I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Jorie Graham read at Keats House last night, with the added treat of her in-conversation with Sarah Howe, an event organised by the Poetry Society. Graham opened with a startling reading of ‘To Autumn’ making Keats’s familiar poem seem both raw and fresh, reminding us just why it endures. She then followed with three poems from her recent collection, Fast (‘Ashes’; ‘Deep Water Trawling’, and the collection’s title poem.) She also read ‘Scirocco’ from her earlier collection Erosion, a poem written about her visit to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, to which I will return.
The reading itself was stunning, but it was perhaps the conversation that followed (which, it must be noted, was brilliantly steered by Howe, who gave an object lesson in how to balance engagement with facilitation) that really enthralled the room. Several urgent questions were raised.
Firstly, how can art and poetry help awaken ‘custodial love’ – that instinct towards protection of our nearest and dearest – such that it can extend beyond the immediate, and embrace not only people we do not personally know, but also future, unknowable generations. She discussed eloquently and with conviction, the challenge posed by our narrowing of ethical agency. As well as that posed by our consciousness having been reduced to one of the immediate present tense.
She mentioned the Oglala Sioux idea of taking a walk with the seventh generation, of taking their hand in anticipation, when making decisions of importance. What impact does this decision of mine have going forward generationally? She asked how can we activate the imagination to engage with ‘deep futurity’ and how to inculcate the necessary sense of ‘deep kinship’ that the avoidance of cataclysm requires. She talked movingly of the scaling up of grief, of how the births, deaths and diagnoses in our lives are the only instructions we really have, the ‘not here that is bigger than the here’. And yet even these, she said, are dwarfed by issues of extinction and climate failure, and the emotional-ethical paralysis precipitated by that.
Another challenge Graham identified was that of reductive debate, the lack of room for complexity and nuance, the room to contradict ourselves. People on all sides are subjected to what she referred to as ‘purity tests’ that discourage dissent and foster polarity rather than engagement and debate. Referencing Whitman’s very well then, I contradict myself, she asserted it is sane to feel multitude and complex.
Graham’s collection Fast is profoundly concerned with that complexity and the ways in which we can engage with, or indeed channel, other voices, be they other humans, known or unknown, other life forms, the non-human…the post-human. Her work manages to be remarkably embodied for something that arguably shatters the concept of the traditional, singular lyric voice.
To close, she read Zbigniew Herbert’s poem ‘To Ryszard Krynicki—a Letter’, picking out his line too easily we came to believe beauty does not save, which had particular resonance in Keats House, a building which will always suggest something of the beauty-truth, truth-beauty notion. We often talk of the consolations of poetry, but what can it actually enact or prompt? It is telling that Graham chose to read the ‘Scirocco’ piece. She could have chosen between two Keats poems in Erosion but, of the two, Scirocco linked more neatly to her more enduring preoccupations and to the Herbert piece. Bracketing her reading in this way added a neat framing device to the evening as a whole and offered a site-resonant container for her thoughts on the state of things and how Art might respond.
The evening wasn’t only an impassioned call to figurative arms, Graham was also very funny when discussing form and syntax. The ‘nightmare’ of her use of parentheses was definitely over, she assured the audience, ‘but! the arrows?!’ well that was another matter and one which got a huge laugh. Fascinatingly she referred to an early experience as a tutor when she would watch the machine recording her guest readers, noting that visually you could identify an Ashbery syntax, a Merrill syntax…in fact the evening as a whole touched repeatedly on the visual and the physical. She also mentioned that with her earlier work, she would ‘draw her poems’ just to make sure she could see them. It is this awareness of and commitment to a practice of embodiment that lifts her work beyond the philosophical, allowing us as listeners to receive her work in the belly as well as the mind.
But returning to those figurative arms and the question of what poetry can actually do… towards the end of her conversation with Sarah Howe she held up a piece of paper and said – This white stuff isn’t paper, it’s silence. You’re negotiating with an adversary. She said that when we sit down to write, and here she emphasised a small preference for paper over screen, what must happen is that we be transformed in the event of writing. And then she quoted the last lines of Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ –
You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!
This is what must happen when we write – we must be altered, such that what we write may in turn effect a transformation.
‘I am not what I asked for’ – http://poetrysociety.org.uk/event/i-am-not-what-i-asked-for-jorie-graham-at-keats-house-with-sarah-howe/
Jorie Graham interview by Sarah Howe – http://www.praccrit.com/interviews/cryo-interview-by-sarah-howe/#tabs-2