This Old Poem #12:
Jorie Graham’s Of The Ever-Changing Agitation In The Air
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/29/02

  1 would be hard-pressed to find a more stereotypical example of current PC Elitist Academia than poetessaster (poet-disaster?) Jorie Graham. She’s white, she’s female, she’s middle-aged, she has no real writing talent, yet her poetry is the sine qua non of the workshop poem- it does not offend nor inspire, it just sort of lays there. Her poems generally deal with little things- she’ll take on personae, flutter about in wind. Is she a terrible poet? No. Is she a good poet? Not even remotely. She is a total lightweight. A feather that cannot land on any –ism’s earth. Yet the New Yorker magazine- a few years back- called her ‘the closest thing American poetry has to a rock star.’ Why? No one really knows. Does she get the usual sizable crowds that a published poet gets? Yes. But nowhere near the response a Maya Angelou gets, or an Allen Ginsberg got. Neither her poetry nor personality lend themselves to something bordering on the electric.
  A few years back a book of her poems came out- it was called The Errancy. Naturally, the cover had a painting on it, 1 by Rene Magritte- Pascal’s Coat. This is a tiresome ploy whereby the lightweight poet tries to siphon off some of the ‘magic’- real or presumed- of the painter. Yet her writing is almost uniformly of the generic workshop variety. Here is an example of the type of poem which has won her drooling raves as an ‘observer of nature’:

For a while I have been watching the shadow 
try to fit itself onto its tree. 
The slightest wind makes it throb.
 [from How the Body Fits on the Cross]

  Does this enlighten you? Is this some incredibly musical concatenation of words? No. It’s fairly rote description of something the speaker presumes. In fact, it’s almost totally generic- I have seen slight variations of this idea done many a time by many a poet- often much better. Yet critics have gushed all over JG, & awarded her all sorts of prizes, up to a Pulitzer!, describing her with terms that have little bearing on her person or writing. She is a difficult poet, expresses her vision with great seriousness, she is a sensual poet, she has a great acuity, is loaded with philosophical intelligence, & can be a frustrating & infuriating poet. Keep terms in mind when I dissect her poem. These, & similar meaningless phrases, with no bearing on her work, litter the criticism of her, & are repeated ad nauseum by critics who shamelessly crib off of each other, & many who have never bothered to read more than a poem or 3 from each book they review. It’s like a music critic judging an album by the 2 or 3 most played hits. & do not believe, for a second, that this is not a widespread practice. Here’s a typically myopic & PC snippet of a review of JG’s The Errancy by British poet Gwyneth Lewis:

  In the service of clarity she can give us clumsy phrases such as "liquid clutches of impermanence", "exfoliation of aural clottings" and "undulations of cooing". But then she describes a night river in full-blast music:

I can hear its small wrestling-sound,
its pasture of shutting and re-shutting pockets,
its sideways-sound and long sleek zoneless
inherencies ... but cannot see-...
how like a heart I think, imagining that self-

  The control of tone here is exemplary. The point is that the kind of truth which Graham is trying to convey on the page - the way in which the world unfolds to our gaze, how we become implicated in its beauties ~ itself resists the easy memorability of pat lyricism. These insights are elusive, and, once seen - on the highway, in a parking lot, wherever - difficult to articulate….
  Poets are not tame. The good ones are writers who push, and probe, and say “Look! See what’s in front of your eyes.” Those poets don’t try to make things pure and pretty. They want us to see what is.

  If you are groaning you are not alone. Does the critic explain how the tone is exemplary- & what kind of tone is ‘exemplary’ anyway? Strong, hard, pallid, might be apt modifiers- but ‘exemplary’? This is how a critic sounds like they are saying alot while saying nothing. Notice, too, how she gets in the obligatory slightly negative slant, just to use as ammo if someone says her criticism was mere puffery. That this critic ends with the ceaselessly dull & wrong conflation of art with truth- well, that’s a de facto giving up of the critical ghost, ain’t it?
  On to the poem:

Of The Ever-Changing Agitation In The Air

The man held his hands to his heart as
   he danced.
He slacked and swirled.
The doorways of the little city
blurred. Something
leaked out,
kindling the doorframes up,
making each entranceway
less true.
And darkness gathered
although it does not fall . . . And the little dance,
swinging this human all down the alleyway,
nervous little theme pushing itself along,
braiding, rehearsing,
constantly incomplete so turning and tacking -- 
oh what is there to finish? -- his robes made
   rustic by the reddish swirl,
which grows darker towards the end of the
avenue of course,
one hand on his chest,
one flung out to the side as he dances,
   taps, sings,
on his scuttling toes, now humming a little,
now closing his eyes as he twirls, growing smaller,
why does the sun rise? remember me always
   dear for I will
return -- 
liberty spooring in the evening air,
into which the lilacs open, the skirts uplift,
liberty and the blood-eye careening gently over 
   the giant earth,
and the cat in the doorway who does not
   mistake the world,
eyeing the spots where the birds must
eventually land –

    The title is an obvious nod to Wallace Stevens. Poets often dip into the Wally Well when they wanna sound like they’re deep. But look at some of the god-awful clichés:  hands to his heart, darkness gathered, although it does not fall . . .(the italics & ellipsis are hers, referring to the preceding darkness- oy!), little dance, down the alleyway, grows darker, hand on his chest, remember me always, I will return, the blood-eye, & the giant earth. Now. Recall the words critics lob at her:
  She is a difficult poet, expresses her vision with great seriousness, she is a sensual poet, she has a great acuity, is loaded with philosophical intelligence, & can be a frustrating & infuriating poet.
    Any correlation? No. How about the horrid enjambment?- I won’t point out the obvious, merely tell you that at least 13 of the 35 lines could be improved. How about the redundancies? These are the modifiers which in a great WS poem build the rhetoric & enhance the music, but in a JG poem result in the wretched ‘And the little dance,/swinging this human all down the alleyway,/nervous little theme pushing itself along,/braiding, rehearsing,/constantly incomplete so turning and tacking’, ‘rustic by the reddish swirl’, & ‘grows darker towards the end’, among others.
  Let’s see how the poem could look if threshed of its redundancies, cleared of its clichés, broken wisely, & had its images clarified:

Agitation In The Air

The man held his 
as he danced, slacked, 
and swirled. The doorways 
of the little city
blurred. Something
leaked out, kindling 
each entranceway,
and the little dance,
swinging down the alley,
braiding, rehearsing,
constantly incomplete, 
so turning, tacking- 
O what is there to finish? 
Robes made by the swirl,
darken toward the end 
where he, of course, 
one hand on his chest,
one flung to the side 
dances, taps, sings,
on scuttling toes, humming,
closing his eyes, twirls, smaller.
Why does the sun rise? The lilacs
gentle over the giant earth,
as the cat in the doorway does not
mistake where the birds must land-

    Apparently, the MFA & workshop mills never got around to imparting such wisdom to JG. I did all the things I said I would accomplish with this rewrite, so let’s forget the bad original & focus on the rewrite as if it were a poem in its own right- which, in a real sense, it is.
    The title is less derivative & more apt to the poem below it. It also requires the poem to do less- in other words, the words- themselves- are not obliged to overreach. The enjambment is manifestly better, so I’ll let that point rest. Let’s take a look at the actual narrative of the poem- freed of its encumbering clichés & desperate attempts to plaster disparate things together. The man is holding just ‘his’- what? His own? His heart? His everything? The reader is free to imbue more & be more active- & freed of the cliché that was there, the reader will more than not respond to that invitation. “Kindling’ now has duplicity- it’s a noun in the line, but a verb in the sentence. Some dropped ands really improves the music & flow of the poem- which mimics both the dance, & WS’s style more. The poetic O is better than the mere oh. Note the import of the penultimate line’s break at ‘not’- which simultaneously references the negation to the lilacs, or the lilac’s gentling (the word gentle can be read as a verb), or the cat’s lack of error. & just compare the 2 poems’ respective ends from the query of the sun- the tighter version, with less words, opens itself to much more possibility. In essence, those ending lines are the very difference between poetry & prose. Would that JG understood this, as well.

Final Score: (1-100):

Jorie Graham’s Of The Ever-Changing Agitation In The Air: 58
TOP’s Agitation In The Air: 70

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