Graham, Jorie 1950–

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Graham, Jorie 1950–

PERSONAL: Born May 9, 1950, in New York, NY; daughter of Curtis Bill (a scholar of religion and theology and head of Newsweek Rome bureau) and Beverly (Stoll) Pepper (a noted sculptor); married James Galvin (a poet), 1983; children: Emily. Education: Sorbonne (Paris); New York University, B.F.A., 1973; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1978.

ADDRESSES: OfficeHarvard University, Department of English and American Literature, 12 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

CAREER: Writer and teacher of poetry. Murray State University, Murray, KY, assistant professor of English, 1978–79; Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA, assistant professor of English, 1979–81; Columbia University, associate professor and Writer's Community workshop instructor, 1981–83; University of Iowa, professor of English and Writers' Workshop instructor, 1983–99; Harvard University, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, 1999–. Gives poetry readings.

MEMBER: The Academy of American Poets (chancellor, 1997–).

AWARDS, HONORS: Prize from Academy of American Poets, 1977; Young Poet Prize from Poetry Northwest, 1980; Pushcart Prize from Pushcart Press, 1980, for "I Was Taught Three," and 1982, for "My Garden, My Daylight;" award from Great Lakes Colleges Association, 1981, for Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts; grant from Ingram-Merrill Foundation, 1981; Bunting fellow at Radcliffe Institute, 1982; prize from American Poetry Review, 1982, for The Age of Reason and other poems; Guggenheim fellow, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985; Whiting award, 1985; MacArthur Foundation Grant, 1990; Academy of American Poets Lavan Award, 1991; Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1992; Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1996, for The Dream of the Unified Field: Poems, 1974–1994.



Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1980.

Erosion, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1983.

The End of Beauty, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1987.

Region of Unlikeness, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1991.

Materialism: Poems, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.

The Dream of the Unified Field: Poems, 1974–1994, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1995.

The Hiding Place (audio recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.

Karen Alkalay-Gut and Jorie Graham Reading Their Poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, October 19, 1995, (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1995.

The Errancy, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1997.

Jorie Graham and James McMichael Reading Their Poems in the Mumford Room, Library of Congress, March 12, 1998 (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1998.

Swarm, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Never: Poems, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2002.


(Editor, with David Lehman) The Best American Poetry 1990, Scribners' (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor) Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1996.

(With Jeannette Montgomery Barron) Photographs and Poems, Scalo (New York, NY), 1998.

Work represented in anthologies, including Golden Gate Harvest, edited by Philip Dow, 1983; Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, J.D. McClatchy, Vintage (New York, NY), 1990; and New American Poets of the '90's, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingar-ten, Godine (Boston, MA), 1992. Contributor of articles and poems to magazines, including American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Nation, New England Review, New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry Northwest. Poetry editor of Crazyhorse, 1978–81.

SIDELIGHTS: Jorie Graham writes, teaches, and evangelizes poetry. She is perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation, for, as Peyton Brien wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Graham is a poet who is "at the forefront of the effort to revitalize and redefine American poetry" by writing "deeply searching and skillfully wrought poems that emerge from her firsthand … experience of art, literature, history, and religious thought." When Graham replaced Nobel Laureate and poet Seamus Heaney as Boylston professor in Harvard's Department of English and American Literature and Language—a chair whose occupants date back to John Quincy Adams—she became the first woman to be awarded this position.

Born in New York City, Graham was reared and educated in Italy and France. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied philosophy, until she was expelled for participating in student riots. Returning to New York, she studied filmmaking at New York University. Graham was drawn to poetry, however, when she passed by a class being taught by poet and literary critic M.L. Rosenthal. Graham overheard him read the lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me." Graham is quoted on the Web site Connection as saying, "It was like something being played in the key my soul recognized."

Graham's love of art and philosophy are central to her work. The influences of her artist mother and theological scholar father, her ability to speak three languages, 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—and help explain the shape and flow of her poetry, what Brien sees as "a diachronic passage of events, one of ever-shifting and weaving patterns."

What emerges from these patterns is a constant exploration of 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.

Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts was called "as promising a first book as any recently published" by Dave Smith in American Poetry Review, due to Graham's "sustained control and a music not like anyone else's among us." The collection, which began as "a form of journal keeping," according to Brien, was built around her poems that appeared in periodicals; it derives its title from Nietzsche's characterization of human beings. Smith noted the influence of Wallace Stevens "and his verbal sleight of hand," which he found evident in Graham's preoccupation with what is real and what is not. Graham is not a poet who often finds answers, let alone arrives at closure in her poems; instead, she is "a poet of process more than completion," noted William Logan in Parnassus, making her what Brien called a "mysterious" poet who calls upon the human imagination to go beyond the limitation of human perceptions.

In Erosion, according to Helen Vendler in the New York Times Book Review, Graham "brings the presence of poetry into the largest question of life, the relation of body and spirit," and more specifically, "the split between body and mind, flesh and spirit," as Sven Birkerts observed in Boston Review. Graham told Ann Snodgrass, in an interview cited by Brien, that "Erosion seems to me a book about accountability, and accountability seems to me a very American obsession," especially with what Brien calls her "continuing preoccupation with moral experience." This is evident in the poem "Reading Plato" in which Graham describes a fisherman friend who ties flies in the winter for use in the summer, creating a body, the fly, that is created from the fly's image in the maker's mind, or what Peter Stitt in Georgia Review called "a Platonic notion, the ideal form of fly, which he is trying to translate into reality," and evident in the poem.

The End of Beauty presented a new direction for Graham's poetry, making what Sven Birkerts, writing in Voice Literary Supplement, saw as "a decisive turn—away from accessibility and resolution and into a realm of difficult ambiguity." Graham's poetry challenges readers on new levels in this volume, as the poems become shaped more by sentence than by stanza, more by collage than by continuation, more by consequence than by closure. Birkerts called this a kind of "flux and transformation" in which Graham "discovers in her narrative the critical or pivotal moment: she then slows the action to expose its perilous eventual consequences," though for Graham, the poem has always been more process than product. Helen Vendler believes that it is because Graham is exploring new territory that she must necessarily explore a new form to fit it, for "When poets shift ground, they shift form too," Vendler noted in the New Yorker. 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 that 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. Robert Miltner, writing in No Exit, saw similarities in many of Graham's poems in this collection to traits of the language poetry movement, especially in her use of the sentence as a measure equivalent to the poetic line, as in "Self-Portrait as Both Parties." It is such poetic experimentation that lead Jessica Greenbaum in Nation to note that "Graham's new poems are radically different not only from her previous ones, but from anything else around."

Region of Unlikeness is a sequence of poems which, according to Marjorie Marks in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, form "an extended meditation on the idea of history." Helen Vendler, writing in New York Review of Books, saw the book as one of tensions, the "grand metaphysical theme" being the tension between "existence and death" and the supplemental tensions of "openness versus shape" and of "continuity and closure, indeterminacy and outline, being and temporality, or experience and art." Where Region of Unlikeness moves forward from Graham's earlier works lies in its attempt to connect together these polarities through intersections in time and space, however disparate or oddly juxtaposed. Vendler noted that Graham moves beyond the linear story line and seeks to connect through what in "From the New World" she calls a "coil," so that resemblances spiral and interlace, prompting Vendler to note that "Deciphering the coiled sequencing of memory on different planes is the artist's task—finding (or inventing) likenesses in a region of unlikeness."

In its form and conception, Materialism: Poems shows the influence of Czeslaw Milosz's Unattainable Earth, in which the poet intersperses texts by other writers. In Graham's case, these include Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wittgenstein, and Dante. David Baker, writing in Kenyon Review, observes that "In many ways Materialism reads like a single, sustained poetic effort, a long poem whose methods strive toward a coherent stability," and which offers readers "an intermixture of songs and stories, of meditation, experiment, and assertion, of Graham's voice amidst the polyphonic chorus of others." This leads the reader, according to Annie Finch in North American Review, through interaction with both poet and included texts, to make "implicit connections that urge the reader to wrestle with the philosophical assumptions underlying Western Culture." The duality Graham explores in Materialism is the tension that results from the universal difficulty in perceiving and communicating the real, in how art is an attempt to express in some concrete way what humans experience through the senses, as evident in "Notes on the Reality of the Self." William Logan, in New York Times Book Review, saw a common pattern in the poems in this book: the poems "commonly begin with a small domestic crisis (taking a leotard to her forgetful daughter, picking up a dead monarch butterfly) and attend with an almost nightmarish intensity to the flux of mental phenomena that follows." Materialism, wrote Baker, "is a book about America, its Old World heritage and its perilous New World freedom and responsibility," and added that Jorie Graham is "a challenging and important poet, and Materialism shows her working at the height of her powers."

The Dream of a Unified Field, a selection of poems representing five books and spanning twenty years, received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1996, about which Graham told Timothy Cahill of Christian Science Monitor, "It made me very happy that the language of my medium, poetry, is situated among these other languages," that is, the "dramatic, novelistic, journalistic, poetic, biographical," all of which "seem to be searching for versions of what one would call 'the truth.'" Peter Sacks, in the New York Times Book Review, praised the book for allowing "followers of her rapid and ever-changing development to review her achievement to date," and, Paja Faudree commented in Village Voice Literary Supplement, this collection "verifies her status as one of our best living poets."

The Errancy takes its title from the old idea that erring is a way of learning from mistakes and miscues, as a way of discovery and movement, so that the poems in this collection, according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, describe "not so much our world but our turns of mind as we proceed without a theory of what we're doing," extending a process-orientation that has characterized Graham's poetry throughout her career, though in this book discovery learning is offered as the only valid method in a postmodern era devoid of a dominant set of cultural values and beliefs upon which one can rely. The polarities which dominate this book are "the very limits of language and meaning," according to Graham Christian in Library Journal, though, as James Longenbach noted in Nation, if "each of her books has interrogated the one preceding it," then "Errancy feels like a culmination," for the poet "is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a style—an exterior mark of an inner vision." This is a book of angels (the immaterial) and aubades (new beginnings), of "sophisticated meditations on identity, language and culture," notes Longenbach, who called Errancy Graham's "most challenging, most rewarding book" because it "provides all the satisfactions we expect from poetry—aural beauty, emotional weight—along with an intellectual rigor we don't expect. No one but Jorie Graham could have written it."

Swarm recalls the mythological past through archetypal women such as Calypso, Clytemnestra, Daphne, Eve, and Eurydice. Donna Seaman for Booklist remarked that the idea of the poem cycle "Underneath" is that "we feel the same passions and sorrows and ask the same questions our ancestors felt and asked since the dawn of our being." William Logan viewed the work in a different light, however. In New Criterion, he called the work "a pocket Inferno of poetic sins. Most of these poems," he wrote, "haven't been consigned to hell—they've just chosen to live there. The poet of Erosion and The End of Beauty now puts little of her intelligence into her work (little of her intelligence and less of her logic), the words hurled scrappily onto the page, the poetic line fussed with until it lies tangled like yarn." Josephine Balmer, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, was more positive in her assessment. She wrote, "The fractured lines and deconstructed forms of Graham's verse, however, suggest a more ambiguous fragmented relationship with this inherited [archetypal] tradition, which she casts as both blessing and curse … In Swarm, the past is a constant presence, which, in order to survive, we have both to escape and to understand—a burden we can neither baulk at nor evade, a treat we have long been denied.

Never: Poems, contains twenty-seven poems that originally appeared in publications such as the New Yorkerand the Times Literary Supplement. Of this, her ninth book of collected poems, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote, "More than anything else, this book shows Graham to be a most formidable nature poet, finding in her speaker's environment perfect analogues for states of consciousness."

Brien places Graham "among the most important poets in North American literature today," for, by her mid-forties, she had "already seen more of her work in print and achieved more honors than many poets hope to accomplish in a lifetime." The reason for her success is perhaps best expressed by Kenyon Review's Baker, who states that he "can 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."



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America, October 30, 1993, p. 17.

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Antioch Review, summer, 1984, pp. 363-74; fall, 1994, p. 659.

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Academy of American Poets Web site, (October 15, 2001), biography of Jorie Graham.

Connection Web site, (December 17, 1999), Christopher Lydon, "The Poetry of Jorie Graham."

Harvard University Gazette Web site, (October 7, 1999), Lee Simmons, "Jorie Graham, Ambassador for Poetry."

New York Times Web site, (January 2, 2000), Richard Eder, "A State of Withdrawal," review of Swarm.

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Graham, Jorie 1950–

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