Friday, 30 October 2015

Manifest Destiny

Ange Mlinko assesses Jorie Graham's challenging career:
Born in 1950 in the United States, raised in Italy, educated in France, and only returning to her native country as a young adult, Graham is, along with John Ashbery and Frederick Seidel, one of the very few living American poets to have advanced a worldly, Modernist model of the poem into the 21st century. She has seized for her own uses a patrimony rich with philosophical and linguistic experimentation, bypassing the sort of small-scale, homegrown free verse that has come to dominate the journals and university programs and public-radio stations of our time. Although she has not published collections of essays or lectures, she has taught for 30 years, first at Iowa and now at Harvard (where she inherited the Boylston Chair from Seamus Heaney), and has edited two major poetry anthologies, securing her influence on successive generations of poets and readers. Having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her first Selected Poems, she is now seeing the publication of her second. From the New World expands on the nearly 200-page The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994, which spanned her first five books; the new Selected covers the six books she has written since then, and presents four new poems as well. To remain a “frustrating and problematic” public figure for 40 years is a hard labor: Everything in the television and Internet age militates against it. To mine the legacy of the Modernists—specifically Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore—while making apt references to Pascal and Heidegger and Rimbaud and Rilke, at a time when the field of American poetry is becoming an adjunct of pop culture, is also a feat of integrity requiring an antisocial streak in our crowdsourcing age. And Graham has been warily celebrated for—or is it despite?—resisting expectations of speed, amusement, and digestibility. This also means resisting some of the classical pleasures of poetry: epigrammatic wit (or the “memorable line”), phrase-making, and metaphor—­the Apollonian qualities, you might say, of contour, line, and limit, and hence closure, a concept that is anathema to Graham and perhaps her country. There is a certain irony in Graham’s resistance and Americanness: Her long-lined long poems expand into time like a lyric version of manifest destiny.

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