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California Journal of Poetics, California (2011)


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Understanding Jorie Graham

An understanding of Graham’s body of work begins with the Modernists. A deep understanding requires knowledge of the work of major twentieth century philosophers … .

This article is intended to provide readers with a basic, accessible understanding of the context in which Jorie Graham writes. It describes her major influences, focusing on the most prominent philosophy, theory, and literary movements. In doing so, it leaves much out. Graham’s work has been the subject of a great deal of scholarship; see the list of works cited for academic sources that will provide a deeper understanding.

John G. Peters writes, of the context in which the High Modernist literary movement emerged, “the challenges to … Western views that appeared in the nineteenth century brought into question fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world and the nature of the universe. In this way, the moorings of Western civilization began to erode, and the very idea of absolute truths came under scrutiny” (Peters 41). Jorie Graham is a poet deeply influenced by the work of the High Moderns. Like them, she represents reality as being overwhelming; her poetry betrays a terror in the face of the “real” (what is beyond, and inscrutable to, the body and its senses); and she emphatically rejects old Enlightenment views concerning the ability to “know” anything about the world or the human condition. Like other post-structuralist writers, however, she does not believe that a writer can, or should, represent human experience as accurately as possible through literary style. In fact, language can only get in the way of a true understanding of the world around us.

The overwhelming nature of reality was one of the primary concerns of the Modernists, and it is one of Graham’s concerns as well. Prior to Modernism, Philip Weinstein writes that narrative was “fashioned to escape the unknowing of sheer presence” (300). Such narrative, in keeping with Enlightenment views, “moves with a systolic-diastolic rhythm of eventual progress and enlightenment, of coming to know the territory,” as in the works of Enlightenment poets like John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert, in which readers are treated to “clarifications of … life, made possible by coming to know one’s world better and thus oneself better” (305). Although the Romantic poets may have been less rational and more fanciful than the Enlightenment writers, they still wrote poems with meanings that could be accessed more easily than the work of the Moderns. Modernist writers refused to produce comfortable narrative, preferring instead to represent “the unmasterable conditions of living” (306).

Similarly, Jorie Graham’s poems, especially from her third book, The End of Beauty, through her most recent,Materialism, present the reader with a proliferation of sense data, ideas, and unsolvable syntactical puzzles. They also invert the progress of a work of literature from the Enlightenment period: instead of providing a sense of progress and coming to know the territory over the course of a poem, Graham often begins poems in a fairly concrete fashion and then blows them outward in an overwhelming swell of language. For example, in “The Guardian of the Little Utopia,” the speaker begins the poem by telling us that she is arranging flowers while a party goes on downstairs:

Shall I move the flowers again?
Shall I put them further to the left
into the light?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yellow sky.
Faint cricket in the dried out bush. (Errancy 1)

This is simple enough; a reader can easily digest the circumstance and the scene. Then the speaker starts to notice more and more of the sights and sounds that surround her. Over the course of the remaining seventy lines of the poem, Graham shares with us “limpid debris,” “whips of syntax in the air,” “bobbing universal heads, stuffing the void with eloquence,” “napkins [that] wave, are waved,” “honeycombing / thoughts,” “a vortex of evaporations,” “glass and moss,” “tongues, hinges, forceps clicking,” “honeying-open [sheer] innuendos,” “the compact indoor sky,” “crumpled dust,” and much, much more.

This technique is one that Anne Fernihough, quoting a theory of psychology, says represents the “superredundant” nature of reality (65). Fernihough writes that the human mode of dealing with reality is reductive, inclined to focus on only “exactly what is necessary” at any given time (65). She agrees with philosopher Henri Bergson, who argues that in life, unlike in literature, “there are no sharply drawn situations” (65). Using the ideas of Bergson, she comments that writers like Joyce and Woolf attempted to render the chaos of inner life, or “the raw, unfinished quality of our thoughts and impressions” (66). This, too, is part of Graham’s style, and she goes so far as to leave words out in order to achieve that unfinished quality:

. . . and then out of nowhere sun (as if to expose what of the hills—)
the white glare of x, the scathing splendor of y,
the wailing interminable _______?)  (“To the Reader,” Unified Field 61)

As in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Woolf’s The Waves, and most poems by Wallace Stevens, in Graham we often find ourselves reading language that is opaque, obscure, and syntactically confusing; and no matter how the syntactical confusion is reconciled, the reader is unable to find any certain argument concerning meaning in the literature. This serves to emphasize the plight of living in an “indifferent universe in which no transcendent truths [are] available” (Peters 44), and the reader quickly learns not to expect Graham’s poetry to provide the sort of epiphany that one often gets from Romantic poets or many of the narrative poets of the twentieth century.

Graham resists being interpreted as a poet who offers truth to readers by providing overwhelming, highly intellectual and discordant content and by undermining the authority of her speakers. In “The Guardian,” for example, she writes, “thoughts are felt to dialogue, a form of self- / congratulation, no?, or is it suffering? I’m a bit / dizzy up here”; and later, “…as if the moment, freeze-burned by accuracies-of / could be thawed open into life again / by gladness, by rectitude—no, no— by the sinewy efforts at / sincerity … ” (Errancy 2). The speaker’s second-guessing of herself is a common technique in Graham’s work, and the result is that the reader cannot be certain that what the speaker is saying is right or true. As Philip Weinstein writes:

When the unthinkingly anaclitic pact between knowing subject and familiar world collapses, space and time, “here” and “now,” no longer function as lawful, cooperative frames for being. The Enlightenment drama of a subject coming to know ceases to operate. In such conditions, the subject itself—“I”—alters as well. A microscopic and ceaseless traffic among all three terms—subject, space, time—replaces the more easily manageable figure/ground polarity implicit in the drama of the singular Cartesian subject. (307)

That Weinstein was speaking of the Modernists—and yet his analysis perfectly explains the confusion inherent in Graham’s work—demonstrates how closely she has aligned herself with the Modernist project. Another scholar of Modernism writes that the works of Yeats, Eliot, Woolf, and Joyce (whether using the form of fiction or lyric) “transport us to the midst of vital, turbulent currents of thinking, feeling, believing, and doubting” (Holdeman 12). Again, the work of Graham is aptly described.

Writers like those in the Modernist vein, as Sonja Basic notes, depict characters, events, and motivations as “fluid and finally unfathomable” (353). To read in search of answers is, therefore, to fail, because at the core of the work is the belief that “randomness and banality are a legitimate and human aspect of language and literature” (Basic 359). It is this belief, at least in part, that gives rise to one of Graham’s primary projects, which is to push language to the end of its ability to describe perceived experience, and to use it to attempt the impossible: a discovery of what is underneath that which we describe (the “true” nature of things). It is in this aspect of her work that Graham departs from the Modernists.

For all of the similarities between Graham and the Modernists, she differs in one important way: she is pointedly post-structuralist. Following the deconstructionist critical and philosophical movement, which began in the mid-twentieth century, writers like Graham came to believe that “spoken signs, like written ones, are arbitrary, material, and system-relative” (Honderich 193). She does not believe that language can adequately represent the world. In “Fission,” she writes:

of the layers of the

real: what is, what also is, what might be that is,

what could have been that is, what

might have been that is, what I say that is,

what the words say that is,

what you imagine the words say that is—. . . . (Unified Field 103)

The relationship between author, reader, and meaning is extremely troubled. Like Derrida, Graham sees that, in a written work, “the speaker’s intentions, no longer ‘present,’ are likely to be betrayed” (Honderich 193). Graham does not pretend that she can impart wisdom or accurately share her experiences with her readers. Although her work raises big philosophical questions, she offers no answers.

Graham’s art, then, differs from that of Modernists in that she is constantly pushing against the limit beyond which no answers exist or are forthcoming, and language itself is part of the problem, because “the world we would absorb [through language] has been lost in being narrowed into name, scent, and symbol” (Henry 117). “But a secret grows,” Graham writes, “it is what we see swelling forth making the shape we know a thing by / the thing inside, the critique of the given” (“Self Portrait as the Gesture Between Them,” Unified Field 52). It is language that “makes the shape” that we know things by, and language is always a critique as well as a representation, so it obscures the truth of each object and circumstance that we encounter. Language is simply never enough, and yet, as Graham indicates in “Manifest Destiny,” it is all we have: 

Do you think these words are still enough?

And the next thing and the next thing?

Where is the mark that stays?

Where is what makes a mark

that stays?

What’s real slides through.

The body rots.  The body won’t hold it. (Unified Field 184-185)

In Graham, then, it is language that prevents the speaker from truly seeing the “real.” As Alex Blazer writes:

[Graham’s poetry] does not build an identity or construct a worldview for the reader or enter into and interpret with well-reasoned comparison … . Here is where nothing makes sense—nothing coheres into meaningful argument and nothing bonds together to form a unitary identity . . . . There is no—nor can be there ever be—revelation: everything can be experienced, but nothing can be seen. (154)

A passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in which we hear the thoughts of the suicidal Septimus, is useful in understanding the difference between the modernist and post-structuralist understanding of reality and its relationship to language:

The supreme secret must be told to the Cabinet; first that trees are alive; next there is no crime; next love, universal love, he muttered, gasping, trembling, painfully drawing out these profound truths which needed, so deep were they, so difficult, an immense effort to speak out, but the world was changed by them for ever. (102)

In Mrs. Dalloway, it is truth that upsets realist expectations. In Jorie Graham, it is the fallibility and uncertainty (and yet absolute unavoidability) of language.

Expressing a similar philosophy as Woolf, T.S. Eliot said that, with The Waste Land, he was “providing an image of an accessible integrity that somehow persists … the poem is a kind of Mass, itself the image of an eternal truth in the midst of flux or chaos” (Kermode 475). A post-structuralist writer like Graham would never claim to have written a text that amounts to “the image of an eternal truth”—language itself, to her and other post-structuralists, is incapable of representing such truth.

Graham’s form differs from that of the Modern poets, too. Lines by Stevens, Eliot, and Yeats usually stay within the comfortable range of human breath, and the tendency of Modern writers was to write poems with relatively even lines throughout, perhaps to balance syntax and content that were often dramatically fragmented. Graham, however, from her third book (The End of Beauty, 1987) through her tenth and most recent (Sea Change, 2008), has frequently employed lines as short as one syllable or as long as twenty (sometimes much longer), and everything in between, often in a single poem. Helen Vendler writes that Graham’s line “has not yet tethered itself to shape, to ending, to decision” (48), and she goes on to say:

It is the limitless claims of intellect and of desire that Graham’s recent ambitious poems are most inspired by, and most appalled by as well … . The appetitiveness of the mind, and the infinity of the world’s stimuli, generate the excess of Graham’s long horizontal lines, which generate, in their turn, her long, vertical sentences. (54)

For the Moderns, language itself was still capable of being tethered to “ending” and to “decision”—it could convey meaning—but for post-structuralist writers like Graham, it is not. Nothing is certain, the world is overwhelming, and it is confusing, so Graham’s form responds by alternately hiccupping, flowing, stumbling, or spraying across and down the page. The reader feels uncertainty and confusion when encountering Graham’s form, especially for the first time, and here we find another similarity between Graham and the Moderns: her form follows her content.

An understanding of Graham’s body of work begins with the Modernists. A deep understanding requires knowledge of the work of major twentieth century philosophers, including Saussure, Lacan, Benjamin, Derrida, and Wittgenstein. Such knowledge, however, is not essential for an appreciation of Graham—her work is constantly surprising and, for all her intellect, frequently rooted in the physical experience of the body (for example, in “The Tree of Knowledge,” people moving through a strobe-lit room become “dice being tossed,” which is a surprising and accurate description) (Unified Field 136). Graham takes the world around her and gives it to the reader, “all the debris, all the astonishments, quicker than single file, / smearing onto us—” (“Relativity: A Quartet,” Unified Field 166). Hers is a poetry full of astonishing juxtaposition of language, image, and idea, and more than any other poet of her generation, she carries the work of the modernists forward through the contemporary world.

By Brandon Lussier

Works Cited

Basic, Sonja.  “A Book of Many Uncertainties: Joyce’s Dubliners.”  Style 25.3 (1991): 351-78.


Costello, Bonnie.  “Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion.”  Jorie Graham: Essays on the

Poetry.  Ed. Thomas Gardner.  Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 2005.  13-33.


Blazer, Alex E.  I Am Otherwise: The Romance Between Poetry and Theory After the

Death of the Subject.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.


Fernihough, Anne.  “Consciousness as a Stream.”  The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel.

Ed. Morag Shiach.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2007.  65-81.


Graham, Jorie.  The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994.  Hopewell:

The Ecco Press, 1995.


Graham, Jorie.  The Errancy.  Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1997.


Honderich, Ted Ed.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd Edition.  Oxford: Oxford

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Henry, Brian.  “Jorie Graham’s Strangeness of Strategy.”  Jorie Graham: Essays on the

Poetry.  Ed. Thomas Gardner.  Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 2005. 102-


Holdeman, David.  The Cambridge Introduction to W.B. Yeats.  New York: Cambridge

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Quinn, Justin.  The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000.

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Vendler, Helen.  “Jorie Graham: The Moment of Excess.”  Jorie Graham: Essays on the

Poetry.  Ed. Thomas Gardner.  Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 2005. 42-59.


Weinstein, Philip.  “Modernism.”  The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature.

Ed. Richard Eldridge.  New York: Oxford UP, 2009.  298-321.