Poet Jorie Graham will speak at this year’s Founders’ Day Convocation at Illinois Wesleyan University. Graham’s address (a reading/talk) is titled “The Role of Poetry in a Living Culture.” The Convocation takes place on Wednesday, February 23, at 11 a.m. in Presser Hall’s Westbrook Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.
There also will be a conversation/q&a with Graham on Tuesday, February 22, at 4 p.m. in the Hansen Student Center. This event, also, is free and open to the public.
One further event associated with Graham’s visit: I’m going lead a conversation called “How To Read a Jorie Graham Poem.” This event, also free and open to the public, will take place on Monday, February 21, at 4 p.m. in the English House’s Seminar Room (located on the English House’s garden level).
My talk, of course, will have a lot to do with turns. How do you read a Jorie Graham poem? You listen for the turns…
I don’t believe this is an imposition on my part. Graham loves the turn. It is everywhere in her poetry; in Structure & Surprise, for example, I discuss Graham’s great poem “Prayer” in terms of its relation to the emblem poem tradition, a tradition in which poems turn from a description of a thing to a meditation on the meaning of that thing.
The turn also is central to Graham’s poetics. Here are some key passages from “Something of Moment,” the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares she edited:
“In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) ‘takes place.’
…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.
All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.”
And, in “At the Border,” an essay that appears in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002), Graham writes,
“The capacity to ‘express’ the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of ‘deep image,’ ‘collective emotive image,’ haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us. The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.”
Indeed, I first became conscious of the poetic turn a powerful force in poetry when taking a poetic forms class with Graham at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, in the fall of 1994. During the third week of that class, while discussing haiku, Graham introduced me and my classmates to the following haiku by Basho: “Deep autumn– / my neighbor, / how does he live?”
Graham deeply admired this poem because it contained what she thought were the two vital aspects of a poem: an occasion, and a Stevensian cry of its occasion. In Basho’s poem, the occasion is deep autumn, when the leaves have fallen, allowing one to see the neighbor’s house, and the cry (notice: not statement, or explanation, but, rather, cry) is the urgent, surprising act of the human voice arising from this occasion.
This single lesson struck me to the bone. It gave me a whole new way to begin to approach reading poems, something new to look for in, and even demand from, poems. This single lesson was, in retrospect, the kernel of the idea that grew into Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and this blog. Knowing turns certainly will help anyone who really wants to engage Graham’s work.
Work, of course, very worth engaging for many, many reasons. Jorie Graham is one of the great poets and poetic thinkers of our day. I invite and encourage you to come to any and all of her Founders’ Day events on the Illinois Wesleyan campus.