: epigrammatic wit (or the “memorable line”), phrase-making, and metaphor—­the Apollonian qualities, you might say, of contour, line, and limit, and hence closure, a concept that is anathema to Graham and perhaps her country. There is a certain irony in Graham’s resistance and Americanness: Her long-lined long poems expand into time like a lyric version of manifest destiny.

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Graham spent a good deal of her third, breakthrough book, The End of Beauty (1987), establishing methods of non-closure. She also doubled down on a technique she was developing in her first two books, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980) and Erosion (1983). It had to do with the combination of close observation (as of an object, a painting, a real landscape) and meditative, syntactically intricate sentences that seemed to drill down into a single moment in time—or blow it up the way Antonioni’s photographer-detective did. As in “San Sepol­cro” (from Erosion), a widely anthologized poem, the single moment often has to do with birth—the birth of Christ in that poem, but by extension all moments of coming-into-being. The constant dialectic of being and nonbeing in the poems alludes pointedly to philosophical mystics like Heidegger and his followers. It is poem as magical thinking: If an ending can be put off, so too can death. Graham in The End of Beauty might scrap punctuation, even the notion of complete sentences, in pursuit of this aesthetic. Here, too, she pioneered the “double self-portrait” poem: “Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne,” “Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay.” Later, in the Paris Review interview, Graham would reveal that these double self-portraits were an allusion to the child she was carrying as she wrote them. But they really served to splinter the self into halves that could survive each other’s disappearance.

Although Graham was never a Confessional poet, strategically revealed personal anecdotes leavened the Eliotic impersonality she drew on in her quest for deathlessness. One of these occurs at the end of “Imperialism,” the last poem in The End of Beauty. Beginning with a husband and wife fighting—“cruelties exchanged between us”—it feels like a make-or-break moment in the marriage. Environmental clues—dust, shadow—recall moments in “The Waste Land.” At this moment of crisis, the woman starts telling a story to the man about the time her mother took her, at age 9, to the Ganges River: “and because she wished for me / to know the world / we had watched a number of bodies (of burnings) that morning.” Then they entered the water she had seen the ashes sifting into: “The story goes I cried so much in the hotel that night / they had to call whatever doctor was on hand / to give me a shot of what?—probably Demerol— / to stop the screaming.” The chastened mother tries to comfort her, but “her body (in particular) was / no longer relevant.” The child now realizes that her mother is only a deferred death, as is she— “a plot, a / shape, one of the finished things.”

What replaces the benevolent (benevolently oblivious?) mother in the child’s terrifying vision is a Kali-like figure, “all arms, all arms extended in the / pulsing sticky heat, fan on, overhead on, all / arms no face at all dear god, all arms—” The poem, and the book, ends there, or doesn’t end there: The dash indicates merely interruption. Even one’s own mother can’t shelter one—she is little more than a cicerone in the necropolis—but a poem might still be the talismanic object that draws out each minute into its smallest increments, like Zeno’s infinite halves, with no end but a cliffhanger promising sequel after sequel.

* * *

“Imperialism” appears in the first Selected; it has been dropped from the second, like one of the “lost stitches” that keep coming up in the early poems as a metaphor for the “mending” that must occur between being and nonbeing. The idea of “minutes” was also a motif, a synecdoche for the time we are allotted in this life; when visualized as the dashes around an analog clock, the minutes too appear as “stitches” (they are also assonantal rhymes). One of the things one notices, in the perambulation through this new Selected, is that the pleasures of such metaphors and motifs dwindle away in the later works. For if The End of Beauty signified a stylistic breakthrough, and the following book, Region of Unlikeness (1991), continued the project of representing myth and history through a sequence of more personal anecdotes (not for nothing does the title nod to Robert Lowell), it gets harder to say that with each successive book Graham brings fresher tropes to her theme of twinned death and representation.

Once there was something novel about Graham’s investigations into representation. Feminists in the decade or two before The End of Beauty demanded that poetry represent women’s “real” lives; Graham showed that “real” life wasn’t merely what Confessional poetry (a term I find hopelessly contradictory) revealed it to be, but might just reside in the intersection of identity and a primordial refusal of that identity—witness the thrillingly paradoxical, critical, and complicit gaze Graham leveled at the Virgin Mary (“San Sepolcro”), the screen image of Sue Lyon as Lolita (“Fission”), and her own girl-self in the mirror as her tipsy mother puts makeup on her the night she sees her father with another woman (“Picnic”). That libidinal charge is much diminished in later books.

Take Materialism (1993), the final book included in the first Selected: Titles like “The Surface,” “Notes on the Reality of the Self,” “Opulence,” and “The Visible World” reiterate Graham’s preoccupation with representations, self-portraits, and interfaces. In one poem, she is looking at a river; in another, she is… looking at a river. In another, it’s leaves in a windstorm; in the next, flakes in a snowstorm behaving quite similarly. I’m being a tad tongue in cheek: These poems are beautiful. They belong to a grand (if, yes, anti-libidinal) meditative tradition of English-language poetry stretching from Wordsworth to Stevens, and they remind me of a Mahler symphony, with a pattern of soft passages swelling into grandeur that has less to do with logic or narrative than texture and mood. There were times I thought Graham’s best poems in this later period were all basically modeled on the template of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” with that same poem’s voyeur-narrator, its luxurious language “Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over, / Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.”

Perhaps the trouble comes when all the later poems start to blend together (the book that stands apart, Swarm, from 2000, does so with good reason: It was a thin experiment in Language poetry). There are ostensible distinctions. Overlord (2005) grapples with World War II, Sea Change (2008) with ecological disaster; there are scattered references to Guantánamo and Iraq and unemployment and the surveillance state—timely topics. They aren’t subjects of the poems so much as by-products of Graham’s meditative method, a kind of notebook style in which everything is included in her meanderings, braided into the long line with its “outriders,” the vertical tail that results when the line exceeds its right-hand margin (Helen Vendler appropriates the term from Gerard Manley Hopkins in her published lecture, “Jorie Graham: The Moment of Excess”). I think I prefer Graham in her garden, contemplating the frame-by-frame coming-into-being of an amaryllis, to her hand-wringing about Guantánamo. I have nothing against poems about Guantánamo per se; but the best Graham poem is always about Graham’s mind, not about the thing at hand, and the slightest false note, including civic-mindedness, will break the spell. She is the female Prospero of American poetry, but by extension, she would make a terrible ruler.

What works for Graham in later poems is what has always worked for her: metaphors of birth, the persistence of one’s infantile “fort-da” experience, the demiurgic turn away from death and toward timeless creation. “Lapse,” from Place (2012), finds her reminiscing about a moment in 1983—the summer solstice, in fact—when she put her baby girl in a swing:

It is entirely in my hands now as it returns like blood to remind me—
the chains so soft from wear, in my right, in my left—
the first time I, trying for perfection, of balance, of symmetry,
strap your twenty two pounds of eyes, blood, hair, bone—so recently inside me—
into the swing—and the sun still in the sky though it being so late
as I look up to see where this small package is to go
sent up by these two hands into the evening that won’t stop

Graham tries in this poem to recapture in every detail the exhilaration of swinging her daughter for the first time, in the throes of the besottedness that the luckiest new mothers feel. The chains of the swing, “soft from wear” (or like umbilical cords), the simulation of birth enacted over and over, the expanding of vision that each push entails—all of it comes together metaphorically and with fierce pride. Likewise, two poems—“Cagnes sur Mer 1950” and “Other”—capture, somewhat like Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” moments of existential vertigo, one happy, one anxious, when her own name is uttered. In the happy poem, her mother calls for her and, finding her, smiles “there you are”; in the other, a teacher says “absent” when she doesn’t respond quickly enough at roll call. Both are piercing moments in a stretch of later writing that struck me as slow going—verbose as poetry should not be, whatever one thinks of delay and non-closure as strikes against mortality.

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