One of the most celebrated poets of the American post-war generation, Jorie Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980), Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991), The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1992 (1995) winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Never (2002), Sea Change (2008), and Place (2012), among others. Born in New York City, Graham was raised and educated in Italy and France. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied philosophy, and New York University, where she pursued filmmaking. While in New York, she began writing and studying poetry, and went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She later taught at the Writers’ Workshop, leaving to join the faculty at Harvard as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position previously held by Seamus Heaney and a chair whose occupants date back to John Quincy Adams. She was the first woman to be awarded this position.
Graham is known for her deep interest in history, language, and perception; the critic Calvin Bedient has noted that she is, “never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always ‘the outermost question being asked me by the World today.’ What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers.” Graham has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Visual art, mythology, history, and philosophy are central to Graham’s work. The influences of her mother, a sculptor, and father, a journalist, her tri-lingual upbringing, and her early immersion in European culture are all evident in her poetry. Her influences are predominantly modernists—William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, among others—and help explain the shape and flow of her poetry, which is marked by a reliance on line as a unit of sense and perception. Using long and short lines, indentation and spacing, Graham’s forms explore the dualities and polarities of life, of the creative and destructive tensions that exist between spirit and flesh, the real and the mythical, stillness and motion, the interior and exterior existence. While Graham’s first two books received high praise, her third, The End of Beauty, is generally acknowledged as a watershed. In this book, Graham fully developed her long, flexible line and focused definitively on consequence rather than closure. Critic Sven Birkerts noted that in the poems, Graham “discovers in her narrative the critical or pivotal moment: she then slows the action to expose its perilous eventual consequences.” Several of the poems are broken into numbered sections, often of seemingly unrelated fragments that are pieces of a larger collage; at times, the poet offers a kind of “close” reading which requires readers both to participate in the poem by filling in the blank and for Graham to present her own inability to express the not-yet-conceivable, as in “Like a , , , , , , , , , , this look between us.”
Through her collections of poetry, Graham’s distinctive style has evolved to accommodate both new kinds of experience and new kinds of reading. In the Paris Review, Graham noted of her shift from the long sentence-like lines of The End of Beauty to the shorter lyrical line of Region of Unlikeness: “I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward… It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession[.] A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.” Graham’s interest in the reader’s experience of her work, and the power of poetry to reshape perceptions of the world, runs through all her books. According to Weston Cutter in the Kenyon Review, Graham is“writing ultimately for connection, and not just the abstract, we’re-all-human connection, but a specific one between writer and reader—there’s a contract she’s looking to enact. If you like Graham, the feeling of her poetry is seismic for the ways in which she tries so hard to get you to feel and understand, in all complexity, the issues she’s tackling (without getting too bogged in this stuff: each of the books can, in ways, be understood as focusing specifically on central issues—art, masculinity and femininity, history).”
Critic David Baker once wrote that he could “think of no other current American poet who has employed and exposed the actual mechanics of narrative, of form, of strategic inquiry more fully than she has—at least no other readable poet—and no other poet able to deploy so fruitfully and invitingly the diverse systems of philosophy, science, and history. If anyone can unify the disjoined fields of contemporary discourse, I think it might be Jorie Graham.” Graham herself has a different understanding of the potential of her work, and poetry generally. “I’d say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion,” she told the Paris Review. “Its syntax wants to pass something on to an other in the way that you can, for example, pass laughter on. It’s different from being persuasive and making an argument. That’s why great poems have so few arguments in them. They don’t want to make the reader ‘agree.’ They don’t want to move through the head that way. They want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—could one even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”
Writer and teacher of poetry. Murray State University, Murray, KY, assistant professor of English, 1978-79; Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA, assistant professor of English, 1979-81; Columbia University, associate professor and Writer's Community workshop instructor, 1981-83; University of Iowa, professor of English and Writers' Workshop instructor, 1983-1999; Harvard University, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, 1999—. Gives poetry readings.
- Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1980.
- Erosion, Princeton University Press, 1983.
- The End of Beauty, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1987.
- Region of Unlikeness, Ecco Press, 1991.
- Materialism: Poems, Ecco Press, 1993.
- The Dream of the Unified Field: Poems, 1974-1994, Ecco Press, 1995.
- The Errancy, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1997.
- Swarm, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2000.
- Never: Poems, Ecco Press, 2002.
- Overlord, Ecco Press, 2005.
- Sea Change, Ecco Press, 2008.
- Place, Ecco Press, 2012.
- (Editor, with David Lehman) The Best American Poetry 1990, Scribners’ (New York, NY), 1991.
- (Editor) Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1996.
- (With Jeannette Montgomery Barron) Photographs and Poems, Scalo (New York, NY), 1998.
- (With Beverly Pepper) In the Pasture, Artists Book, 2001.
- To A Friend Going Blind, designed, printed and bound by Susan Angebranndt, 2002.
- (With Shari DeGrew) All Things, Empyrean Press (Iowa City, IA), 2002.
- (Author of Introduction) The Lives of the Poems: 12 Drawings on Canvas, Mark Strand, Glenn Horowitz Booksellers, 2005.
Work represented in anthologies, including Golden Gate Harvest, edited by Philip Dow, 1983; Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, J. D. McClatchy, Vintage (New York, NY), 1990; and New American Poets of the ‘90’s, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten, Godine (Boston, MA), 1992. Contributor of articles and poems to magazines, including American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Nation, New England Review, New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry Northwest. Poetry editor of Crazyhorse, 1978-81.
- Benbow-Pfalzgraf, Taryn, editor, American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
- Blain, Virginia, editor, Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1990.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 48, 1988, Volume 118, 1999.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
- Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
- Green, Carol Hurd, editor, American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, Volume 5, Continuum Publishing (New York, NY), 1994.
- Hamilton, Ian, editor, Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
- Perkins, George, editor, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
- Riggs, Thomas, editor, Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
- Vendler, Helen, The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
- Vendler, Helen, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
- America, October 30, 1993, p. 17.
- American Poetry Review, January-February, 1982, pp. 36-46; November-December, 1983, pp. 40-6; March, 1987, p. 22; September, 1987, p. 31.
- Antioch Review, summer, 1984, pp. 363-74; fall, 1994, p. 659.
- Black Warrior Review, spring, 1988, pp. 136-43.
- Bloomsbury Review, January, 1995, p. 19; March-April, 1996, p. 23.
- Booklist, October 15, 1995, p. 380; January 1, 1996, p. 735; December 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Swarm, p. 128.
- Bookwatch, January 19, 1992, p. 8; May 22, 1994, p. 11; January, 1996, p. 4.
- Boston Review, August, 1983, Sven Birkerts, review of Erosion, p. 38.
- Carrell: Journal of the Friends of the University of Miami Library, 1989, pp. 35-9.
- Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1992, p. 5.
- Choice, November, 1980, p. 395.
- Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1987, p. 17; June 24, 1996, Timothy Cahill, review of The Dream of the Unified Field, p. 16.
- Commentary, January, 1992, p. 59.
- Commonweal, March 9, 1984, p. 155; December 2, 1994, p. 26.
- Contemporary Literature, summer, 1992, pp. 373-95.
- Denver Quarterly, spring, 1992, pp. 76-104; spring, 1994, pp. 136-41.
- Economist, July 13, 1996, p. 91.
- Georgia Review, winter, 1983, pp. 894-905; spring, 1984; winter, 1987, p. 800.
- Hollins Critic, October, 1987, pp. 1-9.
- Hudson Review, winter, 1988, p. 684; winter, 1992, p. 676; spring, 1995, pp. 170-172.
- Kenyon Review, fall, 1994, David Baker, review of Materialism, pp. 161-165.
- Library Journal, May 15, 1980, p. 1170; May 1, 1983, p. 909; March 15, 1987, p. 80; September 15, 1990, p. 80; October 15, 1995, p. 65; June 15, 1997, Graham Christian, review of The Errancy, p. 72.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 8, 1991, p. 11; March 20, 1994, p. 11.
- Multicultural Review, January, 1992, p. 51.
- Nation, September 6, 1987, Jessica Greenbaum, review of The End of Beauty, pp. 206-8; July 21, 1997, James Longenbach, review of The Errancy, pp. 40-2.
- New Criterion, June 2000, William Logan, review of Swarm, p. 63.
- New England Review, summer, 1982, p. 617; summer, 1986, p. 532; fall, 1992, pp. 251-61.
- New Republic, January 27, 1992, p. 36; July 11, 1994, pp. 27-30.
- New Yorker, July 27, 1987, pp. 74-7; June 28, 1993, p. 103.
- New York Review of Books, November 21, 1991, Helen Vendler, review of Region of Unlikeness, pp. 50-56.
- New York Times, July 26, 1987, p. 9; October 11, 1987, p. 29
- New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1983, pp. 10, 15; July 26, 1987, p. 9; November 21, 1991, p. 50; July 31, 1994, p. 18; May 5, 1996, Peter Sacks, review of The Dream of the Unified Field, pp. 16-7; May 17, 1998, review of The End of Beauty, p. 48.
- No Exit, summer, 1995, Robert Miltner, review of The End of Beauty, pp. 19-28.
- North American Review, May, 1993, p. 40; March, 1988, p. 72; July-August, 1994, Annie Finch, review of Materialism, p. 40-2; July 1998, review of The Errancy, p. 29.
- Parnassus, spring-summer, 1983, pp. 211-30; spring, 1985, p. 588.
- Partisan Review, March, 1988, p. 508.
- Ploughshares, winter, 2001, Robert N. Casper, "About Jorie Graham," p. 189.
- Poetry, April, 1982, pp. 35-7; July 1998, review of The Errancy, p. 233.
- Prairie Schooner, fall, 1989, p. 117.
- Publisher's Weekly, August 31, 1990, p. 59; September 25, 1995, p. 49; June 30, 1997, review of The Errancy, p. 72; February 25, 2002, review of Never: Poems, p. 56.
- Small Press Review, February, 1994, p. 11.
- Southwest Review, summer, 1982, pp. 345-9.
- Threepenny Review, fall, 1988, p. 12; summer, 1994, p. 18-20.
- Times Literary Supplement, May 17, 1996, pp. 26-7; November 20, 1998, review of The Errancy, p. 29; May 25, 2001, Josephine Balmer, "Ancient Ladies," review of Swarm, p. 26.
- Tribune Books (Chicago), January 12, 1992, p. 5.
- Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1987, Sven Birkerts, review of The End of Beauty, p. 5; November, 1995, Paja Faudree, review of The Dream of the Unified Field, p. 12, 14.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1980, p. 146; autumn, 1983, p. 133.
- Washington Post, January 19, 1992, p. 8; May 22, 1994, p. 11.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, October, 1987, p. 93.
- Women's Review of Books, March, 1994, pp. 11-12.
- Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/poets/ (October 15, 2001), biography of Jorie Graham.
- Connection Web site, http://www.theconnection.org/archive/ (December 17, 1999), Christopher Lydon, "The Poetry of Jorie Graham."
- Harvard University Gazette Web site, http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/ (October 7, 1999), Lee Simmons, "Jorie Graham, Ambassador for Poetry."
- New York Times Web site, http://www.search.nytimes.com/ (January 2, 2000), Richard Eder, "A State of Withdrawal," review of Swarm.
Poems By JORIE GRAHAM
Articles About JORIE GRAHAM
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Essential American Poets
Jorie Graham: Essential American Poets
Archival recordings of poet Jorie Graham, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded in 1995 and 1998 at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
LIFE SPAN 1950–