What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

March 30, 2015 Issue

The piece in this week’s issue that immediately caught my eye is Dan Chiasson’s "Beautiful Lies," a review of Jorie Graham’s From the New World: Poems 1976-2014. Three years ago, in The New York Review of Books, Chiasson wrote a brilliant review of Graham’s Place that was, for me, a turning point in my appreciation of Graham’s poetry. In the piece, titled “The Actual Hawk, the Real Tree” (September 27, 2012), Chiasson describes Graham’s poems as “a provisional and rapid way of describing experience as it unfolds.” He provides examples, notably "Sundown," which I’d read when it appeared in the April 19, 2010 New Yorker, but didn’t really “get” until I read his explication:

“Sundown” is a poem about the arrival of joy where one had reserved a place for dismay. That horse and rider is part angel, part emergency; it is up to Graham to figure it out, a hard task to perform in the real-time rush as it overtakes you.

That “real-time rush as it overtakes you” is excellent. It speaks to me. Yes, that is exactly what’s happening in “Sundown”:

                                            and I had just
                              turned to
                              answer and the answer to my
answer flooded from the front with the late sun he/they
                              were driving into—gleaming—
                              wet chest and upraised knees and
light-struck hooves and thrust-out even breathing of the great
                              beast—from just behind me,
                              passing me—the rider looking straight
                              ahead and yet
smiling without looking at me as I smiled as we
                              both smiled for the young
                              animal, my feet in the
breaking wave-edge, his hooves returning, as they begin to pass
                              to the edge of the furling
                              break, each tossed-up flake of
                              ocean offered into the reddish
luminosity—sparks—as they made their way,
                              boring through to clear out
                              life, a place where no one
                              again is suddenly
killed—regardless of the “cause”—no one—just this
                              galloping forward with
                              force through the low waves

Chiasson writes,

If another poet – Moore or Frost, for example – had written “Sundown,” the stream of sensory information would have been broken by a maxim or an adage or a moral: something, anything to represent the kind of counterpressure our intellects make when confronted with a surplus of sensation. Graham’s forms of counterpressure are subtler, more provisional, more subject to the pressures they paradoxically contest – and, if what one wants from a poem is paraphraseable content, less satisfying. Her deep distrust of statement makes Graham search for alternate forms of interruption; it is as though this sensibility were too immersed in the current of ongoing sensation to be able to retreat, even for a moment, from it.

Too immersed in the current of ongoing sensation to be able to retreat, even for a moment, from it – this is tremendously vital, subtle, original criticism. I devour it. “The Actual Hawk, the Real Tree” brims with it. And so does “Beautiful Lies,” in this week’s New Yorker. In it, Chiasson refers to Graham’s meticulous frame-by-frame inspection of reality.” Of the extraordinary way she uses line and space, he says,

In a poem, the representation of space depends to an unusual degree on the management of actual space on the page. The poems in “From the New World” are exceptionally responsive to their placement on the page. Though Graham reads the work aloud beautifully, I think of her as a poet best appreciated through silent reading of the printed word. Graham’s free-verse poems draw and redraw their borders in space, adjusting as new sensation enters from the fringe. Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider” comes to mind: “It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself” onto the blank page, a “vacant vast surrounding.” In Graham, an industrious “scirocco,” “working / the invisible,” gives it form; a poet is a creature who thatches her lines across emptiness, driven to “go over and over / what it already knows.”

Chiasson’s reviews expand my appreciation of Graham’s work and, in so doing, show how criticism can be a breathtaking art in itself.

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