My Father's Song

by Simon Ortiz

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Words and Meaning

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Most poets claim that their writing arises out of a necessity, that they have no choice but to write. Some see the act of composing poems as therapeutic, while others believe such a notion is heretical to the very idea of art. Other poets compare writing poems with building something well and derive satisfaction from perfecting their craft, while some consider writing a means of intellectual exploration. Still others use poetry as a means of political protest and view their work as a way to effect social change. A driving force behind the writing of many Native-American poets, such as Ortiz, is the desire to share the history of their people. “My Father’s Song” is an example of such a desire.

If it were written by another poet, Ortiz’s poem might be considered yet one more of the many “workshop” poems pumped out every year by aspiring writers in creative writing programs across the country. Such poems typically recount some seemingly inconsequential experience of the speaker, who is indistinguishable from the author. According to Greg Kuzma, who criticized the workshop poem in his essay “The Catastrophe of Creative Writing,” these poems lack “a sense of necessity or urgency.” While Ortiz’s poem certainly contains markers of the workshop poem, such as the reliance on the “I” and the description of a seemingly trivial event, his purpose is larger than merely asserting the importance of the self or wallowing in the past. The remembering “I” in Ortiz’s poem does not merely put the experience at Acu out there for readers to ooh and ahh at but to explain the process through which the Acoma Pueblo Indians pass down their own culture.

The transmission of cultural knowledge is one of the primary themes of Going for the Rain. The collection is structured as a four-part cycle detailing elements of a Pueblo rain ritual. These elements include “Preparation,” “Leaving,” “Returning,” and “The Rain Falls.” “My Father’s Song” is included in the “Preparation” section, with other poems addressing Native American creation myths, fatherhood, survival, and language. In the prologue, Ortiz describes the act of preparation as follows:

A man makes his prayers; he sings his songs. He considers all that is important and special to him, his home, children, his language, the self that he is. He must make spiritual and physical preparation before anything else. Only then does anything begin.

Images of preparation and training appear throughout many of the poems in this section and in “My Father’s Song.” Planting corn, for example, shows the son the importance of the land to one’s survival, and protecting the newborn mice shows the son the value of all living things, the interconnectedness of all life. These acts prepare the boy to be a man, giving him the tools required to lead a productive and meaningful life. These acts also help the boy to develop a sense of identity, as the lessons he learns are vital to the values of the Acoma people. All of this preparation is necessary for the individual before he sets out on his journey through life, before he wins the right to bring back the rain to his people. In an interview published in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indians, Ortiz underscores the importance of land, of place, in constructing an identity:

I can’t really see any value in not knowing a place. You have to have it. Otherwise you are drifting. You remain at loose ends and you’re always searching without ever knowing where you are or what you’re coming to. I guess the background, the heritage of Native...

(This entire section contains 1308 words.)

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American people at least offers this opportunity to have a place.

This kind of earnestness, this seemingly simple approach to life is at odds with the often densely ironic and allusive poetry practiced by today’s poets. And though Ortiz’s poem purports to describe actual events, it is not confessional poetry, at least not in the way that term is conventionally used to describe poetry that concerns itself with exposing the lurid details of its speakers, often relating to sex, drugs, or mental instability. Ortiz’s poetry is a poetry of celebration, of lightness and hope. His voice is not singular and his poems don’t set out to prove how the speaker is unique, original, or different from others. Rather, it is a communal voice, determined to show the love that all boys have for their fathers and how they remember them. In this way, the poem also represents an idealized relationship. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, critic Marie M. Schein notes that the poems in Going for the Rain emphasize: the essential values that constitute the foundation of Ortiz’s poetry; the belief in transmitting the gift of culture to the children, the importance of language and words, the respect for nature and for elders, and the harmony of the botanic, animal, and human worlds. By packing all of these themes into his narrative poems, Ortiz creates a kind of moral urgency that seems neither moral nor urgent. His quiet voice and selection of details that show rather than tell the reader these values, give his words an easy, natural quality, as if he’s merely reminding readers what they have always known. Ortiz’s audience is not only other Native Americans. His stories of Acoma people and their culture are also meant to inform those unfamiliar with the Acoma way of life in particular, and the Native American experience in general. In this way, his poems serve an educational purpose. His book, after all, was published in Harper & Row’s Native American publishing program. Categorizing his work as “Native-American Poetry” rather than simply “poetry” at a time when there were very few Native-American writers signed to large publishing houses gave Ortiz’s work a kind of exotic appeal. His poems became representative of the Indian experience.

By writing narrative poetry, Ortiz also taps into the universal significance of storytelling to all human cultures. Schein notes that when asked to explain why he writes, Ortiz said: “Because Indians always tell a story. The only way to continue is to tell a story.” The stories of the Acoma are different in their particulars than the stories of other cultures, but they share the same drive to make sense of life, nature, and the future as other cultures.

The irony of Ortiz’s poetry is that he adapts the oral tradition to tell his stories in print and in English. But this too is a survival strategy, as it helps to preserve the culture of a people who increasingly use English more and Acoma less. In Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing, Ortiz notes:

Using the English language is a dilemma and pretty scary sometimes, because it means letting one’s mind willfully—although with soul and heart in shaky hand, literally—into the Western cultural and intellectual context, a condition and circumstance that one usually avoids at all costs on most occasions.

However, it is also the best and surest way to reach the widest audience possible. Poems such as “My Father’s Song” are important because they provide the reading public with insight into the traditions and culture of a people who have historically been neglected, demonized, and ignored. The real language in evidence in Ortiz’s poem is the language of compassion and of hope, a language desired by all, though not always accessible to all. Ortiz, as poet and voice of the Acoma, is also like the shiwana (rainmakers) in the song that opens his collection. His poems are his prayers and his hope.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “My Father’s Song,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition.

Harmony Without Music

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In “My Father’s Song,” poet Simon J. Ortiz accomplishes a very difficult task. The poem manages to render a nonverbal experience in printed words. This is something that poems usually try to do, but “My Father’s Song” does so by pointing to the connection between experience and song while avoiding any direct reference to music. On the face of it, this is as hollow as using only colors to explain how language works, but Ortiz somehow succeeds. He leaves his readers feeling how they might after actually hearing a song that the speaker’s father taught him, but this illusion is just the sign of his skill as a poet. Actually, the father’s words are reproduced nowhere in the poem, and only a few of his actions are referred to directly. Ortiz redefines the word “song” to include manners and attitudes that his father passed along to him, broadening readers’ perceptions of what might be considered music in the same way that deliberate, precise action is sometimes figuratively referred to as “poetic.”

Ortiz was raised in the tradition of the Acoma tribe of New Mexico. The Acoma had no written language throughout most of their history, although they have always had a rich culture, which has been carried on from one generation to the next through oral storytelling. This influence is seen throughout Ortiz’s poetry, to such a strong extent that it even seems a little too overly simple to draw attention to the many obvious storytelling elements in his poems. He does see the act of telling a story to be more significant and wideranging than just a transcription of events, as he has discussed frequently when talking about his work. In a 1985 interview, for instance, Ortiz addressed how the oral storytelling tradition of the Acoma affects those who have been raised within the tribe:

The oral tradition is not just speaking and listening. . . [I]t obviously includes everything within it, whether or not it’s spoken about or acted out, or worked out, or how people respond to each other personally and socially.

To capture this sense of a world without writing, Ortiz’s poetry has to show examples of the Acoma worldview in action. The “song” that the poem’s speaker ascribes to his father in this poem is actually a feeling, caused by the father’s behavior, which has a song-like effect on the poem’s speaker.

This sense of “telling” and “song” that is unfamiliar to European sensibilities is indicated in the way that the poem uses the gangling phrase “saying things.” In the first line, the speaker is struggling to “say things,” apparently unsuccessfully—he is a poet whose words fail him, and the frustration of this situation is what brings a particular memory of his father to mind. Throughout the poem, the father’s words are never directly presented to the reader. His voice is described in the first stanza after it has already come and gone, with a reference to “something he has just said”; and in line 20 the poem mentions him telling the son something, but it does not render his exact words. The absence of direct quotation becomes conspicuous at the end, when the poem repeats the idea from the first line, using the similar phrase “saying things.” Readers are forced to broaden their understanding of what it means to “say” when they see that the father has not actually said anything, at least not in the traditional sense. The poet’s failure to say things, contrasted with the father’s nonverbal success at it, leads to the conclusion that “saying things” is not as dependent on words as one might at first assume.

The father’s song takes a different form than what readers ordinarily understand a song to be. This is emphasized in the poem by the way that this particular story of this particular day is introduced. In line 7, the poem uses the word “son” as if it is an unsuccessful, truncated attempt to say the word “song,” which is spelled the same except for one final letter. The staccato, one-syllable words of the phrase “his son, his song” could give the impression of the poem’s speaker stammering, choking on the expression the first time before completing it, leading to the conclusion that the two similar words are really the same thing. This structure certainly compels readers to look at how close these two words are, and doing so draws attention to how close they are in concept. Then, after “son” and “song” are united in this way, a third element is added. At the end of line 7, the colon indicates that what follows, the story of the mice in the cornfield, is the song and is also, then, by extension, related to the word “son.” The poem’s central event is therefore more than just something that happened once to the poet, it is in fact a part of his identity. The father’s song is both the way that he handled the situation in the cornfield and also the person that the speaker of the poem grew up to be.

Much of this poem’s power is derived from Ortiz’s use of repetition. This would be true, of course, of any poem, where important points are emphasized by making readers feel the strange familiarity of having seen them before, but it is a technique that is especially important for a poem like “My Father’s Song” where, as in a song, the main point comes from its mood, not its ideas. Ortiz ties the elements of this brief poem together with indistinct echoes.

There are echoes of metaphor, which are likely to have an impact on readers whether they are conscious of them or not. Of these, the most obvious is the one of planting seeds for future growth. The story this poem tells takes place when they are planting corn in spring, the traditional time of fertility. In fact, the author adds an extra line to point out “we planted several times,” which shows this family’s continual togetherness and also puts emphasis on the family’s interest in growth. The symbolic connection between planting corn and the lesson that the father gives his son is easy enough to recognize, especially in light of the poem’s circular shape: starting with the son wanting to say things and ending with the memory of the father saying things is just another way to say that the father planted the idea of oral tradition in the son’s head, for future harvest. The fact that the mice are babies is symbolic enough of growth in and of itself, but the poet ties this symbol to the other one of cultivating corn by having the father place the baby mice in the soil, like seeds.

There are also echoes in the ways that Ortiz returns to one specific image at the end of every stanza in the poem’s flashback story. In line 11, he refers to the memory of “the soft damp sand”; in line 17, the mice are found in “the soft moist sand”; in line 23, the father puts the baby mice into the shade next to “a sand moist clod.” All of these physical images of sand are tied up in the poem’s last stanza, where the reference is to “the very softness / of cool and warm sand and tiny alive mice.” Earth and infants combine to capture the speaker’s feelings about his father’s song. The poem is tied together by the feel of sand, in some places cool and in some warm, but always soft and nurturing, reflecting its theme of how he learned from his father without words.

One final way that repetition is used to hold this poem together is in Ortiz’s use of recurring sounds. There is only one direct instance of rhyming at the end of lines, at the end of the second stanza where he pairs “sand” with “hand.” In addition to that, he uses some near rhymes, such as “catch” and “chest” in the first stanza and even “time” and “times” in the second: though the latter is not technically an instance of rhyme, it is definitely a case where two words sound similar, and so it serves the purpose of rhyme, which is to give the poem a sense of interconnectedness. The poem’s most clever use of repeated sounds occurs in its middle stanza, where “furrow,” at the end of line 14, is echoed by “burrow” in the middle of line 16, and they are surrounded by “show” and “plow[share],” which are not related by sound as much as they are by their visual presence. These subtle touches are useful for letting any poem show that an author’s hand is firmly in control, but they are especially significant in a poem about a writer finding a faint, barely recognizable trace from his past repeated in such a subtle way that he can hardly believe that the connection between past and present is real.

It is through his subtle use of repetition, to such a degree that most readers are not aware of his command of technique until attention is given to them, that Ortiz is able to raise the idea of a “song” without being too specific about how the elements of singing might relate his father’s thoughts and actions. Though it is not a traditional song, the father’s handling of this situation is nonetheless recognizable as a song of some kind. It has musical elements in its repetition, and the artistic elements that characterize nonverbal communication in the way that it touches on universal truths. The various parts and the whole all fit together with a mathematical precision, all steering toward the one main idea of raising seeds, or mice, or cultural identity, out of the sand beneath one’s feet.

The poem’s greatest mystery is that it is about the oral tradition, and it is called a song, but the singer is silent throughout it. The father’s words are obscured by the author’s summary of what he said, so that readers experience what happened without seeing much of how he behaved. Action has priority over any one person in the world of this poem: this could be a sign of the relative insignificance of individuals, or it could be a sign that the speaker of the poem is so secure with the memory of his father that he takes it for granted. In either case, “My Father’s Song” gives readers with European-based sensibilities a rare opportunity to experience how life looks from the perspective of one of the many world cultures that developed to maturity without the use of written language.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “My Father’s Song,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College.

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