Effective this week, Earthweal goes to biweekly challenges. If you would have ideas to improve or contribute to the forum, send them to email@example.com.
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Great interview with Jorie Graham in The New Yorker recently. Graham is one of the most lauded poets of our day. I haven’t given her work close notice, dismissing it from my reading because it was too experimental and/or avant-garde for my taste. But recent collections including Sea Change, Place, Fast, Runaway and (To) The Last (Be) Human have gripped down hard into the unfolding climate crisis; and either she has found a different focus or I have, because after reading the interview and delving into some of her poems, I’ve found her right on the money for exactly where we are.
I doubt she’ll ever be a favorite poet — not from one accustomed to the likes of romantic poets like Rilke, Mary Oliver and Jack Gilbert — but she does prove to be an essential earth poet.
And what an Earth, these days! — California is underwater from an ocean of atmospheric river-storms; a report states that the past eight years have been the eight hottest ever, and ocean heat hit another record high last year, the fourth year in a row. (Since 1970, more than 90% of the planet’s excess heat went into the oceans.) All that is bad enough, but the La Niña (or “cold ocean”) conditions which have persisted for the past three years are about to shift to El Niño, which tends to bring warmth. According to climate expert, James Hansen, this shift will press the gas pedal to the floor for heat, promising 2024 as the warmest year on record. As Elizabeth Kolbert noted in her summary, “the urgency (to decarbonize) couldn’t be any higher.”
In Graham’s interview with Katy Waldman in the Jan. 1, 2023 issue, she spoke of the evolution of what she calls her “late work,” centrally inspired by the climate crisis:
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.
Paradoxically, that sense of lateness is cause for both dread and inspiration:
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.
Asked what “overwhelming question” of this late work might be, Graham replied:
We’re on dangerous terrain here. … Maybe something along the lines of, What is creation—by which I mean the world around us—and what would be a right relationship to it? How do we—in the midst of such gifts from what we once regarded as an actual “Creation”—do so much harm? And how do we continue such infliction while knowing more than ever the extent and momentum of its harm? So, for me, as for so many others, the question ends up contemplating the tragedy of what we have done as a species to the planet we share with other species and forms of life. It is horrifying and baffling. And further, the question becomes: How do we, nonetheless, in the face of this, live our one life fully — making sure not to override wonder, astonishment, pleasure, joy?
Graham uses shifting viewpoints and voices to allow the world to be hear:
I cannot speak from the point of view of the ocean, the seafloor. But it is a profoundly operative illusion. The attempt changes one. Radically. It changes one’s size, one’s sense of one’s centrality as the speaker; it compels a kind of radical imagination of otherness. You try to feel your own unlikeness. It’s instructive as a poetic and spiritual action, and it also carried over, for me, into my political sense of my “being”—not just my philosophical sense of my “being at all.” Who is this speaking? That became a question I asked in many ways in multiple books. It felt—it feels—important not to know the answer to that question. It also feels destabilizing in a very fruitful way to keep putting oneself in a situation where one is required to ask it.
The money quote for me came when she was asked about the responsibility of the poet:
Stepping into her historical moment, any living poet’s responsibility is to speak for the human to that brief moment. To keep us human. To keep the language capable of transmitting truth, the heart honest, to force averted eyes to witness what is being done in our name, to bear witness to atrocity as well as mystery, to make consciousness rub up against the most difficult reality it finds and take responsibility—even if that means simply being awake as a witness. But also to joy in and record the astonishment—inner and outer. The beauty—every last drop of it. Is it going to disappear? Perhaps. Then bear witness, pass it on. When they dig our poems up out of the rubble, we want them to know who we were, what consciousness was, but also how astounding and unimaginably infinite and mysterious life was. At any rate, any moment’s poetry has the added task of translating the past for those living now, while imagining the future—to keep that essential current alive. In this, poetry is, indeed, “news that stays news.” I take speaking the past to the future to be a primary moral responsibility of the art.
Does the present moment alter in any way that responsibility?
How to do so now is indeed difficult, also urgent. How to find a voice, or voices, that will extend the ongoing task of poetry at such a perilous tipping point in our evolution, with broken attention spans, few shared beliefs or truths, little patience, little capacity for sustained attention or dilation or complexity, little desire for wonder, let alone in-depth exploration. It’s not enough that billions of people as we speak are gaming, or are addicted to pornographies of various kinds—including those which pass as news. How do we bring all these humans back into the community of somewhat shared reality, and above all shared responsibilities? Offering them some genuine shared economic opportunity would help. But runaway late capitalism thrives on increasing inequality, including unequal access to verifiable fact, as well as experience. Yes, we all know technology’s gifts to us—but how poisoned are these gifts? Because the primary function of much of this technology is to distract the soul from actual living. That’s its business model. It’s monetizing our distraction and destruction. And, hardest yet, most institutions we are obliged to trust are heavily invested in this process.
We know we are in a potential death spiral when so many solutions seem to involve some form of total escape—from one’s flesh, one’s spirit, the planet, the real world of work and love, from the time it takes to learn, from bodily knowledge, friendship, nature, from the uncanny feeling nature gives one of being only one species among other species. That feeling should excite us—it used to. Or mesmerize. Or terrify. The unknown in a life is still a gigantic terra incognita toward which every soul can make its pilgrimage. The unknown is not a “not known”—it is mystery, not a function of information. It is the unknowability embedded in the question that Tolstoy suggests we are to ask of life: What are we to do? You cannot ask Siri for the answer. You cannot take a shortcut to it, as much as our systems, and their new powers, want us short-circuited.
Increasingly, as much as we think it is we who enter and engage the machine—retaining agency—it seems it is the machine entering us, diluting our capacity to undergo life as lived. Smallness in relation to the infinite and the nonhuman used to be a hallowed feeling. It is increasingly rare to find humans who relish that engulfing sensation of the immensity of the not us—not made by us, not even known or intuited by us—and to feel brought to life by that wonder or terror. A destroying angel, the sublime, the spirit of place . . . we have as many names for it as we have cultures. In our current model, it would cost our economic system way too much if we all “showed up” for life. If we all insisted on the right to genuine existence—work, vocation, social protections—that would make us free enough to demand our right to experience. The simple demand that we be given—that our children be given—access to non-virtual lived experience would destroy a great deal of capitalism’s cash flow. We are the raw material; we are harvested, our attention is harvested and leached from us—and our simple acceding to the game, with its programmatic collection of data, is the monetizable product. But it’s hard to grasp this if your life has been depleted of options, starved of real work, if you are forced to frantically multitask, forced to accelerate to the point where every shortcut (which is a data-collection point) is not just a godsend but the only way in which they permit you to barely make it through your life. And that’s among the lucky, those privileged enough to even be in this predicament.
Lots to unpack there — using multiple voices to speak for the world, the poet’s moral responsibility to speak the past to the future, a re-engagement with “non-virtual lived experience.” And what about that “late work” that we’re about?
For this week’s challenge, write a poem inspired by Graham’s comments. Experiment with form if you like, or throw your thought in the wide embrace of the world. Give it a whirl.
Today on two legs stood and reached to the right spot as I saw it
choosing among the twisting branches and multifaceted changing shades,
and greens, and shades of greens, lobed, and lashing sun, the fig that seemed to me the
perfect one, the ready one, it is permitted, it is possible, it is
actual. The VR glasses are not needed yet, not for now, no, not for this while
longer. And it is warm in my cupped palm. And my fingers close round but not too
fast. Somewhere wind like a hammerstroke slows down and lengthens
endlessly. Closer-in the bird whose coin-toss on a metal tray never stills to one
face. Something is preparing to begin again. It is not us. Shhh say the spreading sails of
cicadas as the winch of noon takes hold and we are wrapped in day and hoisted
up, all the ribs of time showing through in the growing in the lengthening
harness of sound — some gnats nearby, a fly where the white milk-drop
of the torn stem starts. Dust on the eglantine skin, white powder in the confetti of light
all up the branches, truth, sweetness of blood-scent and hauled-in light, withers of
the wild carnival of tree shaking once as the fruit is removed from its dream. Remain I
think backing away from the trembling into full corrosive sun. Momentary blindness
follows. Correction. There are only moments. They hurt. Correction. Must I put down
here that this is long ago. That the sky has been invisible for years now. That the ash
of our fires has covered the sun. That the fruit is stunted yellow mould when it appears
at all and we have no produce to speak of. No longer exists. All my attention is
free for you to use. I can cast farther and farther out, before the change, a page turned,
we have gone into another story, history floundered or one day the birds dis-
appeared. The imagination tried to go here when we asked it to, from where I hold the
fruit in my right hand, but it would not go. Where is it now. Where is this here where
you and I look up trying to make sense of the normal, turn it to life, more life,
disinterred from desire, heaved up onto the dry shore awaiting the others who could
not join us in the end. For good. I want to walk to the left around this tree I have made
again. I want to sit under it full of secrecy insight immensity vigour bursting complexity
swarm. Oh great forwards and backwards. I never felt my face change into my new
face. Where am I facing now. Is the question of good still stinging the open before us
with its muggy destination pitched into nothingness? Something expands in you
where it wrenches-up its bright policing into view — is this good, is this the good —
under the celebrating crowd, inside the silences it forces hard away all round itself,
where chanting thins, where we win the war again, made thin by bravery and belief,
here’s a polaroid if you want, here’s a souvenir, here now for you to watch, unfold, up
close, the fruit is opening, the ribs will widen now, it is all seed, reddish foam, history.
— from Runaway
Streaks, drifts, mounds
of meaning build,
flare: roof-lochs spill,
catching at the eaves
glaciers grind visionary
meanings down nordic gorges,
rivers to rustle
narrows amply clean cut:
hold still, the
spirit cries, hold this,
undermines meaning with meaning.
from Brink Road: Poems (1996)
While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
thought of their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was
hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they
were cutting it forever
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest
the size of a foreign ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language
— from The Rain in the Trees (1988)
wider than one
natives in their
is sustainable —
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
from the genuine
from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)
because of the mystic nature of the theory
and our reliance on collective belief
I could not visualize the end
the tools that paved the way broke
the body the foundation the exact copy of the real
our surfaces were covered
our surfaces are all covered
actual hands appear but then there is writing
in the cave we were deeply impressed
as in addicted to results
oh and dedication training the idea of loss of life
in our work we call this emotion
how a poem enters into the world
there is nothing wrong with the instrument
as here I would raise my voice but
the human being and the world cannot be equated
aside from the question of whether or not we are alone
and other approaches to nothingness
(the term “subject”)(the term “only”)
also opinion and annihilation
(the body’s minutest sensation of time)
(the world, it is true, has not yet been destroyed)
we are amazed
uselessness is the last form love takes
so liquid till the forgone conclusion
here we are, the forgone conclusion
so many messages transmitted they will never acquire meaning
do you remember my love my archive
touch me (here)
give birth to a single idea
touch where it does not lead to war
show me exact spot
climb the stairs
lie on the bed
nerves wearing only moonlight lie down
lie still patrol yr cage
be a phenomenon
at the bottom below the word
intention, lick past it
find the burning matter
love allows it (I think)
push past the freedom (smoke)
push past intelligence (smoke)
(favorite city) (god’s tiny voices)
hand over mouth
let light arrive
let the past strike us and go
if it please the dawn
say hurt undo
in your mouth be pleased
where does it say
where does it say
this is the mother tongue
there is in my mouth a ladder
presence of world
I am beside myself
you are inside me as history
We exist Meet me
— from Swarm (1999)
I really resonate with her voice and her work. My own poetry has changed completely the last half dozen years of the climate crisis, where it has been difficult if not impossible to write about anything else, due to the urgency of the situation. Her poem “the earth said remember me, the earth said don’t let go” really hits the heart. Thanks for the introduction, Brendan. I had not encountered her before. Biweekly challenges will be good. I hope other voices join in. Thanks for all you do.
Hello. Thanks for a fabulously thought provoking prompt – will definitely dive into more of her poetry. Will be back to read when our current electricity shortages allow. love to all
Brendan, this is fine writing and so well-articulated. Lucky find with Jorie. I wish you would find a wider audience for writing; it matters. Kerfe pointed out you used one of Merwin’s poems so I came back to read it. It feels like you are Keats in it. If I can sustain brain power will make an attempt to write to your prompt.
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Thanks – I think Merwin is paying a poet’s respects to one of our language’s finest poets — while at the same time show how meaningless his accomplishment was in this world. Words to all of us, for sure …
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You’re welcome, Brendan. In the big scheme of things I’m sure he and you are right, but do you really think what poets (and other artists by extension) do is meaningless? Maybe in some ways but not to one’s self and the journey, and as Longfellow wrote in A Psalm of Life, to inspire others to continue.
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I do think its largely meaningless, except to the individuals who create it. Writers read other writers the same way antique dealers buy antiques from other antique dealers. That’s the market. College english majors no longer read books and essays are getting passably written in ChatGPT. Where does that leave us? In the past. That’s why its meaningless. And a massive environmental catastrophe has no ear for my little homo sapiens complaint. Doesn’t keep us from still writing, but there are poems where the logic of that must be explored. Lots of other poems still to write.
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