“Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 to 2014” collects the best work from English Prof. Linda Gregerson’s long and successful career in poetry. The book collects poems from nearly 40 years of published work, which has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Poetry and in books, including her National Book Award Finalist “Magnetic North.”
However, Gregerson, who is also director of the Helen Zell Writers Program, didn’t begin her career as a poet. Instead, after graduating from Oberlin College, she lacked a thorough sense of purpose and wasn’t sure what to do. A love for learning sent her into a PhD program at Northwestern University where she studied Shakespeare, but after a bit of scholarly work, she decided to pursue theater. Working in theater, coincidentally, led her to write poetry between periods of production.
“During those between times, I was writing to really keep myself going, and decided I really needed some proper training because I’d never taken a creative writing course in my life, ever," Gregerson said. "So, I’d had the good fortune to publish some poems. When I applied, miraculously I got into the top programs I applied to and decided to go to Iowa. But I always had it in my head to go back and do the PhD.”
After her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she worked with notable poets such as Louise Glück, Donald Justice and Bill Matthews, she considered returning to Northwestern. But the academic environment had changed from when she was there, so she followed other paths, ending up at Stanford University.
During her initial PhD work at Stanford, she thought she would focus on 20th century American lyric poetry, such as the work of Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. But the theater lured her back. She changed her dissertation work to Renaissance drama. However — once again — a sea change: the Renaissance epic drew her in.
While Gregerson has studied the master poets — Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, etc. — and learned much from them, her work reading poem submissions at The Atlantic during the 1980s was crucial in her development. Poetic missteps provided as much insight as the triumphs. Although the monthly magazine only published about two poems a month, Gregerson read all submissions — she estimates that she read nearly 60,000 poems a year.
Gregerson’s career as a poet took off when she discovered/invented her own stanzaic form, which all of the poems in her collections “The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep” and “Waterborne” follow. With variations, the form is a tercet with five, two and four metrical feet.
“It was really crucial. I began writing this sort of default form when I was in my MFA program. Virtually everyone was writing stanzas that were flush left. That’s just what poems looked like. And so they were stanzas I think of as block stanzas,” Gregerson said. “I needed something more jagged that had some asymmetry in it, some spin that had more resistance to syntax building, and more syncopation. I played around a lot, and I finally evolved that tercet, which it had the lines differ both because they’re differently indented and because they’re different lengths. It was a godsend. It gave me patterns of resistance. It gave me momentum. It gave me syncopation.”
Gregerson’s poetry displays a magnificent sense of detail and an ability to navigate between scales. In the title poem, “Prodigal,” Gregerson shifts between the local and the cosmic. The body of a young girl, with bountiful copper hair, is both the flesh of the individual and a text for human life. The girl cuts herself, and the lacerations on her skin are a “many-layered hieroglyphic / raw, half healed, reopened.” These inscriptions are a metaphor for the ways in which human life constantly transfigures — and pollutes — the natural world. Here, the personal is the ecological, too, and Gregerson shows her adroit ability to negotiate and examine the particular and the general at the same time.
Her poetry, too, revels in the minute profundity of existence and exhibits a wonder for the natural world.
“I continue to be amazed by embodiment,” she said. “I’m amazed by living in a body. The brilliance of the biosphere — I can’t get over it. I am stunned at the intelligence quite separate from us. The part we do on purpose seems so trivial to what is done on our behalf by everything.”
“The Bad Physician,” from her collection “The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep,” examines the genius of the body and the cellular processes that both maintain and destroy human life. Gregerson writes, “even in error the body / wields cunning.” But the machinations of biology are indifferent to human life. They don’t care if we live or die. It is this tension, between the horror and beauty of the life process, that motivates the poem to its brilliant conclusion:
“The beautiful cells dividing have
for us, but look
what a ravishing mind
and what a heart we’ve nursed
in its shade, who love
which leaves us most behind.”
Gregerson said that there are only two themes — love and death. They’re themes that her poems confront with fear and wonder. Many have confronted these themes before and many will do so in the future, but few have done so as well as Linda Gregerson.