Time Again in Which to Make the Imagined Human Paradise: Jorie Graham

My interest is ongoing in the poetic mastery of Jorie Graham. Thanks to several readers, especially my friend Pam McGrath, who have responded to many of the issues raised about her work in the Anders essay that I posted last week. (See below for that three-part posting.)

In the spirit of of giving her more recent work a bit more airtime, here is an excerpt from a review by James Longenbach of her latest book, Sea Change, from the New York Times. In the last paragraph he addresses Graham’s proclivity to perpetually reshape the course of her work, a quality that Logenbach compares with two other favorite poets, Ashbery and Glück:

For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.

Such poetry succeeds as grandeur; it fails as portentousness. In “Sea Change,” Graham traffics in large statements (“the / end of the world can be imagined,” “fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef”), but at times her thought can seem muddled, her diction puzzlingly imprecise, as when she writes that love is “like a thing floating out on a frail but / perfect twig-end.” How do we respond to a poet who is certain about the Great Barrier Reef but evasive about what stands before her eyes?…

Why would a poet feign the inability to find the exact word for the thing at the end of a branch? Are a poet’s errors of perception comparable to the mistakes that raised the temperature of the Gulf Stream, forcing a plum tree in Normandy to blossom out of season?

Rather than answering such questions, Graham asks them, leaving herself vulnerable; what is intended as open-endedness may also feel, again, like portentousness. But the fact that some aspects of Graham’s work are more fully realized than others seems, while not uninteresting, oddly beside the point. What matters, as with Ashbery and Glück, other poets who perpetually challenge the terms of their own achievement, is the shape of the career — not only what she has done but what she will inevitably do next. There will be “a time again in which to make,” Graham writes, “the imagined human / paradise.”

2 Replies to “Time Again in Which to Make the Imagined Human Paradise: Jorie Graham”

  1. Thank you, Deborah for sharing this review. It is a perfect intro as I begin reading Sea Change. Although I don’t know much of Graham’s previous work and can not compare it to her recent work – Vulnerable and open-ended…I think I like the change already. I hope you are enjoying your trip.

  2. Pam, thank you for the update. I hope to hear more about your reaction over time. And I’m having a wonderful time in England–thanks!

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