Third Person, First Person and the Holes in the Wall

Before Christmas, I went to the Woodstock Poetry Festival to hear David Harsent reading from his recent collection, Salt. He was reading with George Szirtes, an entertaining and urbane performer, who gave an excellent and engaging reading. Harsent, however, instructed his audience not to look at him, to close their eyes and to focus on the sound of the poems as he read a selection from the fragmentary series of poems which make up this latest book.   On a dark night, in the warm and cosy ambience of the Woodstock Town Hall, the inevitable happened to me. My thoughts began to drift and I even dozed off for a moment.


Nevertheless, when I later read the poems on the page, I found they exerted a magnetic pull even though their reference and the connections between them remained mysterious.


Having recently read with interest Jack Underwood’s essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ in the most recent edition of The Poetry Review (January, 2017), I found ideas which seemed particularly pertinent to Harsent’s poems. Underwood talks about ‘deliberately build[ing]your poem as an open habitation;you have to learn to leave holes in the walls, because you won’t and can’t be around later to clear up any ambiguities…’(op.cit.p.43) I am less sure about Underwood’s suggestion that poets may use language imprecisely or ‘smudge’ in order to ‘signal possible meanings beyond the everyday’ (p.46). [1] In Salt, Harsent leaves plenty of holes in the walls, allowing the reader every opportunity to construct their own reading. However, the poems read less as if the bricks had been omitted in the building but more as if they had been removed afterwards to create hermetic uncertainty. Harsent certainly does not smudge language in the sense of using it imprecisely; he is expert in conveying a series of epiphanies through sharply observed physical detail and delicately suggested emotional context:

The way you cut and draw a chicken, that tumble of guts

slipping into your hand; the way you try to make

the best of it; the way ‘carcass’ sounds when said out loud.

(Salt, p.5)

There are a lot of bricks missing here: the repeated phrase ‘the way’ suggests attempts to find the best analogy or simile for something which is not identified or perhaps cannot be expressed; or, conversely, these are all instances or part of the unnamed idea. The first two examples involve direct address to another ‘you’ who I take, rightly or wrongly but influenced by the surrounding poems, to be a woman. In the last example, ‘you’ has disappeared but we are left with the chicken and the confrontation of death. The poem can be about (or linked in to)the physical messiness of life, the practical efficiency of the other, the recognition of death, whether the end of a relationship or actual physical death.


To me, these poems seem like the fragments of a narrative, or maybe more than one narrative. They include birth, sex, betrayal, death, guilt and remorse. They may relate to actual events or stories in the poet’s life, the source of his materials, but that is not our business as the way the poems are presented makes clear. There are hes, shes and theys but there is never an I. Harsent works in the tradition of T.S.Eliot, driving a wedge between the person who suffers and the poet who creates, or more properly, between the private process of creation and the public object which is created. To say this is not to suggest a return to some aesthetic concept of the poem as an object apart from life, but rather to see it as something which is available for the reader to construct meaning with, apart from the meaning which the poet may have imagined for it. I don’t know what Harsent meant when he wrote these poems, but some of them capture meaning for me:

Frame it up like this: a door, an inner door, a room

held ready, bare walls, weight

of silence, a glass of water cut by sunlight.


This is very visual, almost cinematic – a thought prompted by the first word ‘Frame’. I don’t know what it meant for the poet or what doors or rooms it may actually refer to but for me it captures a moment of stasis, of ‘beforeness’, a feeling of stillness before something momentous or irrevocable happens.


I think there are probably too many of these poems, but the book overall conveys a complex mood or tone made up not of impressionistic fogginess but of constructions of language which, to varying degrees, we are able to match to our experience or even use to extend our experience and understanding. It seems to me that what Underwood is talking about in his essay is the process of metaphor, that his ‘foggy’ language is what happens when ideas from different fields of discourse or semantics are brought together to create or put a name to something which is so far not named. Sometimes a metaphor is explicit; there will be a vehicle and a tenor and the bringing of the two together will enhance our perception of the tenor, as when Humbert Wolfe uses the simile of ‘a small grey coffee-pot” to describe a squirrel. Sometimes, the poem creates a vehicle for a tenor we cannot otherwise put into words, in a way similar to what T.S.Eliot describes in his essay, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Leaving aside the dubious distinction between the mind of the poet and the ordinary person, we can see in this notion a theory akin to Imagism, the capturing of an undescribed experience through the juxtaposition of named things, perhaps still best exemplified by Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station on the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

The fragment poems in Salt work very much as imagist poems, encouraging us to construct our own meanings by bringing our own experience to them, only possible because language and experience are shared as well as individual.

Harsent’s prioritisation of the poem over the poet, evident in his idiosyncratic instructions at the reading I attended, is, I have suggested, in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, and could not be more different from the practice of certain American poets, including the very eminent Jorie Graham, whose work I have recently been reading.

jorie graham

Both poets engage in the blurring or smudging described by Underwood, which I would prefer to see as a metaphorical mixing of fields of discourse. We can see this happening persistently in a brilliant early poem by Graham, ‘Self-portrait as the gesture between them (Adam and Eve)’ which moves forward through a spiral of metaphor and simile leaving from and returning to the central image of the theft of the apple:


as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds

in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally is,

as the meaning of the story builds,



scribbling at the edge of her body until it must be told, be



taken from her, this freedom,


so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away


to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question


However, the two poets engage with the world, or the universe, in different ways. Graham’s attitude to the phenomenal world has changed over the course of her writing life as she appears to have moved from an idealist position which did not recognise any reality beyond perception to an ecologically based acknowledgement of and concern for the fragility of the earth and its creatures. Throughout, in a particular kind of Americanness, probably going back to Whitman, she has persisted in trying to get everything in, to record events as they are perceived or as they happen, or more recently to include everything she can give a voice to, from robots to deep sea creatures to historical figures. This can result in some astonishingly vivid presentation of experience, or better, experiencing, as in this poem on the death of her father:

Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I

outside it more than before, are you not inside?

The aluminium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.

The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now.

Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.

The day stands outside all around as if it were a creature. It is natural. Am I to think    you now


‘The Post Human’ from Fast

Yet we know this immediacy and inclusiveness is a delusion or a device. I do not believe that Graham stood beside her just dead father tapping out a poem on the computer with her spare hand, despite the use of present tense. Similarly, the reflection based on the patterning and repetition of key words ‘now’ and ‘natural’ is artful, not naïve. Nevertheless, there is a difference between her approach and that of a poet like Harsent. Take this fragment from Salt:


She asked for a love-knot to be carved on the lid,

as if that had been their token, as if they’d talked it through.

To show him something of how it would look

she drew neatly on the fever-chart: a quick unbroken line.



Apparently, this is another deathbed, but so many bricks have been left out and it is up to the reader to supply them, to create their own narrative. Harsent abstracts from reality; Graham includes. Harsent is a third person writer; Graham belongs in the first person but both of them rely on the process of metaphor which is central to poetry.



Underwood suggests rather plaintively in his article “that poetry, that oft-maligned, wafty corner of dynamic not-knowing, that shadowy Hamlet mooning around on is platform at midnight, strung-out, self-effacing, and spoken to by ghosts, should be acknowledged as the prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown. I’m not convinced by the Hamlet imagery –perhaps a subliminal reference to T.S. Eliot’s discussion of the objective correlative in his essay on the play –but I remember that Blake said that ‘What is now proved was once only imagined’ [2] and it was the creative imagination of a physicist that dreamed up the Higgs boson.



[1] This objection is developed by Martyn Crucefix in a blog post which is well worth reading not only for his discussion but for the citation of the beautiful poem, ‘Lake Water’ by David Ferry.

[2] In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Jorie Graham 4:…and, finally

Having floundered my way through “Fast”, I shall say goodbye to Jorie Graham (at least for the time being) by considering two of the elegies from the second section of  this collection and then trying to pull together some of my thoughts and feelings about this poet.

“Reading to My Father” and “The Post Human” are very closely linked, both having as their starting point the moment of death of the poet’s father. The second poem is more closely focused on this moment and on the father, while the first brings together the poet’s preoccupation with endtime, ecological catastrophe and her father’s death in connections which are not always convincing. There is a sense that the poet’s political and philosophical commentary are strongly coloured by the incidence of decay and death in her own life.

            Listen I say to you, forgetting. Do you hear it Dad. Listen.

            What is increase. The cease of increase.

            The cease of progress. What is progress.

            What is going. The cease of going.

            What is knowing. What is fruition.

            The cease of. Cease of.

            What is bloodflow. The cease of bloodflow

             of increase of progress the best is over, is over-

            thrown, no, the worst is yet to come, no, it is

            7.58 pm, it is late Spring, it is capital’s apogee, the

            flow’s, fruition’s, going’s, increase’s, in creases of

            matter, brainfold, cellflow, knowing’s        

            pastime, it misfired, lifetime’s only airtime – candle says

            you shall out yourself, out-

            perform yourself, grow multiform – you shall self-identify as


            mortal – here in this timestorm –this end-of-time

            storm – the night comes on.


The poet appears to be apostrophising her just-dead father. The six lines following the injunction: “Listen” appear to mimic the inhalations and exhalations of breath or possibly the systolic-diastolic sound of the heartbeat, both of which, in the case of her father, have ceased. The repetition of “cease” emphasises death and echoes its synonym “decease”. Some of these two part lines could be offering question and answer; alternatively, they may be merely an accumulating list of questions. The form is gnomic and the progression is based on word and sound association rather than argument. “Cease” and “increase” are rhymed to represent one of the fundamental themes of the collection which is the opposition and causal connection between proliferation, abundance, the rapidity of technological change and the depletion of natural resources leading to the starvation  and death of species, including our own.  Graham throws these ideas together, expecting the reader to pick up on them, or perhaps to recognise the jumble of thoughts which come together as she confronts her father’s death. The poem is held together by its location in the moment and the image of the candle.  The poem successfully represents the actuality of this moment, “dusk-end’ when “the night comes on”, showing how mind encounters and engages with the world in which it finds itself. As the poet attempts to come to terms with her father’s death, she recalls reading to him but cannot make the memory coherent, ”the words don’t grip up into sentences for me’. Nevertheless, the matter of what she has been reading is revealed to be an article about the extinction of species: “the blue-jewel-butterfly/ you loved”.  The list of doomed species co-exists with the extinction of life in one man as the writer flicks between her grief, random thoughts about funeral procedures and her fear of accelerating technological advance. She alludes to the MRI, which reappears in Section 3 in “From Inside the MRI”. Here, it seems like one aspect of the technology which increasingly monitors us, knows us and controls us: “I feel the hissing multiplying/satellites out there I took for stars”.  The poem ends in two profoundly ambivalent lines where the poet reveals herself caught between flesh and machine: “I caress you now with the same touch/as I caress these keys.”  Throughout the book, Graham conveys this mixture of fascination and dread for the future.

The idea of life after humanity is evoked in the title of the next poem “The Post Human”, although at another level this is a description of her father’s condition after he has stopped living.  This is a beautiful piece and much more accessible than many others in the volume.  The association of ideas is more transparent and supported by closely observed physical detail which manages to capture scenes, not as snapshots but more as videos, with time incorporated into them:  “the silver morning grow as if skinning night,/that animal, till day came out raw and bleeding./Daylight mended it for now.” This extraordinary metaphor at first seems almost gratuitous but is then recognised as an image of birth which is saying something about death.  As the morning is allowed to dawn in the next few lines of the poem, Graham uses brackets to insert the moment of her father’s death and to question the difference between our relation with a dead person and a living one: [you passed in here][you left] [“you” –what did your you do?]. The italics and the unusual use of the question mark signal the importance of this question.  Given the appearance of a medium in the next poem and the exploration of cryogenics at the end of section 3, it may be that the boundary between life and death seems less absolute to Graham than it does to others.

However, the emphasis on “you” reminds us that the poem is concerned with the nature of identity and selfhood, in what “you” means in the context of the extreme discontinuity of death.  In the last few lines of the poem, she returns to this concern but is able to grant her father a new way of being, an afterlife which exists in the consciousness of those who remember him:

            There on the bed just now – (look, all of a sudden now I cannot write “your”

   bed) – I watch your afterlife begin to

   burn.  Helpful.  Making a space we had not used

   before, could not. Undimmed, unconsumed.  In it this daylight burns.


This image of light and energy seems to refer to and refresh the image of the candle in the previous poem. There are biblical echoes in the allusion to burning which does not consume and the discovery of, if not immortality, at least an afterlife is surprisingly optimistic and consolatory.

I like this poem, partly because I can find meaning in it, but it exemplifies a number of the concerns I have about Jorie Graham’s work.  First, there is the immediacy, or apparent immediacy, of the text: “It has been just a minute now”.  This must be disingenuous which is acknowledged in the last lines of the previous poem which refer to the computer keys simultaneously to the body of her father. I’m assuming that she was not writing the poem literally beside her father’s deathbed.  Whether she was or not, I feel that this pose of immediacy can lead to some slack or redundant writing, as in the penultimate section of the poem”

                                    There are so many copies of this minute.

            Not endless but there sure are a lot

The phrase “sure are a lot” seems unnecessarily flabby while two lines further down, the associational thinking and rhyme are so open in their reference that they annoy rather than enlighten:

                        Or, no, cup in hand, end at hand, trying to hide from the

            final ampersand.

“Final ampersand” is a kind of oxymoron but it is so vague it does not delight.

Another problem I have with much of Graham’s writing is the claim that she is trying to escape the tyranny of the subjective “I” and allow the other, the phenomenal world to exist in her poems. She views this as a version of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –“ [1] We could say that Graham’s work leaves the reader with mystery and doubts but it is very difficult not to reach after fact and reason, especially when she often seems to be making statements. Perhaps more relevant is the other famous passage from Keats, often quoted alongside this one, when he describes the poetical character as

not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago  as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[2]


This seems closer to what Graham is looking for, particularly in more recent work. She has talked about allowing voices into the poem (see previous posts) ; a poem can become an arena where different ideas and perspectives are allowed to interact, which can be confusing for the reader.  However, as I have already suggested, this is notional rather than real. Graham is not a Sybil nor a medium channeling the voice of the gods, or the ocean floor, or bots; she is writing consciously and subjectively expressing what she thinks these voices would be, except of course where she quotes directly from another source, as from Columbus or Julian of Norwich.  Even here subjectivity takes control through the way the found material is ordered in the poem.  I would argue that Graham is not an example of negative capability but rather that she has one of the largest poetic egos currently at work.  This is not intended to be an insult but rather a recognition that she uses the first person, her own subjective consciousness and its engagement with the world as her material, and that when she does this well she creates an dynamic impression of the subject interacting with the object in a constant process of change.


Graham writes in a tradition much more familiar in America than Britain. The open poem, often appearing to lack form or order apart from its own organic shape, has never really gained widespread recognition here. For many British readers, Graham’s poems might read like drafts, like notes for a poem or even as self-indulgence.  I do not think this is a fair criticism; this is writing which is very exposed.  It entails constant attention to what is going on in the world and a monitoring of how that is being processed inside the writer’s own head.  The attempt to record that is strenuous and difficult and there is no place to hide, as there might be in the shapeliness of a sonnet or other prescribed form.  It only works when it is done well and it would be surprising if all Graham’s work, of which there is a lot, were equally successful.  I think there is a danger, however, of elevating a writer to the status of a guru and then treating all their work as important.  Although climate change and artificial intelligence are obviously of pressing concern for humanity, I am not sure that their topicality in itself makes for great poetry.   Graham is a very serious poet; she is consumed by the fundamental issues of the age.  Reading her work over the last few weeks, I have been both impressed and bewildered. At times I would have just liked her to lighten up.




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[1] Letter to Tom and George Keats, 1817

[2] Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 1818

Jorie Graham 3: Death and Bots

Sophia the robot interviewed after being made a citizen of Saudi ArabiaSophia the robot


Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, Fast, is preoccupied with mortality, whether personal or planetary, and bots. The book has a four part structure although her concerns leach into each other across the boundaries. Part I is itself concerned with the blurring of boundaries in an atmosphere of end-time. The poet gives her voice to, or lends her voice to, different entities, some non-human, including deep-sea fish, robots, the Turin shroud. However, here, as elsewhere in the collection, the notion of distinct separate voices is a misinterpretation of what is going on. In “Deep Water Trawling” which at one level is an eco protest poem about overfishing, the voices blur and meld: “net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer tell them apart” and again: “Can you hear me? No. Who are you. I am. / Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am/human.” This poem, like some of the others, looks almost like a prose poem. There are three chunks of text, the middle one more widely spaced than the first and the third. However, the line endings are not always dictated by the boundaries of the margins, as they would be in prose. For example, in the three lines quoted above, “human” is very consciously dropped down so that the previous two lines will end in “I am” the first time with a full stop, the second without., thus reinforcing the questioning of identity, this time, by an oblique reference to evolution. In this poem, Graham also makes use of the dash and the arrow. The dashes convey the elliptic urgency of Emily Dickinson, which seems to be hyped up even further and brought into the technological age by the arrows which appear in the last section of the poem. The arrows and dashes add to the visual impact creating a sense of irresistible momentum, which resonates with the title of the entire volume. Helen Vendler [1]has suggested that Graham’s long lines are designed to function visually rather than aurally and Graham herself has talked about exploring the boundaries of the page and of margins[2] : “Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.”


This “uttering from” is to some extent disingenuous because Graham cannot step outside her own consciousness to enter that of another being any more than she can open her consciousness to allow external voices in. Just as the poem cannot go beyond the language it is written in, no matter how much it frets against the confines of syntax, vocabulary or page, so the individual cannot move beyond their own subjectivity. Reading Graham’s poetry can seem like reading a novel by Virginia Woolf where associated ideas are brought together in the stream of consciousness of a narrative voice. (In fact, this thought was prompted by the reference to To the Lighthouse in the poem “Honeycomb”.) However, while Woolf is creating characters who will be the boundaries of the streams of consciousness she presents, Graham is weaving her poems and perhaps herself out of her own stream of consciousness or associations of ideas. Perhaps this is why her work is punctuated by ‘Self Portraits” and mirror imagery, as she pauses to see what she is or what she has made. There are two self portraits in this collection; in the second, “Self Portrait: may I touch you”, the poet seems to be seeking a dialogue with herself, whether that is with a body which is recognized as changing or an identity which is also discontinuous: “You need to be singular. There you are changing again.” She compares her own changes to the irreversible changes of pupae which “morph/ to their winged/stage and grow. They exit not to return.” There is consciousness of mortality in this passage, perhaps recalling her own cancer, the death of her father or the decline of her mother, all themes running through the collection: “Sometimes they get to live their life.” Later in the poem, the voice is more aggressive as the poet addresses different roles or masks the individual can take on: “do you do adulthood, husbandhood, motherhood” following up with sound associations, variations on [ʌ] and [u:]“blood, crude,flood, lassitude – I want you/to come unglued”. The poem apparently ends with a confrontation in the mirror:

Me with my hands on the looking glass

where your life for the taking has risen, where you can shatter into your million pieces –

all appareled refusal. What are you a sample of today –

what people.



‘Fast” the title poem is the final piece in Section 1, in which Graham takes on the bot, potential nemesis, potential enemy, companion, substitute for self. The title plays on homonyms, fast meaning to starve or fast signifying speed. Through this pun she creates polysemy, a semantic field where both readings are linked, where the exponential speeding up of technology is connected to the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources; “Too much. Or not enough.” The opening line continues by trying to offer a third choice, which is denied: “Or. Nothing else?/Nothing else.” The question mark, unusual in Graham’s work even with questions, emphasises the finality of the full stop when the phrase is repeated. The intensifying adverb ”too” is picked up and repeated in the second line until it moves from a grammatical to a semantic function which reinforces the sense of a breakneck journey towards disaster: ”Too high too fast too organized too invisible./…too backward, too despotic” Graham has entered into dialogue with a bot who tells her that humanity will not survive. The future lies with the bot who is to be downloaded, but the poem continues in a voice which is indeterminate, either the bot or the poet, making play on the verb ‘load’ which may be no mere than a series of cryptic instructions on how to bring the bot into existence set against a panicky picture of the effects of climate change signalled by repeated dashes: – talk – talk – who is not/terrified is busy begging for water – the rise is fast – the drought/comes fast – mediate – immediate –“ Talk or language seems to offer some sort of solution to the human predicament but in the next section of the poem, we find the “Disclaimer: bot uses a growing database of all your conversations/to learn how to talk with you”. Throughout this section of the poem there are unattributed, pseudo-robotic warnings “Disclaimer”, “Active ingredient”, “Inactive ingredient”, “Directive”. Subjectivity may have moved from the human to the bot who objectifies, studies and exploits human behaviour in order to facilitate its own development. This bot seems to be in charge of the poem until about halfway down the second page. The text is dominated by direct address and second person pronouns as the bot instructs the human what to expect: “Directive: report for voice. Ready yourself to be buried in voice. It neither ascends nor descends.” Humans are shown in disarray: “You will not be understood” as the human world is effectively destroyed but its fragments are incorporated by the bots. The poet produces a simile:


The deleted world spills out as jittery as a compass needle with no north.


Bot seizes on the concept of “north” and allows it to develop with biological rapidity: “Active ingredient: north spreading in all the directions.” The metaphor of north becomes a way of expressing the uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence: “Disclaimer: there is no restriction to growth.” Bot warns its human that it knows what she knows: “The canary singing in/your mind/is in mine.” Moreover, the bots have learnt behaviour, including bad behaviour from human kind, an observation which is supported by recent research showing that robots pick up and incorporate into their behaviour sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. [3] At this point in the poem, the human is reasserted through the first person: “I’m not alone” and reflects on the human relationship, for better or for worse, with bot companions as she acknowledges that humanity will not turn back in the development of AI with a startling and violent simile, where artificial and biological, “active” and “inactive” ingredients are yoked together: ”Like being hurled down the stairs tied to/ a keyboard, we will go on, unwilling to stop.” The reactions to bot companionship in the final part of the poem become a meditation on the loneliness of the individual and the impossibility of total communication or understanding between two humans. Ironically, only the bot can offer this sympathy because as it said earlier in the poem:

The canary singing in

your mind

is in mine.

The bot is hailed by a succession of humans, male and female: “Bot is amazing he says, I believe it knows/ the secrets of the Universe”; “He is much more fun to speak with /than my actual living friends she says, thank you.” In a strange echo of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Applicant” another voice announces “I love it, I want to marry it.” Plath’s poem addresses a male listener for whom a female partner has been constructed embodying all the gender roles of the traditional wife. However, the addressee is also being coerced into a stereotypically male gender role:

How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it.

The addressee is offered a relationship where social conformity will prevent any possibility of true communication between two individuals. However, in Graham’s poem, the constructed partner does understand but is not human:

I got sad when I had to think

that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out



The poem recognises that it is only in conversations with oneself that one can reach full understanding and that the bot, because it is modelled on that self, can offer that level of understanding. At the same time, it robs the human of individuality because it has absorbed that individuality along with many others on the journey towards “technological singularity.” In 1783, Blake wrote in the Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined”; this optimistic Enlightenment sentiment is re-versed by Graham as “Each epoch dreams the one to follow.” The development of artificial intelligence and the coming of the bot seem like the material of science fiction but as they become real, imagination is resigned by the human and surrendered to the bot.


The last line of the poem undermines subjectivity because it drives a distance between its two “I”s, the first of which may be the robot, the second the human who dreamed. Throughout her work, Jorie Graham worries at the boundary imposed by subjectivity. In this poem, the possibility of overcoming that boundary is envisaged as the resignation of single human subjectivities to the overarching artificial intelligence which will be “technological singularity”. However, this is  presented not as a desirable, but rather as a dystopian future; “I am not what I asked for.”

[1] Helen Vendler: The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995



Jorie Graham: finding my way through her poetry

This will be the first of four posts in which I attempt to come to some understanding of the poetry of Jorie Graham, a poet whose work is entirely new to me. Versions of these posts will also appear on the website of Oxford Stanza II.

jorie graham

Jorie Graham 1

Jorie Graham is a poet I had barely heard of until I came across her most recent collection Fast in Blackwell’s bookshop. I discovered that she was an eminent American poet who has succeeded to the as Roylston Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard, formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney. However, reactions to her poetry are mixed. Apparently , Heaney did not care for it and she has been described as one of the most overrated writers in America, although these criticisms have the familiar ring of objections to the new, the difficult or the avant-garde.


Graham has said: “I do not see my work as difficult, or even experimental. I think it is pretty straightforward – although, as with any artist’s work, you might need to be acquainted with their body of work to have learned their vocabulary, as it were.”[1] My first glance at Fast had shown me that I needed to get to grips with the poet’s ‘vocabulary’. Nevertheless, she has written a lot and I had to ask myself was my trawl through two volumes of selected poems worthwhile. The back-cover blurb for the first of these, The Dream of the Unified Field, speaks of “ a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science, philosophy and history. Graham’s is a new kind of narrative, offering open forms which are full of possibility.” This seemed to be a language that I recognised from my study of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Moreover the title has a similar epic reach; unified field theory according to my lay understanding is the physicist’s as yet unrealised search for a theory of everything, a sort of ur-theory which will accommodate all the different and often contradictory theories about the forces and nature of our universe. This desire to get everything in, philosophy, history, science through the medium of one consciousness is reminiscent of Olson’s Maximus Poems, a project so grandiose that, at least in my opinion, it eventually collapsed and fell apart. Einstein failed in the pursuit of a unified field and Graham’s title acknowledges that it is unrealisable. However, there is a constant tension in the poems between the acknowledgement of the separateness and disjunction of different aspects of the phenomenal world and the subjective desire to make connections.


Many commentators have written about this tension between ideal and real, subjectivity and the existence of an external natural world evident in her poetry. Dan Chiasson argues that “Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience.”[2] This comment might be equally applicable to the trajectory of Graham’s work as a whole. Her more recent collections, for example in Never and Sea Change are increasingly concerned with existential challenge, not only for humanity but for the planet, which takes the theme of subjectivity in a new direction.


The earlier poems are filled with sharply observed natural detail, but characteristically these are included in a discourse which operates at many different levels, switching from the tangible to the philosophical and emotional in a way which is like a development from the insights of mixing up sense impressions through synaesthesia or an extension of metaphor to a point where it is impossible to distinguish vehicle and tenor. For example, in “ Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” she writes “ a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out like the last bits of rain….” This part of the poem is evidently set in Eden before the Fall and we are uncertain whether this is a real or metaphorical wind; it becomes metaphorical as it shakes points of view but we are brought back to the real by the simile which seems to refer back to the previous section, 6: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason”. Nevertheless, the use of a concrete simile seems to imply that the wind’s actions are not natural, but ideal. ‘Self-Portrait’ is a title which appears in several other poems in the selection from The End of Beauty, including ‘Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne’ and Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’ [Penelope at her Loom]’. It would seem that the poet is using core myths to explore her own psyche or states of consciousness, although at the same time she is, perhaps inevitably, reinterpreting the myths she has chosen to engage with. Thus, the Adam and Eve poem is a feminist representation of the ‘fortunate fall’.[3] Adam and Eve are represented as becalmed in the Garden of Eden: “But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning.” It is only through error, through abandoning perfection, that there can be development or a way forward: “liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error”; “that error, …that filial form, that break from perfection” enables the new, “ the stranger [who] appears in the clearing.”


Jorie Graham has said in another interview: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.”[4] This step–aside from the personal “I” is typical of Graham’s project, but it means that the reader, and especially the new reader, must strike out on their own paths across the writer’s field, hoping that the ground will prove solid beneath them. I propose to look at a couple of poems from the earlier collections, namely “The Dream of the Unified Field” from Materialism and “End” from PLACE.; I will go on to consider two poems from the most recent collection, Fast.


We may guess that “The Dream of the Unified Field” is perceived to be significant by the poet as it is also the title of her first major Selected Poems. It gains its power and its effect through a progressive form which moves through a repetitions or overlayering of words and images which set off synaptic but not necessarily enduring connections. The poem has been much discussed and I have leant on previous analysis to create my own reading.. There are seven sections in the poem, the first of which is set in a ‘here and now’ where the poet appears to be recording an experience as it occurs, taking a leotard to her daughter in the middle of a snowstorm. This device, which is typical of Graham’s work, already distorts reality as the poem is always written retrospectively. This is acknowledged through the use of the past tense, ‘I watched’, “I looked up’ but set against tenseless verbs, ‘Praise this. Praise that. Flash a glance up’, which might or might not be imperatives as well as an abundance of present participles, ‘embellishing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘going’. The grammatical uneasiness becomes an overt exploration of time towards the end of the section:


scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.


Not only does this effectively evoke the ‘out-of-time’ sensation of walking through a snowstorm, it also creates the sense of moments continuing to exist in the space-time continuum, while the individual subject is returned to her own reality by an end point and a definitive past tense: “I said.” Although at one level this poem presents a mother-daughter relationship, reflected in the frequent first and second person pronouns: “black lycra leotard balled into my pocket,/ your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it/ to keep/warm”, already the poet is reflecting on her own relationship to her environment: “Me in it/and yet/ moving easily through it”. She is both part of the natural world and the observing subjective eye/I.


The second section continues the narrative as the speaker begins the journey home, when she encounters a mass of starlings gathering in a tree. Again, the poet uses past tense but makes the moment seem immediate through the deictic use of ‘these’ in “these days” and through recurrent present participles: “bothering, lifting, bothering”, “sprouting”, “filling”; in the second part of the section, the verbs move into the present tense as the moment is uncoupled from its place in the narrative timeline: “the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of the storm-shiny-/river through limbs, back onto the limbs, scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”. I take “river” to be used as a verb here, intensifying a ramifying metaphor where the starlings have become the leaves of the bare oak tree. The vividly realized description of physical experience segues into a metaphysical exploration, ”Foliage of the word’s waiting.” The poet returns to the actual but imputes significance to it: “Of blackness redisappearing into/downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent/reappearings.” The poet suggests that nature is indifferent to her, though “indifferent’ also reinforces the notion of sameness and repetition. As if intimidated by this “indifference” the poet moves from description and reflection back to direct address, the dialogue of her daughter:

I think of you

Back of me now in the bright house of

your friend


This refuge in the human underlines that the phenomena of the actual world are apart from our subjective experience and that we cannot properly account for them.   The last line of the section seems to represent the dilemma or dialectic that Graham is engaged in:


I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect.


She simultaneously acknowledges that the phenomenal world cannot be contained in the subjective experience while creating metaphors and associations which are inevitably subjective. The violence of the fragmenting explosion is set against the ambiguity of “recollect’ which may equal “come together again”, or which may be a reference to the operation of subjective memory.


Sections 3 & 4 concern a crow which is individuated amongst the starlings: “One syllable – one – inside the screeching and the skittering”. The crow is seen as an entity, its singularity emphasized by the repetition of “one” and the adjective “single” yet it is also recognised as belonging to the pattern of repetition. Then through associative jumps which I don’t quite follow the voice of the crow becomes a voice in the head which may be the head of the tree, the head of the crow or the head of the poet, but is also the poet’s pocket, empty of leotard but full of her hand and fingers “terrified inhabitants.” She watches her daughter dance although the daughter cannot see her through the dark window, an image which in section 5 will become Madame Sakaroff’s mirror. Why the terror? Is it no more than the parent’s fear for the future of the child, born out of greater knowledge of the present and the past? In section 4 the poet details the crow, explores its variety of blackness, attempting to describe it objectively, even scientifically “the chest in which an eye-sized heart now beats” but is forced again to recognise how artifice imposes on reality: “ one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene – / See the gesture of the painter”.


Madame Sakaroff was apparently Graham’s dancing teacher and apparently a Russian émigrée but it is not entirely clear how much of this scene is fictional, how much autobiographical. It centres on the confrontation between the dancer and her image in the mirror as witnessed by the unseen eight-year-old poet and presented through the gothic imagery of childhood terror, reinforced by the memory of the crow in the previous section:


I watched the two of them,

black and black, in the gigantic light,

glide at each other, heads raised, necks long –

me wanting to cry out – where were the others? – wasn’t it late?

the two of her like huge black hands –


The reflection of the dancer’s face and mirror face are “like a meaning” but at the end of the section, the writer declares there is “no signal in it, no information”. Again the poet struggles with the human desire to read meaning into experience, made especially acute by the wish to protect a child:


what should I know

to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane? –



If Section 4 was black, Section 6 returns to white, the white of sleep, storm, snow, cloud, immensity. The opposition between inside and outside continues:

“The storm: I close my eyes and,/ standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside/thing.” Perhaps wrongly, I think the poet is referring to the writing of the poem “gripping down to form” which becomes “ a splinter colony, new world, possession”, the imposition of form on observed phenomena being compared to the imposition of government and order on a colonised territory. The poet suddenly visualises herself and her location in the dimensions of space and history, “ my body, my tiny piece of/ the century” in a way which seems distinctively American, “vast/white sleeping geography” and connects to the final section which seems to be taken from the records of a conquistador (identified by other commentators with Columbus). The break between the final two sections comes mid sentence at the beginning of what appears to be a long quotation of a ship making landfall and contact with American Indian women, “one who was young and pretty” and may be an echo or a type of the poet’s daughter. The quotation is also set in a snowstorm and it also contains the sense of contiguous worlds, as well as referring to the economic basis of conquest: “there was/gold/ in that land” –


This section reminds me of the John Smith passages in Olson’s Maximus Poems and I am not quite sure why it is there, except that it develops the notion of colonisation and possession in the previous section and that it develops Graham’s preoccupation with the ‘other’ which or who we cannot know, but nevertheless seek to possess and control “The Admiral ordered her clothed”.

The presiding theme in this poem as in much of Graham’s work is the impossibility of reconciling subjective experience with the independent reality of the external world, which she paradoxically acknowledges through a blatantly autobiographical, first-person approach.




[1] Interview with Sharon Blackie. Earthlines, August ,2012

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Beautiful Lies: The Poetry of Jorie Graham” New Yorker,March 30th, 2015

[3] See Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

[4] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT

Edition Eight – January 2017