The Glorious Thing
A few questions with poet and educator Jorie Graham, the 1996 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Jorie Graham has been hailed by John Ashbery as “one of the finest poets writing today,” and by the poet James Tate as “a poet of staggering intelligence.” Tate adds that “Her poems are constantly on the attack. She assays nothing less than the whole body of our history, reshaping myth in ways that risk new knowledge, fresh understanding of all that we might hope to be.”
Graham is the author of six books of original poetry, including The Errancy (Ecco Press, 1997), and The Dream of the Unified Field (Ecco Press, 1995), which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Since 1983, she has been on the faculty of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Here she answers questions from Mark Wunderlich on the state of the field.
Wunderlich: As someone who sees many young and talented writers at the Workshop, do you observe any particular trends forming among the next generation of American poets? How do you think this generation will differ from your own or previous ones?
Graham: Perhaps they’re more affected by—and concerned with—the failure of Utopian thinking and its attendant desires. They seem to believe less in the possibility of transcendence. The tonal registers their poems work are often in the narrow range between irony and quick-witted despair. Let’s see . . . they’re perhaps more questioning of subjectivity in general, more self-conscious regarding the representation of subjective experience. Having said this, they also seem to be yearning for permission to break past their own remarkably sophisticated understanding of the ideological premises of their enterprise. They seem to want permission to let ordinary—even autobiographical—experience back into their poems.
Finally, I think they re managing a synthesis of the many—oftentimes balkanized—aesthetic devices the generation previous to them developed. I’ll have students simultaneously influenced by Susan Howe and Sharon Olds—or by elements of their styles—students for whom these two poets, for example, don’t seem to embody any prohibitive polarity of purpose or belief. When they learn (or “lift”) stylistic devices from these recent forebears, they don’t seem to lift the ideological or political assumptions that gave rise to those styles—what made them “hard-earned” in other words. And these are by no means people who are in any way naive, or unaware of the implications of what they are choosing to ignore. It fascinates me, worries me, and in many ways delights me—especially as a poet who has witnessed such great antagonisms between differing aesthetic schools—to see them sample and synthesize and invent without feeling the need to be accountable to the beliefs that gave birth to those voices and styles they imitate. I guess it’s always so in the history of how any art form breaks through a period style.
Wunderlich: Are there currently any stylistic trends in American poetry that you find particularly exciting, or a kind of work you would like to see more of? Less of?
Graham: Perhaps I answered this already. I think the issues regarding the problem of subjectivity—the still operative inheritance of the desire for Romantic fulfillment, or presence, as it comes into conflict with the distrust of such a desire (the distrust not only of the validity of personal experience but of the very notion of an essential self who might claim to have such an experience)—are at the core of what we see happening today. Somewhere between the “I” that takes its authority from an apparent act of confessional “sincerity,” and the “I” that takes its authority from seeing through to its own socially constructed nature, there is still the “I” that falls in love, falls out of love, gives birth, loses loved ones, inhales when passing by a fragrant rosebush—the “I” that has no choice but mortality. That “I” (Eliot would say personal yet collective) is emerging from the great philosophical fray of the last decade with a new respect for the mystery of personhood, and a more sophisticated understanding of its simultaneously illusory and essential nature.
If I have a wish, it is that the body’s (the heart’s) knowledge be trusted again, that the fear of the body—certainly understandable in the age of AIDS and the plague-like virulence of our instant information technologies—decrease, and that the senses be used again in our poetry, that real images be felt, written, and most importantly, understood for the knowledge they contain. So much of the abstraction I see in poems is just the poet explaining an image he or she doesn’t realize has already communicated its emotive values, its conceptual implications, to us. The poet often doesn’t get what the images in his or her poem have done because so often he or she is a better writer than reader of poetry. Perhaps this is because as a culture we so distrust and fear the body and its knowledge that we actually think sense data, and imaginative data, have no inherent content unless we raise them to the surface via explanation, abstraction, or generalization. Abstraction of emotion is not a use of abstraction that is positive, it seems to me. Abstraction in which the body thinks in its unbodily reaches is truly powerful, necessary, and—another story—the crucial metaphysical extension of bodily knowledge.
Also, I'd like to see, among beginners, less collage, which seems to me, in the hands of those practitioners who even admit to the collaging going on in their poems—like an end-run around the very encounters, difficulties, transactions and choices that poets write poems in order to have. Donald Justice once said that, at that point, poetry becomes as easy as turning the pages of another person’s book. Obviously all of us use allusions (even unconsciously), but I’m referring to a deeply exaggerated use of collage which—although based on very moving, corrective impulses, impulses in conversation with the political excesses that the expansive, unquestioned, unbridled notion of the rights of the self-authorial self as well as cultural self has inflicted upon our world—although based on a true critique—is allowing young poets to avoid the hard work they need and will resent being cheated of down the line. There’s no end-run around the vale of soul making.
Wunderlich: How does teaching affect your work as a poet?
Graham: It allows me to draw all sorts of potentially false generalizations like the one I just drew! Actually, it’s a job, like any other. It seems to me that such matters are, first off, matters of character. If you are someone who will live deeply, you will do so no matter what circumstances—apparently easeful or apparently stressful—you have been given. But it also seems to me that teaching actually puts one into contact with an incredibly wide swath of reality, and calls upon one to change constantly one’s assumptions about reality, culture, psychology—one’s whole ideology, really—as each new historical (generational) situation presents itself. Anyone who meets with students on a regular basis will tell you their office is often more like an ivory emergency room than an ivory tower. AIDS, broken hearts, dying lovers, financially overwhelmed parents, fears for, and of, the future, unbearably clear-eyed takes on what opportunities the American marketplace actually affords them, as poets—all these walk through my office door along with the person coming in to do a close reading of Milton.
I should add that sometimes teaching feels like an extraordinary price to pay for the freedom to write poems. I find myself increasingly unable to write—to make contact with my work—while I’m “talking out” so much, burning a hole in my silence, my not-knowing (which is, of course, one’s deepest resource). I’ve taken to not writing at all when that starts to happen. I need certain things to remain secret from my own conceptual intellect for a poem to actually “happen.” Sometimes I feel I’m burning my own work so that the next generation can make theirs, that theirs can be added to the whole thing we re building together after all. I try, then, to think of Pound’s alleged remark that it really matters that great poems get written and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them. But it’s hard. Sometimes I want my silence back—my right to silence—really desperately.
Wunderlich: There seems to be a perception among many people in American letters that poetry is being read by fewer people and occupies a smaller space in public culture, yet more people than ever are applying to creative writing programs and are eager to participate in the art form. Poetry readings have become increasingly popular across the country, more books of poetry are being published than ever before in our history, and the greater public perception is still one of the art form’s being marginal. What do you make of this obvious contradiction?
Graham: It’s not marginal except in the economic sense. And that’s not a very important stratum of reality, even though it is the most apparently influential one. Perhaps the question people should be asking themselves is why so many of our people—especially young people—are flocking, by the thousands really, to centers, call them workshops, where poetry is read and written? And why are they turning to poetry, as a form of knowledge and experience, in the attempt to live their lives? There are a few different issues at work here.
First off, students who want to study literature via a firsthand relationship with the actual text—students in search of single-author classes for example—in search of contact with much “great” non-politically-fashionable literature—are being driven to Creative Writing programs because the English departments of many universities—especially those who could afford many new hirings in the past eight years—are tilting their curricula towards critical theory. We have a surprisingly large number of requests from Ph.D. students wishing to take our literature seminars. They want a more immediate contact with the work that caused them to love literature to begin with. But the general public’s notion of what goes on in a writing program is amazingly ill-informed and strangely imagined.
A great deal of literature—a great deal of the tradition—is taught at Iowa. Seminars in prosody, form of poetry, and in historical as well as theoretical issues are taught every semester. The Writer’s Workshop at Iowa is like any number of communities artists have gathered in for centuries—London, Paris, Barcelona, New York—to talk to each other, to formulate the goals of their hoped-for revolutions. Painters, poets, filmmakers, photographers, philosophers, sitting in bars late into the night trying to imagine a new world—a new solution to the ancient crises.
For two years here they study and read and talk—great currents of intellectual and aesthetic cross-pollination take place. Someone is trying to write in the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” aesthetic. Someone has just completed a crown of sonnets. They argue about Spencer. They argue about Pound. And Derrida. And Blake. And Darwin. They pull books off the shelves and read to each other. They argue about the “act of representation,” drink late into the night, go to their friend the painter’s studio to see the new work. Collaborations are attempted. Passions flare. Ideas abound. Sometimes ideas actually develop.
How is this different from what artists have done on every continent over the centuries—or at least since the desire in us we call “art” encountered a bourgeois world? Think of Verocchio’s studio, the young Leonardo finding his way in there, Donatello to his right, someone we don’t remember to his left. As for our poets, after two years they are cast back into the diaspora of the American life—and marketplace—to try to make a living and keep their souls and dreams intact. How amazing that the most advanced capitalist society on earth should have so many of its children turning towards an art form that is bound to make them overworked and underpaid. Could it be that they have intuited that poetry can put them in contact with some necessary mystery, or value (or set of values), or sense of reality, that this narcotizing culture has increasingly deprived them of? Maybe they just want to wake up. As for why so many people write, come to readings, and so on—the reasons are the same.
Wunderlich: Some scholars have criticized poetry for retreating to the university and becoming too academic, suggesting American poets write only for other poets. How do you conceive of the audience for American poetry, and in your opinion, does the university dominate poetry in a way detrimental to the art?
Graham: Poets have always written for the people in their society who read poetry, and for the people who will read it in the future. More people are reading poetry now, proportionate to the size of the English-speaking population, than ever before. Partly that has to do with the literacy rate. Partly with the unconscious needs I touched upon above. Whether they read it well is another matter—one that involves how we conceive of education in this country, what we believe we educate our children for.
Our educational philosophies at present are so desperately specialized, so goal-oriented, we have forgotten that when we teach children we are not teaching content, or even “methods for learning,” but rather that we are helping a child’s intuition and emotions learn to operate in tandem with his or her conceptual intellect—stoking curiosity, that miraculous power that brings desire to bear on the mind. You can do this through any subject matter. And you effect different variations of that synthesis, that awakening, via different disciplines and fields of knowledge, to be sure. When you give a child poems (remembering, once the silence closes back over the end of the poem, not to ask “what does this mean?” but rather, “what did you feel?” or “what did you see?”), you are opening up different parts of his or her reading apparatus than fiction or drama or journalism open up. In fact, at present, only some forms of advanced science—particle physics for example—allow a young mind to experience the paradox, ambiguity, irrational thought, associative “leaping” any good poem teaches us to think and feel in. It opens those synapses in the brain. It always has. Once open, such minds can think differently in any field.
This is something that no other society on this planet other than ours has lost sight of. Whether it’s in Europe or Asia or the Middle East or Africa, every society teaches its poetry, its heritage in the form of poetry, to each succeeding generation of its people. It’s a way to train the mind and a way to pass on cultural values by which a society is held together. Italians would no more cease teaching D’Annunzio, or Petrarch, or Dante to their ten-year-olds than tear down the Roman Forum. It teaches them who they are. Most educational systems start early on, using poetry to teach memory skills, elocution, spelling, the sinewy economics of swift and persuasive rhetoric, and as if incidentally, the ways in which truth can make a sound in the ear that is recognizable by the ear—that wonderful intermediary between the heart and the mind.
With such an understanding of the power of the thing, it’s of course easy to see why those regimes that most want to suppress such knowledge often silence poets first off—or use “state-supported” poetry to indoctrinate. It’s also a testament to the power of the medium, how ineffective poetry has proven itself to be as an instrument of indoctrination. How much more successfully music can be used, for example, in this regard.
By the way, we, on this continent, did, for a long time—maybe two centuries—teach poetry beautifully to our children. Just look at any McGuffey Reader, or at the generations of novelists, historians, playwrights, and legislators we spawned whose concerns and rhythms of thought and ambitions are so clearly stained by their early love of poetry. The rhythms, images, and language of the Bible also exerted a much greater force, then, in educating a mind to think and feel the rhythms of meaning—training it to arrive at thought via such instruments as syntax and diction and image. Just learning to read a parable invites a very different—and very precious, very accurate—notion of what we mean by “reading”—as well as a trust that larger quotients of “not-knowing” are involved in that sensation we call “understanding”—as well as pleasure in that sensation (Keats would have called it “negative capability,” of course).
Wunderlich: How do you think these changes came about?
Graham: As far as I can gauge, it’s only after World War II that a rationalist approach to the teaching of poetry began to set in, and along with it methods that diminish its power and mystery. What would you do if, after you’d just heard “and miles to go before I sleep, / and miles to go before I sleep”—and the silence that sweeps back over that—your teacher asked: what does the poet mean by those lines? And you want to say—your heart wants to say—he means: he has miles to go before he sleeps. He means what he says. But your teacher explains that, no, it’s a poem “about” the desire to commit suicide. Now, it might well be a poem that leads, eventually, in that direction, but it’s not primarily a cryptograph. Nor is it primarily a Rorschach stain, or philosophy in a can, whose opener is safely tucked in the pocket of the teacher. It’s primarily what it says it is. Under such conditions, though, who wouldn’t think, well, this stuff is in code, and it’s a code I’ll never crack. Under such conditions it might very well turn off its most crucially necessary readers and end up attracting those most interested, in fact, in breaking codes. That might explain the generation of critics we have inherited as well.
At any rate—although later on in life, once the passion has taken hold, a critical capacity is a wondrous, thrilling thing to develop—I suggest, at the start, letting kids memorize and recite poems, as they do in Europe, South America, and Asia. Let the poem into the body, to begin with, without the priestly caste—(or the priestly cast in each of us, the “the irritable reaching after fact and reason”)—being allowed to interfere with the poem’s magic. Let the trust develop between the young reader and the sense of form. Let the strangeness first feel like beauty. Let the young reader intuit that poetry is a form of communication where “something else” is always being said along with what is being said, without them feeling that those apparent slippages involve trickery, or contradiction or “difficulty.” Let their senses do the reconciling and “decoding”—the body is awfully smart, especially in those young enough to still “get” its ways of communicating, those whose intuition hasn’t yet been jammed by a sordid—or psychologically insecure—relationship to “fact” and “knowledge.” Later on, when the will-to-power comes into the act of reading, they will have a base of rust, a love, on which to lean, off which to grow, a lifelong relationship with the thing.
Wunderlich: What do you make of the constant attacks, in the media, on the so-called mediocrity, or banality, of so much American poetry?
Graham: It is a little tiresome to listen to the various public complaints about the state of poetry—complaints the media loves to encourage so that they can be forgiven for turning a blind eye on a medium that, I imagine, must be frustrating for the amount of work it seems to exact from them as readers—(one does, after all, have to read the stuff to keep fluent in its ever-changing language). As for some of the public frustrations—on both ends of the spectrum—(“it’s too banal,” “it s too hard”)—I have two feelings.
One is that there have always been different kinds of poetry written at any given moment—what I refer to, sometimes, as an AM track and an FM track—and a culture needs the variety. Some poets are writing an easy-listening kind of poem—it doesn’t interest me particularly, but it does interest a large readership. It moves them. They have a right to be so moved. And those poetries shouldn’t be constantly compared to poetries that have other aims, other ambitions. No one accuses rock music of not being jazz, or opera.
As for the presence of so much failed or mediocre or formulaic work piling up around the ostensible “real thing”—that also seems to me a normal and healthy process. In a great pyramid, most of the stones are inside—not polished, not perfect. Some, very few, are the visible, sharp-edged outside stones by which we feel we know the pyramid to be a pyramid. In poetry, some of us are laying the inside stones. Some of us those shiny outer edges. The aim is to build the glorious thing. And if you look back at any period in the history of poetry in this language there are really so very few poets whose work endures—rarely more than two or three in a generation—and yet all that “poorer” work was always being written, all around them, perhaps in some crucial way actually permitting them to do their work. How often one finds the stated “major influence” on some magnificent poet to be some “minor” poet whose work simply doesn’t make any real sense as an influence on the “great” one. Who knows what we all give each other—it’s such a mysterious process. And yet, somehow, letting everyone add their share, century after century, it gets done.
What amazes me—in regards to the media’s fascination with this so-called problem—is why they re so obsessed with poetry. Where are the articles about the mediocre composers—(allowing some as-yet-unknown genius to pick up a seed of an idea)—where the “concerned” attacks on the vast array of minor talents thickening the world of painting, or the third-rate scientists, the uninspired, derivative architects? Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s no money to be made in poetry that secretly enrages the media—as if the willingness to undertake such un-lucrative work casts a hard stare back at the marketplace, one that awakens secret (albeit unnecessary) guilts. After all, most critics, most journalists, most writers, were once dreamers—were even, perhaps, once secret writers of poetry. Life changes us, as it must. But all ex-dreamers are mildly irritated by the naiveté (sometimes, indeed, the irritating earnestness) of those who have been able, for one reason or another, to keep something of youth’s idealism alive in their chosen work.
Mark Wunderlich is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry, Chelsea, and elsewhere and are forthcoming in Quarterly West. In 1996-97, he was a poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
The preceding interview originally appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of American Poet, the quarterly journal of The Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 1996 The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. For subscription information, please call (212) 274-0343, Ext. 13, or click here.
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