Jorie Graham Takes the Long View

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.

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