Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham read selections of her poetry to about 70 students and faculty members at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Tuesday.
The audience listened closely as Graham read some of her longer poems including “What the End Is For,” and “The Phase after History,” both of which probed the issue of individualism during a charged political time. Graham concluded the reading with shorter “prayers” meant to explore the depths of human emotion.
Graham said that during an uncomfortable period of history, it is especially important to recognize the many kinds of actions a country, person or soul can take in reality and literature.
“We’re living in a moment of history that drives our capacity to act. Non-action itself is often very profound,” Graham said, referring to Hamlet’s demise.
English professor Thomas Otten introduced Graham, citing her poem “Salmon” as an example of her ability to make subtle but precise remarks on the modern world. “Salmon,” which begins with the speaker watching fish on television, evolves into a commentary on the sexual apprehension of today’s society.
A professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard, Graham grew up in Italy, where she said spending time playing at the Roman Forum greatly affected her imagination.
Graham said she found Yale and Harvard to be very different. She said Yale’s architecture, people and graduate programs reveal a strong regard for the arts.
Audience members said they found Graham’s description of reasons for writing poetry especially lucid. Graham said neurologists have identified compassion as a primal reaction, in the same part of the brain as the sense of touch. Graham said in the same way the human sense of touch has been dulled by contact with generic, artificial surfaces, she fears modern humans are losing their sense of compassion.
Dan Johnson, a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Arts, said Graham put her poems, which often have difficult syntax, into context in a rational manner.
“I’m usually wary when poets talk about their poetry,” Johnson said. “It can be diminishing. But in this case, it brought out themes that I wouldn’t have noticed.”
Adrien-Alice Hansel DRA ’06 said she enjoyed Graham’s use of references to books, plays and poems throughout history, such as those by Darwin and Shakespeare, to illuminate her process of writing poetry.
“I’ve always liked Jorie Graham,” Hansel said. “I appreciate her ability to put her own poetry under a microscope and then explain it in a more global context.”
Not all students were well-acquainted with Graham’s work. Emily Kopley ’06 said she felt Graham’s work is complex and demands careful thought.
“I wasn’t familiar with Graham’s work before today and didn’t know what to expect,” Kopley said. “Some of her poems seemed very inaccessible. They are definitely worth another look.”
Graham received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996 for her anthology “The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994.”