Poetry Is a Virus That Can Save the World: On Jorie Graham’s ‘From the New World’


The poet Jorie Graham was born in New York in 1950 to a sculptor and a journalist. She was raised in Italy and, later, France, where she studied at the Sorbonne before being expelled during the protests of the late 1960s. She then left Europe for the United States, where, back in New York, she studied filmmaking at NYU. After receiving her MFA from the University of Iowa, she went on to produce several volumes of the best poetry in the English language, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won the Pulitzer in 1996.

It is not easy to delineate Jorie Graham’s poetic output — her mind is dauntingly capacious and magnanimous. But, for the sake of an introduction, I will say that, even though I think she’s a better artist, her most kindred spirit in American art is Terrence Malick. Both are philosophically serious but never austere; both are concerned with the unfolding of thought and being through the lenses of history, nature, and memory; and both alight at the new worlds opened up through perception. In fact, both artists have named major works after this “new world.” In Graham’s case, the release of her new book of collected poems — one of the year’s most important poetry books — is titled From the New World: Poems 1976–2014.

Speaking of Malick and cinema: probably not enough is made about the cinematic quality of Graham’s poems, which, like film, give the illusion of movement, albeit within lines and between stanzas. And like the greatest filmmakers, Graham is miraculously gifted at tracing those inexplicable moments that carry a thing — a crow, the sun, a snowflake — from stillness to motion, from wholeness to disintegration and back again. This sensibility is on full-display in the astonishing “The Visible World”:

I dig my hands into the absolute. The surface breaks into shingled, grassed clusters; lifts. If I press, pick-in with fingers, pluck, I can unfold the loam. It is tender. It is a tender maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises. Diggers, forgetters. . . . A series of successive single instances . . . Frames of reference moving . . . The speed of light, down here, upthrown, in my hands: bacteria, milky roots, pilgrimages of spores, deranged and rippling mosses. What heat is this in me that would thaw time, making bits of instance overlap

Thawed time, of course, unleashes motion. And motion, for Graham, seems to be something better or truer than truth. “The austerity of a true, cold thing, a verity,” she writes in “The Dream of the Unified Field,” before shattering truth itself: “the black bits of their thousands of bodies swarming.” But it isn’t just things in flux that interest Graham, it’s the movement of thought — which is material — in and around and through bodies. It’s this obsession — one that somehow combines the intellectual and emotional movements of Emily Dickinson with the ebbing bodies of Whitman — that compels her lines. In the poem “Sea Change,” she wonderfully equates inertia with hateful dogmatism:

Also sustained, as in a hatred of a thought, or a vanity that comes upon one out of nowhere & makes one feel the mischief in faithfulness to an idea.

Stillness of thought, for Graham, is a form of hatred; rooted thoughts stay within the body and fail to affect others. Oppositely, the movement of thought is a kind of material flux that can spread throughout things and bodies, changing them. In fact, Graham sees poems as contagions that can spread like wonder from person to person. I’ll just quote the entire exchange from The Paris Review, which is, frankly, inspiring:

I’d say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion. Its syntax wants to pass something on to an other in the way that you can, for example, pass laughter on. It’s different from being persuasive and making an argument. That’s why great poems have so few arguments in them. They don’t want to make the reader “agree.” They don’t want to move through the head that way. They want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—could one even say ceremony—might “save” the world.

Consider that: the spread of poetry from body to body, the communion it builds, might save the world. I know of no living poet whose work so aligns with their reason for writing; I know of no living poet with a better reason for writing poetry. In Jorie Graham’s vision of a new world, poetry — thought in motion — is faster and more powerful than money, argument, or destruction. Take me there.