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: What is the European mentality and how much of it have you retained?
Jorie Graham: Well, that’s one theory. I think the most prominent feature of growing up in Europe, anywhere in Europe, is that you are growing up in a place where people have been continuously creating culture for quite a few thousand years, so you grow up in a historical landscape. The pressure of history is on you in every instance.
When I was growing up in Rome, I used to play a little game where I would just sit in any spot in the house that we were living in, and I would try to imagine the Etruscan city and then the early Roman city, and then the late Roman city and then the city at the fall of the empire, and the medieval city and the Renaissance city, all the way up to the present. It wasn’t very difficult; all I had to do was go down in my basement where there was a Etruscan well where people said there were still eels in the Roman wells, that were also at the bottom of the building, that had been continuously breeding since the Roman era.
Now, whether that was true or not, or my childhood imagination, it was very useful. So the idea that you are living in historical landscape of that magnitude, first of all, makes the sensation of the dimensions of your own life rather small, and it is an interesting smallness.
It makes you feel that you are participating in an experiment, which is a human experiment, which is not so present based, and you feel very much in the way in which you go into any cathedral in Europe, and usually cathedrals in Europe are not only, often, in Italy, built on top of the ruins or the not even ruined remnants of Greek or Roman temple, but the cathedrals themselves have been continuously rebuilt and added to over nine or hundred or thousand year period.
You also feel that all the work being done to contribute to the making of the cathedral by hundreds of thousands of individuals over a period of time is anonymous work, and what you have is this incredible model for history, which is the contributions of many, many people, only a few really in any given great church or cathedral are signed works.
You know, there might be a Michelangelo; there might be a Chemabor [ph?] but most of the work, especially the walls of the cathedrals, were built by many, many, many generations of masons, fathers passing the work onto sons and to grandsons, and this feeling of participating in a human enterprise with that kind of humility, I think is something which I only experienced the equivalent of in the United States when I lived out west in Wyoming and lived in the geologic timeframe.
So that, when you are around places, like the Grand Canyon, you also have a sense of the dimension of time which makes your presence as a human participant in the temporal sphere of the creation or the dimensions of the life of the earth, small enough.
So one of the things that is a little bit difficult for me is the sensation that the present tense of a single human life is at this moment in history so magnified, and people are so deeply committed to the belief that their life and their moment in history, what we call a very presentist sensation, is very dominant, especially in an urban landscape where there is nothing to correct, there is no Sequoia, you know, there is no mountain, there is very little to correct your sensation that your individual life, your career, the development of your biography in your particular 80 years, is the most essential part of your experience of participating in the life of the planet.
Recorded on April 3, 2008