Linda Gregerson’s new volume of selected poems, Prodigal, gathers work from nearly 40 years of a career as remarkable as any in contemporary American poetry. The pleasures of such a retrospective are the pleasures of long acquaintance, and with Gregerson, those pleasures are both sensual and intellectual. The poems’ gorgeousness of sound and image is checked by a ferocious, sometimes acerbic, always morally demanding intelligence, at once plangent and analytic. Her characteristic poems make use of diverse materials—the story of a current event, a recounting of literary or historical antecedent, the emotional ballast of private life—yoked together through associative leap and juxtaposition. Gregerson’s interests range from Saint Augustine to the genome; she is one of only a few poets working in America today with a genuine interest in science. Rather than strict meter or rhyme, it’s argument—what she calls “the longing-for-shapeliness”—that gives her poems their form.
Gregerson was born in 1950 in Elgin, Illinois, and the landscape of the Midwest and the lives of the farming communities that formed it are constant presences in her work. After graduating from Oberlin College, she spent three years in Herbert Blau’s experimental theater group, Kraken, an experience to which she credits both her desire to accommodate multiple voices in her poems and her eagerness to capture a sense of improvisation—of being “at risk in the present tense”—on the page. After earning an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she did her doctoral work at Stanford. From 1982 to 1987 she was a staff poetry editor at The Atlantic. She is a respected scholar of Renaissance literature, and her poems are steeped in the sensibility of the great 16th and 17th-century English poets, taking from them both a remarkably elastic sense of the English sentence and a conception of the lyric poem as at once a mode of intimacy and “a form of public speaking” able to address civic concerns.