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Harjo's Philosophical and Spiritual Approach

(Poetry for Students)

Not everyone who claims to follow the tenets of pantheism would describe the principles of this “religion” in the same way. Not all of them would even call it a religion. In general, however, pantheism holds that the universe is the ultimate reality and the ultimate object of reverence, as opposed to the belief in a personal God found in most traditional theistic religions. As such, the universe represents a unity of all things—a totality of which everything in nature is an inseparable part, including human beings. Most pantheists do not consider themselves either theists or atheists. Theism not only acknowledges a personal God who is separate from the natural world, but also contends that God is similar to a human being but with supernatural powers and an omniscient presence. Pantheists do not believe in a deity that is in any way like a person, but they are still not atheists because the godlike principles they attribute to the universe contradict a belief in no God, or gods, at all. Today, however, a new faction of pantheism has cropped up called “scientific” or “natural” pantheism. In this modern form, followers still revere the universe and nature but they do not attribute deistic powers to it.

So how does all this figure into Joy Harjo’s “Anniversary” poem, which seems very simple, even sweet, in its subject matter and presentation? Because her background is Native American and because many Indian principles and beliefs center around a tremendous respect for nature and a human connection to all natural things, some readers may be tempted to tag the poem pantheistic and let it go at that. Truly, Harjo employs many of the facets of pantheism in “Anniversary,” but she leaves open the door to other religions, or nonreligions, denying the poem any single category of philosophical thought.

First, consider the descriptions that seem most pantheistic in nature. After opening with a metaphor reflecting evolution theory, the big bang in particular, the poem shifts quickly to the origins of humankind. But even though the seeds of humanity are present (“we were then”), the interconnectedness of all living matter is so strong that “there was no separation” between the stuff of galaxies and stars and the stuff of human beings. As a gradual detachment begins to take place, people, or people-like creatures, emerge “from new terrain,” but the transformation into distinct living beings— whether birds, fish, flowers, insects, or humans—does not imply that a complete split ever occurs. Instead, the connection is still very vibrant, and the sense of sacredness that pantheists feel for nature and the universe derives from the inseparable bond among all living matter.

In its entirety, “Anniversary” could be viewed as primarily pantheistic. But one must be careful when attempting to categorize something that is not wholly in keeping with a specific doctrine or belief system. The notion of “a spiral of gods strung out way over / our heads” could simply be a metaphor for stars, planets, galaxies, and so forth that reside high above the Earth and that have godlike qualities for the pantheist. But, considering that this phrase directly follows the acknowledgement that “The question mark of creation attracts more questions,” one may also view it as an acceptance that the “gods” are separate from the universe as well as from humankind. There is a clear admission that neither the poet nor anyone else has the answers to the questions of creation, and, so, pantheism is not necessarily the end-all belief in this poem. Perhaps the most telling words here are “way over / our heads,” for, figuratively speaking, that may be the best way to explain the inability of the human mind to comprehend the world’s beginnings.

Another example of the ambivalence of religious theory in “Anniversary” is the admission in the fifth stanza that the human race is still trying to “figure this thing out.” This makes it...

(The entire section is 3,176 words.)