Momaday, N. Scott (Poetry Criticism)
N. Scott Momaday 1934–
(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, artist, and children's writer.
Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as a seminal figure in both Native American and mainstream American literature. Considered a major influence by numerous native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, beliefs, and the role of Native Americans in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for the novel House Made of Dawn (1968), winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Momaday considers himself primarily a poet and notes that his writings are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern man's relationship to the earth, the importance of heritage and dreams, the elusive nature of reality, and the nature and origins of Native American myths.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott, Momaday is of Kiowa, white, and Cherokee ancestry. His father was a Kiowa artist and educator whose work has often been featured in Momaday's books. Although primarily of white descent, Momaday's mother, who was also an educator, strongly identified with her Cherokee roots—even dressing in native clothes and adopting the name "Little Moon." Her advocacy of "self-imagining" as a means of achieving native identity is considered a basic premise of Momaday's writings. During his early years, Momaday moved about the American Southwest with his parents, who eventually settled on the Jemez Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. He attended a military school in Virginia, the University of New Mexico, and Stanford University where he worked under the guidance of American critic and poet Yvor Winters, (who strongly influenced his early poetry.) Momaday published his first poem, "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," in 1959 in the New Mexico Quarterly. He later gained widespread critical attention after winning the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn A member of the Gourd Dance Society and an accomplished artist, Momaday has taught at numerous schools, including Stanford, the University of Arizona-Tucson, and the University of California-Berkeley where he was instrumental in instituting a Native American literature program.
Major Works of Poetry
Momaday's verse is collected in Angle of Geese (1974), The Gourd Dancer (1976), and In the Presence of the Sun (1993). In Angle of Geese, which contains eighteen poems, Momaday utilizes iambic verse, short-line free verse, and prose poems to explore such themes as identity, death, native customs, survival, and philosophical issues regarding nature. One of the best-known poems in the volume, "The Bear," is written in syllabic verse and is influenced by American writer William Faulkner's short story of the same name. In this poem, Momaday uses abstract language to describe an old, maimed bear. Another descriptive poem written in syllabic verse, "Buteo Regalis" utilizes rhythmic language to reflect a hawk's movements as it attacks its prey. "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion," a poem that describes a person contemplating a mural of Christ's crucifixion located in an old mission by the sea, is filled with post-symbolist imagery and explores the ways people react to death. "Angle of Geese," a difficult and obscure poem, is considered a masterpiece of syllabic rhythm. In this work, Momaday relates the death of a friend's first-born child to the killing of a goose by a hunter in order to address the inadequacy of language, its relationship to identity, and mysteries of time and nature. Angle of Geese also contains Momaday's four "Plainview" poems: "Plainview 1" is a modified sonnet and describes the approach of a storm in Oklahoma; "Plainview 2" utilizes Native American oral tradition and is an elegy for the lost horse culture of the plains; "Plainview 3" is a celebration of the sun, which is venerated among plains tribes; and "Plainview 4" relates the story of Milly Durgan, who was captured by the Kiowas in 1864 when she was eighteen months old. It is a pessimistic view of the death of plains Indian culture. Momaday's next collection, The Gourd Dancer, consists of three parts—"Angle of Geese," "The Gourd Dancer," and "Anywhere Is a Street into the Night"—with each section dedicated to one of Momaday's three daughters. Each represents different aspects of Momaday's poetic philosophy and development. The first section addresses the themes of death and mutability, and contains all of "Angle of Geese" as well as two additional poems. "The Gourd Dancer" focuses on Native American culture and includes all of the "Plainview" poems and "The Gourd Dancer," a poem in four sections written as a tribute to Momaday's grandfather Mammedaty. This section also contains the poem "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee," which celebrates the land and native culture. Tsoai-Talee is a Kiowa name given to Momaday by a paternal relative. The name, which means "rock-tree boy," refers to the two-hundred foot volcanic butte in Wyoming which is sacred to the Kiowas and is known to Anglo-Americans as Devil's Tower. Many of the poems in part three of The Gourd Dancer were written when Momaday was in the Soviet Union in 1974 and evince his poetic mastery. The poems in this section focus on the American Southwest as well as Momaday's experiences in Russia. In the Presence of the Sun (1993) is a collection of Momaday's short stories and poems. In addition to including early poetic works, the volume contains numerous new poems and a poetic sequence concerning the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, a prominent figure in Momaday's artwork and his novel The Ancient Child.
Critical reaction to Momaday's poetry has been enthusiastic, with commentators praising both his early syllabic verse and his later prose poems and free verse. Yvor Winters first brought critical attention to Momaday's poetry in his 1967 study Forms of Discovery, in which he placed Momaday within the post-symbolist tradition. Since then, critics have both agreed with and refuted Winters' conclusions. Although Momaday's early poetry has been hailed as among the most significant of the century, with some critics calling such poems as "The Bear" and "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" masterpieces of syllabic verse in English, more recent critics have stated that they prefer Momaday's prose poems for their exploration of Kiowa concerns and incorporation of native oral traditions. They also note that these works are less abstract and more personal and celebratory than Momaday's earlier, more formal works. Momaday himself has stated that after composing his syllabic poems, "I worked myself into such a confinement of form that I started to write fiction and didn't get back to poetry until much later." Despite the tendency to divide Momaday's poetry into two distinct types or periods, scholars have consistently praised Momaday for his ability to work with various poetic forms, his talent for exploring different cultures from diverse perspectives, and his imaginative interweaving of myth, history, and contemporary Native American experience.
Angle of Geese, and Other Poems 1974
The Gourd Dancer 1976
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 1993
Other Major Works
The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman [editor] (poetry) 1965
The Journey of Tai-me (folktales) 1967
House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968
The Way to Rainy Mountain (autobiography) 1969
Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (nonfiction) 1973
The Names: A Memoir (autobiography) 1976
The Ancient Child (novel) 1989
Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story (juvenilia) 1994
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (essays, short stories, sketches) 1997
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SOURCE: "The Post-Symbolist Methods," in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English, Alan Swallow, 1967, pp. 251-97.
[Winters was an American critic, poet, short story writer, and editor who emphasized that all good literature serves a conscious moral purpose. Momaday, who studied under Winters at Stanford University, has noted that Winters greatly influenced his writing. In the excerpt below, Winters offers an analysis of "The Bear, " "Buteo Regalis, " and "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion, " placing Momaday's work within the Post-Symbolist tradition.]
I use the term "post-Symbolist" to describe a kind of poetry which develops most commonly and most clearly after the French Symbolists but which sometimes appears before them or independently of them. Logically, it should follow them and should follow from them, but these things happen as they will.
The associationistic doctrines taught that all ideas arise from sensory perceptions, and gradually it came to be thought that all ideas could be expressed in terms of sensory perceptions, but this effort, as in Pound's Cantos or in much of Williams ("no ideas but in things"), was doomed to failure. The result is very often a situation in which the poet offers us, or seems to offer us, sense-perceptions for their own sake, and for the sake of whatever vague feelings they may...
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SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday's Angle of Geese" in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XI, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 658-61.
[In the following review, Finlay offers a stylistic and thematic description of Angle of Geese, praising the volume as Momaday's best work.]
N. Scott Momaday's reputation, before Angle of Geese, rested upon two works of prose, House Made of Dawn, a novel concerned with the dislocation and eventual disintegration of an Indian youth in urban America (parts of which were first published in The Southern Review), and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a half-mythical, half-historical account of Momaday's Kiowa ancestors, beautifully illustrated by the poet's father. These two books are considerable achievements, especially The Way to Rainy Mountain, which contains some of the most powerful prose written in recent years, or any year, for that matter. Yet Angle of Geese, made up of eighteen poems, three of which are in prose, is by far the greatest thing Momaday has done and should, by itself, earn for him a permanent place in our literature. Considering, though, the general insistence upon the loose and the anecdotal in contemporary poetry, I should realistically add that Momaday's poetic reputation will probably be quiet and underground.
Nearly all of his poems are concerned with what Yvor Winters, in his...
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SOURCE: "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," in The Southern Review, Lousiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 30-45.
[In the excerpt below, Dickinson-Brown offers a stylistic analysis of several poems in Angle of Geese.]
It is surprising that Momaday has published so few poems. Angle of Geese contains only eighteen—the considered work of a great poet around the age of forty. But the poems are there, astonishing in their depth and range. "Simile," "Four Notions of Love and Marriage," "The Fear of Bo-talee," "The Story of a Weil-Made Shield," and "The Horse that Died of Shame" are variously free verse (the first two, which are slight and sentimental) or prose poems. They partake of the same discrete intensity that characterizes the storytelling in The Way to Rainy Mountain, and which makes them some of the few real prose poems in English.
The poems written in grammatical parallels are much better: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" and "Plainview:2." In the latter, Momaday has used a form and created emotions without precedent in English:
I saw an old Indian
At Saddle Mountain.
He drank and dreamed of drinking
And a blue-black horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
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SOURCE: "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 61-83.
[In the following essay, Mason provides an in-depth analysis of The Gourd Dancer, examining the major themes of each section and the volume as a whole.]
N. Scott Momaday's first full-length collection of poems was finally published in 1976. Previously he had published some eighteen poems in the chapbook, Angle of Geese and Other Poems. These poems plus two others make up part 1 of The Gourd Dancer, a book which is the summation in poetry of that evolution of ideas and verbal skill we have observed in prose in House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Names.
The Gourd Dancer clearly establishes Momaday as a poet of some stature and demands that the close attention given his prose be given to his poetry as well. The book presents a distinct and distinguished music in post-modern poetry and a fresh and compelling vision. Momaday has brought the same intense concision, the same scrupulous craftsmanship to his poems that he brought to his prose. More important perhaps, he has treated the themes of his prose with a poetic rhetoric of marked originality.
The Gourd Dancer is divided into three parts, each of which is dedicated to one of Momaday's three daughters. This tripartite structure is a...
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SOURCE: An interview with N. Scott Momaday, in American Poetry Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August, 1984, pp. 13-18.
[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in December 1982, Momaday discusses such subjects as Yvor Winters' influence on his works, the difference between poetry and prose, the major themes in his poetry, and Native American literature.]
[Joseph Bruchac]: In a recent book entitled Four American Indian Literary Masters, Alan R. Velie links your poetry strongly with those whom he calls "the post-symbolists" and your former teacher, Yvor Winters. Do you think that really was correct?
[N. Scott Momaday]: Well, to an extent, yes. I don't remember what Velie had to say, exactly. "Post-symbolist," by the way is Yvor Winters's term, not Velie's. It is an important concept in Winters's critical canon, and I would not presume to say what it is or what it has to do with my work. Anyone interested in it ought to go directly to Winters's last work, Forms of Discovery. I didn't know much about the traditional aspects of poetry until I went to Stanford and studied under Winters. Winters was a very fine teacher, and no doubt he had a significant influence upon a good many of his students over the years. In 1959, when I went to Stanford, I was just ready to be educated in terms of prosody, and I owe a good deal of what I know about poetry to Yvor...
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SOURCE: "The Search for Identity: N. Scott Momaday's Autobiographical Works," in his Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 34-49.
[In the essay below, Velie provides background information on Momaday' s life and career and discusses how Yvor Winters and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman influenced his early poetry. Velie concludes that although Momaday is a good poet overall, he is at his best in his prose poems.]
After he had exhausted reservation schools, Momaday spent his last year of high school at a military school in Virginia and then enrolled in the University of New Mexico. It was there that he began writing poetry, and in 1959 published his first poem, "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," in the New Mexico Quarterly. After college Momaday tried a year of law school in the University of Virginia but decided that he did not like it.
When Momaday submitted some poems to a creative writing contest sponsored by Stanford University, Yvor Winters, who judged the poetry entries, awarded Momaday a graduate scholarship to Stanford and took him under his wing. Winters was a distinguished poet, famous for his powerful personality as well as for his scholarship and criticism, and he exercised an enormous influence on Momaday's verse. Winters died in 1968, and Momaday is now...
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SOURCE: "Momaday's Poetry," in his N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 189-254.
[In the following excerpt, Schubnell discusses Momaday's poems that center on his Native American heritage, focusing in particular on part two of The Gourd Dancer.]
This [essay] is devoted to Momaday's poetic statements on his American Indian heritage and his particular treatment of the American earth. Most of the poems I will discuss belong to part two of Momaday's The Gourd Dancer collection. While many of them are written in a loose style approaching prose, there are also examples of syllabic and free verse as well as one sonnet. This variety of styles suggests a greater ease of expression compared with the rigid and formalized work of Momaday's Stanford period.
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SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, pp. 14, 22.
[Below, Anderson provides a thematic and stylistic review of In the Presence of the Sun.]
There have been a number of notable collected and selected volumes of poetry over the past few years, including award-winning books by Mary Oliver and Hayden Carruth, as well as important editions from Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, Derek Mahon, Cynthia Macdonald, Adrienne Rich, and others. The significance of this is not lost: As we approach the end of the millennium, many of our poets are at the top of their form. These collections allow us to assess their accomplishments as well as gauge the state of the art over the past several decades.
We are fortunate to add to the growing list of retrospective collections this new book from N. Scott Momaday. In the Presence of the Sun offers "stories," poems, and drawings from over 30 years. Many of us first became aware of Momaday through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, but it was as a poet that he first appeared on the literary scene.
Momaday's early work, still some of his best, bears the influence of his teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters. These are, nonetheless, poems of grace and resonance. Winters encouraged the young Momaday to work in a variety...
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Trimble, Martha Scott. "N. Scott Momaday (1934-)." In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, pp. 313-24. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Provides an overview of Momaday's life, a discussion of the major themes of his works, critical reception of his writings, and a listing of primary and secondary sources.
Bode, Barbara. "Imagination Man." The New York Times Book Review (March 14, 1993): 15.
Praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as well as his use of voice and language in In the Presence of the Sun.
World Literature Today 67, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 680.
Argues that In the Presence of the Sun achieves Momaday's purpose, which is to "express my spirit fairly."
Reynolds, Susan Salter. Review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, by N. Scott Momaday. Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 December 1992): 6.
Praises Momaday's focus on identity, nature, native chants, artifacts, and traditions in In the Presence of the Sun.
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