In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Analysis

N. Scott Momaday

Social Concerns

Momaday's broad perspective of thirty years of creative life lends him a vision of history that is unique: through the arts he sees his people before Columbus, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the last Kiowa Sun Dance in 1887, the assassination of Kennedy, the march of AIDS and environmental damage across the face of the land. Momaday's poetry reflects the sweep of his life: from his impressive childhood among various Indian traditions to his inspiring adult travels in Europe. These diverse interests are reflected in his poetry. As Momaday comments, "if you look closely into these pages, it is possible to catch a glimpse of me in my original being."

This power to see the sweep of history, one's own time, and one's own "original being" comes through the imagination combined with words. Momaday originated the phrase "the man made of words." He reminds us that we are all made of words: not only reading and writing, but also conversations, stories, songs, rituals, memory and thought. All these constitute our lives. Momaday also delights in the sound and the sense of words. His poetry forces the boundaries in the meanings of words and challenges our expectations about nature, Native American culture and the genre of poetry.

In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Techniques / Literary Precedents

The book is divided in four sections: "Selected Poems," "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid," "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields," and "New Poems." These sections show a variety of forms, tones and content in the poetry and short stories. His early work is in syllabic poetry, which is based on a number of syllables per line, rather than on the structured meter of rhyme of traditional poetry. This form allowed him more freedom of expression than rigid meters imposed; additionally, some arrangements of this syllabic poetry resembles the rhythms of Indian verse translations and oral traditions.

Ivor Winters, Momaday's mentor at Stanford, focused him on morality and reason as central literary expressions, rather than the emotion, association and connotation of the Symbolists. Winters also expected form and control, and insisted that form was not outside the aesthetic or moral judgments. Nor was form to be simply imitative or expressive: to explore chaotic or fragmented life in chaotic or fragmentated language was an intellectual cop-out and linguistically self-defeating. Rather, Winters asserted that the challenge of post-Symbolist poetry, as he called it, is to explore a rational and sensory universe by pushing language to its most fluid, most complex relationship between words. Momaday agreed with Winters's philosophical and aesthetic positions, but his original talent was not stifled by his mentor. He fused this training with his inheritance of Native American language and ritual and his heritage of Southwestern landscapes and peoples.

Momaday's most recent poetry demonstrates a broader exploration of form, tone and content, particularly in a series of heroic couplets: iambic pentameter lines rhymed in pairs. These rhymed pairs are pithy epigrams; some clearly are epitaphs commenting on deceased persons embodying contemporary values and concerns, including sex and procreation, beauty, ambition and hard work. Clearly Momaday brings these values into question, prompting the reader to explore the positive and negative aspects of each value.

In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Literary Precedents

Momaday, mentored by Ivor Winters, was necessarily influenced by his philosophies and style. But Momaday's love of poetry precedes his study with Winters. The anti-romantic literature of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a contemporary — and intellectual opposite — of the transcendentalists, and of Emily Dickinson are also clear forerunners to his poetry. Of her, Momaday notes that she taught him about "the mystery and the miracle of language" and about capturing the sense of human isolation, tragic finality and intellectual survival.

In addition to his study of the anti-romantic poets, Momaday was also clearly influenced by the Symbolists. Indeed, Winters calls their poetry "post-Symbolist," which also included Wallace Stevens and Valery. Their influences are seen most clearly in his earlier poems.

Finally, he attributes writers such as William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen with teaching him how to tell an involving story which draws the reader into a beloved landscape or region, into a family or community.

In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Related Titles

Momaday's early poems are previously printed in Angle of Geese and Other Poems and The Gourd Dancer (1976). The Billy the Kid cycle was first published in The American West magazine, complete with color illustrations of Momaday's accompanying artwork. In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields is a limited-edition printing with full-color plates of the shields. The shield paintings have also been displayed on tour.

In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barry, Nora. Review of Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. MELUS 16 (December 22, 1989): 115-117.

Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (Fall, 2003): 3-24.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Reading the American Indian Novel....

(The entire section is 180 words.)