Marie Howe ponders her fate against Jorie Graham in the Scarriet March Madness East Regional.

Marla Muse.

Marla Muse: Yes?

I just realized something.

Marla Muse: What?

The East Bracket this year is all white people.   Yet this year Scarriet is using Dove’s Anthology as much as possible.  How did that happen?

Marla Muse:  Dove is from Ohio; the South and Midwest Brackets look very different from the East.  Maybe it’s not a race thing, at all, but a regional issue.  In poetry, the Northeast is no longer king.  By focusing on race, Vendler didn’t get it.  Poe’s dream is coming true.  Poetry New England has finally been dethroned by other parts of the country.


Marla Muse:  The Workshop phenomenon has really spread things around.

Mmm. You’re right.  Still, it’s funny how New England and New York are still white.   And least in this March Madness.

Marla Muse:  I’m looking forward to the rumble between these two white gals, Jorie and Marie.  There will be a lot of hair to pull.

Marla, how can you say that?  You know March Madness is clean!

Marla Muse: Nothing is as clean as it looks.

Jorie Graham was quietly picked for just one of her early poems by Dove, a further signal that Graham’s reputation may have peaked about 5 years ago.


In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,

my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
A rooster

crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,

holy grave. It is this girl
by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into

labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly

and wings–to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
from eternity

to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath
is a button

coming undone, something terribly
finding all of the stops.

What to say about this poem, which shows off the ‘high style’ of late 20th century Modernism?   The short line breaks attempt to open up vistas—make the reader pause and see the “open air” of the “open air market,” for instance.

and wings—to the open air
market.  This is

The syntax rushes on, pouring down the page, while the line-breaks slow things down.  It’s schizophrenic, really.  Two opposing modes at once.  Bet you never noticed the “open air” of “open air market” before, did you?  Oh, but let’s hurry on: “This is…”

Similarly, the line breaks imply simple, intimate speech, but the speech is not simple at all. No one talks like Jorie Graham’s poem.  Again, the schizophrenia.   The two warring impressions finally cancel each other out.  The attempt to sound classically lofty and cold on one hand, and conversationally intimate on the other, results in a herky-jerky sublime; the trick finally doesn’t work.  The justification for the line-breaking seems merely odd, like a once-interesting, but now outdated, fashion.  Jorie Graham took William Carlos Williams as far as possible into the wild blue sublime, but that experiment has run its course.  The line break is broken.  It now seems artificial, no substitute for sturdy music, daring architecture, or an actual voice.

We’ll never know how much Graham’s poem depends on Early Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca for its majesty; the references are key to the otherworldly atmosphere; the poem’s mystery hearkens after the pagan and the Yeatsian in the midst of the half-rural, half-airplane factory, Tuscan landscape, with its rooster, the church and the lemontrees.  The poem works,  and it works because of its last line.  “Stops” has multiple meanings, for not only do we think of buttons on a dress or holes in a flute, but the frequent “stops” of a poem with many line-breaks.  The poem is commenting on itself, and Graham’s reputation, while it grew, was powerful enough to make this an implied reading.

Marie Howe has one poem in the Dove anthology, and it comes right after Graham’s in the book because they are the same age.  Graham’s poem is a tangle of strange associations as the narrator leads the reader forward.  Howe, too, has the reader follow her along, but in this case the reader is her deceased brother and she is showing him her life: what the living do.


Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Howe’s life is mundane, and that’s the point.  The “egotistical sublime” moment at the end, when she glimpses her reflection is strange and remarkable.  Howe’s poem has more clarity and more emotional punch than Graham’s.

Howe defeats Graham, 63-60.



  1. Fauna said,

    March 20, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Graham was robbed! You just don’t like short lines. Oh, and we don’t want our women poets having lofty philosophical thoughts with lots of silence and space – they should be harried, carrying groceries, and, finally, admiring themselves in shop windows.


  2. Fauna said,

    March 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Seriously. The Howe poem is fine; the last line is lovely, but it seems like a very common scene from a movie. How many times do I want to re-read this poem? None.

    “I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:27 pm

      You may be right.

      We might have to talk to our refs and officials.

  3. Fauna said,

    March 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I think Howe and Franz should go on a date. Wearing brown shirts and no make-up. Shot in black and white with a video camera. This is also a “style.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      OK, now I hear jealousy creeping in…

      • Fauna said,

        March 21, 2012 at 9:27 pm

        You think I want to go on a date with Franz Wright? That makes a lot of sense. You got me.

        No, Thomas, I was making a point about some of the kind of poetry you’re favoring in your games. Cinema verite, naturalism, or maybe it’s socialist realism.

  4. Fauna said,

    March 20, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    “The poem is commenting on itself, and Graham’s reputation, while it grew, was powerful enough to make this an implied reading.”


    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

      Poets’ self-commenting is only tolerated if they have a large enough reputation…

      • Fauna said,

        March 21, 2012 at 9:32 pm

        The poem is commenting on itself – a very common ‘trick’ done by those with reputations great and small, and which is ‘tolerated’ by any reader anywhere who enjoys or wants to understand a poem.

  5. Fauna said,

    March 21, 2012 at 12:37 am


    I know we love our French naturalism (which we like to pretend is a ‘universal style’ that is more capable than others of serving us up “authentic emotion”) – but look at how much more you had to say about the Jorie poem.

    Possibly this is a question of comfort. The Jorie poem mentions ‘stillbirth” while the Howe poem is an affirmation of life: “I am living.”

    The Howe poem is addressing the dead, the Jorie mixes death-and-life (frankenstein).

    Robbed! 🙂

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      But what is Jorie’s poem saying, exactly? Vogue, perhaps, but don’t you think it’s finally vague?

      • marcgaba said,

        June 18, 2012 at 12:48 am

        It might be a disservice to the poem, since as we know the paraphrase of any poem doesn’t ever match up, and any good poem finally says itself, as I think both poems do. In Graham’s poem, however, she leaves the reader no choice but to experience meaning differently, differently in the sense that you can’t get at what it’s saying without the experience of its being said, in the poem’s chosen language… There are repetitions to the motif of walls, inside and outside, recurrences of movement, going in– and how going in, breaking past the wall — as in a dress getting unbuttoned in an act of revelation/birth — is life. When she writes “This is what the living do: go in,” where exactly is that “in”? The ambiguity is a set-up in which to experience the very “stillborn” quality that she uses to describe “the present moment”. I think the poems says, among other things it could say (if you allow yourself to fathom her line-cuts and stanzaic patternings, and the resonant images that are held in thematic relations and detailed by the smallest descrptors) that life and death are told apart by our action of stopping for life.

        • thomasbrady said,

          June 18, 2012 at 4:07 am


          Nice observations! Thank you!

          This does raise the issue, though, of what a poem can do. If Jorie’s poem is setting up contrasts between life and death, the stopped and the moving, the going in and the never getting there—these are metaphysical reflections so fundamental that almost any poem could be made to fit such reflections: inside/outside, moving/stopped, life/death…the tail is wagging the dog…the metaphysics is driving the poem…all the things you mentioned in Jorie’s poem that build up the philosophical observation: “life and death are told apart by our action of stopping for life…” as admirable as this is..the details of such an observation are practically infinite…we don’t require a church or a lemon tree or this painting or that blue sky…we could use any number of images to impart this truth…so the poem (Jorie’s images) become a blackboard lesson for her philosophical observation: that’s the problem I see, and I think it’s what Poe, and before him, the German Romantics, such as Lessing, meant when they said the didactic can’t be poetry, can’t be art. Jorie’s poem is, in fact, not unique, because its elements are from a set of infinite stand-ins to make a philosophical point, and as profound as the philosophy is, one feels cheated as one reads along in the poem to find out—oh, this is what she’s doing. The pleasure is lost, the emotional pleasure is not there, because Jorie is doing something other than poetry. She’s being too brainy. Sure, she’s got all those images, and you have to believe they are important to her—but are they finally important to us so that we get pleasure from the poem, pure pleasure, not pleasure that we ought to get?

          There is a certain emotional punch to the poem, and you describe its elements well, but I think the poem’s popular appeal is in the final bit about this ‘thing’ that ‘finds all the stops,’ a kind of Yeatsian terror, the inevitable rush of time/existence we see in any number of poems…but does her whole poem succeed in this way if the images and phrases (‘go in’) are all rather transparent signposts for a metaphysical observation? I’d almost rather have it be said straight out, as in a Shakespeare sonnet…because if you have something to say, you say it…you don’t say it crooked and by that be more poetic…Shakespeare famously doubted metaphor in his sonnets…the clever ‘this stands for this!’ metaphor gets us over to the didactic and the pedantic…so ironically, because Shakespeare comes out and says X,Y, Z, he’s less didactic than Jorie Graham…


  6. Fauna said,

    March 21, 2012 at 3:26 am

    Never mind. This isn’t about poetry. It’s about money.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      We don’t want it to be about money.

      As I said, we’ll have a talk with our officials…

  7. Fauna said,

    March 21, 2012 at 3:36 am

    It’s about making women commodities that go “out of style”.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Oh brother… (sigh)

      You! You’re back with your Adorno…

      • TheFrank-N-FurterSchool said,

        March 22, 2012 at 4:33 am

        Yes, it is I – the birth of the Wurlitzer from the spirit of Faust.

  8. Fauna said,

    March 21, 2012 at 3:43 am

    I was trying to have a sense of humor about it. But really. It’s not very funny.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Referees are not funny.

      A game lost is not funny.

      I know…

  9. Fauna said,

    March 21, 2012 at 4:01 am

    I hate you.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Now we’re back in Crazytown…

      • Fauna said,

        March 21, 2012 at 9:46 pm

        I really hate the way you’re talking about Jorie’s “style” here.

        But not only that (and not because of that only) – you’re wrong.

        If you want to be wrong just so you can be a catty bitch verging on misogyny – well then that’s your prerogative, bobby.

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 22, 2012 at 12:03 am

          I see…if you have a few reservations about a woman’s poem you’re a misogynist. right.

          I’m “wrong” about Jorie’s poetry. Yes, she’s too profound, too deep for me…Only Helen Vendler can understand her…

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      Alt Lit Gossip, you rock!

      I guess…

  10. doubleyouaye said,

    March 22, 2012 at 2:11 am

    I like Graham like my graham crackers. Crushed.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      “How clean the mind is”

      I wonder what Jorie’s method of composition is.

      She does write like someone who is in a trance. Her poetry does have a certain glow. But one senses it’s a bit of a put-on, too. For that reason, I’m a bit curious of her precise compositional method.

      Did she write when she was high? There’s a certain majesty of disarrangement.

      • TheWeePoet said,

        March 23, 2012 at 8:21 am

        Although we know that Jorie’s ethics have left little to be desired
        An obscene beauty in her poems is still to be admired

        In the biz of Po it seems her Archilles’ heel is sex
        We find her poem very meaningful

        What exactly is the meaning?
        We are vexed

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 23, 2012 at 5:55 pm

          The “Second Coming” of Yeats seems to be a source
          Of Jorie’s poem—oh why don’t you sign up for the course?
          Make it an elective towards your MFA—
          San Sepolcro 101,
          Still-born birth and kingdom come,
          And sweet music playing far away…

  11. TheWeePoet said,

    March 24, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Why yes “The Second Coming” is likely a source
    And babes aborted to our lord in poetry
    And the nostalgia of the tourist

    But what is all this nonsense
    Of blue painted upon blue–
    Could Jorie have been listening
    To ‘Volare’ too?

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 24, 2012 at 11:59 am

      Maybe Jorie will take “San Sepolcro” and flout it
      And write a “Philosophy of Composition,” like Poe did with his “Raven,”
      But I doubt it.

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