Jorie Graham reads "Overheard in the Herd"
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of January 14th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Jorie Graham’s most recent book is “Fast,” published by Ecco Press in 2017. From the New World, her selected poems, appeared in 2015, also from Ecco Press. Jorie Graham has taught for many years at Harvard University as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, the first woman to be given this position.
Lindsay Garbutt: Her influences are predominantly modernists: Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, among others. This helps explain the shape and flow of her poetry, which is marked by a reliance on line as a unit of sense and perception.
Don Share: Graham describes “Overheard in the Herd” as part of a new series of poems that involve suffering the brink of our new existence.
Jorie Graham: The feeling that’s acted out in this somewhat polyvocal speaking voice is of having dwelt in some kind of error. By the end of the poem, all our mistakes are clear and we have tried to fix ourselves, to find a right relationship with the world. What happens is that we get fixed and we get fixed—as it were, autocorrected—by some other, non-human agency.
Don Share: The poem considers the horrors of a world where there is no longer the need for human labor.
Jorie Graham: I know I’m supposed to think I’m whole, that’s a place where my exterior and my interior, my subjectivity and my objectivity, would cohere again, but it takes labor or work or a moral predicament in which to act, to any of those labor situations or actions. If there is no call for us, if we are relieved of duty, if we have nothing to serve, then there is no holiness in me.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is Jorie Graham reading, “Overheard in the Herd.”
You have to make sure you have skin in the game was one of the rules they
yelled out near the end. Also one must have hope. Also watch the clock, the clock is
running out. Out of what. I had hoped to escape. To form one lucid unassailable
thought. About what? It did not matter about what. It just needs to be, to be
shapely and true. Let me tell you. To feel a thought one came up with one’s self.
Out of one’s interiority. There. That’s the whole story. If humanity. If to hang on claw
back what to call it. However atrophied. Not not-living. Yes horribly close-
quartered. However much we missed the bus. However much we should have
been there while it lasted. Hear us: it lasted. Even here off the bus its lastingness
keeps blossoming & spooling onward. Yes it’s a game it’s always just a game. The wind is
hissing this all afternoon. But even it, raspy and weakening, plunders this space that it
might find some emptiness. From mind. Lean in & you’ll hear plenitude. Listen it’s trying
to make a void again. In which to hear itself. It’s too alone. Everything wants em-
bodiment. But there’s this noise now it’s replacing everything. This humming of agreement
fast-track skipped-step information yes yes yes yes lost hope lost will—dear dis-
embodiment, here is an old wind, watch it orchestrate event, I raise my hand to find
my face again, I know I am supposed to think I’m whole, there is no holiness in me,
can I begin again, I’d like to try to get this right, we might if gotten right go
on, whom am I speaking to, whom, I’ll pick up the acid the wrappers the 3D glasses, I’ll
gather up the spotless tools printers magnifiers, the place is wired for sound I’ll cut
the wires, I’ll drag the cursors off, I’ll sweep it clean, they’ve taught me to, I think this way
because I am human, that’s my secret occupation, I am unusually common, I can get it
right if you just tell me, we have a shot, whom am I speaking to, why is that laughter
seeping-out nonstop from the invisible, from hospice hospital embassy cathedral—
oh ghost institutions—why must you hover here—spy here—before me always though in-
visible. Or is it invincible. I can’t make out the words being said. Or is it sent. In my
direction. I’ll wait for an answer. I have indeed nothing better to do. I have nothing
actually at all to do. We cannot remember having that—a thing to do. To be needed
what was that like. To figure, discover, uncover, recover. To make bring think shape.
To fold, to crease prepare serve-up. To imagine. To buy hold name sell. To shape. To
order. This haunts us now. To make a thing for another. For another’s use. To fashion,
to offer, to bring, hide, make. To serve. Oh to serve.... My new humanity is now relieved of
duty. My soul has its alarm turned off. No my soul has this knot in its throat—or is it a
gag—pacified, petrified, up all night counting silently toward infinity. Losing its
place. How many of us are left. What else could happen. Has it all already happened.
Who is they. That autocorrected to thy. Why. No matter what I say it fixes it. It’s fixed.
Don Share: The poet and the poem really are polyvocal. This word “herd,” h-e-r-d, is a really important poetry word. But I don’t think people think of it anymore. When we think of \ˈhərd\ we think of h-e-a-r-d, and the poem sort of hinges on that in lots of ways. But you know, the word “herd,” h-e-r-d, appears lots in Paradise Lost, where John Milton refers to the people—he calls them “a herd confus’d, / A miscellaneous rabble, who extol / Things vulgar.” And in Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” he refers to a “servile herd,” and in John Dryden there are the lines “for more numerous was the herd of such who think too little and talk too much.” So the polyvocal stuff isn’t just that it gets in a lot of poems. There is also a little Robert Creeley poem called “The Herd,” and he refers to “passionate hoofbeats, / animals moving, men before and behind them.” So herd is kind of a multivalent thing right there. It’s not just sort of animals and human beings kind of in interactions, but it also refers to a herd mentality, which we’re more familiar with, I suppose, because of social media, where it lives today in forms that these great poets I mentioned would recognize it right away. I think what’s distinctive is that in the Jorie Graham poem, it’s not satire. There isn’t an elitist thing, a distinction as such. There is a kind of a different sort of morality at work, here, which sets in a way ... we’re all mixed up in this herd. There are sort of these massive movements in which we participate, and the question is: what do we do? What do we do in this amorphous group that’s tearing itself more and more apart and sort of spreading around in irresponsible and unaccountable ways.
Christina Pugh: I think this poem is terrifying. And I think that explains a lot of what’s going on in it. I keep reading it as a kind of elegy for thinking. In the end, “No matter what I say it fixes it. It’s fixed.” I want to think that’s an imagined state. That it’s some future in which personal creativity or personal thought, the way that is articulated in the first part of the poem, is really no longer possible because our devices have taken over even as “they” is autocorrected to “thy,” which is such an interesting and kind of heartbreaking moment at the end of this poem. But in a way, I also feel that this is something that someone could feel now, as well. It’s kind of dystopian, and yet it feels very relevant, very real, when there is this confusion or this sense of discomfort about where we end and our devices begin, which might be another way of thinking about the herd. And I think of Graham as somebody so committed to thinking through what thought feels like and the phenomenology of thought in poems, and that this might be imagining a world in which those kinds of movements, those kinds of trackings of thought are really no longer possible. And Graham does this incredible work of letting us feel the terror of that.
Lindsay Garbutt: The fact that the poem ends on that word “fixed” gave me the same feeling of, like, well, this is both a possible future for us, and also, it feels like the game is already rigged against us. That it’s fixed both in the sense of, that could be a positive thing, to have something fixed for you, but in the end it becomes, you’re stuck and you’re castrated and all those different meanings of fixed. And the other thing, one of the many things I thought was really interesting in this poem, is the focus on game. The use of the sports metaphors of, like, “you have to [...] have skin in the game,” you have to “watch the clock,” and that sports seems also to me like a very human experience. To create a game, to think about a game, to focus on the game. Obviously there are some animals that do that, but it is a sort of human thinking, even to think about gaming. And so the idea that the way of escaping this sort of fixed future is “to form one lucid unassailable / thought” in the time that we have left—is thought its own sort of game with the self? What does that mean? I don’t have an answer for it, but I find it fascinating to think about. The way she says, in the middle of the poem, “I think this way / because I am human, that’s my secret occupation, I am unusually common,” this idea that thinking is this sort of … it’s either thinking or being human that is the secret occupation, it’s a little unclear. And then it becomes thinking as the sort of labor, the way of serving that she talks about later on, perhaps. That if we don’t have anything to do, which includes not being able to think, then are we human? No, probably not.
Christina Pugh: And then the soul, I mean, the ending metaphors are so moving and heartbreaking, “No my soul has this knot in its throat—or is it a / gag—pacified, petrified, up all night,” you know, up all night googling your symptom or something. The knot in its throat, you know, which is just wanting to cry, becomes the gag, you know, from the outside. The technology, the noise. It’s very powerful.
Don Share: Well, part of what’s being gagged and fixed here too is the questioning that the beginning of the poem has, you know, “to form one lucid unassailable / thought” about what? That’s the question. But by the end of the poem, there is this sort of weird Marianne Moore... it’s like, questions that don’t have a question mark, like, “What are years.” Which is not a question, in a way, for Marianne Moore. And the poem says “How many of us are left. What else could happen. Has it all already happened. / Who is they.” No question marks for either of those, and that’s really very chilling. It opens up a chasm between the questions that we might ask or are obliged to ask, and if something is fixed, there is no room for questioning anymore. That’s the brink that we’re on.
Don Share: You can read “Overheard in the Herd” by Jorie Graham in the January 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all January episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.