Divided by a Common Verse: Jorie Graham Wins the Forward Poetry Prize
This year, Jorie Graham became the first American woman to win one of the major poetry prizes in Britain. As one of the judges which awarded her collection P L A C E £10,000 ($16,130) for this year’s Forward Prize for poetry, I know that these two facts—that she is American, and a woman—had little bearing on our decision. P L A C E was, instead, a poetry collection we unanimously agreed needed to be urgently read, by as many people as possible.
Set up in 1992, the Forward Prize has never been an exclusively British prize—the only specification is that the work has to have been published in the United Kingdom. The first winner of the best collection award was Thom Gunn, an expat Brit living with his lover, Mike Kitay, in San Francisco. In 2000, Michael Donaghy, an Irish-American brought up in the Bronx but who lived in London, was given the award. This year, our various shortlists took in nearly every corner of the globe, with two Australians, (Barry Hill, John Kinsella), a Canadian (Beverly Bie Brahic), and a poet from Puerto Rico (Loretta Collins Klobah) on them.
However, it tends to be won by British or Irish poets. And so even though it would be a shame to see Graham’s poetry only in terms of her nationality rather than its lyric gracefulness, it is also tempting to see Graham’s win as a further step towards a more reciprocal relationship between British and American poets.
When I spoke with the American publisher Jonathan Galassi in December 2011 for an interview for The Economist, he indicated how in the 1970s British and American poets seemed almost diametrically opposed. Even now, there is a “middle” section of poetry that does not get read by either country. In Britain, it is rare for an American poet to be on the high-school syllabus, unless, like Sylvia Plath, she was married to an Englishman.
Although many British and Irish poets now live in the United States, such as Paul Muldoon or James Fenton, there is little sense, in Britain, of contemporary American verse. Eileen Myles is not the literary household name she should be, while Michael Robbins is currently known and treasured by a select few. Robert Pinksy, Billy Collins, and Kay Ryan are not widely read. So too with British poets in America. Like pop singers, their possible counterparts, it is difficult for British bards to break into the American market.
Which is puzzling, as an American influence on contemporary British poetry can be felt now more than ever. In the 170 collections and 150 or so individual poems that were nominated for the Forward, most of them from British poets, certain influences kept cropping up, and certain American poets were frequently name-checked—particularly Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, and Frank O’Hara. There is something of O’Hara’s playfulness in the winner of our best first collection, the British poet Sam Riviere, for his first book, 81 Austerities, which can tackle the British government’s cuts to arts funding in one poem and internet pornography in another. Whether or not they are as successful at pulling off these influences, other British poets are also looking to American poets for inspiration.
Similarly, Jorie Graham is not totally unknown in Britain. Having won the Pulitzer in 1996 for her collection The Dream of the Unified Field, she is considered one of the most important, and difficult, of post-war American poets. She has been compared to Gerald Manley Hopkins, and championed by Helen Vendler; but perhaps because of this, her poems do not immediately appeal to a mass audience. P L A C E, her twelfth collection, is a series of 21 poems that could change this. Graham takes commonplace experiences—the shocking aftermath of witnessing a dog being hit by a car, or the experience of pushing your child on a swing—and puzzles over them, finding philosophical or metaphysical questions in the most everyday of things, while managing to be free of affectation.
The landscape of P L A C E is wide-ranging, and not limited to America—taking place between America, France, Northern Ireland, and around the globe (one poem, “Earth,” addresses our planet), Graham’s collection is as eclectic in its interests as it is wide-ranging in its reach. Poems may take place in Omaha, but they are also concerned with the basic human problem of “…To have / a body. A borderline / of ethics and reason.” Her last, magnificent poem in the collection, “Message from Armagh Cathedral, 2011,” is set in Northern Ireland, and interweaves ancient Irish history with the more recent memories of the Troubles.
In these respects, it is not an exclusively American collection—and yet it is also a collection that is shaped by American idioms, or what Graham has called elsewhere a more direct Anglo-Saxon (rather than romantic) voice. One poem, “Employment”, begins “Listen the voice is American…”. So too do her long lines challenge you not to read them with a certain breathlessness, in the same way that Walt Whitman’s verse stretches your voice, at times languorously, at others more urgently, across the page. She makes words seem tangible (“Facts lick their tongue deep / into my ear”), or delights in the interplay of differing sounds (“death by deterrent-detergent-derangement-defamation-deregulation”), making the familiar suddenly strange.
Philosophical, wise, and challenging, Graham’s verse was a delight to read and to come back to. By being awarded the Forward, it is hoped that more people in Britain will discover her work outside of academic circles. But I also hope that it will be the start of a conversation, between British and American poets about the state of play in poetry, and why, even with a common language, there are still divisions in poetics—and have this conversation on both sides of the Atlantic.