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.