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Introduction: Something of Moment
By Jorie Graham
I picked these poems, and, except for a few instances, the editors of Ploughshares picked the prose. I picked these poems for the same reasons most readers linger on poems when they come upon them, reasons similar in spirit, no doubt, to those given by most writers invited to guest-edit these pages. I hope those reasons feel clear to you, as you read.
As I like to present a few pieces by each person, so one can get a sense of the range, or the voice, or the temperament, of a given sensibility, I couldn’t pick as many poets’ poems as I would have wished. Poems not only obviously contextualize each other, but they build up a sense of a speaker-in-a-predicament—and an ancillary sense of what they find most urgent, what compelled them to break the silence and ask us to listen in the first place. Asking for another’s time is, after all, quite a large request.
In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of a place that matters—a place one suffered the loss of, a place one longs for—a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) “takes place.” And although it is, most traditionally, a literal place—Roethke’s greenhouse, Frost’s woods, Bishop’s shorelines—often, too, a historical “moment”—especially the very conflagatory “now” of one’s historical-yet-subjective existence—is felt as a location that compels action, reaction, and the sort of re-equilibration which a poem seeks. A break in the comprehensible, in the morally absorbable—a fissure in the spirit’s sense of just cause and effect, in a line of thought that can feel “true”—can constitute trigger-occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.
All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a “turn” is required. Even the apparently simple discovery of disorienting “places” in the fabric of language itself—in its nature as a tool—which awaken one to uneasiness with one’s own, or one’s culture’s, desire, for instance, can raise the heat for a soul and make it feel the poetic need to turn and return. Such “places” always feel—in the poems that persuade me to listen—like “real” places, however non-material, or ungrounded in apparent “situation” they might at first appear. One of the side effects of the heated discourse over what constitutes a “sufficient” occasion for poetry—and of the unfortunate frustration some readers have suffered over feeling “left out” of the “secret” occasion of much contemporary poetry (or, worse, the assumption that there is no shared or shareable human occasion behind it—or, even worse, that there is, in fact, no occasion at all behind it, that it is just a self-indulgence, a thing “made of words”) is a wondrous elaboration and expansion of this troubled notion of what, in fact, constitutes a “cry” of an occasion, and what can be transmitted to an other of that “occasion” without an overt naming or rhetorical delineating of it. This is one of the great openings modernism left for its inheritors to explore—and one which, because it so fruitfully links up with the equally “difficult” science and philosophy and music of our era, is evident everywhere in the exciting work of this historical moment—here and elsewhere.
So what I hope you find here are poems that represent the complexities of this moment. Poems in which a set of formal procedures, repeated and varied upon, create a mental place, on which actions—human actions—can be gauged as having this or that character, and with which a reader can, in the end, “identify.” As that last term is freighted—as I have indicated—by almost a century’s worth of theoretical debate I like, to simplify matters for myself, to render the process of “reading” as some version of “being allowed and enabled by the craft of the poet to do the emotional and intellectual work the poem is asking me to do.” If there are images being used, for example—not just objects or pictures, but those mysterious chambers of deepening emotive resonance, those meaning-charged clusters that, if undertaken by the senses of the reader, do yield sensorial “content”—for example—then I want to be made able, by the formal virtues of the poem, to undergo them. If I find myself unable to do the work the poet asks for, I can’t proceed with the poem, and it will remain private to the poet. The same applies to the whole rest of the palate of available actions in the poem: the architecture of rhetoric, the ideas, the musical modulation that invokes story, the turns of mind, the acoustic activity—how it generates its own chambers of echoing meaning—and so on. I love poems where I can do what the poet asks. Doing what I am asked to do is deeply different from interpreting what the poet means.
In addition, I love being asked to do something I haven’t done before—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, even visually: something—an experience—which already, indeed, exists in the world (and is true, therefore), but which presents a path to itself, or through itself (a “work-path,” I would say, so a “journey”) I haven’t traveled before.
And I love, having undertaken the journey of that poem—be it a journey which is a more purely linguistic one, or a plot-driven story, or a leaping, dream-like, associative wandering—I love when it feels bright, alive, full of the quick flashes of discovery. “To be touched” is one of the common ways readers of poetry describe a good reading experience. I like that stripped-down phrase. I like the sensation of something that feels corporeal reaching out to find what is corporeal in me, finding the portals where that sensorial access moves up pathways to mind, and spirit. What a miracle it is, each time a poem takes place: that these phonemes would build up to the flesh of touch, and that someone would infuse that capacity to touch with a good reason to require touch, a necessary, true, and urgent reason to put out their hand, grip one, and say, See here, can you spare a moment, here, here.