Poetry in Motion

April 12, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Graham, welcome, and congratulations!

JORIE GRAHAM, Poet: (Iowa City) Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How did poetry come into your life?

JORIE GRAHAM: Well, actually, I was studying film at New York University and lost my way down a corridor one day, and I heard some words floating out of the doorway. Umm, they were, “I have heard the mermaid singing each to each, and I do not think that they will sing to me,” and I thought, what is that?


JORIE GRAHAM: And, umm, it turns out it was M. L. Rosenthal reading “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” in his classroom, and I just sank into the back seat of that classroom and in some sense I think I’ve been sitting there ever since.

JIM LEHRER: And you’ve been literally writing poetry ever since, right?

JORIE GRAHAM: I have been. I had not written poetry up until that moment. I was planning to make film.

JIM LEHRER: Was it a natural thing? Once, once you were inspired, once you had that experience and you sat down to do it, was it–did you see that this was in you to do?

JORIE GRAHAM: Well, experience of working in solitude and the kind of contemplation that the intense attention that poetry requires did feel extremely comforting right from the beginning, umm, I think, umm, Keats calls it “negative capability,” that sense of sort of trying to be a receptor. That was very moving. I had to read a great deal.

Right from the beginning, I knew that I was going to be reading for the rest of my life, and I guess part of the act of writing poetry is involved with the enormous pleasures of reading a thousand years of poetry written in the English language and constantly feeling the people writing six, seven, eight hundred years ago are still bringing you the news.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, the, the–your collection that, that won the Pulitzer, The Dream of the Unified Field, these are poems from 1974 to 1994. I wonder if you could read, uh, read one of those for me: The one called “Tennessee June.”

JORIE GRAHAM: I’d be happy to. I was a, I was a young thing when I wrote this. I was, uh, 24 years old.

JIM LEHRER: This was right at the beginning of your, your life as a poet, right?

JORIE GRAHAM: Yes, very much at the beginning, so if you forgive the excesses of youth in it, I’ll read it. “This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything and loves the flaw. Nothing is heavier than its spirit. Nothing more landlocked than the body within it. Its daily lilies grow overnight, our lawns bare then falsely gay, then bare again. Imagine your mind wandering without its logic, your body the size of a riverbed, giving in. In it, no world can survive having more than its neighbors. In it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure to take forever more to get there. Oh, let it touch you. The porch is sharply lit, little box of the body. And the hammock swings out easily over its edge, beyond the hot ferns’ bed and fireflies’ gauze, the fat tobacco slums, the crickets boring holes into the heat, the crickets fill. Walk out into that dark and back into that dark and back to where the blind moths circle, circle, back and forth from the bone-white house to the creepers, unbraiding. Nothing will catch you. Nothing will let you go. We call it blossoming. The spirit breaks from you, and you remain.”

JIM LEHRER: Thank you. What is the Pulitzer Prize, having won the Pulitzer Prize, how’s it going to change your life, do you think, or is it going to at all?

JORIE GRAHAM: Well, that piece of paper is just as blank tomorrow and just as terrifying as it was yesterday. Umm, if, if winning the Pulitzer Prize can help bring more attention to poetry, if people buying my book end up buying other books of poetry, it would be of great benefit, it seems to me.

There’s a great need for poetry in this culture, and a great fear of it. It’s not being taught in the schools anymore in the way that it used to be taught in the–routinely in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries. And I think it brings a different kind of information and a different kind of knowledge to a forming soul. It brings the experience of paradox and ambiguity and a kind of mystery and irrational proceeding that children only experience nowadays from advanced mathematics or physics, the kind of, uh, wonderful mysteries that physics brings into their life. It’s a kind of information that poetry brings in in the realm of language.

It’s quite different than studying fiction or drama, even though those are also incredible art forms. They tend to form the moral character in a different way, and, uh, if the Pulitzer Prize can bring attention to poetry in any respect, umm, it’s a wonderful thing.

JIM LEHRER: There’s a Shakespeare sonnet that you believe makes a very good point about this too, am I not correct?

JORIE GRAHAM: Well, there’s–I’d love to read the sonnet, particularly because the–one of the nice things about the Pulitzer, as opposed to other awards, is that it rewards, umm, many different kinds of uses of language, dramatic, poetic, journalistic, and the idea that poetry would be included as–in a prize that’s primarily given for the gathering of news and the kind of truth that news brings seems really right and important to me.

Umm, I thought I’d read this sonnet of Shakespeare’s precisely because it talks about, umm, over the centuries it reminds us about why we would make anything that would endure or we would try to make anything that would endure, whether we are journalists or playwrights or poets, and it’s, umm, I’ll read–should I read it?


JORIE GRAHAM: [Reading Sonnet 65] “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’ersways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? Oh, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays? O fearful meditation: where, alack, Shall time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?”— Or what his strong hand–“Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back, Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O, non, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

JIM LEHRER: Jorie Graham, thank you for being with us, and, again, congratulations!

JORIE GRAHAM: Thank you very much.