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.
Question: How do you compose?
Jorie Graham: I start with music, although my most recent book is a book where the apparent subject matter is the imagination.
Well, let me put it this way: My most recent book is a book that ostensibly and in reality written for a future people trying to describe what it was like to live now, what it was like to have water, what rain was like, if you took it for granted to such a degree that you didn’t even notice it, what it was like to have seasons, and how astonishing the sharp definition is between the end of one season and the beginning of another. It is a book filled with uncanny, unnerving moments where blossoms emerge erratically at the wrong time of the year.
You know, on one level, I am writing the book in order that I, myself, might come to terms with what that feels like. I know how wrong it is to encounter blossoms in a radically wrong season, and that the tree is being completely, is losing its capacity to endure the transformations in the planet.
On the other hand, I don’t know, unless I write the poem, what that feels like. And there is a very great difference between what that means and what that implies and what it feels. But it’s only if I can get myself, and hopefully, a reader, to experience what it feels like, then that someone might feel that sensation would lead them to change the way they feel about these issues and existence.
As long as they remain conceptual issues, they are things, as I said before, you can push into the margins and push through your life without feeling that they need to take precedence over your identity defining life.
On the other hand, although the book is very devoted to this subject, the book began in a moment where I hadn’t written for a very long time and I accidentally wrote on a piece of paper a piece of music that I had never written before. It happened to be a very long line combined with a very short line that goes back again into a very long line. I realized I was using the long line of Whitman and the short line of Williams, and that I was suddenly dealing with the inherited music of two poets devoted to both the social issues of their time and to the ideas inherent in the American democratic project. So suddenly I was dealing with two very different musics that had contended with democracy.
At the same time I had a piece of music I had never heard before, it was thrilling. And it happened to be a small passage in a poem that I discarded about trying to describe water coursing down a hillside and the way in which it moved suddenly was able to come into the foreground because of this alternation of the long and short line, which I had never tried before.
And, so, to be completely honest, as a maker, I would say I wanted to write in that music and explore everything that music could do. Eleven books into this it was a piece of music I had, it was a goldmine, you know, I was completely thrilled by the fact that there was a whole other kind of music that I didn’t even know existed, that I was capable of engaging, exploring, using, developing.
When Williams says, “A new music is a new mind,” this is precisely what he was referring to. At a certain point you realize that if you change the way in which you are proceeding musically, you will move out of the experiences that you already know you know and begin to have emotions and, therefore, perhaps thoughts, and certainly intimations or even visions of things that you had no access to except via that music.
So I began with the music, and I take the music everywhere that I can in the book, revising endlessly. I must revise every poem fully fifty times. Basically, the book has to be wrenched from me in order for it to get published, because I would keep revising it.
But, at the same time, when I have worked out everything that music can do, the book is over and I then enter a new silence, which is, quite frankly, unbearable, waiting for a new music to present itself. And it does so in a very mysterious way that I cannot describe except by saying one waits. Rilke says, “A lively understandable spirit once entertained you. Be still, wait, it will come again.”
So it is that kind of waiting that Keats calls it negative capability, the capacity to. He follows that by saying, “Without irritable reaching after fact and reason,” you cannot reach for the poem, you have to in some way wait for it to present itself, is why we have all these notions like inspiration, and the muses speaking to one. You do wait for a poem, one that begins to, the music begins to awaken it and bring it towards you, then technique is what you use in order to engage it.
Recorded on April 3, 2008