Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.
Topic: How we understand the planet.
Jorie Graham: I think one of the things that we need to do as Americans at present, and one of the functions of art as it is being asked to participate in the public discourse today, involves keeping the imagination of the future alive. We are living in times when we have rather real problematic scenarios for what the human imprint is on the planet. And one of the things that we are going to have to do to survive as a species among the other species is to figure out how to imagine the outcomes that are being described for us by scientists. Not just to understand them, but to imagine them.
It is extremely different being told that we have six years before there is no longer any ice in the Arctic. It is another thing to be told that in 20 or 30 years we are going to be involved in an amount of scarcity regarding water, and unsustainability in terms of the amount of humans on the planet.
These are conceptual notions that people can read about, hold in mind, and then push to the margins of their daily life because there is really no way to connect that kind of terrifying information, just the sheer number of people that are going to be alive on this planet and the absolutely dysfunctional ratio between those number and the resources that are available, the idea of the changing climate and pandemic disease.
Darfur is the first of the water wars that we are familiar with, although it certainly is not the first of the wars created by scarcity of water. When the city of Atlanta ran out of water this summer, and there was a sort of frantic maneuver to help the state borrow water from other states, there was sort of a general shock in the country because it’s not the kind of news that we want to pay attention to. And much of this is pushed to the margins by the enormously engaging and distracting sort of reality television shows that both our political and our dramas and our entertainment fantasies engage us with.
So part of what we need to do at this point, with the imagination, is help people imagine what it is like to be part of a species, and what it is like to be on one planet, and what it is like to be interdependent with other people.
And it is one thing to tell people, for example, that there will be no more fish in the sea at a certain moment. It is a very abstract principle. The warming temperatures of the sea are going to kill off a great deal of ocean life.
It’s another thing to try to help people imagine if they are looking out at a blue ocean from a view in an ocean front house whether it would bother them if that beautiful water they were looking at were toxic. Whether you know that coral reefs exist or not, whether you ever see them in your lifetime, whether you ever know what the intricacies of what life is like in a coral reef, whether the disappearance of that life in the middle of New York City, whether its disappearance matters to you as a member of a species, whether the fact that song birds are disappearing at an astonishing rate because they are being killed by the insecticides that they eat as they migrate over fields that grow coffee or corn.
Does the disappearance of the song bird, that you might never even have heard, is that part of what being human is about, and is it important to bring to the foreground of the imagination of the people living in this moment in history, what it is to be part of creation, part of creation, not individuals separate from creation. And, you know, I am not sure that nations, states, foundation myths, at this moment in history, are doing us any good.
Topic: The world without us.
Jorie Graham: For people whom they will never even know for sure will even come into existence, the kinds of sacrifices that as a species we are going to be asked to make in this culture, we are going to be asked to make for people four or five generation hence; not our children, not our grandchildren, not even our great-grandchildren, sacrifices that would affect every aspect of our lives and what we consider our right to life, made for people whose existence we cannot even be as sure will come about.
How do you get people to imagine that that is something they need to do? It is one thing to be told that, in desperation, they have to do it. It is another thing to be told that they cannot imagine their way to the outer horizon of human existence beyond them and decide to make sacrifices in, after all, the only life they have, for people who might be able to benefit from those sacrifices on a planet that might be able to benefit from it.
There is a wonderful book out by a man named Weisman, called, I think it is called, “The World Without Us.” And it is amazing how many people reading that book breathe an extraordinary sigh of relief at the sensation of the planet finally free of this nightmare so that it can go back to feeling like the creation that it is, an incredible paradise that we are lucky to be living upon. And it would be a shame to not have been able to use the imagination to find our way out of this predicament and to have decided that what we will be is disposable, we will run out the clock and give up on the challenges.
I think there is enormous impulse on the part of people to run out the clock. And, so, one of the functions of making art today is, and something like Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” for example, he tried to describe to people so that they can bring it into mind what it is that they are actually looking at as an option.
Recorded on April 3, 2008