Poets.org: “Why does poetry matter?”
Joy Harjo: “Without poetry, we lose our way.”
I began encountering the poetry of Joy Harjo about half a minute before she was named U.S. poet laureate for 2019-2021. First I read Speaking Tree. Then she came up in my Thursday morning poetry group. Then I found Eagle Poem. I was hooked and began reading her work both online and in the library.
If you read Harjo and you are white, as I am, you will have to struggle. And that’s a good thing. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Tulsa. She is America’s first Native American poet laureate. She’s currently editing When the Light of the World Was Dimmed Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, which will be released in 2020.
Let me ask you — what native people lived on the land where you reside before you arrived? Reading Harjo made me want to learn more about the Comanche who lived in my Texas Hill Country before the settlers came. In John Graves’ Goodbye to a River, I learned the Comanche called themselves The People. It is The People who no longer live here. How do I reckon with the fact that although I have met Germans and Mexicans whose assoiciation with this land goes way, way back, I’ve never met a Penetaka Comanche? Were any of them poets? It’s a question Harjo asks in Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. It’s not a question I ever considered.
In How to Write a Poem in a Time of War, Harjo writes about about massacre and removal, and about how to write about it. It’s the best advice I’ve ever encountered for how to write about tragedy.
Harjo teaches her readers even as she breaks traditional poetry rules. Her lines seem too long or too short. Her capitalization and punctuation puzzle. She is general where I expect her to be specific, as in Redbird Love — what type of redbird? But when I read these three lines, doesn’t longer matter:
The sacred world lifts up its head
We are double, triple-blessed
Her poems also leave me with questions. I can’t keep track of the contradictions in She Had Some Horses, some of them within the same line. A Map to the Next World makes me wonder how we can make maps when our cartography is forever imperfect. Does “The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window” fall or climb to safety?
My favorite poem of hers is Grace. The word grace appears four times, once in each stanza, and the poem is both a profound explanation of that theologically sticky word while still leaving me with the impression that I don’t understand it at all.
Here it is rendered as a song performed by Harjo herself, who is also a musician. Her mother taught her not only the poems of William Blake, but also the songs and lyrics of Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. (Poetry comes in many forms.)
What I’ve most learned from Harjo, is the power of a title — not to illuminate but to obscure. Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace does not include seven steps. The poem “Are You Still There?” asks a question and does not answer it. And there is no sunrise in American Sunrise, a Golden Shovel poem.
Because Harjo has gotten me thinking about this land I call home, I’ll end with “Praise the Rain.” It’s a sentiment I suspect those of you who live in wetter locales can’t imagine: “Praise the rain, it brings more rain.” But I learned quickly after moving into this agricultural community that you never, never, never say anything bad about rain. It’s raining today, and I am thankful, not only for the precipitation but also for this poem that navigates mystery.
Praise the Rain
Praise the rain; the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk—
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity—
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep—
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap—
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food—
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down—
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all—
Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Browse more poets laureate
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro