Wednesday, April 8, 2020
April 8, 2020: Poets We Should All Read: Joy Harjo
[April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’ll highlight a handful of poets, past and present, we should all be reading. Including some suggestions from fellow AmericanPoetryStudiers—add yours for a celebratory, crowd-sourced weekend poetry post, please!]
On the tremendous significance of a Native American Poet Laureate, and why Harjo goes far beyond that.
In June 2019, the Muskogee Creek poet, author, and educator Joy Harjo was named the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. Harjo is the first Native American Poet Laureate, and while as usual in American history and culture such honors are greatly overdue (not just for Harjo but for so many other Native American poets, past and present), it’s also difficult for me to overstate the importance of a native author receiving this title. Not simply for inclusion, although I wrote a whole book about the value of that concept and believe it is a crucial perspective and goal, for any community and for our national one most of all. But Harjo’s selection also helps us challenge two enduring and pernicious (and often intertwined) myths about the nation: that Native Americans exist somehow outside of the United States (despite being the longest-standing communities in this place, and ones that have been and remain part of every state and region); and/or that they are part of our history but not part of our present and future (the “Vanishing American” narrative). Frustrating as it is for me to think that there are Americans in 2020 who believe either or both of those things to be true of American history and society, I know that there are—and having a Native American Poet Laureate is a clear statement that those narratives couldn’t be further from the truth.
But Harjo, who has published eight poetry collections among her many books and publications, is far more than simply our current Poet Laureate, and two particularly amazing poems from across those decades of works illustrate a bit of her stylistic and thematic depth. In this long-ago National Poetry Month post I highlighted “A Map to the Next World” (2000), which among its many stunning qualities reflects Harjo’s ability (a vital one for the Poet Laureate, of course) to bring together specific images and threads from her Creek heritage and culture (and from Native American history and spirituality more broadly) with the kinds of universal human questions and needs that transcend any cultural community and link us all. All of which builds to two of the most pitch-perfect final lines I know: “Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end./You must make your own map.” Or, to quote Harjo’s contemporary, the Native American novelist and storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko: “The only thing is: it has never been easy.”
Even more difficult, in the most important ways, is “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” from Harjo’s most recent collection, An American Sunrise (2019). I honestly don’t feel that I can do justice to that poem in my own exegesis, and would implore you to read it for yourself. But one thing I find particularly striking and effective in “How” is the back and forth between the poem’s main voice and the responses in italics, which directly explore the very goal set out in the poem’s title. “If we begin here,” that voice notes at one point, “none of us will make it to the end/Of the poem,” and the pause after “end” makes clear that it is not simply the poem which we are hoping against hope to make it through. But make it through we must, and while the italicized voice’s first lines in the poem include, “This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold with words,/even poetry,” its (and the poem’s) final line is “Yes, begin here.” If we are to finally begin reckoning with all that a poem like this asks of us, there are few better guides I can imagine than Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.
Next poet tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other poets you’d highlight?