March 27, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure. It’s also possible to travel the whole globe and learn nothing.”
— Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate
Joy Harjo is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. She comes from Oklahoma and identifies as Mvskoke (Muscogee) and is, therefore, the first Native American Poet Laureate. Arriving at poetry was a surprise, however, even for Harjo herself. In her younger years, she imagined herself as an artist and a musician, but never a poet. It wasn’t until after having a child and stumbling into classes at the University of New Mexico that she began to write poetry. Her memoir, Crazy Brave, leads the reader through a mostly chronological view of her life. Oriented through cardinal directions, she gives the reader a sense of how one native woman navigates this world. It ends with the story of how poetry found her. She says that poetry grabbed her and told her to listen. And that ability to listen has now become a defining feature of Harjo’s poetry. It also teaches us to listen. In Crazy Brave, she writes:
“To imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light; it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a women undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.
“‘You’re coming with me, poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. You don’t know how to speak. You don’t know how to sing. I will teach you.’
“I followed poetry.”
Her poetry dramatizes life through the vision of a native woman. Her poetry embraces and empathizes. It asks us to be humble, to feel sorrow and joy. She expresses emotion through the movement of beings, through the way that dreams interact with the lived experience and the physical world. She expresses the anguish and joy of being a parent. She expresses fear, but continually counters it with thoughts like this from the poem “Emergence” (from A Map to the Next World): “A human mind is small when thinking/ of small things./ It is large when embracing the maker/ of walking, thinking and flying.” Her voice is rare, unique, special, and vital.
In her first appearance as Poet Laureate, she performs “I Give You Back” in which she rejects fear. She calls it a poem for troubled times, such as the difficulty that the United States faces with its many diverse voices and experiences. Harjo says, “This whole country deals with historical trauma. It’s all of us.” She has a knack for inclusion, forgiveness, and empathy.
Another aspect of her poetry that I enjoy is the way that she works dreams into her work. In Crazy Brave, she comments about possibility. She remembers a time when she became very sick as a child. After recounting a dream (which coincidentally began around the same time as the illness) into the sequence of events, she then wonders at the mysteries of this world: “I had that dream many times throughout my childhood….I believe now that I had the beginnings of polio. The alligators [from her dream] took it away. It is possible. This world is mysterious.” Her poems are vast, inclusive, and non-judgemental.
Harjo ascribes to the belief that every poem has ancestors. She is a poet, perhaps the only poet, who combines Allan Ginsburg and Navajo horse songs, Walt Whitman and reservations. She reminds us to be humble, to remember who we are and where we came from (both in terms of individuality, and in broader terms). She says that poems and music are a way to speak with the Creator, that they are conversations with something greater than ourselves. She performs with a saxophone which allows her to blend music with poetry in a great, physical, spiritual, emotional conversation. As Harjo explains, music and poetry came into the world together, and even they get lonely sometimes, she says, so, she reunites them.
Her poem “Bless This Land” from An American Sunrise, summarizes her ideology. She writes, “Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are the land.” She ends her Laureate speech with this poem after tracing life through a number of poems and stories and songs. She blends all of these lives together as perhaps only she is capable. It is a powerful hour which celebrates the many voices and stories of this patchworked America. Regardless of your identity, her message resonates with contemporary America in a powerful way. She is, truly, a poet of the people.
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