115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Terrible Gush Gash of Form of Outwardness”: Visualizing Jorie Graham’s Stanzaic Poetics 

Caleb Agnew, University of Virginia

This essay attempts to construct a framework for thinking through the stanza as a visual structure by paying attention to both its prosodic and phenomenological dimensions, drawing chiefly on typographical arrangement in Jorie Graham's later poetry in order to conceptualize a visual prosody of stanzaic form.


Critical accounts of the visual aspects of poetic form tend to divide themselves into two camps, the prosodic (treating the visual organization of the text as a linguistic/rhythmic shape) and the phenomenological (treating the visual organization as a cognitive/conceptual shape). Yet these approaches largely lend themselves to distinct bodies of poetic texts, the former to mainstream poetries in the free verse tradition stemming from William Carlos Williams, and the latter to conceptual and concrete poetries following the work of Ezra Pound and more radical formalisms in the mid-twentieth century. Hovering above these disparate poetries and criticisms is the need for a visual account of form capacious enough to consider mainstream lyric and post-language conceptual work, especially for the increasing ranks of poets whose work combines these traditions, as visual techniques permeate the later work of James Merrill and lyric sensibilities infuse the works of Rae Armantrout. Jorie Graham in particular stands out among contemporary mainstream poets as one of the most materially and visually engaging lyricists, interested in the space and text of the poem as encountered by the reader’s perceptual apparatus. Graham’s work muddies the boundaries between prosodic and phenomenological notions of visual form, and can help us to conceptualize a more robust visual formalism, sensitive to structures such as the stanza that can be understood as shapes of visual grouping and linguistic rhythm together.


In this paper I read Graham’s poetry in order to develop some important questions for our study of visual form, focusing in particular on the stanza as a visual structure in her poetry. She uses the stanza as a central organizational principle in her poems, beginning with the elegiac sextets in Erosion (1983) and continuing through the fluid alignments and large text blocks of her later verse. I survey the development of her formal poetics by volume and consider the peculiarly visual formats that anchor her stanzaic experimentation throughout her career, leading to readings of “Later in Life” (from Sea Change) and “Incarnation” (from fast) in which I consider how Graham manages the visual text as a dialectic of simultaneity (the poem seen as visual object) and progression (the poem read as language). Her use of various stanzaic shapes allows us to see the way visualizing strophic poetics gives us a different sense of stanzaic form’s affordances, whether our accounts of form are primarily mimetic, expressive, allusive, or rhetorical. I conclude by hypothesizing what we might gain from this understanding of “the visual stanza” if we treat the verse paragraph as a form that travels across genres and styles of contemporary poetry. 

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