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Groebel Native Poetry

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Unformatted text preview: EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 38 Teaching and Writing Poetr y Teaching Early Native American Poetry BRUCE A. GOEBEL E arly Native American poets, or songwriters, have much to teach us about writing well. And yet, perhaps no body of American literature receives less attention in our classrooms. Amid such nineteenth century stalwarts as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson, teachers often find it difficult to place early Na- tive American songs in the context of our literary traditions. While such songs may appear in our anthologies—seeming digressions from our elaboration of romanticism, naturalism, and modernism—we aren’t quite sure what to do with them. This state of affairs is unfortunate because a careful study of the cultural values and poetics of early Native American songs can help our students better understand these speakers and writers as people and as artists. Such a study would also invite students into the conversation about bias in the construction of a literary canon and would contribute to the development of their writing skills. Early Native American songs and poetry are easily among the most difficult literature to teach across cultures. So much of a song in the original language is symbolic, relying upon local knowledge and local landscapes. For example, Natalie Curtis points out that a line from a Winnebago song, “Mother, let me go to my uncle,” makes little sense out of context. However, tribal members would understand that on warm summer evenings young men sit outside the tepees of young women, enticing them by playing their flutes. These young women, wanting to visit with the men, would often create excuses to go outside, such as going to see a relative. A tribal member hearing, “Mother, let me go to my uncle,” would immediately recognize the courting ritual that the song addressed (261). Thus the translator of the song is faced with a dilemma: translate literally and nearly guarantee that most contemporary readers will fail to understand, or translate the spirit of the song, thus altering its origi38 nal form and syntax. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that many songwriters clearly enjoyed creating songs that were ambiguous, full of puns and double meanings. When exploring early Native American songs, teachers and students might want to cultivate a kind of double hearing, listening for the original singer, while continually being aware of the presence of the translator. In practical terms, this means looking for cultural bias and looking past dated or colloquial language that may be traced to choices made by the translator rather than the singer. In The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians, A. Grove Day suggests that readers be particularly suspect of any “Christian-sounding lines which were probably inserted later by the person who wrote them down, ‘to remove the flavor of heathenism’” (15). Student interpretations will also benefit from understanding that most early Native American songs fit roughly into the following categories: religious songs personal achievement songs hunting songs love songs medicine songs war songs dream songs social dance songs lullabies honor songs gambling/game songs j a nu a r y 2 0 0 2 Copyright © 2002 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved. EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 39 Unlike most poetry in the traditional canon of the Western world, early Native American songs carried specific intentions. Most native singers believed that songs were a form of power vested in the owner of the song or in the tribe. These songs were meant to perform a kind of cultural or communal work. For example, most war songs were intended to elicit bravery and prepare one for the possibility of death. Medicine songs were used to heal. Hunting songs were performed to improve the chances of catching game and sustaining the relationship between the tribe and the animal world. Teachers might try collecting songs or poems from a tribe or region, poems that share a common song category and a common time period. What Are You Saying? What are you saying to me? What are you saying to me? I am arrayed like the roses And as beautiful as they What are you saying to me? (Densmore 89) The Love Who Did Not Come A Loon I thought it was A Loon I thought it was But it was My Love’s Splashing oar. To Sault Ste. Marie He has departed My love Has gone on before me Never again Can I see him A Loon I thought it was A Loon I thought it was But it was My Love’s Splashing Oar (Densmore 151–52) Why Should I Be Jealous For this reason, I generally begin a classroom exploration of early songs by encouraging students to frame their interpretations through the lenses of these functional categories, looking for the ways in which the songs may carry out a specific task. While it is true that students will often not be able to understand the tribally specific allusions and context of a song without a great deal of cultural study, values and beliefs about more universal issues such as love, war, and friendship are often accessible, especially when they are focused according to intention. Teachers might try collecting songs or poems from a tribe or region, poems that share a common song category and a common time period. The following nineteenth century love songs of the Chippewa tribe from the Great Lakes/Eastern Woodlands region might serve as an example: In Her Canoe I see her My sweetheart Paddling her canoe (Densmore 183) Why should I, even I Be jealous Because of that bad boy? (Densmore 151) When I Think of Him Although he said it Although he said it Still I am filled with longing When I think of him Although he said it Although he said it (Densmore 154) Ask students to read and discuss the poems individually. The students will likely want to take a reader response approach to the songs, making connections to contemporary pop culture love songs. The common themes are clearly there; however, it is important that they allow the songs to retain their culturally specific meanings. To help them in this task, ask them to construct a values/belief chart that English Journal 39 EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 40 begins with a phrase such as The Chippewa of the nineteenth century seemed to have the following beliefs or values regarding love. Looking at just our examples, they might identify the way that the singers see love as a source of pain and pleasure. They might see a pattern in how love and loss go hand-in-hand. They will likely see that love is blind, irrational, leading to misperception and self-deception. At this point, remind them that these songs were personal, sung in a community context. Ask them to speculate on the purpose of the songs. Were they meant to educate? Were they meant to be cathartic? Were they meant to establish identity or status? Were they meant to charm? How might these purposes alter the meaning of the song? After examining poems that address a variety of themes and song categories, the students will slowly begin to compile a complex cultural map of the people of this region. After listing and elaborating upon these seemingly common values or beliefs, the students might then respond to the prompt, Our ability to generalize about the values and beliefs of the ninteenth century Chippewa people is limited by . . . At this point they may list references to their own lack of specific tribal or historical knowledge, the limited number of voices presented in the selection of songs, interpretive difficulties presented by the songs, and other factors that cause them to be cautious about their earlier generalizations. This is an important intellectual step because the habit of such critical self-reflection will help them continually be aware of the dangers of cross-cultural analysis. Recognizing the limitations of crosscultural interpretation is an important inhibitor of stereotyping. A third step in this exploration of intentions, values, and beliefs of early Native songs would be to use the limitations listed in the previous exercise as prompts for collaborative study. In other words, what would students need to do and learn in order to begin testing the validity of their generalizations? This might lead to searches for additional songs, research into oral traditions, an examination of tribal cultures and history, or an exploration of the challenges of translation. The Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletins, from which the love songs above have been taken, offer a wonderful resource of native songs and stories for such a research project. After completing the initial examination of early songs through categories and intentions, we 40 j a nu a r y 2 0 0 2 turn our focus to aesthetics. While, again, questions of form and style are confused by the problems inherent in translation, we can make some general descriptions of early Native American poetics. While there are marked differences in literary style among various tribes, they nevertheless share many poetic qualities (Barnes 56). On the formal side, a number of elements are common, though not always present, in early songs and poetry (traditional ceremonial songs, which could go on for hours or days, are frequently an exception). While few early songs embrace all of the following elements simultaneously, many of them • utilize repetition and parallel structure • use concrete natural images • utilize conciseness in terms of sentence length and length of song • frequently reflect a spiritual commitment, even in humorous songs • imply a tribal, public audience that already understands context • avoid the personal intellectualizing of much European and American poetry. The teacher might help students in one of two ways. If the students are fairly astute in exploring notions of form, they might be asked to construct their own list of formal elements through an exploration of songs. In this inquiry, they will begin to seek out and identify elements that they see repeated in most of the songs. This strategy can be particularly valuable in developing observational skills that students may use when examining the work of other poets, both native and non-native. If, however, the students are unprepared for such an inquiry project, the teacher can always provide the list above and then ask students to briefly analyze how selected songs do and/or do not conform to the description. Either of these approaches will prepare students for three other useful activities in examining form and style of early songs. The first two activities ask students to engage in a kind of comparative literature approach. They begin by reading a number of paired poems—the first a haiku, the second an early Native song. For example: On a withered bough A crow alone is perching; Autumn evening now. Basho EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 41 Toward calm and shady places I am walking Toward calm and shady places I am walking On the earth Toward calm and shady places I am walking. (Densmore 110) After discussing their immediate responses to the poems, the students should examine the similarities and differences in relation to the poetics of early Native American songs. They will likely find that haiku tend to parallel early songs in their conciseness, in their attention to image, in their sincerity, in their avoidance of intellectualizing, and, perhaps, in the way that haiku depend upon a knowledge of Japanese culture, tradition, and shared landscape. Traditional haiku differs from early songs primarily in its requirement of a 5–7–5 syllable, three line form and in its lack of repetition. Because most students are so familiar with the haiku form, such a comparative examination helps make early Native American songs seem less strange and allows students to begin understanding how different cultures develop different notions of what constitutes beautiful, wellcrafted poetry. This, in turn, segues to the second activity that leads students to understand the politics of aesthetics in the formation of a literary canon. Since the students are now familiar with the poetics of early Native American songs, they are ready to apply this knowledge as editors of a hypothetical literary magazine. Like most literary magazines, this one is driven by the specific aesthetic bias of its editorial staff. In this case, only those poems that generally conform to our description of the form and style of early songs will be accepted for publication. At this point, the teacher provides students with the following submissions from a couple of as-yet-to-be-published poets, William Carlos Williams and William Wordsworth, respectively: The Red Wheelbarrow so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens (224) The World Is Too Much With Us The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay wasted our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. Perhaps the student editors may see some promise in the first poem. It does, after all, embrace conciseness and sensory image. With a little encouragement and much revision, the author might transform the poem in ways that might more closely conform to the magazine’s aesthetic expectations. As for the second poem, a quick letter of rejection may be the most merciful strategy. No point in giving false hope to such a long-winded, intellectually indulgent poet who fails to root his poem in the images of the here and now. This “turning-the-tables” exercise is meant to illustrate how writers have been excluded from the canon because of the cultural politics of aesthetics and help students understand why many groups, including Native Americans, have struggled to have their writing recognized as art. The teacher may conclude this activity by helping students explore the implications of the ways literary magazines have, by and large, always operated. In historical terms, what does such an approach, which embraced those writers who conformed to culturally specific trends, mean in relation to early Native American composers and writers? In what ways might this explain how a literary canon is formed and why only recently writers from outside the AngloAmerican and European traditions have been included in literature anthologies that students read in school? In contemporary terms, how might it also explain Wendy Rose’s experience with a “journal that requested ‘Indian poems’ but rejected all the “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, from Collected Poems: 1909–1939, Volume 1, © 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission. English Journal 41 EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 42 work they received from Indian writers because it did not fit their idea of what ‘Indian poetry’ should be” (401)? Students might also find it interesting to reflect upon the influence that early Native American poetics may have had on American canonical writers. How might Whitman’s free verse and frequent use of parallel structure instead of rhyme have emerged out of familiarity with native songs? How might the Imagist movement, with its extreme conciseness and focus on sensory image without intellectualizing comment, find its roots in the poetics of nineteenth century native singers? Is it merely coincidence that Poetry Magazine published a special issue of native songs just a few years after the Imagists emerged? Clearly, this critical road is speculative, and yet mainstream artists have long made use of the art of other cultures without acknowledging the debt. In the sense that most artists look to other artists for inspiration and insight, the next activity in the sequence asks the students to experience the poetics of early songs from the inside. Using the description of form and style, each student should compose a song that is appropriate for an event or emotion in his or her own life. For example, students might write songs that they could use in preparing themselves mentally for an athletic event. Or compose a love song that makes use of specific, recognizable landmarks and behaviors of local teens. Or a song intended to help a friend recover from an accident or lost love. Teachers may insist that student songs conform and be assessed according to the described poetics, or they may allow students to experiment with those parts of the form and style that seem most useful. In either case, during the writing process or after, the students should evaluate how this poetics helps and/or hinders them in communicating with their audience. A note of caution is in order with this activity. It is important that students understand that they are not writing a Native American song. They are writing their own songs while emulating the poetics of early Native American songs. Some people may be uncomfortable with such emulation, believing it to be a kind of appropriation of someone else’s culture. However, that is the nature of most art. Artists are continually influenced by the works they encounter, whether it is local art or a piece from halfway across the globe. Recognizing the beauty in 42 j a nu a r y 2 0 0 2 another writer’s form and style and experimenting with it to find out how it might fit within one’s own voice is something nearly all professional writers do. Students might also find it interesting to reflect upon the influence that early Native American poetics may have had on American canonical writers. We might end our exploration of early Native American poetics by drawing connections and distinctions between those early songwriters and contemporary native poets. Most importantly, students need to recognize that the kinds of generalizations about culture and aesthetics that we might make about songs produced in the nineteenth century can no longer be made about contemporary Native American poems. Early songwriters were artistically insulated from Western culture, maintaining a poetic tradition that was unique and separate. However, Native writers today have been influenced by, among many other things, a knowledge of world and pan-tribal histories, the history of art from the United States and around the world, pop culture, postmodernism, and much of the individualism that characterizes the twentieth and twenty-first century artist. As Wendy Rose suggests: If you have an idea in mind of what “Indian Literature” is, I suggest you reconsider. If your idea is based on the Indian-authored works you have read, consider the fact that it is often chosen according to editor’s stereotypes. If your idea is based on a solid academic background about tribal literatures, consider that many of us do not speak our native language, were not raised on our ancestral land, and have no literary tradition other than what we received in some classroom. If your idea is based on the observation of certain themes or images, consider that there is no genre of “Indian Literature” because we are all different. There is only literature written by people who are Indian and who, therefore, infuse their work with their own lives the same way you do. (402) EJ-JAN1.QXD 12/3/2001 8:41 AM Page 43 A sampling of anthologies of contemporary Native American poetry will quickly confirm both the excellence and diversity in the style and form of native voices today. In Nora Dauenhauer’s three line lyric poems such as “Granddaughters Dancing” we can see a continuing reverence for conciseness and image. Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” relies on repetition of that clause for rhythmic power, connecting it again and again to strong images that transform and complicate our understanding of what kind of horse this might be (284–86). One of my favorite comparisons links the following Northwest cradle song with Sherman Alexie’s poem “Father Coming Home”: When I am a man, then I shall be a hunter, Oh father! Ya ha ha ha When I am a man, then I shall be a harpooner, Oh father! Ya ha ha ha When I am a man, then I shall be a canoe builder, Oh father! Ya ha ha ha When I am a man, then I shall be an artisan, Oh father! Ya ha ha ha That we may not be in want, Oh father! (Boaz 331) In this sequence of stanzas, the singer uses a repetition of parallel syntax to create rhythm and emphasize the myriad possible futures of a young boy’s life. The poem celebrates the relationship between son and father, imbuing it with a sense of awe, pride, and responsibility. Alexie’s poem follows a similar pattern, beginning the first two sentences of each of seven stanzas with the phrases “Father coming home . . . Me, waiting . . .” (63–64). As with the cradle song, this repetition gives Alexie’s poem a rhythmical quality. But the long free verse sentences that follow these phrases resist any sense of easy comfort. Gone is the unfettered optimism of the infant, replaced by the aching and injured psyche of a young boy coming of age on the reservation. Instead of imagining possible futures, the boy narrates the pain and endurance of his father as he encounters racism, joblessness, injury, alcoholism, and fear of failure. And yet, despite all of this, this poem too functions as a kind of inverse lullaby, with a young boy revealing a complicated pride and love for his father. In relative terms, however, these similarities are anomalies. Few of the thousands of contemporary poems by Native authors share stylistic or formal qualities of nineteenth century songs. Then again, relatively few contemporary poems by nonnative authors sound like their nineteenth century counterparts, either. Poetic form and style are like living things. As a Cheyenne war song reminds us, “Nothing lives long, except the earth and the mountains.” The old poetics is replaced by a new, diverse, and vibrant one that is impossible to categorize. Yet, out of style as they may be, those early native authors still have much to teach us about what it means to be human, and their songs have much to teach us about the beauty and power of language in our attempts to speak to the world around us. In this, they are no different than all of those nineteenth century canonical poets, and because of this they deserve attention in our classrooms. Works Cited Alexie, Sherman. The Business of Fancydancing. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 1992. Barnes, Nellie. American Indian Verse, Characteristics of Style. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 1921. Boaz, Franz. “Stylistic Aspects of Primitive Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): 331. Curtis, Natalie. The Indian’s Book. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907. Dauenhauer, Nora. “Granddaughters Dancing.” Niatum. 19. Day, A. Grove. The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians. New York: MacMillan, 1951. Densmore, Frances. “Chippewa Music.” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 45. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1910. Harjo, Joy. “She Had Some Horses.” Niatum. 284–86. Niatum, Duane, ed. Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988. Rose, Wendy. “American Indian Poets and Publishing.” Book Forum 5.3, 1981. Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Eds. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1986. Wordsworth, William. “The World Is Too Much With Us.” University of Toronto Resources: English Language and Literature Resources Online. 21 May 1996. Http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/ wordswor22.html. BRUCE A. GOEBEL teaches at Western Washington University, Bellingham. English Journal 43 ...
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