One of the most celebrated poets of the American post-war generation, Jorie Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1992 (1995) winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Fast (2017). She has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Born in New York City, Graham was raised and educated in Italy and France. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied philosophy, and New York University, where she pursued filmmaking. While in New York, she began writing and studying poetry, and went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She later taught at the Writers' Workshop, leaving to join the faculty at Harvard as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position previously held by Seamus Heaney and a chair whose occupants date back to John Quincy Adams. She was the first woman to be awarded this position. When her collection Place won the Forward Poetry Prize in 2012, she was the first American woman to receive the UK award. When she was awarded the International Nonino Literary Prize in 2013, she was only the third US recipient since the award was established. In 2017 she was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Graham is known for her deep interest in history, language, and perception; the critic Calvin Bedient has noted that she is, "never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always 'the outermost question being asked me by the World today'. What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers."
undying, blading into air,
impersonal, forced, curving it
down – drought incessant rain
revolution and the organs shutting
down but not these extremities,
here since I first opened my first
eyes first day and there they were,
delicate, pointing, will not back off,
cannot be remembered.
Visual art, mythology, history, and philosophy are central to Graham's work. The influences of her mother, a sculptor, and father, a journalist, her tri-lingual upbringing, and her early immersion in European culture are all evident in her poetry. Her influences are predominantly modernists – William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, among others – and help explain the shape and flow of her poetry, which is marked by a reliance on line as a unit of sense and perception. Using long and short lines, indentation and spacing, Graham's forms explore the dualities and polarities of life, of the creative and destructive tensions that exist between spirit and flesh, the real and the mythical, stillness and motion, the interior and exterior existence.
grass growing so that I can keep track. Taking root is not an easy way to
go about finding a place to stay. Maybe nothing would happen after
all. The hollowing-out now added to by crickets. Spiders making
roads in sky. I watch. Look at, then through. What is the empty
part? Where. Can find nothing that is empty. Seems I should, and soon, as
where would he go, or what would the indented place on the bed where
he had been be. Be full of. He was a settler in that flesh, that I could see.
While Graham's first two books received high praise, her third, The End of Beauty, is generally acknowledged as a watershed. In this book, Graham fully developed her long, flexible line and focused definitively on consequence rather than closure. Critic Sven Birkerts noted that in the poems, Graham "discovers in her narrative the critical or pivotal moment: she then slows the action to expose its perilous eventual consequences." Several of the poems are broken into numbered sections, often of seemingly unrelated fragments that are pieces of a larger collage; at times, the poet offers a kind of 'close' reading which requires readers both to participate in the poem by filling in the blank and for Graham to present her own inability to express the not-yet-conceivable, as in "Like a , , , , , , , , , , this look between us".
Through her collections of poetry, Graham's distinctive style has evolved to accommodate both new kinds of experience and new kinds of reading. In the Paris Review, Graham noted of her shift from the long sentence-like lines of The End of Beauty to the shorter lyrical line of Region of Unlikeness:
Graham's interest in the reader's experience of her work, and the power of poetry to reshape perceptions of the world, runs through all her books. According to Weston Cutter in the Kenyon Review, Graham is
Critic David Baker once wrote that he could "think of no other current American poet who has employed and exposed the actual mechanics of narrative, of form, of strategic inquiry more fully than she has – at least no other readable poet – and no other poet able to deploy so fruitfully and invitingly the diverse systems of philosophy, science, and history. If anyone can unify the disjoined fields of contemporary discourse, I think it might be Jorie Graham." Graham herself has a different understanding of the potential of her work, and poetry generally. "I'd say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion", she told the Paris Review. "Its syntax wants to pass something on to an other in the way that you can, for example, pass laughter on. It's different from being persuasive and making an argument. That's why great poems have so few arguments in them. They don't want to make the reader 'agree'. They don't want to move through the head that way. They want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community – could one even say ceremony – might 'save' the world."
Fast, Ecco, New York, 2017
From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, Ecco, New York, 2015
P L A C E, Ecco, New York, 2012
Sea Change, Ecco, New York, 2008
Overlord, Ecco, New York, 2005
Never, Ecco, New York, 2002
Swarm, Ecco, New York, 2000
The Errancy, Ecco, New York, 1998
The Dream of The Unified Field, Ecco, New York, 1997
Materialism, Ecco, New York, 1993
Region of Unlikeness, Ecco, New York, 1991
The End of Beauty, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1987
Erosion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1983
Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1980
Jorie Graham reads 'Act III, Sc. 2'
Jorie Graham reads 'Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt'
Jorie Graham reads 'Underneath (13)'
Jorie Graham reads 'The Visible World'
Essential American Poets: Jorie Graham
The editors of POETRY discuss Jorie Graham's 'The Mask Now'
Jorie Graham's website