Daring to Live in the Details

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham finds her voice somewhere between the intuited and the observed

Poet Jorie Graham says she is never far from a sense of herself as a "reporter" and of her writing as "a kind of news." As a child, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry grew up in the border country between the realities of journalism and the verities of art.

So while Ms. Graham remembers her father, the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, leaving home to cover wars in distant and dangerous places, she was also influenced by her artist mother, who introduced her to the frescoes of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and other Renaissance masters that adorn the Italian capital's basilicas.

"I understood that news was not only important, it was mortal and critical," she says of her father's work. Yet "the stories on the walls of the church are [also] news," she adds, "crucial news that continues to be news."

Born in New York City in 1950, Graham grew up entirely in Rome, where she attended the French lyce (secondary school) there. She was fluent in Italian and French when she arrived at New York University (NYU) in 1969, but spoke only "broken English." A film student at the time, Graham had no aspirations toward poetry the day she was called to her vocation.

Raised, as she puts it, at "an intersection of secular and sacred versions of reality," Graham's own art presents a view that "trills or slurs" between opposing forces - public and private, observed and intuited, evanescent and eternal.

Graham won this year's Pulitzer Prize for "The Dream of the Unified Field" (The Ecco Press, 1995), a selection of poems spanning 20 years and five previous books. The winner of a 1990 MacArthur Foundation grant, she lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, where she teaches at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.

She spoke recently with Monitor contributor Timothy Cahill by phone from her home. Excerpts follow:

Timothy Cahill: How did you become a poet?

Jorie Graham: I got lost one day in the corridors at NYU, and heard the words, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me" floating out of a doorway. I was so taken that I went into the classroom for a minute and sank into a seat in the back row. It was M.L. Rosenthal reading [T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock." I sat there for the whole semester.

He spent most of the time reading poems out loud. Sometimes I think I actually learned English by listening to Rosenthal read those poems, that my transition into English - into thinking in English, feeling in English - came almost entirely through Yeats and Blake and Eliot.

What was it about poetry that drew you away from film?

I began to feel that film wasn't giving me a context large enough to understand how I was supposed to live my life. I was turning at night to [poetry] and finding a complexity and an ambiguity in which easy decisions were not possible. It was much more satisfying. It's very important for me to feel like I'm going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That's something that can happen very easily to all of us. Through poems, I've struggled to make sure I'm in life, as opposed to merely understanding it.

One of the problems with having a strong conceptual intellect is that one can very quickly convert experience into idea.

How does poetry keep you "in life?"

Poetry has always seemed to me not so much a record of a life lived [than] as a way - through the act of composition - of experiencing an event I missed [by] just living it. Poetry's a way of thinking that only enacts itself in the moment of composition. Things hurt more when I'm about to write. It's like a lens aperture: You suddenly decide you're going to open it up and feel things at a level you didn't feel when you were just living through them.

It's always very important, as I'm moving through a situation, to make sure I'm using all my senses, not just my eyes.

As poets, we tend to use our eyes first. Even if the material doesn't end up staying in the poem, I always ask myself, what did it smell like, did you report texture, did you hear anything when you were there? There's that constant sense of "Anything else? Are you sure you've been in this scene deeply enough?"

It's like being a reporter, wondering, "Did I ask all the questions?"

It is. It's bringing back news. When you're in the middle of writing a poem, you have to be there all the time. In life, with that aperture more closed, you shut down in order to survive.

The biggest problem I see with young writers is that their senses are occluded, and the reason [for that] is that to survive reality in America, they've had to shut down and numb themselves enough to not let grief flood their [hearts] They develop an ironic distance, a certain amount of humor, in order to go through their environment. But if they're going to write poems, they precisely have to dismantle that numbness, they have to undo that ironic stance.

How is that accomplished?

Through practice. I start out by teaching them something simple like the haiku, in which I try to get them to practice collecting sense-data and getting it across in language: for example, to write a sound in terms of a smell, a sound in terms of a color. It's literally like calisthenics, to open up your senses so you can pick up the detail.

Thinking deeply is feeling deeply. They're interchangeable.

And [they're] connected to having enough resources in language to allow you access to those complex feelings that allow for complex thought. If you've got only two adjectives to describe a thing, you're going to write something that's very blurred. If all you can come up with is the color green for what you see, you're going to get a feeling that is one-dimensional, and an idea that ... is probably a platitude.

So poetry is discovery?

Yes. Writing a poem is thrilling because you're changed by the act of writing it. You make discoveries that will sustain you, make you a better parent, make you a better citizen. If they happen to end up as adequate discoveries on the page, that's a blessing. But you're definitely making discoveries that you take back into your life.

What does winning the Pulitzer Prize mean to you?

What excited me about getting the Pulitzer, besides it being an honor, was that it's the only award that addresses so many different uses of language: dramatic, novelistic, journalistic, poetic, biographical. All of them seem to be searching for versions of what one would call "the truth." It made me very happy that the language of my medium, poetry, is situated among these other languages.

But the piece of paper is just as blank tomorrow as it was yesterday, and what I've not written is still much more important to me than what I have written.

That sounds like something you should put over the door to your classroom.

The advice I would put over the doorway is that wonderful quote from [Ezra] Pound, where he says something like, "It really matters that great poems get written, but it doesn't matter a whit who writes them."

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