Ortiz’s poetry first appeared in 1969 in the South Dakota Review’s special Indian issue, “The American Indian Speaks.” Since that time, Ortiz has been critically acclaimed as among the best of the contemporary Native-American poets, a recognition that extends to Indian circles. While the Native- American oral tradition, which includes song and prayer, has generally been unchronicled, contemporary American Indians such as Ortiz are creating a canon of prose and poetry that draws on this tradition.
Ortiz’s poetry, including “My Father’s Song,” which was first published in 1976 in Going for the Rain, is strongly narrative. Ortiz has defended his style, stating, “Indians always tell a story. The only way to continue is to tell a story.” This particular poem “continues” by remembering a moment in which his father passed on to him the reverence for the earth and for its living creatures. The language is deceptively simple and conversational, presenting images with full significance. Ortiz has said, “I try to listen to the voices of the people back home and use their sounds to direct my composition.” The impulse for “My Father’s Song” is the desire to hear his father’s voice, engendered by his own need to “say things.” In addition to this active practice of the oral traditions of his people and the basic philosophy they represent, Ortiz works to present in his poetry the specifics of his life as a Native American in such a way that the poems can achieve a more universal significance. In other words, the value of his poetry is not in presenting the life of the Native American as a cultural artifact, but in presenting the life of the Native American as one version of a contemporary American life.