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Image and the Arc of Feeling

Poet Jorie Graham gives form to the thrumming of "final questions."


"In 1983, a pregnant Jorie Graham, a poet and teacher at the Iowa Writers Workshop, went to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an urgent question. At 33, Graham was married to fellow poet James Galvin; after many miscarriages, she was, she recalls, "very excited and extremely grateful to be carrying a child in what seemed like a successful pregnancy."

Yet Graham was also nervous. Of the women poets who had strongly influenced her work--Sappho, Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore--"Not one of them had children. They were all maidens for one reason or another, by choice or by sexual preference. I was extremely worried about this issue of creativity, ambition, scope--whether being a parent might slake certain desires that could press one's poetry to be more ambitious, pronounced, urgent. I didn't know what the relationship was between parenting and creativity. I was very serious about my work, and I also knew I was going to be a very hands-on mother. I went to Dickinson's house to sort of ask her for a clue."

Three women answered the door. "I thought, 'Oh my God, these are the Fates themselves in Dickinson's house.' They wouldn't let me in; I didn't know you were supposed to have an appointment. I was five months pregnant, and I wasn't from the East Coast. I really pleaded with them. At some point I burst into tears and said, 'Please, just let me see her room. That's all I want, to see the room.'

"They finally let me in, just to go up the stairs," Graham continues. "I knew where the room was. I'd seen it in photographs, and I looked immediately across to where her desk would be, where she had written all the poems. All I saw was a blank wall. My eyes sort of stroked down the wall and hit the floor, and there was a cradle, there, in place of her desk. A cryptic, typical Dickinsonian answer."

The three caretakers explained that the desk had departed the previous day, lent to Harvard's Houghton Library for an exhibit. The women had moved the cradle (which had once held Dickinson herself) up from the basement to occupy the space the desk had vacated. "The minute I saw the cradle, I knew I was going to name the child I was carrying Emily," Graham says. "As for my question, I still don't know the answer. The cradle wasn't an answer, it was a Zen koan--basically my question reformulated as an image. It was a riddle, just as most of Dickinson's work is ultimately a riddle."

Since then, some of the riddle's terms have been solved. Graham has published eight books of poems and won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize. In 1998, she became the first woman to hold what may be the most prestigious academic chair in American letters, Harvard's Boylston professorship of rhetoric and oratory, established in 1771. (Her predecessor was Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Litt.D '98, now Ralph Waldo Emerson poet in residence, who held the chair from 1984 to 1997.) Emily Galvin is a 17-year-old Harvard freshman, and the desk of her namesake, Emily Dickinson, is back in Amherst.

Jorie Graham can talk; asking her a question is like getting a drink from a fire hose. The poet is dazzlingly intense, articulate, erudite: her mind moves swiftly, with frequent digressions that suggest unseen reservoirs of knowledge. A short keening on John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash leads to some reflections on the Irish style of funeral and then to thoughts on death and the interweaving of soul and body. "We are this braided thing," she ends up musing. "Yeats speaks of 'this dying animal' that we each carry around."

The Iowa Writers Workshop is to American literature what Harvard Law School is to the U.S. Supreme Court: the launching pad for a disproportionate number of those who "make it." Founded in 1936 at the University of Iowa, the Workshop is the most famous writing school in the world: the M.F.A. program in poetry admits only about 4 percent of its applicants and can override university admissions requirements in favor of a gifted applicant with a dicey transcript. "We pay very little attention to anything other than the poetry," Graham says. "We hardly read the rest of the application."

The Workshop is intense. About 50 poets and 50 fiction writers are enrolled at a time. They live for two years in "a small town with four strong seasons and two good bars," Graham says. The 100 students probably agree on only one thing: writing is paramount. This committed atmosphere--a "kind of monastic apprenticeship to their own inner life, solitude, fears, and talent," in Graham's words--has produced remarkable results: Flannery O'Connor, John Irving, Mark Strand, James Tate, Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth, to cite a few famous graduates.

For most of the last quarter-century, the Workshop has been Graham's home base. She earned an M.F.A. there in 1978, for the first semester commuting weekly to Iowa City from Los Angeles, where she lived with her then-husband Bill Graham, son of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and her late husband, Philip L. Graham, LL.B. '39. A professor of English at Iowa from 1983 to 2000 (with stints as a visiting scholar at Harvard and elsewhere), Jorie Graham directed the poetry program for her last five years there.

She was a legendary teacher at Iowa, a place where poet John Berryman taught poet Don Justice, who taught Graham. She consciously identifies with that lineage. "There's a long history of poets teaching poets. There is no Keats without Keats reading Shakespeare and studying Shakespeare's technique. But teaching from beyond the grave, or in the classroom, really makes little difference. The essential questions are thrumming underneath every single moment of everyday life. Literature poses problems that I would call final questions: essential metaphysical, intellectual, emotional questions. Spiritual questions."

At Harvard, Dan Chiasson, a graduate student who has taken two of Graham's poetry workshops, says that she "bears down on our poems as though they were her own, treats them as real poetry. She thinks very, very hard about students' work, and students are moved by that, moved to give her something worth thinking about. Jorie is extremely available for one-on-one meetings, which can last two, three, or four hours. There's the feeling that in terms of your creative and imaginative life, she knows you better than you know yourself; Jorie can identify what the actual errand of your poem is--you may think it's about your family, but she shows you something elusive that may be even more important."

Graham brings an unusual degree of focus to her reading. "Reading is not something you learn well in most high schools in this country anymore," she says. "It's not about being able to read the surface and repeat the content. It involves being able to undergo the experience that the writer has undergone in the poem." For her, poetry and fiction use language in a special way--not to report or record experience, but to create experience in a manner that would be impossible without the medium of words. "In poetry, you have to feel deeply something inchoate, something which is coming up from a place that you don't even know the register of," she says. "So you learn techniques, you learn how to use language to have the experience of the poem instead of using it to report the experience; you learn how to be the protagonist of your poem instead of its narrator. It's a radical shift."

The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994 won Graham the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. "I'm not an urban poet," she says. "There's something truly baffling about one's encounter with the natural world, about contacting something so radically indifferent to one's presence. I have to turn to ethics, philosophy, and politics to navigate in it. It's not quite the same as the perhaps more understandable human world." Graham's poems often juxtapose some natural element with an arresting or devastating human event: say, a crow perched above a killing field--which, to the crow, is only a field.

On Martha's Vineyard, where Graham escapes on weekends when possible, she spends hours walking along beaches, through cemeteries and woods, scraps of paper in her pocket. "A pen is my walking stick, I can't take a walk without one," she says. On the beach, she might study the intertidal fringe: "I'm obsessed with life that lives half in water and half in sun, the evolutionary edge," she muses. "We ourselves are on an edge, due to the luck of mortality; one's spirit doesn't feel it is aging, but one's body does."

To write poetry, "I need to be in an apparently empty frame of mind, without the noise of thinking so hard," Graham says. "You are trying to hear the music of your own thinking in poetry, and if you have silence around you, it helps. I have never known where I'm going to start. Often there's a music, or sound, or an image that gnaws. It invites the senses to do a kind of work you don't quite have instructions for. Then questions attach themselves to a current that feels, perhaps, more ancient. A good poem is always a reaction, a moment of acute surprise that occurred in the soul of the speaker."

The literary critic who has written most extensively on Graham is Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, Ph.D. '60. Her 1996 book The Breaking of Style treats Hopkins, Heaney, and Graham, and Soul Says (1995), on modern poets, bears the same title as the final poem in Graham's 1991 collection, Region of Unlikeness. The poet's sizable oeuvre includes very little prose but more than 500 published poems, "a remarkably original body of writing, because no book repeats any other book," says Vendler. Graham explains: "You want to go somewhere you haven't been before. To remain an artist, you have to keep erasing your path behind you."

Yet there are some recurrent themes. Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980), Graham's first book, takes its title from Nietzsche's characterization of the human condition; it concerns "the match of the material and spectral sides of things," according to Vendler. Graham was a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute in 1982-83, a formative year for her work; Erosion (1983), which extended her reflections on matter and spirit, brought the poet wide recognition.

A later poem, "Band Practice" from Materialism (1993), illustrates Graham's magic at work. The speaker looks out from her home at bushes in the afternoon light. The light also glints off the instruments of a band practicing in a nearby field. The band is seen as a collective beast, but the bushes are not aware of the band; they can only feel light and wind. "It's about the self as a perceptual creature limited by its access pores--there is always something you are not equipped to take in," Vendler explains. "She's writing a poem about the self without saying 'I, me, my wife, my husband'--it's writing in a completely objective way.

"The weight of poetry in any given [Graham] book," Vendler adds, "is less confessional than Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, or Adrienne Rich, who mostly followed in the wake of [Robert] Lowell and were influenced by his confessional style." Instead, Graham tackles big issues of philosophy, religion, history, and politics: Region of Unlikeness, for example, opens with 10 epigraphs, including four from Saint Augustine and three from German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt," from Erosion, Graham explores the Holocaust, considering how the innocence of the word Buchenwald is lost forever. "History," from the same collection, describes a tree with a Nazi grenade embedded in it; when the tree is later cut down and burned as firewood, the grenade explodes. "I come from people who held slaves, and people who were put in ovens," Graham says. "So I have a sense there is very little one human being won't do to another."