By Courtney Suciu
In June 2019, the Library of Congress named writer and musician Joy Harjo the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate. A member of Muskogee (Creek) nation, Harjo is an eclectic artist who blurs the boundaries of poetry by blending elements of music, storytelling and performance into her work. She is also the first Native American appointed to this position, serving since October as the national advocate for the reading and writing of poetry. Her distinguished predecessors include Tracy K. Smith, Audre Lorde, W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden wrote1 in a statement that Harjo was selected because her work “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” Harjo told New York Times writer Concepción de León. “This kind of award honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry.”
A childhood steeped in creativity and conflict seems to be at least one of the factors that shaped Harjo’s artistic vision. Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the poet found inspiration in her paternal grandmother and great-aunt, both painters and “role models of emancipated women and precious sources of transmission of a treasured cultural heritage,” Laura Coltelli wrote in The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature2.
After her parents divorced when she young, Harjo “sought refuge in the Southwest, which would play such a crucial role in her cultural development,” Coltelli explained. Originally, she intended to study painting, following in her grandmother’s footsteps, but instead switched to pre-med, then to creative writing.
“The climate of the civil rights movements, especially Indian rights activism, and consciousness-raising among ethnic minorities, especially as inspired by Indian authors, prompted Harjo to give voice to her Indianness,” Coltelli wrote.
In her article, “’I Give You Back’: Indigenous Women Writing to Survive,” scholar Elizabeth Archuleta3 examined what it meant for Native American women of Harjo’s generation to use language in defining themselves and their experiences.
According to Archuleta, Harjo “claim[ed] that the centuries of war in which Indigenous peoples have engaged and in which we continue to fight have left many of us using the ‘enemy language’ with which to tell our truths, to sing, to remember ourselves during these troubled times.”
But by writing in English and “reinventing the enemy’s language” (which is also the title of an anthology of native women’s writing edited by Harjo), Indigenous women authors stake a claim on the words of their oppressor and use them as a tool for their own empowerment and liberation.
The oppression was manifested in efforts by the U.S. government to eradicate native languages, religions and customs through forced assimilation. Assimilation programs included Indian boarding schools (which Harjo attended as a child) designed to indoctrinate young people into Euro-American culture and to – often brutally – break them of their native traditions.
As a result, “colonization has effectively silenced many Indigenous women,” Archuleta argued, and for this reason, “Indigenous peoples have been led to believe that English and writing are our enemies.” However, she added, “It is common knowledge that Indigenous languages are dying out, and English now constitutes the first language for many of us.”
For native people whose only or primary language is English, the choice was (or is) to remain silent and let someone else tell their stories, define their beliefs and give form to their identities – or to make the oppressor’s language their own.
“Over the years, non-native so-called experts have been responsible for putting into print and sustaining far too much flawed writing and beliefs concerning native thought and symbolism,” Archuleta noted.
By taking ownership of English, writing for Indigenous women “often reflects the power of language to heal, to regenerate, and to recreate, correcting misinformation and stereotypes long advocated by outsiders.”
One of the most striking and exhilarating qualities of Harjo’s contributions as an American poet is how she brings forth these challenges of language, identity and the difficulties of U.S. history to push the boundaries of Western conventions and categorization of art and genre.
Her marriage of “music and poetry together in performance as well as on the page have often been deemed inappropriate by literary scholars,” Jennifer Andrews wrote in her book In the Belly of a Laughing God: Humor and Irony in Native Women’s Poetry4.
Yet, Harjo “has continued to cultivate the relationship between song, music and poetry, and to blur the boundaries critics might try to impose on her work,” Andrews added, noting that the poet “resists textual labels and generic classification of her work, regarding the imposition of these as modes of colonization.”
This approach imbues Harjo’s work with a playful, rebellious freedom to intertwine various influences and inspirations that are not typically included in either Western poetry or music. Harjo’s dynamic, interactive poetry readings “often combine the singing of her work with the playing of her saxophone, and she has, on occasion, brought other musicians to perform with her,” according to Andrews.
These factors have led critics Elizabeth S. Gould and Carol L. Matthews to describe Harjo’s work as a “sound fabric” where the poet weaves together Indigenous chants with “traditional jazz instrumentation and affects” as “a frame for the text and text itself.” In other words, for Harjo, music and spoken word are both an accompaniment and part of the poetry.
When she brings these various media together, they become inextricable and form a different process, experience and medium – a “sound fabric” that evades Western categorization.
For scholar Laura Speckhals5, this “new” form Harjo brings to American literature is likened to the traditional Native American ceremony.
In her dissertation Place of Poem Became a Ceremony: Transformation of the Oral Tradition in Joy Harjo’s Poetry, Speckhals described ceremonies as sacred, interactive performances of storytelling, music, symbols, dancing and prayer that serve in “restoring both the community itself and a sense of communal identity, helping to heal from the wounds of the past and the wounds of the present.”
Speckhals noted how in addition to healing by “transform[ing] English through her poetry,” Harjo also transforms “poetry itself, bringing it closer to ceremony through the added performance element of music.” In doing so, Harjo offers healing to her community by honoring their traditions in her work and heals herself by reaffirming her connection with the community.
For Harjo and many Native Americans, artforms like music and poetry are not separate but all part of the oral tradition, which is the cornerstone of most tribal cultures. In the documentary, Native Voices6, author and critic Paula Gunn Allen elaborated:
You have to understand the oral tradition is not just spoken word. It's dances, ceremonies, the objects that you use in the ceremonies. For example, Navajo sand paintings or a pueblo drum and the dance form itself, what you wear, these kinds of things. These are all messages. They're all content-laden information that you can read.
This is, of course, very different from what is considered “reading” in mainstream American culture, where literacy usually means written literacy, primarily in English. It’s also a mainly independent activity – unless you are child, chances are no one is reading to you. But in native cultures, where language is sacred and meant to be shared as well as to convey meaning and information, literacy means participating in the oral tradition.
Unfortunately, because written literacy is the dominant form of literacy in most Western cultures, the oral tradition tends to be belittled.
“When we say oral tradition, it tends to sound dismissive and it tends to sound like we're kind of dumb,” Allen said. However, she pointed that the oral tradition is not only integral to native culture, but to the history of poetry around the world.
“Homer was an oral poet,” she explained. “What does that mean? It means he didn't use orthographic script to write down the Odyssey. What did he do? He sang it.”
Harjo made a similar observation in the same documentary. “Most literature of the world, most songs, most poetry, stories of the world are not to be found in books,” she said. “You won't find them in books. You'll find them as oral traditions.”
“There's power in the speaking of a word or even the thinking of a word,” Harjo continued. “There is actual energy and there is actual life in it that's perceptible that these words, these sounds have power and they go out and interact with the world.”
What happens to that power when words are translated into written language? According to Speckhals, “the element of interaction and the recognition of language as sacred are lost.”
Then how does a contemporary Native American poet bridge the gap between native customs and values and American standards and expectations?
This is Harjo’s extraordinary contribution to the national literature: a merging of Native American oral tradition and ceremony with Western written forms of poetry. The result is a vibrant, healing, aspirational artform that transcends the boundaries of time, genre, language, literacy and culture.
Her body of work is a hard look at what America is and was, and a vision of what it can be. That’s what makes Harjo a quintessential poet for our time, and a poet who is uniquely American.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu