James Welch Poetry: American Poets Analysis
“I have benefitted materially from being an Indian poet,” James Welch wrote in a brief piece for the South Dakota Review in 1973, “but I just hope that in twenty or thirty years people will take me seriously as a poet.” Most students of Native American writing would agree that Welch’s hopes have been realized. In his observations, Welch noted that while he likes “to use the legends, the traditions, and the myths” of his people, he also likes “to write contemporary poetry” about “what’s going on in the reservations” today. He suggested that he did not intend for his poems to be “bitter or angry,” but that they do end up being “very intense.”
The fifty-nine poems in Riding the Earthboy Forty—the title refers to the forty acres leased by a family named Earthboy that lived next to Welch’s parents in northern Montana—range from eight to thirty-five lines; nearly half of the poems run under twenty lines. The influence of the poems, however, has little to do with their bulk or critical mass. Appearing as they did just two years after the occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes in 1969 and two years before the siege at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973, involving members of the American Indian movement, Riding the Earthboy Forty might be regarded as propitiously timed: It was the right book of poems at the right moment. Just three years earlier, in 1968, N. Scott Momaday had made a notable impression on the literary establishment when his novel, House Made of Dawn, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Various critics, including Alan R. Velie in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (1982), have traced the surreal or deep imagery that dominates some of Welch’s poems in the techniques of Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. In Understanding James Welch (2000), Ron McFarland traces the apparent influences of Welch’s mentor and friend Richard Hugo on several of the poems. The poems vary considerably in voice and accessibility. Some of the shortest and sparest poems, like the opening poem, “Magic Fox,” which runs just eighteen clipped lines (the longest come to just six words), will mystify with their dreamlike images that appear to have neither a narrative nor a cause-effect organization. Other poems, such as “Grandma’s Man,” which is composed in thirty relatively long lines, tend toward narrative, and still others, such as “In My First Hard Spring,” depict characters from the reservation, described usually from a first-person point of view.
“When asked why he did not write poetry anymore,” Kathryn W. Shanley writes in her introduction to a special memorial issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures (fall, 2006) devoted to James Welch, “Jim often commented that he would like to believe poetry resides within his prose.” Most readers of Welch’s novels would likely assent. However, this is not to devalue the achievement of his single volume of poems. Philip H. Round describes Riding the Earthboy Forty as “a watershed in American poetry” that has made a...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)