Festival Headliner Jorie Graham: An Inventive Voice and Vision

by Kirun Kapur
This is the eleventh in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Jorie Graham’s ’s event at the Festival.

Any list of the most influential contemporary poets would surely include Jorie Graham near the top. Author of more than 11 volumes of poetry and recipient of nearly every major literary prize (including a Pulitzer and a MacArthur), Graham was a mainstay of the famed University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in the 80s and 90s and is now the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, succeeding Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. In a recent article in the New York Times, Craig Morgan Teicher writes, “Graham is to post-1980 poetry what Bob Dylan is to post-1960 rock: She changed her art form, moved it forward, made it able to absorb and express more than it could before. It permanently bears her mark.” Her most recent book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, brings together nearly 40 years of work, showcasing a relentlessly inventive voice and vision.

I’ll confess, I came late to Graham’s work. I was standing in the Grolier Book Shop when I came across her second book, Erosion, some 15 years after it was written. “In this blue light/ I can take you there…” begins the first poem, San Sepolcro. I couldn’t have guessed where that poem would take me—starting with an Italian landscape (a house, some trees, lemons and roosters, an airplane factory down the hill) and proceeding right through the surface of a painting by Piero della Francesca, into a girl about to give birth to a god:

                 It is this girl
                 by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
                 her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,

                 to go into  

labor. Come, we can go in.
                 It is before
the birth of god. No-one

                 has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly


and wings—to the open air
                 market. This is
what the living do: go in.
                 It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening 

                 from eternity  

to privacy, quickening.

Reading San Sepolcro, I felt myself outside of time, hurtling from eternity to privacy. It was exhilarating. After all, what else do we want a poem to do, but take us there, to a place where our most private selves connect to the things of the world—lemons and factories and light—and beyond into a vastness, Graham’s eternity.  

As a young reader and writer I was mostly familiar with poems that told a clear story, often a confessional story, governed by narrative logic. Graham’s work suggested that poems could move in a different way—from detailed observation to abstract rumination and back again, using intuitive leaps, imagistic pivots and startling associative turns.  Until I began reading Graham, I hadn’t realized that the subject of a poem (and its dominant feeling) could be the sensation of thinking itself—the movement of a consciousness. In the years and books since Erosion, Graham’s lines have lengthened and her methods have varied, but it’s still thrilling to travel with her wide-ranging consciousness as it roams—quickening or still—examining, inquiring, always pushing the boundaries of a mind can perceive. In The Visible World she writes:  

  I dig my hands into the absolute. The surface


    into shingled, grassed clusters; lifts.

    If I press, pick-in with fingers, pluck,

    I can unfold the loam. It is tender. It is a tender

    maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises.

    Diggers, forgetters. . . . A series of successive single instances . . .

    Frames of reference moving . . .

    The speed of light, down here, upthrown, in my hands:

    bacteria, milky roots, pilgrimages of spores, deranged

    and rippling

    mosses. What heat is this in me

    that would thaw time, making bits of instance


Personal and emotional as well as intellectual and abstract, Graham’s work displays a deep interest in history, philosophy, language and the visual arts. In the most recent books, Graham has explored the intersection of consciousness and conscience, probing the culture of war and our looming environmental disasters. James Longenbach writes in the New York Times: "For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.”

Graham’s work is not without its controversies. More than a few readers and critics have objected (some furiously) to Graham’s intuitive leaping, accusing her of being too difficult or even willfully confusing. I’ll make a second confession here: occasionally, I lose my way in her work, too. I think of it as being in an airplane when you lose sight of the ground. Keep traveling. The trip is worth it, even if, for a brief spell, you may not know exactly where you are. In the end, the poem can take you there. Graham’s work expands our sense of what is possible. I always come away from her lines excited, thinking, yes, a poem (or a mind) can be more, can go further than I thought.  

Kirun Kapur grew up in Hawaii and has since lived and worked in North America and South Asia. Her first job as a writer was for India’s groundbreaking feminist magazine Manushi and from there her travels took her through Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Stateside, her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Massachusetts Review, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals and news outlets. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and through the Harvard Extension program and has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and McDowell Colony. Her work was awarded the 2012 Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry. Kirun is the Poetry Editor for The Drum Literary Magazine, which publishes short fiction, poetry, essays, novel excerpts, and interviews exclusively in audio form. Learn more at www.drumlitmag.com. Kirun's first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist, was awarded the 2013 Antivenom Poetry Award and is forthcoming from Elixir Press.