Wednesday, July 30, 2003

So the reading, incidentally, went very well and felt good. I actually rehearsed beforehand, which I've never done before, but it's an awfully good idea—no guessing about how long things were going to take, or what a particular transition from one poem to the other would sound like. It was stressful—there's something about reading in front of people who know you primarily as another ordinary person and not a Poet that makes it feel a bit like "coming out"—but fun.

Speaking of Poets, I've been reading this interview with Jorie Graham in the latest Paris Review. It's not a magazine I pay much attention to these days, though for a long time it was my Platonic ideal for a literary magazine, probably simply because it invoked the presence of Paris at its most romantic in its title (though as far as I can tell the magazine has had nothing to do with the actual Paris, much less French literature as it has currently manifested itself). Anyway, the tone that Graham uses, the urgency and drama of it all, in conversation with Thomas Gardner just fills me with an unstable mixture of amusement and awe (awemusement?). Here's a typical passage:
The early years in Iowa City. Getting up at night to feed her, put her back down, and then going to my typewriter with the terrible postpartum fear that I would never write again, not truly or deeply, and then feeling the black windowpanes holding the sleeping town and all its dreamers. It was as if I could feel all the dreams floating over the bodies in all the rooms in that town—and that silence full of dream beginning to pull that book out of me, beckoning, allowing me back into the ancient stream via dream and myth and listening while others slept. A roving consciousness over a sleeping world. That's what Iowa was like, for me, in those years. It was not merely "not-Washington," or "not-Rome." It was the unimaginably mysterious life of mothering.
She talks like a romance novel. The thing is, of course, that she really does talk like that, she's not putting you on—her commitment is total. I find myself torn between the impulse to ridicule her for her oversized persona and a certain admiration, maybe even a flicker of envy, for someone who manages to be a Romantic poet in the grand style—she's genuinely Byronic—in 2003. (She even wears a cloak in the form of all that hair.) It's absurd and carried on without a whiff of irony, though she does make attempts at self-deprecation in the interview (referring to her habit of carrying a pen and pad even into the grocery store as "a kind of craziness") which only serve to further the myth. In her way she's as crazy as Allen Grossman, who also seems to carry a sense of being charged with the task of being some kind of high Romantic seer in his self-presentation, though his cultural touchstones are more likely to be found in the Borscht Belt than in Cinecitta-era Rome, which makes him considerably easier for me to take. Still, I do like Graham's poetry—Materialism and The End of Beauty are extraordinary books, and I'm thinking of giving Swarm a look-see. I'm just flummoxed by both the conviction with which she carries herself as a 21st century female Byron and the way in which various ministers of culture, like the Paris Review, seem to unquestioningly accept that self-presentation. The other interesting thing about her is how she tries to engage with political life, with history as it happens, while remaining firmly in her Romantic perch. She engages real political events all the time in her poetry—she talks about writing a poem about the execution of Timothy McVeigh—and yet she tends to come off more as the horrified and helpless angel of history than as another human being touched by and touching these events.

At least she was never a teacher of mine; she came to Montana once on a whirlwind three-day visit and dazzled pretty much everybody, including me, with her intensity and intelligence. But it seems like many of the poets I know who studied with her were at least glancingly damaged by being caught within her gravity well. A cult of personality is almost inevitable when your personality is the size of Jupiter.

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