My Father's Song

by Simon Ortiz

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Critical Overview

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Andrea-Bess Baxter extols the 1991 publication of Woven Stone, which includes “My Father’s Song,” as “a testament to Simon Ortiz’s influential career.” Baxter emphasizes the importance of this volume as a collection of previously published poetic works that “use oral histories, narratives, and stories” and are based on “memories of a traditional upbringing at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico,” intertwined with contemporary experiences. She notes Ortiz’s clear commitment to “native survival and endurance,” but contends that “Ortiz’s gift lies in making us aware of our own personal responsibility.” This manifests itself powerfully in the simple story told in “My Father’s Song.”

Many critics see Ortiz’s work as part of a contemporary Native-American renaissance. Ortiz himself has suggested that such a critical evaluation denies the ongoing oral tradition intrinsic to Native-American culture. He has discussed the oral tradition of Native Americans as “not merely a simple matter of speaking and listening, but living that process.” “My Father’s Song” embodies this philosophy.

Willard Gingerich indicates that the oral tradition and the voice of Ortiz’s father are inextricably linked, so that “There is first his father . . . and there is the private song of that voice.” Gingerich indicates that “we touch here the sacred core of what oral tradition means to those who carry it, not only in the grand affairs of religion and culture, but in the small, everyday acts of family life.” In fact, Ortiz’s poetic language springs from “the language and tones of his own background.” He has indicated that “his formations with regards to language was . . . the way [the Acoma] spoke,” and that it is listening to the voices of his people that directs the composition of his work.

Nevertheless, the authenticity of his composition is not consistently appreciated by critics. Harold Jaffe, for example, has expressed concern for what he views as the problematic syntax in Ortiz’s work that seems “fractionally off, as if the English were adapted from another language.” Gingerich, however, notes Ortiz’s “remarkable transparency of language whose range and freshness is worth serious attention . . . [calling to mind] the conversational rhythms of Ezra Pound.” But more than that, Gingerich claims, the voices of people in Ortiz’s work establish “a new rhythm to English poetry.” And as Ortiz himself says, “A new rhythm is a new idea.”

Indeed, many may overlook the impact of Ortiz’s work on the literary tradition of English poetry. There is a tendency to mistakenly read Ortiz as an example of a Native-American writer, or even read him almost anthropologically to find significance in his poems as cultural artifacts which tell about life as a Native American at the end of the twentieth century. But as Gingerich has said, just to be Native American does not ensure a writer of a place in any literary tradition, Native American or otherwise. In fact, although Geary Hobson points out that Ortiz’s primary concern in his poetry is with both the history and contemporary circumstances of his own Acoma Pueblo Indian heritage, Ortiz asserts that he writes as an ordinary human being. Even so, Karl Kroeber insists that “there is no such thing as ordinary experience” and ultimately “My Father’s Song” stands as testament to the fact that very particular expressions of human experience transform the ordinary into the universal.

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Essays and Criticism