Jean Garrigue

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Jean Garrigue

Jean Garrigue (December 8, 1912, Evansville, Indiana – December 27, 1972, Boston, Massachusetts). Jean Garrigue was an honored, widely read and widely imitated poet during her lifetime. A near-exact contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell, she lived, moved, taught and wrote as an equal among these, the best-remembered poets of her generation. Yet unlike theirs, almost as soon as she died her life and work disappeared from even critical and academic view. Why this should be so has puzzled her friends and admirers; Alfred Kazin has called it one of the significant literary mysteries of the twentieth century. Part of the reason must be the intensity and resolute unfashionableness of the poems she wrote. Jarrell said that her work had “the guaranteeing and personal queerness of a diary,” and many others have remarked on its uniqueness and strangeness. The characteristic journey of a Garrigue poem describes a process of seeing—and a mounting tide of images and ideas associated with the object seen. Lee Upton, the author of the only critical study of Garrigue’s work, remarked on the poet’s “restless eye”: “the eye is as the self poring over surfaces and in effect ‘reading’ them,” and many critics have observed the extravagance of her imagery.[1] Her friend and sometime lover Stanley Kunitz described her as one “whose art took the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. She was our one lyric poet who made ecstasy her home.”[2] The gorgeous surfaces, intellectual depth, and wide ranging imagery of Garrigue’s poems have dazzled her fellow poets, but have puzzled and dismayed lay readers. Bonne August has said, “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 thing.”[3] Jane Mayhall noted her drive to the “dangerously deep levels of self.”[4] It is a mistake to think of Garrigue’s difficulty as gratuitous or merely idiosyncratic, yet it has cost her readers in the years since her death. In addition, Garrigue belonged to no poetic school or movement, and asserted her intellectual, artistic, and emotional independence throughout her life. Theodore Roethke once said that she trusted her own poetic instincts more than any poet he knew.[5] There were other poets of various schools and stripes, and there was Garrigue—whom they all admired, but could not claim. When she died (at the height of her powers) and there was no longer occasion to review her work, she ceased to appear even on lists of poets of her generation and, because she is difficult and can represent only herself, she has ceased to appear in anthologies. Laurence Lieberman has said that “There are rewards to be secured in reading her best poems of a kind that can be found in no other body of work.”[6] Those rewards include an unexampled lyricism and technical brilliance, elaborate richness in the service of startling clarity. Harvey Shapiro wrote that “Her way with language was Mozartean, breathtaking in its ability to ring change after change on a theme, Mozartean bursts of language, never leaving the subject, enabling the eye to see, clearly and more clearly, while delighting the ear with sound.”[7] The landscape of her poems is romantic, and their strategies are multiple. By nature a formal poet, Garrigue ranged among the traditional forms, borrowing from the metaphysicals and modernists alike. Her characteristic subjects are ancient and modern and universal: love and its discontents, the process of vision, morality and generosity, desire, feeling, and the imaginative power of women. An inheritor—but transformer—of the “nightingale” tradition of poetry by women identified by critic Cheryl Walker, Garrigue was a brilliant poet of feeling and mind, of rich, passionate, and interesting thought. A minor resurgence of interest in Garrigue’s work occurred in the decade between 1982 and 1992. In 1982, the journal Twentieth Century Literature devoted the better part of an issue to a symposium on her work featuring both poets and scholars. In 1991, Lee Upton’s monograph appeared, and in 1992, a Selected Poems (Univ. of Illinois Press) volume brought her work back into print for the first time since Studies for an Actress had appeared in 1973, a year after her death. In between, a handful of essays on her work, primarily by poets, also appeared. But by and large, Garrigue continues to escape the notice of a traditional critical establishment with its preference for a classical simplicity and clarity, and of the more recent feminist critics, to whom she makes no overt appeal. Even apart from the poems, Garrigue’s life was fascinating both in itself, and as an example of a fearless and brilliant female artistic consciousness at large in the world. She was born Gertrude Louise Garrigus on December 8, 1912 in Evansville, Indiana. Her life is the story of a dreamy and intelligent young girl from the Midwest drawn irresistibly to the world of art and the creative life, and thus to New York and Europe, where she traveled a lived whenever she could. It is the story of a woman who deliberately evaded domestic comfort and happiness—never married or settled into a lasting relationship, never had children—in favor of continuous contact with raw and extreme emotional experience. Her story intertwines with those of several important literary figures. She was a lover of writers R.P. Blackmur, Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, Stanley Kunitz, and Josephine Herbst, among others.


  • Thirty-six Poems and a Few Songs in Five Young American Poets (1944)
  • The Ego and the Centaur (1947)
  • The Monument Rose (1953)
  • A Water Walk by Villa d’Este (1959)
  • Country Without Maps (1964)
  • Marianne Moore (1965)
  • The Animal Hotel (1966, by Eakins Press)
  • New and Selected Poems (1967)
  • Chartres & Prose Poems (1970)
  • Studies for an actress and other poems (1973)
  • Selected Poems (1992)


  1. ^ Upton, Lee (Summer 1987). "In Audacious Light: Jean Garrigue's Restless Eyes". Soundings 70 (1-2): 155–56. 
  2. ^ Kunitz, Stanley (1975). Kind of Order, Kind of Folly. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 256. 
  3. ^ August, Bonne (December 1989). "Vision and Revision: Examining Jean Garrigue’s Working Papers". Hollins Critic 26 (5): 1. 
  4. ^ August, Bonne (December 1989). "Vision and Revision: Examining Jean Garrigue’s Working Papers". Hollins Critic 26 (5): 2. 
  5. ^ Upton, Lee (Summer 1987). "In Audacious Light: Jean Garrigue's Restless Eyes". Soundings 70 (1-2): 155. 
  6. ^ Upton, Lee (Summer 1987). "in Audacious Light: Jean Garrigue's Restless Eyes". Soundings 70 (1-2): 155. 
  7. ^ Upton, Lee (1991). Jean Garrigue: A Poetics of Plentitude. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press. p. 13.