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Katy Waldman


The New Yorker (2023)


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The New Yorker Interview
Jorie Graham Takes the Long View
The poet talks about distraction, ecological devastation, and the future of her medium.

By Katy Waldman

January 1, 2023

The poet Jorie Graham is one of our great literary mappers of everything, everywhere all at once. As James Longenbach put it, she engages “the whole human contraption . . . rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems.” Graham is a chronicler of bigness, the overawing bigness of our planet but also the too-bigness, at times, of the self. “I am huge,” she writes mournfully, in “Prayer Found Under Floorboard,” an elegy for what humans have already blotted out. Many of Graham’s subjects—politics, technology, natural history, and climate loss—have a sweeping scope. This year, she compiled four of her books on global warming—“Sea Change,” “Place,” “Fast,” and “Runaway”—into “[To] The Last [Be] Human,” which The New Yorker named one of the best books of 2022. In spring, Graham will publish “To 2040,” her fifteenth collection. (It begins: “Are we / extinct yet.”)

Graham’s attention to bigness is set off by a gift for evoking smallness. She notices an “almost tired-looking” tendril of wisteria; she pauses to wonder “what it is we mean by / ok.” Our own comprehension of enormity, Graham writes, slides off of us “like a ring into the sea.” It’s a truism that poetry’s task is finding amazement in the everyday. Graham turns this into a terrifying as well as a moral project. (In her ocean metaphor, the ring is vast, and the unknowingness in which we lose it is vaster still. Perhaps her poems are salvage divers.) What makes Graham especially unique is her long, galloping line, a line that she consistently thematizes: she has described line breaks as cliffs that the reader tumbles down, over and over. Some of the poems in “[To] The Last [Be] Human” are right-justified; rather than fall off a ledge, the reader careens into a wall.

In school, Graham studied philosophy and filmmaking—fields that still inform her writing. Her poems are full of reporting from the eye and ear, abstracted and reimagined until it is halfway to thought. And there are thoughts that land with the force of sense impressions. (Helen Vendler once observed that one aim of Graham’s poetry is “to caress the universe as one examines it.”) In 1996, her collection “The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994” won the Pulitzer Prize. More honors followed, including a MacArthur Fellowship and an appointment to the Academy of American Poets.

I started corresponding with Graham, who is the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, in the summer of 2021. Her husband, the poet and painter Peter Sacks, had recently shattered his pelvis running on a seawall. A year after his fall, Graham was diagnosed with endometrial serous carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. Yet she radiated warmth; she wanted to know about my life, my parents, my dog. (Later, she nicknamed him Basso Profundo Otto after he interrupted a call, and requested a photo.) As Graham underwent treatment, we kept putting the interview aside, and returning to it, moving between the phone and e-mail, our conversation permutating. At one point, Graham sent pictures of herself in a profusion of feathered wigs. I found myself telling her that my mother was in the hospital; she insisted on walking me through a Web site where I could buy extra-accurate COVID tests for my mom’s caretakers. Later, Graham, whose poems appear regularly in The New Yorker, reminisced about the last time she was profiled by the magazine, in 1997. The piece, by Stephen Schiff, closed with an image of Graham’s “shiny lavender pumps, caked with mud.” For the record, she said, “I have never owned a pair of ‘shiny lavender pumps’ in my life!”

The following interview, which has been edited and condensed, draws from several of our conversations.

There’s always a temptation to tell a shapely story about the evolution of an artist’s work. You’ve been interested in perception, subjectivity, and philosophy; you’ve also been a so-called nature poet and, recently, a public poet, who writes about the fate of humanity and the environment. Do you see your career in terms of a thematic arc?

One writes from one’s obsessions as they encounter one’s conditions. At twenty-five, I was just developing my ability to observe, reflect, intuit, shape—and coming to know my medium, its traditions. The questions I felt free to ask—because, as a young person, arenas of thought seem more unique, separated by categorical fields of inquiry—did not yet appear to me to spring so clearly and terrifyingly from one system, or from a massive fork in the road which the human story took and which we now find ourselves irrevocably far along. It feels late in our story. And at a certain point it’s late in one’s own story as a writer.

Your work has always seemed interested in lateness—

Well we are having this discussion at a potentially catastrophic moment. The weeks before COP27—where too-lateness (and much else) stares us in the face at every turn. The failures are so evident already, it’s shattering—yet so predictable. But lateness in a life devoted to an art can be thrilling. You feel you’ve dealt—feeling your way, blindly—with so many partial questions—and then you begin to put the puzzle together. The maze is not a hall of mirrors after all. You’ve lost some innocence, gained an aperture which can make you sick with horror or overwhelmed by the mystery of existence. But things are more layered, history more simultaneous, or circular, and the body, the senses, have become more urgently necessary as detectors—so much more than you could have ever intuited at the start.

You’ve written on so many crucial issues—as your voice becomes more public, does something get sacrificed? Is there a feeling of another kind of time being lost?

I cannot help but wonder if, as an artist, I’ve wasted some kind of essential time both working as a citizen-activist, and insisting on expanding my medium to include questions that might normally be kept outside the poem. It’s hard for me to tell. Making art, by its nature, involves what seems to be a lot of wasted time—you go down a lot of cul-de-sacs, you wander in wastes where no inspiration comes—but then that apparent waste yields. And I take the responsibility historically accorded to, or demanded of, the poet in the public sphere seriously. I’m a citizen, a witness, a mother, a grandmother, a member of an out-of-control species increasingly losing its way.

How does late work come about? How do you keep at it, and keep evolving?

Late work is, importantly, work for which the ground was laid at the very start. When you’re creating your initial tool kit as a young artist, you have to insure you’re not creating tools just for your present moment—for the “new” art you feel you are making. Make sure you hone a wide range of skills—skills you might think no longer necessary, skills you might not need till later on, when up against unimaginable forces. You never know when your “late” moment will be. Be ready. Be equipped. The same tools that availed at the start do not avail in the middle or facing the limit point of existence.

Late work comes at any age—Keats was twenty-four writing his brilliant late work. But he was equipped, he had trained deeply, he was ready for it. If you are, it’s pretty astonishing. How could there be yet another door that opens, veil that parts, question that you might never have imagined? Yet there it is. I do feel surprised by my equipment, grateful to those (like my early teacher, the great Donald Justice) who drove me nuts insisting I learn skills I never thought I’d need. Also at a certain point you realize all the questions you’ve asked of your medium over the years—each so new at the time—appear to converge. And different questions appear. . . . It’s hard to describe.

And is there an “overwhelming question”—to quote T. S. Eliot in a poem I believe was an early influence?

Maybe, yes. When you imagine you can squint in an arc, a direction—something beyond “muttering retreats”—and you realize that all along you have perhaps been after one question. That it is perhaps your question.

What would that question be, for you?

We’re on dangerous terrain here. . . . Maybe something along the lines of, What is creation—by which I mean the world around us—and what would be a right relationship to it? How do we—in the midst of such gifts from what we once regarded as an actual “Creation”—do so much harm? And how do we continue such infliction while knowing more than ever the extent and momentum of its harm? So, for me, as for so many others, the question ends up contemplating the tragedy of what we have done as a species to the planet we share with other species and forms of life. It is horrifying and baffling. And further, the question becomes: How do we, nonetheless, in the face of this, live our one life fully—making sure not to override wonder, astonishment, pleasure, joy?

Your medium to address this quandary is poetry?

Art is a formidable lens through which to tackle it. Because the damage we have done, and now will inevitably do at a much larger scale, is intimately related to the good we have done as a species. They are intertwining branchings of the same one impulse or engine—call it the human heart, or what the King James [Bible] most trenchantly translates as “the imagination of man’s heart.” And lyric poetry is a medium especially suited to examining the question that haunts: What have we done and why?

Yet looking over the span of fourteen books—books with so many occasions—have the subjects of your poetry stayed the same more than they have changed?

I don’t know that any more than I know if I have changed. I have immediate preoccupations—and as these constantly respond to the world around me they, by definition, evolve as the world changes. Recently those changes have become—to use the title of a recent book [“Runaway”]—a tangle of catastrophic accelerations. So my poems have tried to engage with these external calls upon all our attention—the increasingly fragile state of the planet, the increasingly fragile state of our democracy, the sense of perhaps irremediable damage to our societal worlds—yes, runaway global warming, but also runaway virus, runaway technology, runaway carceral state and racism, runaway inequality and poverty, runaway falsifications by media platforms that are addictive by design—all these are the “field of forces” out of which the poem arises. They are not the “subject” of the poems; they represent the biome out of which the need to make one’s self undergo reality via a poem grows.

Has your voice changed?

My voice grows with me, but it is probably the most constant part of the process—my ear evolves but my voice is something I found early on.

Your poetic voice?

To be clear the voice and the speaker are different forces, different propulsive authorities in a poem. My speaker and my voice used to be more closely intertwined. But, as my decades progressed, and I grappled increasingly with less simple notions of subjectivity, and context, and human agency—who is speaking, how many are they, from what ground, on what grounds, on what authority—this speaker has fractured. My sense of my unique lyric “self” came unglued. Both as a subject constantly affected by fluid, increasingly multilayered and contingent contexts and as an agent trying to take responsibility. But for what? If I am responsible—how endless is that responsibility?

Has your sense of the role of the poem’s individual speaker evolved? Some of the voices in your poetry—Siri’s, a seabed’s—aren’t human, which is such a strange and provocative spin on the lyric poem as we know it!

Well, yes. This fracturing of subjectivity led to experiments with artificially intelligent voices, bots, mediums, and others speaking from some nonhuman position. My father, just after he passed, speaking from the other side; cryogenic patients going under; animals trying to communicate with us; Twitterverse. When I began trying to imagine speaking from even more radically nonhuman points of view, such as an MRI, or the ocean floor, I realized it was becoming, for me, an increasingly urgent practice—in both an ecological and a theological sense. An instruction.

Obviously, it is an illusion. I cannot speak from the point of view of the ocean, the seafloor. But it is a profoundly operative illusion. The attempt changes one. Radically. It changes one’s size, one’s sense of one’s centrality as the speaker; it compels a kind of radical imagination of otherness. You try to feel your own unlikeness. It’s instructive as a poetic and spiritual action, and it also carried over, for me, into my political sense of my “being”—not just my philosophical sense of my “being at all.” Who is this speaking? That became a question I asked in many ways in multiple books. It felt—it feels—important not to know the answer to that question. It also feels destabilizing in a very fruitful way to keep putting oneself in a situation where one is required to ask it.

I’m also curious about how you think about community or plurality in your poetry. Is that something you’re consciously trying to introduce? Your work often intimates the many in the one. It reminds me of the movement in psychology toward seeing individuals as little villages—collections of internalized or partially assimilated family members.

The way you have described that is beautiful. You might have answered your own question! In working to expand, or explode, the traditional lyric speaker, that individual subjectivity, I sometimes felt as if I had access to a collective subjectivity—which flows into the poem. One might once have called this “the chorus”—something the polis speaks. The chorus may at times be the ancestors, or the future, the as-yet unborn, watching us. I feel them pressing with incredible urgency. I feel I am staring straight at them. They do not blink.

So, yes, the voice speaking the poem has become more polyvocal—but also perhaps more anguished, though in an increasingly controlled way. The scarier it gets, the more controlled I find my poems becoming. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” [Emily] Dickinson says. It’s that movement of spirit I am experiencing on the page now, astringent with grief and coiled with attempted courage. And a sense that there’s no room for wrong questions now, no time for errors of imagination. It’s hard to characterize, as I’m still in the midst of this exploration. How plural are we? I’m not that persuaded by notions such as hive mind or the singularity. I’m interested in accountability—and in these somewhat strenuous ways I’m trying to keep myself accountable to all the forces at play in the field we call time, history, consciousness, the heart—also greed and self-delusion and hubris.

What do you see as your responsibility as a poet?

Ah, the eternal question! Stepping into her historical moment, any living poet’s responsibility is to speak for the human to that brief moment. To keep us human. To keep the language capable of transmitting truth, the heart honest, to force averted eyes to witness what is being done in our name, to bear witness to atrocity as well as mystery, to make consciousness rub up against the most difficult reality it finds and take responsibility—even if that means simply being awake as a witness. But also to joy in and record the astonishment—inner and outer. The beauty—every last drop of it. Is it going to disappear? Perhaps. Then bear witness, pass it on. When they dig our poems up out of the rubble, we want them to know who we were, what consciousness was, but also how astounding and unimaginably infinite and mysterious life was. At any rate, any moment’s poetry has the added task of translating the past for those living now, while imagining the future—to keep that essential current alive. In this, poetry is, indeed, “news that stays news.” I take speaking the past to the future to be a primary moral responsibility of the art.

How do you see that being different in this moment in history, if you do?

How to do so now is indeed difficult, also urgent. How to find a voice, or voices, that will extend the ongoing task of poetry at such a perilous tipping point in our evolution, with broken attention spans, few shared beliefs or truths, little patience, little capacity for sustained attention or dilation or complexity, little desire for wonder, let alone in-depth exploration. It’s not enough that billions of people as we speak are gaming, or are addicted to pornographies of various kinds—including those which pass as news. How do we bring all these humans back into the community of somewhat shared reality, and above all shared responsibilities? Offering them some genuine shared economic opportunity would help. But runaway late capitalism thrives on increasing inequality, including unequal access to verifiable fact, as well as experience. Yes, we all know technology’s gifts to us—but how poisoned are these gifts? Because the primary function of much of this technology is to distract the soul from actual living. That’s its business model. It’s monetizing our distraction and destruction. And, hardest yet, most institutions we are obliged to trust are heavily invested in this process.

What constitutes “distraction” in the way you use the term?

The distractions come in increasingly enticing forms: fantasy facts, conspiracy theories, end-time narratives, V.R. worlds, and the ultimate (albeit also ancient) wish to become utterly other than one is, the fantasy of total escape from one’s self. We see this in situations as starkly clear as young girls addicted to apps which change their faces and bodies, until they are made ill with toxic self-hatred, bafflement, and shame. We know we are in a potential death spiral when so many solutions seem to involve some form of total escape—from one’s flesh, one’s spirit, the planet, the real world of work and love, from the time it takes to learn, from bodily knowledge, friendship, nature, from the uncanny feeling nature gives one of being only one species among other species. That feeling should excite us—it used to. Or mesmerize. Or terrify. The unknown in a life is still a gigantic terra incognita toward which every soul can make its pilgrimage. The unknown is not a “not known”—it is mystery, not a function of information. It is the unknowability embedded in the question that Tolstoy suggests we are to ask of life: What are we to do? You cannot ask Siri for the answer. You cannot take a shortcut to it, as much as our systems, and their new powers, want us short-circuited.

Can you go into what this short-circuiting looks like?

Increasingly, as much as we think it is we who enter and engage the machine—retaining agency—it seems it is the machine entering us, diluting our capacity to undergo life as lived. Smallness in relation to the infinite and the nonhuman used to be a hallowed feeling. It is increasingly rare to find humans who relish that engulfing sensation of the immensity of the not us—not made by us, not even known or intuited by us—and to feel brought to life by that wonder or terror. A destroying angel, the sublime, the spirit of place . . . we have as many names for it as we have cultures. In our current model, it would cost our economic system way too much if we all “showed up” for life. If we all insisted on the right to genuine existence—work, vocation, social protections—that would make us free enough to demand our right to experience. The simple demand that we be given—that our children be given—access to non-virtual lived experience would destroy a great deal of capitalism’s cash flow. We are the raw material; we are harvested, our attention is harvested and leached from us—and our simple acceding to the game, with its programmatic collection of data, is the monetizable product. But it’s hard to grasp this if your life has been depleted of options, starved of real work, if you are forced to frantically multitask, forced to accelerate to the point where every shortcut (which is a data-collection point) is not just a godsend but the only way in which they permit you to barely make it through your life. And that’s among the lucky, those privileged enough to even be in this predicament.

Has your poetry helped you find a way around this?

Oh, I wouldn’t claim to be exempt from any of these addictions. I’m just as much in the fumes. Like many others, I’m fighting to stay awake. I’m trying to help others do the same—with my poetry, with my teaching. We’re all in this dystopia together. We created it. It’s born of human imagination and invention and desire every bit as much as the antidotes to it must be. It’s all bred from human curiosity and its desires. You can’t separate the disaster from the star. That’s why we are so enmeshed in it. That’s why it’s so desperately hard to even look in a mirror. There is no one else to look to but us, as this is all us, our doing, our going down one of the possible roads we were given, one of the aspects of mind, one of the many options in imagination. Greed played its huge role; and hubris; and the desire for a shortcut. But also curiosity, the inextinguishable human love of invention, of the “new.” I have spent a good many years trying to sort out, in my work, this entanglement which is human desire.

Can you explain what you mean by “shortcut”?

Existence is crushingly hard. It’s very tempting to step off its road, to avoid living one’s life. One has to work hard to make sure to go through existence, not around it. It’s a terrifying reality that you can end up, almost as if by accident, not having lived your given life. At its harshest, and most literally brutal, it can be taken from you by the appalling carceral state, by systemic racism, by the endless crimes of inequality—by the theft of opportunity. But it can also be taken from you minute by minute by the shortcuts that everything you encounter invites you to take—to keep up, to do more within less time, to trade in wisdom, or even knowledge, for information. Our ever-shortening attention span craving its quick satisfactions—which affects whatever creative act might even be attempted, curtailing it before it even finds deep water—is the most powerful tool of the surveillance capitalist state, or whatever you want to call this enmeshment of powerful interests using our desire for instant access to enrich itself.

You write so sharply about the way the mind, and your mind, moves. I’m curious about that poetic mind. Is it the same mind you bring to the breakfast table or the garden?

The mind is a current—let’s take a river as an example. It not only carries whatever it picks up by what it traverses (breakfast table, garden), but it is also changed in its course by what it traverses. Its weight changes, its speed, the direction in which it was going. Being taken by surprise is one of the fundamental experiences for any poet writing any poem. You know you are in the grip of a poem when it—the subject, the terrain you are entering, traversing—reorients you and puts you before a question that you did not know existed. You are irrevocably changed. One writes to be so changed. The silence you break to enter the poem is never the same silence closing over again when the voice reënters the silence. The poem is an action you have taken and an experience you’ve undergone. You’re not the same person you were when you undertook that poem. That sensation of transformation is addictive—spiritually and emotionally. Why else would anyone attempt this insanely difficult—practically impossible—practice day after day for a lifetime? One is in it for the conversion experiences. What are the ideals of form for except to get us into legitimate danger that we may be legitimately rescued, Frost asks. The key term in this brilliant formulation is “legitimate.”

In order to get a poem, do you have to turn your mind on somehow? If so, how?

For me, it’s not a matter of ever turning it on—God help me, it’s a matter of asking for a reprieve from its constant hunger for experience, sensation, for the astounding way in which, if one wishes to stay awake, the world will keep awakening one further. The pressure is to keep a reader with one in the current, to steer with form and clarity of attention—with a sense of what is behind one, what ancestors and precursors have discovered, and what is yet unknown, what beckons, shiny, potentially dangerous. And always, in moving toward a poem, I must remind my mind to remain grounded in, and rise up from, my senses—hence, too, the motive not just for thought and metaphor but for music, for form.

What does that specifically poetic mind or way of thinking make of the outrageous events of the past few years, including Trump and COVID-19? Have these ruptures in the public sphere been galvanizing, inhibiting, something else?

Poetry’s function is always involved with resistance. In the case of the nightmare we have been through—and very possibly will face again in an even more entrenched form—I ask myself if we are ready for the kinds of resistance we have seen over the centuries in other cultures when faced with totalitarian regimes. But, at the more intimate level of composition, every act of poetry involves a form of active resistance (even in apparently “normal” times—if those exist). Every time they try to crush attention, poetry’s task is to enhance or sharpen it. Every time they try to dehumanize, whether politically or technologically, our task is to rehumanize—make the human yet more acute, poised, alert, ready to fight for its survival, breath by breath, word by word.

Yes, atrocity may galvanize—and that takes me back to the idea of the current, in this case, an electric current. A river might course through a terrain, but the speed of an electric current—which these outrages with their jolts of shock feel like—can move through you too fast. It can short-circuit you. Trying to carry that into the poem has forced me to explore and invent all sorts of formal devices—and musics—in order to both undergo it, on my behalf and on behalf of a reader, explore it, unpack it, convey it, and still survive, stay on the cusp of vision, stay sane. In “Sea Change,” “Place,” “Fast” and “Runaway,” the formal strategies, the technique, have all tried to meet this atrocity, and take it into the marrow of the poem, and try to ground it.

Could you say more about the kinds of strategies you mean?

It’s like trying to take something on board that you almost can’t handle. We have all felt this. Thinking things through feels like it could blow one’s fuse. The job of poetic form—the multiple aspects of its form—under these circumstances (and they are not new, but they might be more extreme in their rapidities, in the vastness of their damage) is to manage what cannot be managed perhaps by any other means: to handle fire without getting obliterated and still pass on the fire. Form is everything, it seems to me, as we, as poets, try to carry this nightmare into the marrow of the poem and move the soul to a vantage point from which it can hold reality and justice in one thought and not die. One’s form is one’s tool. My recent use of long and short lines in the same poem, for example—the long line for a sense of the current, which is continuous, and the short, which carries the jolt, the shock, the high voltage, and then the long again, which is like a step-down transformer to prevent the soul from shorting. The job is to undergo, absorb, reveal, explore, get as close to the danger and the heart of the nightmare as possible and have vision; to not lose the ability to see into and through. The poems should not only charge, in this sense, but still transport and irrigate. They should help one feel less powerless. They should move one to act.

It can often feel as though poetry is trying to slow the reader down. Readers are meant to pause, to pay attention, to think. Beyond representing a fast world, what’s the use of a fast poem? Is there something fruitful about the way it sweeps you through, allows you access to abundance, pushes past your inhibitions?

There are moments when one wants to not only slow down attention but also energize it—trying to do justice to the mind’s capacity for speed. The mind not only inhabits space but it can also move astonishingly fast. That poses obvious problems, but there’s also a kind of joy in that, a thrill, an ecstasy, to finally be able to get outside of corporeal existence but also try to do justice to the quickness of the mind to dart, catch fire, take flight. Minds also have to celebrate what the mind can do.

Has your notion of time changed at all in the past two years?

I have always been someone who feels no time is ever wasted—and watching my life you’d think I waste a lot of it. Yes, I am overwhelmed by demands on my time. But I am a great daydreamer. I lose track of time and have little to show it. I’m a big believer in letting time unspool, in just being there for the so-called dreaded waste of time. Feeling the presence of time sometimes requires just letting it flow through one and being unoccupied by all else. It’s not meditation. It’s just a way of feeling the passage of irrecoverable minutes, and how letting them go, just go, you suddenly feel them so fully by feeling how you will never get them back. . . . I love feeling that erasural current. Its fierce subtraction. Its indifference. I love the “forever gone” in it. The absolute. It’s one of the few ways to touch it, to feel it touch you. It’s cold, all right. But it’s so real. It excites me. It restores me to my right human size. Randomness. Brevity. One needs reminding.

Can you talk about your use of notation and shorthand? Your poems sometimes include “yr,” variables like “x.” There’s a kind of paradox because those placeholders imply haste, but they also seem to want to stretch the possibilities of language.

That’s wonderfully put. Yes, the shorthand originates with, or comes out of, haste. But it’s not just abbreviation—it’s compression. It comes out of the pressures of acceleration language is under, sometimes almost crushing the words. That said, I have also come to like the prosodic differences between, say, a “your,” which has a longer duration versus “yr,” which is a sharp, fast stroke and has almost no duration. The same is true about “you” and “u”—though these provide the added opportunity of making us feel the diminution or disintegration of selfhood.

On one hand, the humanities are embattled; literary journals are shuttering; budget cuts in media have starved readers of poetry reviews. On the other hand, there is what seems like a flourishing culture of poetry online. Do you feel optimistic about poetry’s place in society and/or the future?

Who knows if there will be a human future? But, if there is, there will be poetry, as there has always been. From the start our species has found a need to express ourselves in language that has formal properties beyond the task of merely communicating information—for expression of our emotions, our sense of bewilderment, terror, wonder, love, emotions that carry us to the very limits of language. Poetry as a medium, in many cultures, is a way not just of binding humans to one another, at their core, but of connecting them in spirit to other species, to the natural world at large, and, perhaps above all, to the realm of the invisible—the realm of gods or of our ancestors or of those forces that lie beyond our control but not beyond our capacity for astonishment and gratitude.

Can you speak about what you mean by “attention”? It’s one of the terms you use frequently across your many books.

The kind of attention I am talking about is a kind of attention that involves undirected dilation. A waiting but not a waiting-for. Just attending, actively alert. “Negative capability,” “presence,” “perfectly aimless concentration”—every spiritual and poetic tradition has a name for it—“attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”

What does that give you as a poet—or to readers of poems?

It’s in this dilated time that we can experience feeling. A very unsettling by-product—if not the built-in intention—of the great acceleration is to get us moving too fast to experience what are, by nature, slow processes: sensations, feelings, intimations of thought. Fractured attention spans’ most productive function, from the tech system’s financial and power perspective, is to compel us, or invite us, to bypass feeling and move instead instantly to opinion or quick reconnoitering—a “take” on things.

Why is this so important?

One of the powerful aspects of genuine sensation is that it is neurologically ancient and slow, and takes time to be fully undergone. But once undergone it gives rise to a feeling or emotion, which, guided by the surprisingly sturdy objectivity of sensations, gives rise to thought—but thought arrived at in a way that tests its veracity upon the clarity of those sensations, the most trustworthy instruments we have. This is what Keats means by his famous dictum that axioms must be tested on the pulse.

The senses are often said to deceive. In what way do you see them as the most trustworthy instruments we have, ones which can calibrate the veracity of an idea or thought?

It’s in what I’d call the commonality—if not quite universality—of data collected by our senses, our bodies. This collective sensorium is deeply shared. If I say “salt,” you and I probably overlap quite powerfully on a taste in our minds. If I say “Dry ice so cold as to stick to your skin,” not much will differ between us. It’s almost Eucharistic. It can bring about a bodily communion of sorts. But if I say “justice” we will have as many different interpretations as we have humans. A poem works to get us to consider “justice” via sensorial images and emotions so that it feels, although a concept, deeply grounded and as physically graspable, nuanced, and clear as the sense data it has been deepened through, checked against. This has always been the method of poetry, but today the work of sensorial imagery seems ever more crucial because we can be made to think and, it turns out, to believe just about anything. “How do we know what is true?” has always been an urgent human question. But perhaps never in the way it is today.

Is this particular to poetry?

What’s important here is that the most fundamental methods of poetry can help us find our way to unusually shareable truths—something we can build upon, a communally felt idea, a belief system, something trustworthy, something that will hold. You can watch a poem work upon a group of readers and wonder, Why is it such a shared event? Why do people go again and again to a poem which they share with others in order to have that shared experience once again? It’s not that far from there to shared laws, principles, and so on. Resistance relies on such shared truth. Poetry’s very process of trawling first through the senses for its imagery utilizes a slowness of what I call undergoing—which tends to lead us to knowledge, which is slow, forcing us through experience, rather than information-gathering, which is instant, brittle, and invites one to skip over the complicating nuances of sensorial experience.

Could poetry go extinct?

The one thing about a poem that has always amazed me is this strange way it has of being alive. Whatever small market exists for it, it cannot really be bought or sold or transacted, as in reality it doesn’t have a unique material existence. Its nature is of a different kind. It inhabits another kind of space and time. Every copy of Keats’s “To Autumn” is the original. And, if every copy of that poem on planet Earth were incinerated, it would remain just as alive, intact, original, and “in reality” if it is located in just one person’s memory. If there’s no one to listen to it, it’s a tragedy but not a worry. Because it’s not that the poem is not speaking. Poems cannot easily go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker. We might ignore our millennia of poems. We might forget them for generations. But they’re always speaking. And they will be there for us if we come back to them, if we dig them out of the rubble, or recover them from one human mind.

That’s a pretty thrilling relationship with time. Does it play into your thinking about climate change and future human scenarios?

I hadn’t thought of it that way—but yes. Poems will be one of the very last things to go extinct. They are near-indestructible—and if we are smart they will never depend on technology-enabled platforms alone to exist. Because, as long as one human mind has Keats’s “Ode,” it is as alive and new as it ever was and ever will be. And you can build a whole life from its news. That’s really quite extraordinary.

What if the last mind goes out?

Radio waves. The poem is not going out. ♦

Jorie Graham Takes the Long View_The New Yorker_202301.pdf5.06 MB