Once the World Was Perfect by Joy Harjo explores the loss, and regaining, of the perfect state of the world. It begins by focusing on the ‘perfect[ion]’ of the world, then moves into how qualities such as ‘fear, greed, envy, and hatred’ lead to us ‘destroying’ the world. Finally, due to a ‘spark of kindness’, we regained ‘light’, representing good and happiness. It is the story of the world, as it leads right down ‘to you’.
By beginning with ‘once the world was perfect’, Joy Harjo explores the halcyon days of the past, in which everyone lived together in harmony. However, after the appearance of ‘Discontent’ and ‘Doubt’, the people of the world began to turn on themselves. Through violence and the breeding of ‘fear, greed, envy, and hatred’, the state of perfection was eventually destroyed by man. Yet, Harjo writes that eventually, after just one act of kindness, the world began to heal itself, escaping the horrors into a ‘light’ future. This restored world of balance continued down through the generations, until it reaches ‘to you’, the world catching up with the present date.
The poem is 27 lines long, without any stanza divisions. Harjo uses free verse when writing the poem, not adhering to any typical forms of poetry. In doing this, she allows the story of the world to flow across the poem, the free form reflecting the changeability of the world’s circumstances.
You can read the full poem here.
Once the World Was Perfect Analysis
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
The poem begins by restating the title, the keyword ‘once’ instantly suggesting an aspect of change or difference. Harjo will be exploring the history of the world, the changing social attitudes and structures, and is, therefore, emphasizing ‘Once’ to ensure the reader’s attention is focused on the idea of difference. The caesura after ‘perfect’ further emphasizes this idea, also being a repetition of the title, allowing for the state of ‘perfect’ to linger before the poem progresses.
The use of tense, focusing on ‘were happy’ allows Harjo to suggest that they have since lost this state of happiness. Moreover, the distinction between ‘that world’ and ‘this world’ insinuates that the state of happiness is something so distinct to the negative world they fall into, that Harjo must classify them as completely incomparable. This is then, alike the first clause of the line, emphasized by an end stop, furthering the tension in the line as ‘world’ is metrically emphasized.
The capitalization of ‘Doubt’ and ‘Discontent’ by Harjo make these two abstract concepts seem like people that are inflicting pain onto the world. The capitalization makes them seem like named entities, those which ‘began a small rumble’, a form of riot which lead to the toppling of society as it once was. The idea of a ‘rumble’ can be extrapolated into a depiction of earth-shaking consequence, the dramatic fall of society explored through this initially small movement.
It is interesting to note that Harjo suggests that ‘Discontent’ begins in the ‘mind’, the lack of satisfaction starting as a mental ideal, then moving into physical reactions and consequences.
‘Doubt’ is characterized as having a ‘spiked head’, the use of ‘spiked’ creating a sharp and disconcerting depiction of the character. There is a certain malice in this depiction, ‘spiked’ relating to knives and other weapons of pain. Similarly, ‘ruptured’ stems from the semantics of destruction, the two forces of Doubt and Discontent beginning to destroy the world as it was once known.
The enjambment across ‘demon thoughts/Jumped through’, furthers the sense that the harmful thoughts that lead to worldly destruction are actively moving. Alike the ‘jumping’, the line quickly flows from one to the next, the increased metrical rhythm of this section of the poem reflecting the arrival of destruction.
We destroyed the world we had been given
In the dark.
These lines focus on the world in a state of ‘darkness’, the use of ‘dark’ representing the evil that has infected the world.
The active participation of all of humanity within ‘we destroyed the world’ shares the blame across all people and nations. Harjo is suggesting that it is not one person, or group of people, that are at fault for the loss of paradise, but rather ‘we’, humanity as a whole.
Human emotions are weaponized, tired into ‘stones’ that are then wielded ‘in his or her hand’. Again, the lack of blame accounted to one group of people suggests that Harjo finds everyone to blame, both ‘his’ and ‘her’ at fault. The ‘stone of jealousy’ and other human emotions eventually ‘put out the light’, the overwhelming negativity in the world drowning out sources of light. This is a representation of the world be consumed by evil, light representing good and dark representing evil. In this time, strayed from ‘perfect’, ‘darkness’ is the main attribute of the world.
There is now a lack of unity, ‘We were bumping into each other/ in the dark’, humanity at odds with one another in a confusing time. Again, the use of dark reflects the dire circumstances in which people are living, unable to see ‘light’ (happiness/good).
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
To now, into this morning light to you.
The final third of Once the World Was Perfect explores the world as it regains its way towards perfection. This begins with ‘a spark of kindness’, the fragility of ‘spark’ suggesting the precarity of hope, the ease of extinguishing a ‘spark’ showing its vulnerability. Fire has always been associated with passion and life, with ‘spark of kindness’ fusing ideas of passion with happiness to achieve ‘light’. Indeed, as an act of ‘sharing’ occurred, humanity finally ‘made a light’, the act of good allowing for the revival of the light.
This one act of kindness leads to ‘an opening in the darkness’, a beacon of example for which people could draw strength and drive their attention. One act lead to more and more, ‘everyone worked together to make a ladder’. Here, Harjo introduces a spatial dimension to her poem, the ‘darkness’ also being lower than the light, the people using a ‘ladder’ to escape to the light. This could easily be understood as an allegory for heaven and hell, with Harjo perhaps touching on aspects of religious philosophy.
The final aspect of the poem arrives when ‘A wind clan person climbed out’ into this ‘next world’ of light. One after another people escape the darkness into the light, this passing from ‘other clans, the chidden of those clans, their children’, all the way ‘to you’. Harjo states that we, the reader, are living in this world of light, the poem giving us a reference for the hard work that it took to get to this point. Harjo suggests that community, selflessness, and kindness are the cornerstones of our society, everything stemming from these acts of ‘light’.