Possessing a meticulously detailed and layered style, as well as having an exceptional ability to describe nature, Jorie Graham’s poetry is primarily concerned with how we can relate our internal consciousness to the exterior natural world we inhabit.
In 1996, The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994, earned Graham the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She is currently the Boylston professor of poetry at Harvard University. Her forthcoming book, Place will be her twelfth collection to date. She spoke to the Spectator about why poetry needs to be reclaimed to the oral tradition, how technology is corrupting our imagination, and why her work is laced with contradictions and paradoxes.
What sort of ideas/ themes are you dealing with in your new collection, Place?
The feeling of being in an uneasy lull before an unknowable, potentially drastic change, charges the poems. What ‘place’ is it we live in now? What do we need to know about our ‘place’ in the order of living things? What ‘place’ shall we come to consider the new normal, the new ‘earth’? So much of what scientists ask artists to do, at present, is to help people imagine the ‘unimaginable’. We are told to try think of the way we use water, land, resources, in relation to beings who will live 10,000 years from now, who might not even resemble us, but whose ability to live at all depends on our actions, right here, right now, in this place. It is this zone the poems inhabit. They try to find a right balance between fear, hope and love.
With each collection, do you try and reinvent the process of your writing, is this a difficult process?
Each time I finish a book, I cannot imagine how I will ever grow to where a new set of questions, as new music, will come to me again. Because the sense of the as-yet-never-before-used music, that feels it could lead you somewhere, has to come first — a turn in syntax, where you think, wow, what was that, will awaken it, often long before any set of questions or impulses surface.
Much of your collection Sea Change fought for environmental causes, did you feel anyone was listening to you?
That it might be, as many scientists think, ‘too late’ — an unliveable , unsustainable world already ‘in the pipeline’ — is too baffling to the soul. So then, how to live? I mean, not just what to ‘do’ — there is so much hope in doing, in inventing — but how to live without our great capacity for joy? Why should we? I remember thinking, ‘I need to be able to praise again, and it not be already stained with elegy.’ I need it to live. So I have tried to go back, in this book, and, without toning down the realities, find what I could: the present tense moment in which joy must exist and can be reached. Yes it will be dark. Still, the gloaming is so rich with feeling — and life — and perhaps a new kind of love? — and the sensation of the other species’ presence — and a slowing of fate — and a widening of presence — and a gratitude. Why betray those feelings?
Do you feel in our present culture that technology has given us too much reality and weakened the power of the imagination?
I believe we live in a world with way too little reality, or means of accessing reality — if by ‘reality’ we mean a place where your accountability for actions is not virtual. I am not the only one to think much of the tragic violence being perpetrated by soldiers, for example, is caused by the violence perpetrated on them by making them feel the ‘game’ is virtual — even the people their tanks fire upon are converted to resemble outlines in video games on their monitors. Put people in front of virtual people and they will come to feel, themselves, both immune and virtual. 487,000 US soldiers are suicidal and have acute Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Now obviously war’s hell has done this to generations — just thinking of World War I is enough. But something extra has been added here — and that is the video-game thinness of the reality of the other. One has to wonder how much not even feeling your so-called enemy to be &”real” makes you even more broken and divorced from your soul. At any rate, I believe in, and deeply trust the apprenticeship to the non-virtual aspect of experience (the part not ‘just in your head’) as a form of life-teaching. And I believe in attending to it, as an actual practice. It is hard, as we say in the US, to ‘show up’ for life. It is far easier, and most of our technology encourages it, to go around experience, rather than through it. Thus the necessity of being physically present with one’s senses in lived experience in order to even have emotions. The virtual experience might feel like an actual one — it imitates it, but it invites one to bypass the body and go straight to the ‘information-gathering’ part of one’s person. Information is a very limited part of the real.
Do you believe in the role of the poet as a political activist?
There are many ways to be ‘political’ in a culture. The way poetry uses language, for example, is, to my mind, by nature political. Poets, throughout cultures, have felt the most basic obligation to revivify their language, rid it of stale metaphors, clichés, ready-made phrases — which are of course ready-made ideas — as well as prior uses which attach to words systems of belief that need to be jostled, to put it politely. Part of this impulse (which is also a basic artistic necessity) is political. Language is not a pure instrument. It is used by many forces before a poet picks up a pen. It is used to sell programs, objects, ideas — to propagandize, to create artificial desire, or, in the mouths of some politicians, to hollow out meaning, to lie — especially in those places where the euphemism conceals corruption and violence. Walk into any supermarket and look at the words on the labels of packages. What are they selling you? Or turn on the news — what are they selling you? And the words they are using: what are they doing to those words, your words?
Would you agree that your poetry is full of paradoxes, contradictions, and illogical conclusions?
Yes. The human ‘mind’ dreams, free-associates, day-dreams, thinks on multiple tracks at once — doing one thing while thinking another and remembering another and noticing something in the same instant which might be totally unrelated — and so on. We live very little of our life in a rational, logical, or discursive state of mind. Why should our poems be simplified to that one limited aspect of the way our inwardness unfolds? Obviously some very great poems have come out of those more overt, coherently narrative, states. But to call all the rest of our existence ‘too difficult’ is pretty insane. Poetry’s job is, among other things, to make resistance to emotional oversimplification possible. ‘Do I contradict myself,’ says Whitman, ‘very well then, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.’
What do you think about trying to reclaim poetry back to the oral tradition?
It should be reclaimed by the oral tradition. But not only for its own sake and power, but in order that poetry made from the page, onto the page, revive its ability to interact with what is eli
cited by the silence of that blank page. It is as if that silence — what is in that silence — were asking a question. You have to hear the question the silence —or what is in the silence — is asking of you. So yes, the ability to hear deeply into aural recitation should wake up one’s ability to hear into the inaudible. That’s where the poem is waiting.