October 07, 1999
Harvard
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Jorie Graham: Ambassador for Poetry

By Lee Simmons
Special to the Gazette

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham is the new Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Photo by Jeannette Montgomery Barron
Returning students who happened to pass the Barker Center at midnight two weeks ago might have seen a solitary light burning in an upstairs window. Inside, Jorie Graham, the new Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, was reading manuscripts late into the night from students hoping to att her seminars in the art of poetry this fall.

Graham comes to Harvard from the renowned Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where since 1983 she taught in and eventually directed the poetry program.

Widely regarded as one of the leading voices in American poetry today, Graham has published six books of original poems over the past 20 years and edited several anthologies. Her volume of selected poems, titled The Dream of the Unified Field, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.

Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position last year.

"It's a terrific appointment," says Department Chair Lawrence Buell, the John P. Marquand Professor of English. "We're very fortunate to have her." According to colleagues and former students at Iowa, Graham is not only a brilliant poet but also an extraordinary teacher and academic leader.

A New Sound in American Poetry

Born in New York City in 1950, Jorie Graham was raised in Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and filmmaking at New York University before turning to poetry in her mid-20s.

Her writing is imbued with the art and culture of Europe that she grew up with. "In essence," says Helen V ler, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, "she writes as a European of American extraction."

When Graham burst on the scene in the early 1980s, reviewers were astonished by the originality and ambition of her work, even when they failed to understand what she was doing.

"The freshness of the rhythms is what struck me first," says V ler, whose incisive essays on Graham's poetry helped make it accessible to a wider audience. "I read three of her poems in the American Poetry Review, and I thought, ‘What's happening here?’ It's like hearing a new sound, like hearing Shostakovich after Tchaikovsky."

At a time when much American poetry was still influenced by the confessional poetry of the 1950s and ’60s or motivated by the politics of g er and ethnic identity, Graham's departure from autobiographical narrative signaled the arrival of a bold and original mind, says V ler.

Self-Portrait as 'Hurry and Delay'

Graham's poetry is shaped by a combination of fierce intellect and passion. It asks fundamental questions – about the mystery of being, the boundaries of self, the nature of meaning – in the language of the senses. A restless desire to see, a hunger for understanding, is reflected in images of excavation, of penetrating the beautiful in search of the true, even when the search is known to be hopeless.

In Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body, the painter dissects the corpse of his beloved son: "But the wall/of the flesh/opens lessly,/its vanishing point so deep/and receding/we have yet to find it,/to have it/stop us. So he cut/deeper,/graduating slowly/from the symbolic/to the beautiful. How far/is true?"

At the same time, Graham is wary of the urge toward resolution, and the later poems, especially, actively resist closure, weaving and unweaving meaning like Penelope at her loom. Thinking, Graham implies, is more important than knowing. The resistance of the poem restores a "necessary mystery," forcing us to listen intuitively, "with the body," as we listen to music. Noli Me Tangere begins, "You see the angels h ave come to sit on the delay/for a while,/they have come to harrow the fixities, the sharp edges/of this open/sepulcher."

Having grown up trilingual, Graham is inescapably self-conscious in her use of language. "I was taught three/names for the tree facing my window," begins one early poem. "Castagno . . . chassagne . . . chestnut." With three ways to say anything, she feels as painfully as any postmodernist the gaps between words and things, matter and meaning.

Yet Graham shuns the fashionable postures of irony and frivolous despair. She speaks without embarrassment of poetry as a moral and spiritual undertaking, an instrument of discovery and awakening. "Each poem," she writes in the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990, "is an act of the mind that tries – via precision of seeing, feeling, and thinking – to clean the language of its current lies, to make it capable of connecting us to the world."

One of the most remarkable things about Graham’s work to date is how different each book has been from what came before, always exploring new ideas in new ways. "Many poets subside into repeating past successes," says V ler, "and she’s not done that. It’s the mark of a poet with a lot of resources to be able to write a new book each time."

Teaching by Example

Graham is known as a devoted and inspiring teacher. Her workshop at Iowa is famous, and many of her former students have gone on to publish and make names for themselves.

"She works very hard with the young poets," says Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "She's an exciting teacher. She knows so much – she's read absolutely everything – and she's a fantastic alfresco speaker who can think and speak on her feet."

"It's hard to imagine how one could be a better teacher of poetry than she is," says Mark Levine, a former student who now teache s at Iowa himself. "She makes students feel like they've been understood for the first time. She can explain your own poem to you in a way that you understand it yourself for the first time."

Graham helps writing students to see their work in relation to the tradition. "A lot of workshops," says Levine, "devolve into editing classes, where the focus becomes extremely narrow. Jorie showed that a workshop can be a class about poetry. You always feel, when she's talking to you about your own poems, that you're also talking about something much larger, about the broad eavor of poetry. She subverts all the clichéd distinctions between the creative act of writing poetry and the intellectual examination of poetry."

Graham teaches not only by her words but also by her example. "The poetry and the person and the teaching are all of a piece," says Levine. "She's a true believer in poetry and in its power to make us whole."

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College