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Joy Harjo

When the World as We Knew It Ended

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


“When the World as We Knew It Ended” is a poem by Joy Harjo, the first Native American poet to be chosen as Poet Laureate of the United States. She wrote it in response to the events of 9/11, when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York City. The poem explores the effects of colonialism on the world and the way that violence begets violence and colonization begets backlash. The title “When the World as We Knew It Ended” signifies that the poem is not only about the fall of the Twin Towers but also the end of an era. Though the poem contains images of destruction it ends with a note of hope that a new world is going to be born.

Joy Harjo is an advocate for Native American rights, the rights of women, and protection of the environment. Like much of Harjo’s work, this poem uses repetition, visual imagery, and speaks for a collective voice. The poem upholds the wisdom of nature, the value of everyday caretaking, and the creative powers of the arts to heal and transform.

Poet Biography

Joy Harjo was born as Joy Foster in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9th, 1951. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe, she eventually adopted her grandmother’s surname, Harjo. As a young person Harjo was very shy, and did not speak much. Her mother and father divorced because of her father’s alcoholism, and her mother married a man who was abusive to the family. Joy left the house at a young age and attended the Institute of Native American Arts in New Mexico. Harjo said that attending the Institute, “saved [her] life” (“Already gone: a profile of Muscogee (Creek) poet Joy Harjo.” High Country News. 2012.). It was the first place where other Native American individuals surrounded her. There she studied music and art but did not yet begin writing poetry.

She went on to get her degree from the University of New Mexico where she was pre-med, but eventually switched to major in creative writing. She went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at Iowa State University while also raising several children.

Though she is known for her poetry, Harjo works in many other mediums. She is a musician who plays the saxophone. Her aunt inspired her to paint when she was younger. She has written nine books of poetry, released seven albums, two children’s books, and a memoir, Crazy Brave (2012, W.W. Norton & Co.). The title comes from Harjo’s name, from the Muscogee word “Hadcho” which means so brave it seems crazy.

In addition to creating art, Harjo has been a teacher and activist since early in her career. In 1999 she was made the first Native American Poet Laureate and has served for three consecutive terms.

Poem Text

Harjo, Joy. “When the World as We Knew It Ended.” 2002. Poetry Foundation.


The speaker of the poem is a collective consciousness witnessing the fall of New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The speaker continues to repeat the word “we” (Lines 1, 9, 11, 15, 16, 21, 25, 29, 35, 40) to speak for a collective who watched the experience.

When the speaker says: “We were dreaming on an occupied island” (Line 1), they likely refer to Manhattan, an island that once belonged to the Lenape tribe that the Europeans colonized. The line “Oil was sucked dry / by two brothers” (Lines 4-5) refers to oil tycoon brothers Charles and David Koch.

When the speaker says: “Then it went down. Swallowed / by a fire dragon, by oil and fear” (Lines 5-6) they refer to the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, bringing them down in a fiery conflagration. The speaker attributes the crash not only to the planes themselves, but to the fear and oil-related fight that gave rise to terrorism.

The speaker flashes back and says: “It was coming” (Line 8). This suggests that the American citizenry could have predicted the rise of violence and extremism against the United States.

The speaker refers to how American Christians spread their religion and culture abroad: “We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their / long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen” (Lines 9-10). They suggest that encroaching American culture led to conflicts and terrorism against the United States.

The speaker situates us in a hypothetical domestic setting. The collective group see the destruction, but they are also busy performing other tasks. They are in the “kitchen” (Line 12) making “coffee, cooked rice and / potatoes.” (Line 13) They take care of babies and perform domestic duties. They continue to witness, though the imagery turns more abstract: The collective watches through “the knowledgeable tree” (Line 18), “through the snags of stars” (Line 19), through “sun and storms” (Line 20).

In stanza seven, Harjo returns to the conceit that the collective—the “we—” could have predicted the event. “The conference of the birds warned us,” (Line 23) the speaker says. They depict birds flying over “destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover” (Line 24). To the speaker it is obvious that occupying other lands and causing so much grief would throw off “the magnetic field” (Line 28), having predictable, negative repercussions.

In stanza eight, the speaker refers to war and the political players of the time. The speaker refers to then President George W. Bush, whose election was hotly contested, and who some believe cheated to become president: “The hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president” (Line 31). The speaker portrays him as a dictator who wants to dominate the landscape and people of the Earth.

The next stanza focuses on the natural environment: “We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence” (Line 35). This may refer to shamans and others who can read the natural environment for signs of the future. Again, the speaker suggests that those paying attention would have known that something bad was going to happen.

In the tenth stanza the speaker says: “And then it was over, this world we had grown to love” (Line 40). It is not just the fall of the Towers, but, as the title says, the end of “The World as We Knew It.” The speaker does not mean it is the end of the world literally, but the end of a chapter, of some static, stable system. The stanza continues to focus on the environment: We had loved this world “for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses / and fishes” (Lines 41-42).

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker becomes hopeful. They note “there were the seeds to plant and the babies / who needed milk and comforting” (Lines 44-45). They describe small ways people nurture one another and make art. The speaker portrays how people continue to grow, produce, and reproduce even in the midst of chaos. They are drawing a metaphor for the new world that is preparing to be born, referencing someone who sings in the rubble “about the light flutter / the kick beneath the skin of the earth” (Lines 47-48).

The new world the speaker envisions could take the shape of a baby or “a warm animal / a song being born between the legs of her; / a poem” (Lines 50-52).