There is no one right way to interpret a poem any more than there is one right way to view a sunset. The experience of the sunset, as of a poem, will be different for each individual who witnesses it. To passively accept someone else’s interpretation is like viewing a sunset with eyes closed while listening to another person describe it. That being said, a poem can be enhanced by examining different factors that might be hidden behind the words and images, thus broadening the knowledge base of the reader. In respect to N. Scott Momaday, it is particularly important to look also at his perspective on culture and the art of storytelling in order to experience a different way of looking at literature and the world.
Momaday’s “To a Child Running with Outstretched Arms in Canyon de Chelly” is a poem whose subtle details could easily be overlooked. The entire poem consists of eight lines that together hold thirty-five words. Each word is short, and each image is simple, at least at first sight. It is what the words imply that imbues them with special consequence. In other words, it is significance that gives even the simplest image depth. For instance, someone from the city asked to go into the country to see a sunset might reply, “What is so important about a sunset? It’s no big deal. The sun sets every day.” But even for the most cynical person, if that particular sunset meant the end of a love affair, or maybe the beginning of a new one, it would give the sunset a special significance; and it would become a big deal.
So what might be the significance behind Momaday’s poem? Is it possible to guess what Momaday was thinking? Of course it is, but is that the reason poems are read—to guess what the author means? That might be part of the reason. Poems, like all art forms, are a way of sharing experience, communicating ideas, and sharing emotions. But when it comes to interpretation, just what is being interpreted? Is it what the author means, or is it what the reader feels? Or is it a combination of both? According to a type of literary criticism called reader-response theory, the meaning of a poem exists somewhere in the transaction between the reader and the text, not from the text alone. In other words, the interpretation of a poem is based both upon the images that the author portrays and upon the intellectual and emotional reaction that those images cause in the reader.
On the first reading of “To a Child Running with Outstretched Arms in Canyon de Chelly,” the images might appear to be a recollection of Momaday’s childhood. Momaday used to live in the area around Canyon de Chelly, and in his writings he refers to this canyon as one of his favorite places. He might have thought of the poem while sitting on the rim of the canyon walls. Maybe he saw a child running deep down inside the canyon. The child might have reminded Momaday of when he was young, living in the country, free from the responsibilities of adulthood, free to run with excitement. The child’s outstretched arms could have signified openness and innocence to Momaday.
In the use of the word intense, Momaday might have wanted to express the concept that in childhood everything seems intense. Children’s minds are fresh. Each experience is new and whole, uninterrupted by layers of habits that tend to dull the adult mind that has witnessed bright, summer days so many times before. The child, for Momaday, might represent not only a child filled with delight but, even more importantly, a child who embodies the whole concept of delightfulness. In relationship to the child, the backdrop of the high, rugged, ancient walls of the canyon are immense; and it is the immensity of the great walled canyon that intensifies the child’s smallness.
Those are the images that Momaday uses in the first stanza of this poem. These images appear rather obvious and are easily interpreted in a fairly straightforward manner. But something changes in the second stanza that makes continuing this simple interpretation a little more quizzical. At the end of the first stanza, Momaday switches his focus from the child to the natural setting. In the first few lines of the second stanza, he continues the same line of vision as he looks at the hills, noticing the shadow play of light and darkness in the drifting sand. What could Momaday be seeing? What do the sand drifts and the shadows mean?
He uses the word break in reference to the sand drifts. In the next line, he uses the word cleavage. These are rather harsh words in some sense of their definitions, but both words are also somewhat ambiguous. The poem says that the sand drifts “break and roll.” The word roll softens the “breaking” part of the image. Ocean waves break and roll, gently and smoothly. And the word cleavage has two opposite meanings: one, to cut away; and another, to cling to. Or maybe, as some interpretations have suggested, Momaday uses both the drifting sands and the light and shadow to represent the passage of time. This makes sense...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)