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Mark Jarman


Ground Swell


Is nothing real but when I was fifteen,

Going on sixteen, like a corny song?

I see myself so clearly then, and painfully--

Knees bleeding through my usher's uniform

Behind the candy counter in the theater

After a morning's surfing; paddling frantically

To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,

Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor's

Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.

Is that all I have to write about?

You write about the life that's vividest.

And if that is your own, that is your subject.

And if the years before and after sixteen

Are colorless as salt and taste like sand--

Return to those remembered chilly mornings,

The light spreading like a great skin on the water,

And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges,

And--what was it exactly?--that slow waiting

When, to invigorate yourself, you peed

Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth

Crawl all around your hips and thighs,

And the first set rolled in and the water level

Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck

The water surface like a brassy palm,

Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed.

Yes. But that was a summer so removed

In time, so specially peculiar to my life,

Why would I want to write about it again?

There was a day or two when, paddling out,

An older boy who had just graduated

And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus,

Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water,

And said my name. I was so much younger,

To be identified by one like him--

The easy deference of a kind of god

Who also went to church where I did--made me

Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed.

He soon was a small figure crossing waves,

The shawling crest surrounding him with spray,

Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name

Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise

To notice me among those trying the big waves

Of the morning break. His name is carved now

On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave

That grievers cross to find a name or names.

I knew him as I say I knew him, then,

Which wasn't very well. My father preached

His funeral. He came home in a bag

That may have mixed in pieces of his squad.

Yes, I can write about a lot of things

Besides the summer that I turned sixteen.

But that's my ground swell. I must start

Where things began to happen and I knew it.


-from Questions for Ecclesiastes

BIO: Considered a key figure in both New Narrative and New Formalism, Mark Jarman has exerted a significant influence on contemporary American poetry. In the 1980s, with Robert McDowell, Jarman founded and edited the Reaper, a magazine devoted to reclaiming and promoting poetry that emphasized story and image. Controversially warning "Navel gazers and mannerists” that “their time is running out,” the magazine sought to reestablish narrative poetry within the American poetry scene. Although the Reaper ceased publication in 1989, the press Jarman and McDowell founded, Story Line, continues to publish the works of emerging and established poets. Jarman’s own poetry reflects his commitment to narrative and received forms. Over ten collections, Jarman has explored his family history, geography, and faith while formulating a poetics that emphasizes narrative and traditional forms or, as Jarman has put it, poems that are interested in “telling the stories of their subjects clearly.”   

His early collections, in particular, portray his own childhood, as well as those of his parents and grandparents. North Sea (1978), The Rote Walker (1981), and the book-length collection Iris (1992) all include poems inspired by Jarman’s family—including his grandmother, Nora, a formative influence—and recount his experiences as the son of a minister. Frequently set in California or Scotland, both places Jarman spent time as a youth, Jarman’s poetry focuses on formal, narrative storytelling, and he frequently cites Edwin Arlington RobinsonRobert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers as his influences. Dedicated to his friend and collaborator, Robert McDowell, Jarman’s fourth collection The Black Riveria (1990) was awarded the Poets’ Prize in 1991. In the Georgia Review, critic Fred Chappell noted that "Mark Jarman is good, one of the most thoughtful and adroit poets writing these days, a man with handsome ambitions."
Jarman was born in 1952 in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. The son of a minister, Jarman’s work has increasingly turned from autobiography to religious faith and doubt. Although steeped in religion as a child, Jarman had become ambivalent about faith. But when his wife suggested that their family begin attending church, Jarman experienced a renewal of his belief in God. His later writings reflect his newfound spirituality. Questions for Ecclesiastes (1997), which was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, responds to its Biblical source text, as Jarman rediscovers his sense of the spiritual. Jarman wrote in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series that his wife's decision to attend church was not a religious one, but a family issue. "But for me it was a religious decision. It required admitting to myself that I still had a faith… As an epigraph to The Rote Walker I quoted two lines from John Logan's poem 'The Spring of the Thief': 'When we speak of God, / Is it God we speak of?' I used to say flippantly that the answer to that profound question was 'Yes and no.' I no longer think the answer is flippant. It is just as profound as the question." 

In later books like Unholy Sonnets (2000) and Epistles (2007), Jarman uses forms such as the sonnet and prose poem to interrogate and affirm his belief in God, the concepts of salvation and miracles, and the pitfalls of faith. Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (2011) includes poems from his previous nine books of poetry. Describing the difficulty in returning to poems written 30 years ago, Jarman said, “It’s a little like looking at photographs of yourself when you were thirty years younger, and thinking a couple of things—both God he was better looking then, andGod what a callow youth. Why did he wear that? It’s more or less like that. But there are some good aspects to it, too. You go back and look at a poem from thirty years ago and you realize you still like it, and you also have the question, How did I manage to write that? I couldn’t do it now.”  
Jarman has also written two collections of essays, The Secret of Poetry (2001) andBody and Soul (2002), which further distill his thoughts on narrative, craft, and from. Married to the soprano Amy Jarman, he lives in Nashville, Tennessee where he is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Jarman’s many awards include the Robert Frost Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. 

Story-telling, Artificiality, and Suspense: An Interview with Mark Jarman by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Ground Swell" is a poem that utilizes a number of speakers.  First, we have the voice of the narrator who wants to tell his story.  Then we have a more outside voice, one that is meditating on events that took place in the past.  And, finally, there's a third voice that acts like an editor, asking the other two voices "Is that all you have to write about?"


Do you see "Ground Swell" in this way?


Mark Jarman:   I see it as having at least a pair of voices, in conversation or dialogue with one another, sort of like Yeats’s “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”  But nowhere near as formal and stately.  Perhaps any pair of voices suggests a third.


AMK: Do you mind shining some light on how these speakers came to exist in the poem?  Is this an element of form…a device that you discovered best told the story you wanted to tell?


MJ: The speakers arose because I found myself writing once again about a subject I often return to, and so asked myself as I wrote if there was anything new for me to say.


AMK: Are these voices something that came naturally or that were developed via time and revision?


MJ:  The voices arose naturally, yes, but once I realized that I could record them as a way of tracking the poem’s own composition, then I developed a counterpoint as I narrated the memory of seeing this older boy from my church out surfing one morning, and remembering that in about a year from that date, he would be dead in Vietnam.  Once that memory arose in my consciousness, I began the artificial work of constructing a poem that would be linked in all its parts.


AMK: I love that moment in the poem when the older boy slides "past like a smooth machine on the water" and stuns you when he mutters your name, which acts symbolically in the poem (and in real life as well I would imagine) as a sort of ushering of the young speaker into a larger, more adult world.  What I like so much about this moment is that it's such a trivial event and yet it speaks to that weird element of the mind we call memory and the things that stick with us. 


Going through this poem, each line works in a similar way, leaping from one small yet significant memory to the next. 


Is this an element you thought about logically as you wrote the poem or something that developed more on its own, somewhere in the background of the mind?


MJ:  Once the memory arose, I saw how narrating it could answer the questions asked by one of the poem’s speakers and also how conventions of storytelling, like foreshadowing and suspense and denouement, could be employed.  I suppose this artificial work, which to me is the most exciting part of poetry writing, could be called logical; it certainly doesn’t occur “in the background of the mind.”  Certain instinctual aspects of craft do come into play from that background, but only because you’ve practiced this craft for a long time. 


AMK: One of the truly touching aspects of the poem is just how believable it is.  There's not a moment when I think that the speaker (who simply wants to tell his story) is being taken over by the writer (who may be more interested in sounding smart or creating a resonant image).  At the same time, however, I never doubt that the speaker in the poem is, in fact, Mark Jarman, the poet writing the poem.  The result is a truly sincere speaker and a truly sincere poem. 


How important do you think such sincerity is in contemporary poetry?  Is this a poem that could have been written from another point of view or by a poet other than yourself?


MJ:  I don’t think about sincerity or irony when I write.  But to me, in this poem, both attitudes are present.  I did want to sound believable, but I also wanted to establish the clear irony that this godlike figure, the older surfer, was going to die, along with the irony that your own sense of selfhood often isn’t clear to you until someone else, someone you admire, acknowledges it.  Isn’t that ironic? 


AMK: All in all, it seems to me that the poem is structured so that the line "His name is carved now / on the black wall in Washington" doesn't leap out as the reader as not "belonging" to the voice presented to us in the previous lines.  As a result of this movement between voices, this line drastically changes the narrative of the poem without being drastic itself.  At the same time, it manages to change the poem from a coming of age story and into a poem that's really more about the writing of poems themselves…how one must face the painful parts of the self to truly write about their experiences.


I'm wondering what sort of poem you think this is.  Is it a coming of age poem, i.e. a bildungsroman?  Is it a poem about writing poetry, i.e. an ars poetica?  Or is it an elegy; a poem in praise of the dead?  Does it matter either way?


MJ:  I hope it is all three of those kinds of poems and more.  But I like it that you are thinking in three’s.  The Trinity is important to me. 


AMK: Thank you.

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