Jorie Graham – P L A C E

[Editor’s [ha! ‘editor’. nice – ed] note: this piece was conceived as a kind of live-blog review. Let’s say the experiment was enlightening.]

Prior impressions/expectations.
I know very little about Jorie Graham, am vaguely aware of her being American(?) and a bit of the Jane Hirshfield mould. The title of the book is unencouraging. P L A C E looks like the name of an English Lit module I wouldn’t touch with someone else’s book of deconstructionism. I expect laboriously profound free verse filled with more abstractions than you can shake an uncanny sense of je ne sais quoi at. A quick peek at Wikipedia reveals that “she claims that her interest [in poetry] was sparked while walking past M.L. Rosenthal’s classroom and overhearing the last couplet of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Oh boy.

Right, well, evidently I relish the prospect of tearing into the kind of proto-philosophical wank that I anticipate from this book, but I still sorely hope it’s the rare occasion of theory-heavy poetry pulling some emotional weight. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s tuck in.

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SUNDOWN (St. Laurent Sur Mer, June 5, 2009)

There’s nothing quite like getting your anticipated reader nice and warmed up than by reminding them that your epiphanies have been flown in from somewhere nice and European before we even reach the first ruddy line. Already the idea that this is the utterance of one human to another has been tucked into a drawer with the nice organic marmalade we got last time we were in Florence. Ok, POEMS.

So that location in the title is to remind us that we are by the sea, which is where the action of the poem takes place. The form is expectedly daffy – one long line justified on the left margin, then either two, three or four short lines indented to the middle of the page, all largely unpunctuated. The given effect is of a child recounting a dream, and not a particularly exciting one. At least the narrative is intelligible. The speaker is on a horse, then another horse-and-rider turn up, there are some seagulls, there is microscopic life in the horse’s watery hoofprints. The last-minute grasp for profundity is unconvincing:

‘and when I shut my eyes now I am not like a blind person
walking towards the lowering sun,
the water loud at my right,
but like a seeing person
with her eyes shut
putting her feet down
one at a time
on the earth.’

So when you shut your eyes you aren’t blind but are like a person with their eyes shut? That’s that cleared up then. Seriously, I don’t know quite what is the point being made here. Throughout this little venture let’s recall that Graham has just received ten grand for writing this. Just a thought. Onward.

CAGNES SUR MER 1950

Okay, so the good bits: there’s a lovely metaphor comparing the soul to the jolting images of a silent movie and its ‘accompaniment a mad body’, even if it seems the referents are backwards. Unfortunately that has little to do with the rest of the rather overlong poem, which is a fairly pedestrian account of the child Graham seeing her pregnant mother walking toward her on a beach. The account is largely in a descriptive register, save for some rote statements about her ‘soul walking everywhere without weight’, but it lacks the physical presence or specificity to engage me in any imaginative work. The great long-form poems use their time to give the reader an entry-point to the observer’s tools of observation: think of the echoes of Bishop’s “The Sandpiper” in the first poem, the little frenetic bird alongside the roaring water, searching for ‘something, something, something’ with the same obsessive focus as its author. This poem feels so loose and unconnected to anything living or even mineral I can tell very little of worth about the observer, and suspect her of talking to herself with hopes anyone overhearing it might find it, like, so deep. Sorry. I’m going to read a few on the trot before I waste any more of your time with this.

MOTHER AND CHILD (THE ROAD AT THE EDGE OF THE FIELD)

Okay never mind, I want to talk about this one. It’s actually pretty exhilarating. Despite the godawful title. The poem again is in that agitated register we saw earlier, and the tension in the poem seems to come from the narrative voice itself, which seems torn between a concentrated attention on the stuff at hand – ‘golden with / buttery flies then also aglow with / orange – gnats / hovering their tiny solar system around’ – and much vaster and much less enticing generalities about the stars, the sky and the self. The voice seems at war with itself in trying to keep focus on the world at its feet. Fight hard, Graham! The heart of the poem is the poet-as-child giving grass blades to her little sibling, who then throws them away, which is an intriguing little tableau, but immediately the poem takes the next available exit: ‘We breathe, and / what we call / the next moment between us, / […] is love’. Is it? The haste with which the poem concludes its business is baffling, and its syntactical plotting an impediment to exploring its significance.

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Here lies one of the most common failures of poetry in general: the difference between the intriguing ambiguity and the confusing obscurity, or what film critics call the gap between realism and believability. I just don’t believe this epiphany, reached for so suddenly at the poem’s close, has been earned. Phrases like ‘It is summer. It is solstice. A diamond of energy / holds us’ don’t prompt me ask any burning questions. Okay, for real this time, let’s skip ahead. Hahaha, the next one’s called UNTITLED, hahaha. URGH.

Okay, I gave the hell up on this because, well, YOLO, but also that this book has not given nearly the adequate amount of consideration to its reader as I am currently giving it. The book suffers from a major ailment of free-form verse: it simply fails to make any sensual distinction between the important thoughts and the unimportant. When lines are so arbitrarily cut and arranged, it is extremely difficult to parse what the writer intends to stand out and what should not, what is supposed to be loud or quiet, intense or relaxed. It comes across in a characterless monotone. You can type the word ‘eternity’ all you want, but unless you’ve led me to it with some kind of identifiable or emotionally appealing logic, you’re just stuffing a half-baked idea full of hyperbole, and it looks ridiculous.

Its sense of self-importance doesn’t help matters either. The physical book is a little taller and a lot broader than your common-or-garden poetry book, which means there is A LOT of white space on the page, the poem’s kinda-synaesthetic marker for silence. Think of a large page with a single word on it. You’d expect that word to be pretty significant, right? So it goes with P L A C E. It’s a huge space of paper compared to what the average poetry reader is used to, and some of the lines are single words. And sometimes that word is ‘of’ or ‘for’ or ‘life’. When the arrangement of language is so unmoored from actual semantic value, why should we believe the writer is in any kind of control? Why should I be doing all the heavy exegetic lifting, and with my bad proverbial back? It would be more excusable if the content was enlightening, but it’s a series of clinical, self-obsessed, humourless first-person observations with unwarranted revelations stapled on the end. It performs the unfortunate combo of taking far too long to get to the point and racing past it once it gets there. Here’s the formula:

Start with a memory. Explore the memory. Make vague reference to epistemology/phenomenology, lest anyone forget you were a *~PHILOSOPHY MAJOR~*. Forget what you were on about. Say something meta about ‘this poem’ that doesn’t actually consider what ‘this poem’ signifies. Use the word ‘love’. Retire.

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Okay, let’s assume that some folk enjoy this for a reason. Is it the feeling of displacement arising from the dreamy, dancing narrative logic? Is it the sudden twists of phrase that are briefly interesting then return to the poem’s register as if nothing had changed? Is it the experience of attributing to incomprehensibility a kind of deeper spiritual understanding? Its focus on the sheen of its own perceptual equipment? Its implied assertion that everything about one’s own experience is perforce fascinating and worthy of attention? I can find no solution that isn’t superficial or that stands up to basic criticism. It is entirely possible to do all of these things while also sounding like a human with a pulse, a brainwave, and goosepimples on the arms. These poems sound typed up on a deadline without a second reading, and I resent dealing with their half-assedness.

TL;DR, I’m more than willing to believe that there is something of value in here, even buried inside largely ineffective poems, but there’s too much crap to justify the search. The speaking voice is a stream of consciousness almost determinedly ignorant of the presence of the reader, and when it does turn on us, it is usually to instruct or chastise, and that’s disheartening.

Not to labour a point, but Graham just won £10,000 for writing it.

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5 thoughts on “Jorie Graham – P L A C E

  1. Ben Wilkinson December 13, 2012 / 3:35 pm

    “Its implied assertion that everything about one’s own experience is perforce fascinating and worthy of attention?”

    Nail on the head there, Mr Coates. Any poet who makes the fatal mistake of merely assuming that a reader will invest time and effort in their poems usually winds up writing gumpf. I once read somewhere the idea that poets should always remember that poetry is a mode of reading before one of writing, which seems about right to me – particularly if they’re going to write stuff that the intelligent reader might actually want to get to grips with, and that offers enough reward for the effort it demands. That might sound like heresy to some, as if it meant advocating some awful brand of cosy, populist, intellectually barren and emotionally simplistic poetry that definitely doesn’t deserve the name. But I don’t think it’s any more than asking for poems, as art forms that pride themselves on their memorability, to communicate complex ideas and feelings in a honed and precise manner, balancing mystery with sense.

    I’d point out that poems which only serve to advertise their writer’s inflated sense of self-importance aren’t restricted to windy solipsism, though. You can write poems from pretty much any perspective – even one that attempts a kind of willed objectivity – and still leave the reader behind. Always makes me laugh when I hear ‘experimental’ or ‘non-conformist’ types (or whatever equally unfortunate and unhelpful label they go by now) identify this as a problem exclusive to contemporary ‘mainstream’ lyric poetry, with its apparent addiction to the lyric ‘I’. As if you can’t disappear up your own arse writing syntactically tortuous sequences consisting entirely of found material, personal jokes and random non sequiturs. Truth is, this kind of crap can turn up anywhere.

    Anyway, you might want to have a squint at this:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html#s123747&title=Jorie_Graham_The

    • davecoates December 13, 2012 / 5:35 pm

      I agree Ben, there’s zero guarantee that fine tuned lyric stuff won’t be just as inane. But yes, the whole war on syntax thing is wearisome. In my experience it doesn’t take much deviation from the grammatical path for the brain’s signal/noise receptors to practically switch off, which usually makes you either throw the book at the nearest wall or confuse its opacity with genius. Heigh ho.

      I’ve seen that article. It’s one of my happy places. The send up of Billy Collins is spot on too.

  2. Adam Ford December 13, 2012 / 10:29 pm

    Thanks again, Dave, for articulating so well my own misgivings about this kind of poetry.

    These days I’m actually wondering by what right it is that people get to designate themselves as poets. Not that I’m trying to make a case for drawing a line between poet and not-poet, or poetry and not-poetry, but there seem to be a lot of poems and poets out there that do things because it seems to them that that’s what poems and poets do, rather than for any considered or thoughtful reason. It’s like they’re impersonating their idea of a poet instead of coming at things with anything like consideration of the form.

  3. Simon R. Gladdish November 5, 2014 / 10:18 am

    Dear Dave

    If I’m not gravely mistaken, several of the seriously overrated writers in the Huffington Post are now published by our very own Carcanet.

    Best wishes from Simon

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