Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.
Question: Which poets inform your work?
Jorie Graham: I would have to say that when I came to study poetry, I was also learning the English language for the first time, really, as a fluent language. So I learned English by sitting in a class taught by M.L. Rosenthal, at NYU, where what he loved to do in class was read poems out loud, talk about running out the clock.
One of the easiest ways to teach a class is decide you are going to read “The Waste Land” out loud. And, so, I was taught English by listening to Rosenthal read Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, John Berryman, and Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, essentially, for the most part, the great American modernists; then, in a separate instance, the British romantic poets.
So I don’t think any poet writing would be able to say that John Keats-- I mean, when you go, if you are going to write in a language, you go first and foremost to the people who have the best ear, because what persuades in poetry, what moves, what transforms, and what is memorable, starts with music. And music is built up of great syntax and rhythm, and modulation of tone is connected to genuine experiences of deep emotion.
When Robert Frost says, “What are the ideal of form for except to get us into legitimate danger that we may be legitimately rescued,” what he is talking about is the experience of getting yourself into a situation by writing a poem where you have to find your way out of the predicament, the problem, what Dickinson calls “the tooth that nibbles at the soul.”
We buy the means of the poem, the technical means of the poem. So poets who do that have usually the great music at their disposal because it is music that can help you modulate. We use the same term for language. Modulation is action; and action is experience. So Keats and Dickinson and Eliot are poets, for example, and your Yeats, Rilke, not in the English language, poets whose ear forms one.
Recorded on April 3, 2008