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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Salmagundi, Volume 120, p.244-275 (1998)


The End of Beauty; The Errancy; Region of Unlikeness; Materialism; Dream of the Unified Field


Spiegelman discusses the work of poet Jorie Graham, comparing her most recent work, The Errancy, with previous works, including Erosion, The End of Beauty, and Region of Unlikeness.


"Description is an element, like air or water."
-Wallace Stevens, "Adagia"

Wallace Stevens' laconic aphorism might serve as a point of entry into the sternly alluring, fiercely defiant sensibility of Jorie Graham, who may now be the most important poet of her generation. But exactly what kind of poet is she? By turns descriptive, lyric, speculative, and narrative, Graham has forged her career by re-inventing poetic genres, by breaking down and then reforming boundaries. More specifically, Graham has reimagined the very transactions between the poet's eye and the visible world. Whereas the major tradition of poetic description has meant keeping one's sight steadily upon one's subject (the line that runs from Wordsworth through Hopkins down to such diverse lookers-on or lookersat as A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, and Charles Tomlinson), Graham has alighted upon a new vantage point; refusing to look evenly and patiently, she veers nervously, cross-cutting from one item, gesture, scene, or thought, to another.
In this essay I shall discuss the constantly changing experiments with looking and describing in her earlier books: Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991), and Materialism (1993). The Errancy,Graham's most recent book, is reviewed elsewhere in these pages. In many ways, it moves backward, returning to shorter poems, lyric impulses, lush lines that Hopkins might have ghost-written. But it never succumbs to ease of feeling or to "mere" description, nor does Graham here repeat herself. Each of her books is different from the others, but certain patterns have emerged, allowing us to identify relations among the volumes instead of studying them sequentially.