New Laurels for the Joy of Native Poetry

Tom Gannon is an Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, author of Skylark Meets Meadowlark: Reimagining the Bird in British Romantic and Contemporary Native American Literature (Nebraska, 2009), and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

On June 21st, Muskoke poet Joy Harjo was appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S., an honor coming on the heels of her nearly as prestigious Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2015. It is both surprising and not surprising that she is the first Native American to win either award: not surprising in that she certainly has been one of the major Native voices in American poetry since the early 1980s, but surprising in that it took so long for any Native writer to win either award. She achieved early success with her first major collection She Had Some Horses (1984) when she read some of this collection’s poems on Bill Moyer’s TV series The Power of the Word (1989); by the end of the century, several of those poems—notably “I Give You Back”and “The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window”—joined others from later collections (other favorites of mine include In Mad Love and War [1900] and A Map to the Next World [2000]) to form a rich part of what must now be considered the Native American literary canon.

I have taught Harjo’s poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for almost twenty years now, and she is indeed one of the preeminent pleasures and highlights of my Native Women Writers course, a true and constant—uh—joy for both me and my students. I sometimes worry when a class of mostly white students heaps great praise on a particular Native writer (I ask myself why—because she’s not as “angry” and “whiney” and in-your-face as other Native writers?!), but I think their appreciation is well-founded here. In a crucial sense, Harjo is the perfect choice as the first Native U.S. Laureate because she is in many ways the perfect synthesis of the first generation of the American Indian literary renaissance—e.g., the earnest attempts of Momaday and Silko to return to their Native roots in a usually positive rehearsal of Native ceremonialism and spirituality—and a second generation of Native writers of often more urban cynicism and black humor (think Alexie and Adrian C. Louis), who have even derided the first generation’s “dancing on the edge of the rainbow” tom-tom traditionalism. Harjo’s poems skillfully dance in both generational circles (or hoops, if I dare call them such), on the one hand edgy and bitter, even scathing, in her presentations of Native life in a still racist contemporary America, yet on the other hand positively visionary, with an ultimate message of love and hope and transformation: for herself, her people, and her planet. (Yes. This is why my students love her. I admit it. It’s also probably why she has been amply lauded and awarded by mainstream American literary culture.)

Since I have taught her longer and later collection of wide-ranging selected poems (How We Became Human, 2002) a good number of times, this dual-edged thematic has become all the more apparent, a binary epitomized in the title of the collection already mentioned, In Mad Love and War. Yes, among the recurring words and images that run throughout Harjo’s poetry are “war,” “mad,” “crazy,” “fear,” “earthquake(s),” and “eruption(s)”; it is often a visceral poetry of pain, of sharp glass, razors, and knives: these are the travails, anxieties, and again, in sum, of the anonymous suicidal “Woman Who Fell from the 13th Floor Window.” But at last the poet herself is also “madly” in “love” with this infuriating world, and a contrasting set of signifiers emerges: it includes “beautifully” and “amazingly” and “crazily” (in a positive imaginative/trickster sense); it includes a maternal/animal space of horses and deer and trickster crows and Oklahoma “red earth”; it includes the eternal refrains of “grace,” and “love,” and “heart,” and “home.” This whole complex is consummated early in her corpus in the redemptive self-transformation that occurs in “I Give You Back,” a transcendence—a “giving back”—of the low self-esteem, even self-hatred, that Natives have often felt in a mainstream culture of John Wayne movies and Washington Redskin football teams. In her poetry, that positive vision for humankind (and non-humankind) becomes the redeeming norm.

One more recurring word in Harjo’s poetry is “song,” and indeed, music and dancing and singing is another central motif in her work. Not surprisingly, she is also an accomplished saxophone player, who grew up loving the blues and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. By the time I met her, in Iowa City in the late 1990s, she was fronting a musical group called Poetic Justice, and I marveled at her success in reciting her powerful poetry to a band of almost entirely Native musicians playing a rather uncategorizably hybrid music of pan-Indian chanting and Latin rhythms and reggae guitar. Truly a “world” music. (Oh, and her saxophone solos were pretty damned good, too.) After the concert, she signed the title page of my (yet-to-be-defended) PhD dissertation, and I went home a happy man.

Like Harjo, I consider myself as much a musician—or at least a music-lover—as a literary “man made of words,” and so I find her privileging of that “other language” that is non-verbal music in her poetry to be a fascinating thing. Her poem for Charlie Parker (called “Bird,” of course) includes the lines “All poets / understand the final uselessness of words” (In Mad Love and War 21). That is a pretty ironic statement for any poet. And for me to say that it is especially ironic for the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate to utter such words—well, that can mean a whole lot of things.

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