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 has the Internet changed language?
Jorie Graham: I think we might imagine that it has more impact than it does. People still have to use language to persuade each other, to seduce each other, to move each other into new states of belief or conviction.
You have to sell somebody something; you have to speak to them in such a way as they trust you. These are uses of language that are not altered by any technology. Human beings still have to look each other in the eyes and figure out whether they are on the same human page.
I don’t see that the email or the fact that I am seeing you on a screen as opposed to in the room is altering the fact that, as I look at you, I try to understand what you are feeling by reading your face as I speak to you. And, you know, I think as long as there are lovers, as long as there are politicians, as long as there are mothers and children, human beings are going to still have to use language in ways that-- you are blushing; I don’t know why you are blushing, but I feel that the fact that something made you blush means that there is a human contact now.
If we were doing this via email, there is a certain speediness, there is a kind of economy. You know what I really think an email is like? An email is like a very wonderful moment, say, in the 17th Century, when you could write a note and give it to a person who would swiftly take it across town to your lover in the carriage, and they would bring back a return note.
I think it’s just a very, very, it’s sort of we have gone back to writing real letters because of email. I think we have gone back to trying to be--I notice that emails have more adjectives and adverbs in them than people had been using for a long time, so I am not sure that we are losing anything via the email.
I think that perhaps we are trying to keep ourselves more human by being in touch a great deal. Certainly, what I find very interesting is the global community growing able to instantaneously share a similar image via the internet.
There is something about the fact that when you read blogs regarding, say, Obama’s great speech on race that he gave, you suddenly notice that the bloggers writing in response to that are writing from New Zealand, and they are writing from India, and they are writing from China, or maybe some of them are writing from China, but you notice that the world feels like, and this is a real first for us, our election is being watched by the planet, and the entire planet seems to think that this election is their election, and that the future of the world, in fact, the future of the next installment of human life is very much in the hands of the United States.
If the United States takes no action and continues to live with its head in the sand, the planet in far, far more likely to be no exit strategy. It makes the United States, I think its extraordinary capacity for inventiveness, and its passion for solving problems, something which is one of the great, sort of when you talk about national traits, national mythologies, any movie that you look at, the American, the young, the role of the American is always the naïve America that, because he or she does not know that a thing can’t be done, goes ahead, and with spit and string, solves it and manages to make miracles happen. That really has been something that we have achieved in this country.
Look at who is running for President; look at the mystery of the country. The minute we think we have hit one wall and we have come to the absolute dead end of the American experiment because we are suddenly breaking all international conventions and treaties, we are engaging in torture, we are destroying a generation of young people, we have destroyed our educational system, we’re collapsing world markets, all of a sudden we have these amazing people who are surfacing and deciding to run for the highest office of the land, and they have engaged the imagination of the whole planet.
There is an Italian politician running at present who is using, “Yes, We Can,” as his mantra for his campaign. You know, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but, I think especially Barack Obama simply because women have been heads of state in other countries. Barack Obama has awakened the imagination of so many different people on this globe that it has made the, and it really is the new use of the internet that has made his candidacy a global candidacy.
Recorded on April 3, 2008