Vision and Revision: Examining Jean Garrigue's Working Papers

By August, Bonne | Hollins Critic, December 1989 | Go to article overview

Vision and Revision: Examining Jean Garrigue's Working Papers


August, Bonne, Hollins Critic


During the 1940's, 50's and 60's, the distinguished American poet Jean Garrigue (1913-1972) published six volumes of poetry. These, as well as her other books, were well-reviewed and widely admired. In her later years, however, Garrigue feared that her work was being relegated to that most frustrating of limbos--being out of fashion. The startling uses of autobiographical materials by Lowell, Plath, and Sexton set an example that Garrigue, with her intensely candid but philosophical, almost classical, poems and her independence of mind, declined to follow. A posthumous volume, her best, was published in 1973, but eventually all of Garrigue's books went out of print.

This lack of wider recognition is puzzling, and I am not alone in pondering it. In 1984 Alfred Kazin, reviewing the Oxford Companion to American Literature (33), listed among other literary mysteries, "Why did Jean Garrigue vanish so fast?" Kazin's question is testimony to her earlier popularity, while it also points out the need to re-examine her later poems to see what significant qualities endured from her earlier work and what new and as yet unacknowledged qualities have emerged. Certainly, there is much to recommend her work.

Garrigue's poetry exhibits those qualities traditionally taken for granted in significant poets: depth of experience and emotion, lyrical and linguistric brilliance, daring originality, formidable wit, and breadth of interest--from the searingly personal domain to the great public questions. Very much of her time and place, Jean Garrigue was nevertheless in close touch with the literature and art of other times and places. Like Marianne Moore, whom she admired and wrote about brilliantly, she mastered the meaningful use of tradition.

Beyond these expected qualities, Garrigue has a particular appeal. A poet of singular independence, conviction, and courage, she is well-qualified to comment on life in the twentieth century, both in the issues that concern her and the radical solitude which permeates her work. She seeks no escape--perhaps sensing an essential futility--into dogma, conventional wisdom, or traditional women's roles.

Critics have repeatedly spoken of Garrigue as "romantic," a "visionary." While these words do identify a certain tenor of the poems, they may also mislead. Garrigue is a down-to-earth and aggressive visionary who, as Jane Mayhall aptly states in her article "Reckless Grandeur: the Poetry of Jean Garrigue", sought to "overcome barriers, to eliminate conventional borders; and finally, among the dangerously deep levels of self, to transform, reinterpret, change." In declaring, "Critics have sensed this when they didn't know what to make of her work," Mayhall may have identified one of the primary reasons for its neglect since the poet's death. Garrigue is a "difficult" poet, difficult in the formal demands she makes on the reader; difficult, too, in the demands she makes on her poetry: to take her past easy formulations, comfortable insights, or glib prescriptions, to the truth of things.

Moreover, Garrigue belonged to no school, issued no manifestoes. She is difficult to place. While certain themes, motifs, and formal patterns characterize her work overall, it is most truly characterized by her independence even from her own past work and by her willingness to plunge ahead into new forms and dimensions. Garrigue's final volume of poetry, Studies for an Actress, is a bold attempt to experiment with voice, form, and subject matter, without abandoning her characteristically painstaking patterns of composition.

If Garrigue's poetry makes demands, however, if she entices the reader to accompany her into landscapes that issue breathtaking challenges, whether linguistic, philosophical or psychological, these landscapes are also rich and resonant, the challenges usually well-rewarded. The closing lines of "There Is a Dark River," (NSP 44-45), a poem from Garrigue's middle period, offer a typical resolution:

   Here where the swallows drink from the bend
   Shadows our shadows stir
   In the trepidation of the light
   That the down-reaching boughs collect
   Ah! … 

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