Jorie Graham On The Region Of Unlikeliness

In this excerpt from a 2003 interview with Jorie Graham that appeared in The Paris Review, she talks about several of my preoccupations–autobiography, parenthood, lineation, philosophy in poetry, addressing the reader, confession, etc–and how they played out in her collection Region Of Unlikeliness:


In Region—after using works of art, then myth, in the previous books—you turn to autobiography. The poems were all your own stories, at that point. Why was that?


Perhaps because once you’re a parent, you enter into a completely different relationship to time. History becomes dominant, and then, perhaps, personal history becomes dominant. You are suddenly at that point where facts—both the facts that your child is learning, and the facts of your life your child wants to know, needs to know—become important. You become a bit of story that needs to be told.


The lines in these poems are shorter. Why?


Many things made the line shorter. Once you begin talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines—longer lines for the visionary; shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn; and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.


And the second line?


The indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was still very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens—desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. I guess I still am. For example, what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the thing you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase? If you’re telling the story of your life, in a way, or if you’ve gone back to autobiography or history, you’re in a place where sentence-making is connected to time, as opposed to those epiphanic escapes from time which would employ a different kind of syntax—in Erosion for example.


So, the indented line . . .?


The indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift—and three musical units: the full line; a shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words (often words that would never carry a stress—prepositions, articles, conjunctions) words that if stressed truly alter the nature of what the actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing,” the oftentimes single word on the left margin, which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a kind of propulsion that made a rather long poem continue to feel like a containable lyric utterance. I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward.


And that does what to the reader?


It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession? A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.

David Rivard

And speaking of…

I’m pretty sure I’ve come across Rivard before, but most recently, it began with an essay evocatively entitled “The Interrupted Now.” It was a great read with several insights that make so much sense to me, like the following on syntax:

For me to be fully inside the body of the poem I have to feel a flex and alertness in the syntax. Otherwise I go around slumping and round-shouldered, and the poem flops. The syntax has to be muscular enough to hold together in the midst of shifting speeds, but flexible enough to make the turns. That speed, that variable propulsiveness, is a thing I trust. The speed gives me a way of narrating experience that depends on elision and compression; but it also mimics the way that one moment of interruption fades into another.

And just as I was struck by the title of his now out-of-print debut collection, so too am I with Otherwise Elsewhere, the title of his latest collection. (Notice how that review links to “The Interrupted Now”?)

And despite / because of my difficulty with what he calls “The Minimal, the Miniature, & the Little-More-Than-Nothing,” I found riveting a piece that offers, among other things, a discussion of poems that “depend upon indirection and a sort of Wi-Fi networking.”

And this not-so-recent interview has Rivard talking about the fragment, which has long interested me, but here’s a bit about syntax and line in Torque:

I can see how I’m using a line to parse out sentence rhythms as the line moves down the page. It’s not a book that depends on the line to articulate a rhythm; it depends on the sentence. The line makes you more aware of how phrasal units counterpoint the sentence, or how the complications of syntax are being released, how the syntax tracks.

And finally, for now, Heather McHugh, whose work as critic and editor I like, has nice things to say about him. Discussing one of Rivard’s poems from Wise Poison, she says–in her typical way–the following, which I like because some common words that pop up in my poems include sin, sing, and singe, poems which I aim to work as “song-sense”:

To sin, to be singed, ever to have sung a single thing–such links are forged, not on the anvils of deductive reasoning, but rather in the spark-bed of song-sense itself.

From Marvin Bell to Ozzy Osbourne?

I first came across Marvin Bell when I read his opening remarks to a conference on camouflage held five years ago. In some ways, his linking of camouflage to poetry was somewhat formative in my own thinking as well, how “poetry doesn’t easily reveal itself,” how “it can be the lie that tells the truth.”

At the bottom of that page was a Dead Man poem of his, which I felt was an interesting figure the first time I read it. That Bell’s Dead Man is both alive and dead seems to have inspired my Heidegger short story, I now realize.

But because of the HTML coding of the Web page and how it ended up looking, I misread an important formal characteristic of the structure of Bell’s Dead Man poems, namely, how “each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short,” which means enjambment is set aside as a device. The impression the poem left on me then was based on a misreading: I admired what I thought were long lines dramatically enjambed into shorter chunks that seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

If one looks at “The Book of the Dead Man (#70)” as printed in the Introspections anthology, Bell’s formal choice becomes even more interesting as it happens on the printed (albeit virtual) page. With the leftmost margin reserved for the start of a new sentence, sentences too long for the width of the page end up indented in the next line. Here, enjambment seems (forced) to take place, even if Bell says, “[L]ong thought and practice lay behind my decision to let the sentence determine the poetic line.” He continues:

“Free verse” is not a form, nor an absence of form, but a method for inventing new forms. In the Dead Man poems, I redefined the free verse line by discarding many of its material particulars: the common emphasis on enjambment, for example. … I have always felt that the key to free verse is the sentence. That is, syntax provides the opportunities to enjamb or not, and syntax determines the character of the line. The free verse line without reference to syntax is like a train without reference to tracks.

While there may be quibbles about the definition of free verse as a method (metaphorical though it may be, it seems oddly more precise to borrow Umberto Eco’s notion of the novel as “a machine for generating meaning” and call free verse a machine for generating poetic form), Bell’s assertions are fascinating, especially given my love of enjambment, an amour fou that led to my mistake of reading the line ending as a yellow light to beat, rather than a place to pause for a beat.

For one thing, the importance of the sentence to Bell’s understanding of free verse is parallel–separate yet aligned–with Annie Finch and her defense of meter, which she sees as a ghost haunting (American) free verse. I’m still not sure how much I accept the idea, but there is a third parallel: James Longenbach presenting prose poetry in The Art of the Poetic Line as “suggesting that the very power of line asks us to wonder how it would feel to do without line.”

The other thing point of interest is Bell’s figure of the train. A train may be derailed from its tracks, and certainly the tracks it normally must move on become more emphasized when that happens, but it’s interesting trying to link this with Bell’s recognition of and hesitation towards the “well-wrought urn.” Bell says, “The very sanity of the polished lyric is its own reward,” but follows this with a caveat: “Though I came to writing through the lyric tradition, I am not wholly of it. For I came to understand that I was crazier than that.”

Poetry as a crazy train?