Authors: Jorie Graham

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, 1980

Erosion, 1983

The End of Beauty, 1987

Region of Unlikeness, 1991

Materialism, 1993

The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994, 1995

The Errancy, 1997

Selected Poems, 2000

Swarm, 2000

Never, 2002

Edited Texts:

The Best American Poetry, 1990, 1990 (with David Lehman)

Earth Took of Earth, 1996


Jorie Graham is a cerebral and complex American poet whose early poems deal with such philosophical questions as the nature of reality and the divisions between mind and spirit and between spirit and body. Her later poems are no less complex but show a greater interest in myth and history. Most critics believe that Wallace Stevens has been her greatest poetic influence, although there are also many touches of Rainer Maria Rilke in her poems.{$I[AN]9810001941}{$I[A]Graham, Jorie}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Graham, Jorie}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Graham, Jorie}{$I[tim]1951;Graham, Jorie}

Jorie Graham

(Jeannette Montgomery Barron)

Graham’s background is unusual. She was brought up in Italy, although her parents were Americans. She attended a French school in Rome, and later the Sorbonne in Paris. She is trilingual, and in one of her early poems, she speaks of needing three different words to name a chestnut tree. She returned to the United States in 1969 to complete her university education and graduated with a B.A. from New York University in 1973. At first a film student, she was drawn to poetry when she heard M. L. Rosenthal, teaching at N.Y.U., read a T. S. Eliot poem aloud. She then received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa at its renowned Writers’ Workshop. She has taught at Murray State University in Kentucky and at California State University at Humboldt and has been a professor of English at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Harvard University. She has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a MacArthur grant and the Morton Dauwen Zabel award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Graham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1996 for her collection The Dream of the Unified Field.

Graham’s first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, was published in 1980. The title of the work is taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s definition of human beings, and a number of the poems deal with the divided human condition. For example, “The Geese” contrasts the instinctual and determined pattern of the flight of geese with the very different pattern of spiders weaving a web. Graham then contrasts both of these to humans, whom she sees as being in an uncertain state of “delay” rather than completion. Critics have noticed her desire for a Platonic ideal, a desire “to catch the world as idea,” but she turns away from the ideal to the body. Although she deals with philosophical ideas, her structures are not logical but associative and epigrammatic.

Graham’s second book of poems, Erosion, is no less complex, although the swerve to body is more prominent. The poem that most clearly defines her point of view is “At Luc Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.” The poem deals with the painting by Signorelli of the Resurrection; Graham lived in Italy in her early years, and references to Renaissance painters are common. The assumption of body at the Resurrection is a perfect example of her thought. After describing the Resurrection in the painting, she focuses on the autopsy that Signorelli did on his own son in order to gain the knowledge of body so he could render it faithfully. Graham asserts that only accuracy in art can “mend” the wounded mind, as it does for Signorelli. Beauty is, as she claims, a “contained damage.”

Many of the poems in The End of Beauty are based on major myths from the Bible and Greek mythology, showing a significant change in focus for Graham. There are, for example, poems on Adam and Eve, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Apollo and Daphne. The Adam and Eve poems are especially interesting, since they focus on the moment of change. This is once again a movement from unchanging spirit to all-too-human body. It is also a movement into history or narrative in which nothing is planned or determined. This concept is especially important to Graham, with her focus on gaps and indeterminacies rather than resolutions. “Hurry and Delay” portrays the weaving and unweaving of Penelope in the Odyssey and is a perfect metaphor for Graham’s own poetic practice. Another poem describes the creative method of Jackson Pollock as working from chance to pattern; no matter how random the creation may seem, pattern and form emerge. However, Graham refuses closure and sees those patterns as less than complete; she ends the poem with an ellipsis rather than a period.

Region of Unlikeness, Graham’s fourth book of poems, shows a definite movement into the problems of history. One poem is in fact called “History”; another, called “From the New World,” deals with the Holocaust. Many of the poems in this book do not have a definite closure and include gaps within lines. In addition, Graham uses one-line stanzas that conflict or contrast with the other numbered stanzas. The structure mirrors the complexity and indeterminacy of her thought.

In Materialism, Graham’s style and structure continue to be challenging and difficult. As the title suggests, the poems focus on the material nature of humankind and the physical world. She sees humankind’s material nature to be surrounded with limitations as she contrasts it to a “bush”: Graham changes from a poet who longed for a Platonic ideal to one who limits her poetic analysis to the material.

The poems in The Errancy derive from the notion that “erring” offers an opportunity to learn from mistakes, and thus “errancy” promotes movement, change, and discovery. Swarm marked a turning away from mythological and biblical themes, although some critics felt that Graham had not yet found an adequate replacement metaphor and thus her opacity of style overwhelmed the content of the poems. In Never, concern with nature, the environment, and current warnings of global disaster preoccupy the poet. One reviewer noted the influence of A. R. Ammons in Graham’s structure, especially the use of the colon as a fulcrum dividing her lines.

BibliographyGardner, Thomas. “Jorie Graham’s Incandescence.” In Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Gardner examines five collections (from Erosion to The Errancy) in order to map Graham’s progress in responding to the limits of language and understanding. This piece expands upon an article first published in The Hollins Critic (October, 1987) that treats three of Graham’s books.Graham, Jorie. Interview by Ann Snodgrass. Quarterly West, no. 23 (1986): 151-164. An intense and highly illuminating interview in which Graham talks about many aspects of her poetry, from her poems about paintings to her aesthetic forebears to her ideas about the genders and their role in her self-portraits.Graham, Jorie. “Some Notes on Silence.” In Nineteen New American Poets of the Golden Gate, edited by Phillip Dow. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. This short essay is essential to understanding Graham’s versification and her poetic commitments. She says that the way in which she places a poem on the page shows the pressure of silence against speech and the failures of language. She also talks about the poem as an act with genuine risks taken by the soul of the speaker. She says that choices in poems are not only aesthetic but also moral.Longenbach, James. “Jorie Graham’s Big Hunger.” In Modern Poetry After Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Longenbach examines Graham’s manner of bedecking innocent or insignificant actions with associative contemplation that charges them with grandeur. A reluctant and partial admirer, he observes the nonlinear nature of her compositions.Spiegelman, Willard. “Jorie Graham’s ‘New Way of Looking.’” Salmagundi 120 (Fall, 1998): 244-275. Discusses The Errancy in comparison with Graham’s earlier works Erosion, The End of Beauty, and Region of Unlikeliness.Vendler, Helen. The Breaking of Style. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Offers a full discussion of Graham’s poetry in conjunction with Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins. An excellent discussion of the changes in Graham’s style from book to book.Vendler, Helen. The Given and the Made. Boston: Farber and Farber, 1995. Discusses Graham along with John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Rita Dove. The chapter on Graham is titled “The Nameless and the Material.”Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Vendler focuses on a work’s uniqueness rather than its meaning or ideology. Like French critic Roland Barthes, she insists that pleasure motivates writers.
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