“It’s very important for me to feel like I’m going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That’s something that can happen very easily to all of us. ” ~ Jorie Graham

Daring to Live in the Details

Jorie Graham interviewed by Timothy Cahill, The Christian Science Monitor (v.88, no.146, June 24, 1996)

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham finds her voice somewhere between the intuited and the observed Poet Jorie Graham says she is never far from a sense of herself as a “reporter” and of her writing as “a kind of news.” As a child, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry grew up in the border country between the realities of journalism and the verities of art.

So while Ms. Graham remembers her father, the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, leaving home to cover wars in distant and dangerous places, she was also influenced by her artist mother, who introduced her to the frescoes of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and other Renaissance masters that adorn the Italian capital’s basilicas.

“I understood that news was not only important, it was mortal and critical,” she says of her father’s work. Yet “the stories on the walls of the church are [also] news,” she adds, “crucial news that continues to be news.”

Born in New York City in 1950, Graham grew up entirely in Rome, where she attended the French lycee (secondary school) there. She was fluent in Italian and French when she arrived at New York University (NYU) in 1969, but spoke only “broken English.” A film student at the time, Graham had no aspirations toward poetry the day she was called to her vocation.

Raised, as she puts it, at “an intersection of secular and sacred versions of reality,” Graham’s own art presents a view that “trills or slurs” between opposing forces – public and private, observed and intuited, evanescent and eternal.

Graham won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for “The Dream of the Unified Field” (The Ecco Press, 1995), a selection of poems spanning 20 years and five previous books. The winner of a 1990 MacArthur Foundation grant, she lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, where she teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

She spoke recently with Monitor contributor Timothy Cahill by phone from her home. Excerpts follow

Timothy Cahill: How did you become a poet? 

Jorie Graham I got lost one day in the corridors at NYU, and heard the words, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me” floating out of a doorway. I was so taken that I went into the classroom for a minute and sank into a seat in the back row. It was M.L. Rosenthal reading [T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock.” I sat there for the whole semester.

He spent most of the time reading poems out loud. Sometimes I think I actually learned English by listening to Rosenthal read those poems, that my transition into English – into thinking in English, feeling in English – came almost entirely through Yeats and Blake and Eliot.

What was it about poetry that drew you away from film? 

I began to feel that film wasn’t giving me a context large enough to understand how I was supposed to live my life. I was turning at night to [poetry] and finding a complexity and an ambiguity in which easy decisions were not possible. It was much more satisfying. It’s very important for me to feel like I’m going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That’s something that can happen very easily to all of us. Through poems, I’ve struggled to make sure I’m in life, as opposed to merely understanding it.

One of the problems with having a strong conceptual intellect is that one can very quickly convert experience into idea.

How does poetry keep you “in life?” 

Poetry has always seemed to me not so much a record of a life lived [than] as a way – through the act of composition – of experiencing an event I missed [by] just living it. Poetry’s a way of thinking that only enacts itself in the moment of composition. Things hurt more when I’m about to write. It’s like a lens aperture You suddenly decide you’re going to open it up and feel things at a level you didn’t feel when you were just living through them.

It’s always very important, as I’m moving through a situation, to make sure I’m using all my senses, not just my eyes.

As poets, we tend to use our eyes first. Even if the material doesn’t end up staying in the poem, I always ask myself, what did it smell like, did you report texture, did you hear anything when you were there? There’s that constant sense of “Anything else? Are you sure you’ve been in this scene deeply enough?”

It’s like being a reporter, wondering, “Did I ask all the questions?” 

It is. It’s bringing back news. When you’re in the middle of writing a poem, you have to be there all the time. In life, with that aperture more closed, you shut down in order to survive.

The biggest problem I see with young writers is that their senses are occluded, and the reason [for that] is that to survive reality in America, they’ve had to shut down and numb themselves enough to not let grief flood their [hearts] They develop an ironic distance, a certain amount of humor, in order to go through their environment. But if they’re going to write poems, they precisely have to dismantle that numbness, they have to undo that ironic stance.

How is that accomplished? 

Through practice. I start out by teaching them something simple like the haiku, in which I try to get them to practice collecting sense-data and getting it across in language for example, to write a sound in terms of a smell, a sound in terms of a color. It’s literally like calisthenics, to open up your senses so you can pick up the detail.

Thinking deeply is feeling deeply. They’re interchangeable.

And [they’re] connected to having enough resources in language to allow you access to those complex feelings that allow for complex thought. If you’ve got only two adjectives to describe a thing, you’re going to write something that’s very blurred. If all you can come up with is the color green for what you see, you’re going to get a feeling that is one-dimensional, and an idea that… is probably a platitude.

So poetry is discovery? 

Yes. Writing a poem is thrilling because you’re changed by the act of writing it. You make discoveries that will sustain you, make you a better parent, make you a better citizen. If they happen to end up as adequate discoveries on the page, that’s a blessing. But you’re definitely making discoveries that you take back into your life.

What does winning the Pulitzer Prize mean to you? 

What excited me about getting the Pulitzer, besides it being an honor, was that it’s the only award that addresses so many different uses of language dramatic, novelistic, journalistic, poetic, biographical. All of them seem to be searching for versions of what one would call “the truth.” It made me very happy that the language of my medium, poetry, is situated among these other languages.

But the piece of paper is just as blank tomorrow as it was yesterday, and what I’ve not written is still much more important to me than what I have written.

That sounds like something you should put over the door to your classroom. 

The advice I would put over the doorway is that wonderful quote from [Ezra] Pound, where he says something like, “It really matters that great poems get written, but it doesn’t matter a whit who writes them.”

“We shall find peace. We shall hear angels. We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.” ~ Anton Chekhov

Marine White Gloves, Sand from Iwo Jima and a Red Rose Atop the Casket of Lt. James Cathy, image by Todd Heisler, Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer 

“Give me love, give me peace on earth, give me light, give me life, keep me free from birth, give me hope, help me cope, with this heavy load, trying to, touch and reach you with, heart and soul” ~ George Harrison

Well, it’s been over a week since I last blogged, except for my brief Christmas message. In that time so much has happened. I’ll get to the saga of our most recent trip to Ohio in a different post, but today, I wanted to share something with you that happened this morning: 

I was on my way to the bank, and Eamonn was in the car with me. Normally, I cut through a small neighborhood to get to the bank; it’s an old neighborhood, full of smaller houses. I was driving slower as I do on neighborhood streets when I noticed a marine in full dress uniform knocking on a door. Two other marines were sitting in a car parked in front of the house. 

When I saw that young marine, my heart completely sank. I knew what was about to happen. I have seen this scene in countless movies, but never in person. I explained to Eamonn what was about to happen: The day after Christmas a family was going to be notified that someone they loved had been killed. I explained to Eamonn that notifications are always done by someone official. 

The marine on the porch paused to watch us drive past; he was young, and his face was momentarily filled with anguish, and then the façade reappeared just as quickly as it had faded. 

“The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs; Protestants and Catholics; Muslims, Croats, and Serbs.  The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it; between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past; between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists.” ~ William J. Clinton

I cannot tell you that I know how the family that received that notification feels because I cannot. Yes, I have known death, have watched it come, have held it, but I have never faced the death of a loved one in the military, of someone who has been killed in conflict by whatever means. Someone who was close to me has faced the horror of the knock on the door, and the pain that I felt for her was miniscule in comparison to what she felt, still feels to this day. 

But after this morning’s moment of great sadness I felt great anger, incredible indignation at what had brought this man to this family’s door. I am not naive enough to believe that we will ever truly have peace on earth. As long as human beings inhabit this planet, there will be war, conflict, evil. There is something within our species that is never content, something that always wants more—whether it be more land, more oil, more power. No matter how much millions of us clamor for it, rally for it, cry for it, there will never be lasting peace. Humanity is not capable of it. 

Don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that human beings are inherently evil or bad or malicious. I choose to believe the opposite. But I know that to erase intolerance of other religions, other races, other tribes, other beliefs, to do this is an impossibility because people with intolerance and hatred in their hearts will always exist. People with evil in their souls will always stake claims over the lives of others. This is life. This is the life that we have created over thousands of years, the life that we have accepted, will continue to accept. 

Kindness and generosity should rule, but they do not. Empathy and tolerance should be the way of the world, but it is not. And so, in spite of my great desire—a desire that is shared all over the world—not to send sons and daughters, mother and fathers, brothers and sisters to war, we will continue to do so, and families will continue to receive heart-wrenching news from someone whose unenviable duty it is to carry this message to their doorsteps. 

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” ~ Black Elk

Pulitzer Prize-winning Image of CACO Major Steve Beck, 2005, by Todd Heisler of Rocky Mountain News

I must pause here to acknowledge the marine CACO (Casualty Assistance Call Officer). Notifying a military family of the death of a family member must take immeasurable strength and courage of a different kind. I know that these men and women undergo rigorous training for their jobs, which includes notification, family support and assistance, as well as escort. Being a CACO becomes the primary duty of the service man or woman, and it must be a job fraught with emotional turmoil. 

I don’t think that the memory of the marine’s face will ever completely fade from my memory. If I am to retain my humanity, I pray that it does not 

However, if I am to be completely honest, I must admit that something deep within me was incredibly thankful that Eamonn was with me; perhaps he, too, will remember that moment and understand it for what all that it was: the fragility of life, the real consequences of war, the need for compassion, the ineffable sadness of loss. 

Witness creates impression in a way that all of the words spoken cannot. A hard lesson for the holidays. 

“Namaste. I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides . . . a place of light, of love, of truth, of peace, of wisdom. I honour the place in you where when you are in that place and I am in that place there is only one of us.” ~ Mohandas K. Ghandi

 More later. Peace. 

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” by John Lennon with incredible images. 




For more information about CACOs and their relationships with military families, see the excellent book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, by Jim Sheeler. Click here for The New York Times book review.