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Journal Article


Henry, Brian


Antioch Review, Volume 56, Issue 3 (1998)


Errancy; End of Beauty

Full Text:

Exquisite disjunctions, exquisite arrangements: Jorie Graham's 'Strangeness of Strategy'

Brian Henry

"... the act of writing ... grows dead and automatic if not

constantly reinvigorated by strangeness of strategy."

(Letter from Jorie Graham to Charles Wright, quoted in Quarter Notes.)

In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins reluctantly admits, "I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living." This confession stems primarily from Hopkins's recognition of some of his own prosodic strategies in Whitman's work. Although dissimilar in many respects, the bard from Brooklyn and the Jesuit indeed share rhythms and certain poetic attitudes; and the impacts of the pious Hopkins and of his iconoclastic doppelganger on contemporary poetry have been considerable. Because of Whitman's bold and boisterous example and Father Hopkins's equally bold yet devout one, it is somewhat surprising that few recent American poets have succeeded in fashioning a compelling poetic strategy out of the long line. Concentrated in the hands of a small number of poets, it seems more an aberration than an inheritance. 

Perhaps the long line is just more difficult to write than the more manageable tetrameter or pentameter line. As it approaches the right margin, the poetic line flirts, often anxiously, with the boundaries of prose, requiring the poet to be even more attentive to language in order to avoid an attenuation of linguistic energy. Because, as Charles Wright has written, the "line must be strong all the way through and not end in a dying fall" (Halflife), the long line increases the poet's debt to language. Few poets can satisfy the burden of that debt. 

The long line is like a custom-made yet temperamental bed: even the poets who have made it part of their furniture seldom settle into it. John Ashbery, of course, has used the long line in the past, is currently using it, and undoubtedly will continue to use it (along with short and medium-length lines); but the long line is not central to his style, perhaps because his very prolificness and scope prohibit him from dwelling in a single style. The long line establishes the music and logic of Hayden Carruth's singular and stunning collection Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (long line=long title), but Carruth has since abandoned it in favor of trimmer lineation. In his preface to The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979, James Dickey refers to his poems in long lines ("Falling," "May Day Sermon," "The Fiend," "The Eye-Beaters") as being in "block format," where each line is "comprised of several short 'internal' ones," lending a staccato fluidity to the poems. With "The Zodiac," however, Dickey attempts to launch himself--macho outdoorsman become astronaut--into space; and throughout the rest of his career the long line appears sporadically in his poems, many of which venture into the sort of typographical, spatial, and visual experiments that had amused or irritated him in the poetry of Charles Olson and his acolytes. Allen Ginsberg strides into the long line and the Whitmanesque catalogue most famously in "Howl," returning to them throughout his career, most notably in "Kaddish," "Sunflower Sutra," "Mind Breaths," "Magic Psalm," and "Mugging," and most aptly in "A Supermarket in California." Although Ginsberg never forsakes the long line and catalogue, his use of them becomes increasingly prolix. 

But some poets have been more consistent in their predilection for lines that test, and transgress, the right margin. C.K. Williams has made it his m.o., but when his lines are not simply prosaic, they often sag under the weight of his pronouncements: "No, this has nothing to do with your omissions or sins or failed rectifications, but mine: / to come so close to a life and not comprehend it, acknowledge it, truly know it is life" ("Secrets"). If Hopkins believed that "Sprung rhythm makes verse stressy," a poet like Williams (who edited The Essential Hopkins and therefore should know better) would benefit from more stressiness in his verse. Since 1980, Charles Wright's poetry has sought a "long image-freighted line (the odd marriage of Emily and Walt) that can carry information (and 'sincerity') and a lyric intensity at the same time" (Halflife). His imbricated lines visually create a scaffolding across which his own brand of music is played: 

Sunlight reloads and ricochets off the window glass.

Behind the cloud scuts,

inside the blue aorta of the sky,

The River of Heaven Flows

With its barge of stars,

waiting for darkness and a place to shine.

("Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li Po")

Until Wright concocted his special blend of Dickinsonian compression and Whitmanesque proportion, American poetry lacked, and needed, a poet willing and able to adopt, inhabit, and revitalize the long line. 

Most recently, Jorie Graham has confronted this tradition by using and reinvigorating the long line in her poems. Although still in midcareer, she has established herself as one of the most thoughtfully unpredictable--as opposed to capriciously unpredictable--poets writing today. Like Wright, she has succeeded in introducing Dickinson's abrupt syntax and cadences into the sprawling Whitman line. Although Wright's lines might appear more fractured on the page than Graham’s, her linebreaking actually is less orderly (Wright counts every syllable, preferring odd syllable counts, and uses regular stanzas) and is all the more severe because of her fluctuating line lengths and predominantly irregular stanzas as well as her refusal to inhabit a single line-breaking strategy from book to book or within a single book. 

In her essay "Jorie Graham : The Moment of Excess," Helen Vendler celebrates and articulates the import of Graham’s switch from the short line to the long line after her second collection, Erosion (1983). Graham’ Vendler' s reason for dividing Graham’s work into two styles on the basis of line length rests upon her belief that the change from the short line to the long line is "almost more consequential, in its implications, than any other." While Vendler's enthusiasm for poets who are inclined to "break" earlier styles is warranted, her critical apparatus in this essay plays down the importance of other stylistic differences in Graham’s work. The progression from the short line to the long line in Graham’s poetry is certainly worth consideration, but it seems less significant than another stylistic divide in Graham’s poems, noted but unexamined by Vendler: that between the left-justified poem of dramatically varying line lengths--from one to twenty-one syllables-and the poem with alternately indented lines. This split occurs primarily in The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991), and Materialism (1993). Although there are exceptions (no poetry can or should satisfy a single formula, however extensive the formula or devoted the formula-maker), the first type of poem tends to be shorter, more lyrically propulsive, more accessible, and less disjunctive than the second type of poem, which usually extends to several pages and, with its numerous unexpected dashes, parentheses, blanks, ellipses, and questions, actively resists the "kinetic flow" ("The Way Things Work") that characterizes her earliest poems. Graham’s complex syntax initiates a series of grammatical disruptions that are instances of conflict for a poet visibly working against her own music and eloquence. This disjunctive lyricism--a lyricism struggling against itself--creates one of the primary dramas of her poems. 

Because these poems contain so much flux--linguistic, psychological, emotional--they clearly are not offered as passive artifacts. Therefore, the memorability of a Graham poem presents readers with the familiar but unresolved issue of form and memory. Traditionalists and for realists would argue--and some have--that Graham’s poems are not memorable because they do not rhyme or scan regularly, because they demonstrate a mind working rather than the polished product of a finished thought, and because they eschew or subvert plot and narrative. But if the reader works to engage them, Graham’s poems are provocative and memorable. Their memorability resides not just in the various enactments--physical, philosophical, spiritual, visual--in them, but in the reader' s experience of sifting through, struggling with, succumbing to--experiencing--the poems. Graham privileges enactment over mimesis, and Stevens's adage "To read a poem should be an experience, like experiencing an act" seems especially pertinent to her poems. 

More recently, Graham has developed a third significant style: a hybrid of the other two, it is left-justified and violently disrupts its lyrical momentum as well as the poet's syntax and mental processes. To refer to this new style as a "hybrid" risks implying that it merely repackages Graham’s two primary styles, when in fact most of the poems in this new style add a distinctive element: the Hopkins "hanger" or "outride" (also called "outrider"), which displaces a word or phrase at the end of a line and, rather than indent it (as Williams does) or drop it immediately below where it should be (as Wright does), positions it near the right margin as a miniline. In Hopkins's preface to his poetry manuscript, published after his death, he explains the hanger and outrider as "licenses" he allows in his theory of sprung rhythm, defining them as "one, two, or three slack syllables added to a foot ... so called because they seem to hang below the line or ride forward or backward from it in another dimension than the line itself." Graham’s outriders, however, are rarely slack; they not only hang at the right margin, but ride the crest of the white space before them, actively occupying the page and forcing the reader to read down the page as well as across it. Although not innovative in itself, the outrider in Graham’s recent poems has contributed to a major new style. No other poet has written this way before. 

This style appears as early as The End of Beauty ("Vertigo," "The Veil"), but does not emerge with any frequency until Materialism ("The Dream of the Unified Field," both poems titled "In the Hotel," several of the "Notes on the Reality of the Self," individual sections of "The Break of Day," "Opulence," "Young Maples in Wind," and her ars poetica "The Surface"). By incorporating intense musicality, familiarity (most readers have encountered a left-justified poem before), syntactical disjunction, unpredictable lineation (from a monosyllabic word to twenty-eight syllables), and spatial disturbance, her new style is both recognizable and unsettling. And it requires most readers to revamp their approach to poetry. Graham employs this style in nearly all of the poems in her most recent collection, The Errancy (of the thirty-eight poems in the book, only "Manteau" and twelve lines of "Flood" use the alternately indented lines that characterize many of Graham’s earlier poems, and fewer than half a dozen poems avoid the outrider), and the style establishes the vigor of most of the poems. 

But Graham emboldens this new style even further in The Errancy by introducing the double outrider in five poems ("Flood," "How the Body Fits on the Cross," "Emergency," "The Scanning," "The Turning"), yet again pursuing and attaining the"strangeness of strategy" that for her revitalizes "the act of writing": 

over the short wet grass--bunchy--the river behind presenting



("The Scanning")

Of course, style and stylistic shifts, however dazzling, do not make a poet worth reading. For Graham, such style-shedding and -creating has more than aesthetic purposes: "... the taking on, only apparently arbitrary, of stylistic devices--the inhabiting of them until they become the garment of one's spirit life, the method by which one touches the world, the means by which one can be touched oneself, and changed. ... The changes I made in my 'technique' are changes that occurred to my life: I became the person I couldn't have otherwise been by these small devices, habits" (Quarter Notes). Graham’s ability to make her "small devices" and "habits" more than superficial changes in technique affirms the coexistence of stylistic development and inner change in her poems. 

Similarly, if Graham had nothing to say in her poems, her poetry, despite its stylistic bravura, would be unremarkable, for style devoid of subject matter is "the spider web without the spider--it glitters and catches but doesn't kill" (Wright, Halflife). But Graham’s poetry constantly pursues large subject matter: the interactions among personal, historical, and metaphysical forces or, in her own words, "... my whole past (family, inheritance, the problematics of memory--historical and personal--the history, the wars Europe endured, etc.)" (Quarter Notes). This insistence upon her "whole" past accounts for the ambition of her project as well as its immensity. Her epigraph to The Errancy-"Since in a net I seek to hold the wind" (from Wyatt's well-known sonnet "Whoso list to hunt: I know where is an hind")--succinctly and confidently declares the primary aim of the poems that follow. 

In her previous book, Materialism, Graham seems more content to watch and describe the wind than catch it, whereas in The Errancy she seems more grounded and purposeful. The first and last outriders in Materialism and The Errancy inform Graham’s main preoccupations in each volume. In Materialism, "presence" and "permanences" point to the philosophical and metaphysical atmosphere of the book, which includes many passages from thinkers such as Plato, Sir Francis Bacon, Audubon, Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin. In The Errancy, "debris" and "unused"--on the lowest rung of the physical hierarchy-illuminate the primary shift in focus between the books: Graham has descended somewhat from the heights of philosophical discourse to the grittier plains of human experience. Although she never has shunned or avoided human experience in her poems, The Errancy is devoid of the philosophical passages that populate Materialism, and many of the poems in The Errancy rely heavily on sensory experiences. Because "The eye only discovers the visible slowly" ("Le Manteau de Pascal"), these poems do not reside wholly in the visible "world of things" ("The Guardian Angel of the Private Life"); but they inhabit recognizable terrain as they explore the poet's personal map of that world, operating mostly "between the pleats of matter and the pleats of the soul" ("The Guardian Angel of the Swarm"). Throughout the collection, certain words call attention to Graham’s vacillation between the tactile and the intangible, neither of which excludes sensual perception. She gravitates toward a vocabulary of vision ("gaze," "stare," "squint," "look," and especially "glance," variations of which appear at least two dozen times), transformation ("arrange," "rearrange," "changed," "changing"), ascension ("rising," "upwards," "lifting," "updraft," "upthrust"), luminosity ("gossamer," "filament," "radiant," and especially "gleaming" and "glinting"), turbulence ("roiling," "foaming," "swirling," "floating," "swarming," "teeming"), boundaries ("edges," "hinge," "folds," "gate," "doorway," "window," "pane"), incipience ("unfolding," "awaken," "blossoming"), and stasis ("settling," "restored"). These words contribute to the moods, movement, and textures of the poems in the book, and their recurrence from poem to poem establishes various threads--lexical, emotional, imagistic--among the poems. 

As the five poems titled "Notes on the Reality of the Self' and the five "Self-Portrait" poems contribute to the cohesiveness of Materialism and The End of Beauty, respectively, the six "Guardian Angel" poems and the seven "Aubades" outwardly distinguish The Errancy as an autonomous book rather than as a collection of disparate poems. This cohesiveness is further enhanced by the various companion poems in the book--"The Strangers" and "Studies in Secrecy," "The Scanning" and "So Sure of Nowhere Buying Times to Come," "Untitled One" and "Untitled Two," "Oblivion Aubade" and "Sea-Blue Aubade," "Red Umbrella Aubade" and "The Hurrying-Home Aubade," and "Le Manteau de Pascal," "Manteau," and "The Guardian Angel of the Storm"--and by the crepuscular poems--"The Scanning," "The Erfancy," "Little Requiem," "The Strangers," "Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air," and "Recovered from the Storm"--which pivot against the aubades. 

Although many of the poems in The Errancy begin by focusing on a quotidian detail or action--sitting in the car during a traffic jam, arranging flowers, watching a crow on a powerline, going outside after a storm, walking along a river--their persistent veerings into territories brimming with complexities make Graham’s poetry anything but ordinary. Her ability to locate the metaphysical within the mundane depends upon her manner of perception and how things fare in "the open sea of [her] / watching" ("Willows in Spring Wind: A Showing"). Always aware that "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never" (Stevens, "The Well Dressed Man With a Beard"), Graham’s mind in these poems is both terrible (sublime) and inviting (beautiful): 

The monster of the mind moves easily among its marls,

... moves gently over the playing field,

dragon of changes and adjustments,

mightiness of redefining and refinement.

("In the Pasture")

In her poems--as in the poetry of poets like Stevens and Ashbery-objects are secondary to her perception(s) of them. This relationship between the interior world of the poet and the exterior physical world repeatedly manifests itself in her poems, most strikingly in "Thinking," which is a revision of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Here the blackbird is a crow, continually altered by the poet's gaze ("It was a version of a crow, untitled as such, tightly feathered / in the chafing air"; "All round him air / dilated, as if my steady glance on him, cindering at the glance-core where / it held him tightest, swelled and sucked"; "If I squint, he glints"; "his hive of black balance"; "Every now and then a passing car underneath causing a quick rearrangement") until the bird's gaze acquires its own transformative power: "[the crow] eyeing all round, disqualifying, disqualifying / all the bits within radius that hold no clue / to whatever is sought. ..." When the crow finally moves from the powerline, Graham’s description and rhythms recall these lines from Hopkins's "The Windhover": 

... how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and


Rebuffed the big wind. ...

Few poets would even try to emulate such splendor, but Graham’s baroque lines hold up well in comparison: 

then wing-thrash where he falls at first against the powerline,

then updraft seized, gravity winnowed, the falling raggedly

reversed, depth suddenly pursued, its invisibility ridged--bless


until he is off, hinge by hinge, built of tiny wingtucks,


of flapped-back wind. ...

Here, and elsewhere in the book, Graham composes a muscular music based largely on iambs and spondees, constructing a brilliant verbal mosaic that accretes as it courses (consider the subtle and lissome thread that connects "gravity," "raggedly," "ridged," "hinge by hinge," and "wingtucks," or "falling," "suddenly," "invisibility," "bless him," "built," "filament," and "flapped-back"). 

Graham’s treatment of the crow in "Thinking" illuminates the primary role of the poet in The Errancy: arranger and rearranger. This "blessed rage for order" can seem quite commonplace: 

Am I supposed to put them back together--

these limbs, their leaves, the tiny suctioned twig-end joints--?

these branches shoved deep into my silky glance--?

these maples' outtakes streaked over the lawn--their thorns,

their blithe

footnotes ...? And the trellis cracked from the weight of the


And the boxelder standing like an overburdened juggler--

("Recovered from the Storm")

The effectiveness of this ekphrasis, applied to storm debris instead of to the customary work of art, is heightened by Graham’s strategy of seeming to exhaust her catalogue in each line. "[T]hese limbs, their leaves, the tiny suctioned twig-end joints" would sufficiently convey an image of the aftermath of a storm, but Graham continues to raise the ante in a list that culminates with a startling and precise simile. This sort of imagistic arrangement, and subsequent rearrangement, emerges as one of Graham’s most compelling descriptive strategies. 

But Graham’s question in "The Errancy"--"What was it was going to be abolished, what / restored?"--recognizes the destructive possibility of this process of arrangement and rearrangement: as soon as something is gained, something else is lost. Graham, therefore, is often self-corrective in her arrangements, refocusing her lens ("The angel was on the telephone. / No, Jacob was on the telephone"), questioning her own perceptions ("I tried to house it--no, I tried to gorge it"), or rewriting her own words ("one ribbony with bits of valor, / or is it stringy now with blips of laughter?"). The dynamic between abolishment and restoration establishes the tension of many of these poems, and it announces itself in the beginning of the first poem in the book, "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia": 

Shall I move the flowers again?

Shall I put them further to the left

into the light?

Will that fix it, will that arrange the


By assigning "thing" its own line, Graham brings increased attention to her preoccupation with arrangement, highlighting the poetic activity as well as the physical one she performs in the poem. Moving the flowers during a party while the guests sit downstairs "stuffing the void with eloquence" becomes a social act--it facilitates a "setting for their fears, / and loves"--as well as a part of "all these tiny purposes, these parables, this marketplace / of tightening truths." Although Graham distrusts loquacity, with its "tiny carnage / of opinions" and "whips of syntax in the air," in herself and others (an idea that appears prominently in "Against Eloquence," a forty-five-line poem with thirty-seven dashes and seven questions), she knows that lyric poets, "wanting only that the singing continue, / if only for a small while longer" ("How the Body Fits on the Cross") must sing, no matter how temporary the song. The social transaction--her "little utopia"--implied by moving the flowers leads Graham to a line from Henry Vaughan's "Distraction"-toward language--before she relies on the gaze rather than on language in the final gesture of the poem: 

Oh knit me that am crumpled dust,

the heap is all dispersed. Knit me that am. Say therefore. Say

 philosophy and mean by that the pane.

Let us look out again. The yellow sky.

With black leaves rearranging it. ...

By ending "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia" with the gaze, and by directing that gaze out the window, Graham engages in a discourse between interior and exterior space that appears throughout The Errancy, most prominently in her aubades: 

Get up, get up. You are to walk and talk again, and breathe, and


And breathe.

Any manner of want, any world will do--any tint of mind--

lift up the shade.

("Spelled from the Shadows Aubade")

This sort of self-admonition frequently galvanizes Graham into action, turning her from the interior space she inhabits to the unknown exterior space beyond the window, with the eye itself becoming a threshold: "my eye, my flapping / doorway-in. ... Or, no, not flapping, not even mildly tethered to a blessed / randomness, no, just stuck ajar. ... " ("Miscellaneous Weights and Measures"). 

For Graham, the dialectic between interior and exterior, with the window as one threshold and the eye as another, is especially meaningful at daybreak, between the "winglike silences of just-before-dawn" ("Red Umbrella Aubade") and "the dawn like something rusty starting its engines up again" ("The Hurrying-Home Aubade"). However, Graham’s aubades are never conventional morning songs. "The End of Progress Aubade" and "The Hurrying-Home Aubade" continue, from The End of Beauty, her examinations of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Poised on the verge of daylight, these poems seem appropriate channels to a tale poised on the edge of the underworld. In the similarly innovative "Easter Morning Aubade," the backdrop for the tension between interior and exterior is physical and psychological rather than architectural: "She tried to clench the first dawnlight inside her skull. / Tried to feel it slather in there and make a form." Instead of holding the exterior world at bay, or entering it only through the gaze, this "she" attempts to literally internalize it: 

Felt the meadows the light held inside its flowing coat,

sewn into there, silkiest lining--the seams, the property-lines


and pulled them in, and laid them down along the floor of it.

There was a green hill with a thin white road, she laid that in.

There was a speckling, as where cypress have been struck, in


to indicate approach, and then a temporary house--she drove

those in

and laid them flat in there.

Because Graham later introduces the sleeping soldiers who awaken "to the blazing not-there" in Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, the primary action of the poem seems to occur outside the picture frame and therefore outside the viewer's (and artist's) gaze. The violence of such landscape-leveling becomes its own reminder about the possible menace outside the window. 

When considered beside the aubades, the crepuscular poems seem even more aware of that menace. The actions of these poems, occurring at the end of day, seem at best wearisome and at worst terrifying. The "dread fatigue" that arrives with dusk resonates with one of Graham’s notes at the back of the book, from Linda Gregerson' s The Reformation of the Subject: "'discourse' derives from discurrere ('to run back and forth') as 'error' or errancy derives from errare (to wander). ... Knightly errancy, then, begins with a gaze. ..." Because of her reliance on the gaze, Graham follows the motions of discourse and errancy in these poems. Such to-and-froing after the initial gaze, and the ineluctable rearrangements that follow it, can be spiritually and physically exhausting, as in "The Errancy," which is an elegy for the "struck match of some utopia we no longer remember the terms of': 

here, we stand in our hysteria with our hands in our pockets,

quiet, at the end of day, looking out, theories stationary,

... Utopia: remember the sensation of direction we loved,

how it tunneled forwardly for us,

and us so feudal in its wake--

Because the aubades and crepuscular poems seem at odds with each other in the possibilities they present, it is significant that the last poem in the book, "Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air," is set at dusk. The poem presents a simple scene: a man dancing, "his hands to his heart," as "[t]he doorways of the little city / blurred." The despair that appears in the other crepuscular poems is absent in this oddly lighthearted and giddy poem, and even the violent undertone of its ending seems subdued in its domesticism: 

liberty spreading in the evening air,

into which the lilacs open, the skirts uplift,

liberty and the blood-eye careening gently over the giant earth,

and the cat in the doorway who does not mistake the world,

eyeing where the birds must eventually land--

These lines, cut short by a dash, close a book that begins with a question ("Shall I move the flowers again?"). By beginning and ending in indeterminacy, and by refusing to succumb to the kind of prolonged lyricism that leads to the now-conventional Rilkean epiphany of many poems, The Errancy effectively demonstrates Graham’s awareness of the problematics of closure, of eloquence, and of arrangement and rearrangement. This stance, neither original nor particularly rare, becomes both when established by a poet committed to serious arrangements and rearrangements of language, perception, and the inner life. If the "hysteria" initiated by the absence of "the sensation of direction" in The Errancy threatens to drag the poet into a deadening stasis, her hunger for such rearrangements allows her to avoid such languor. 

With her linguistic resourcefulness, metaphysical obsessions that yoke the philosophical to the personal, and keen eye and capacity for description, Graham already has fashioned a powerful body of work. Since The End of Beauty, her poetry has been working toward exquisite disjunctions and exquisite arrangements that question and adjust perception, defy closure, resist eloquence, disrupt syntax, revitalize lineation, and unabashedly examine the role of the poet in (shaping) the world. With The Errancy, she has further enriched her penchant for stylistic innovation while pursuing important subject matter and demonstrating intellectual and emotional energy. Consistently ambitious and accomplished, Graham undercuts her own ambition and accomplishments by shedding styles, scrutinizing and remaking older ones, and creating new ones. The ability to do so intelligently and meaningfully places her achievement alongside such poets as Berryman, Lowell, Carruth, Merrill, Ammons, Merwin, Ashbery, Rich, and Wright. And her determination to forge new styles with flair and daring testifies to the heights attainable through such stylistic vitality.