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(Poetry Criticism)

Joy Harjo 1951–

American poet, screenwriter, short story writer, and editor.

Strongly influenced by her Muscogee Creek heritage, feminist and social concerns, and her background in the arts, Harjo frequently incorporates Native American myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry emphasizes the Southwest landscape and the need for remembrance and transcendence. She is also praised for her powerful poetic voice and clear vision.

Biographical Information

Harjo is a registered member of the Muscogee Creek tribe. Her father was Creek and her mother part French and part Cherokee. She is also a distant cousin of Native American poet Alexander Posey. Born and raised in Oklahoma, she graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts, a boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After graduation she joined a Native American dance troupe and worked a series of odd jobs before pursuing a college education. As a student at the University of New Mexico, she began writing poetry after hearing American poet Galway Kinnell and Native American writers Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko read from their works. She eventually graduated with a B.A. in poetry in 1976. Attending the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, she took classes under the direction of Silko, earning a M.F.A. in 1978. In addition to teaching at various institutions, Harjo has worked for the National Association for Third World Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National American Public Broadcasting Consortium. She has received many honors, such as the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, and a NEA fellowship.

Major Works

Harjo's work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and preoccupation with transcendence, survival, and the limitations of language. The search for freedom and self-actualization are considered central to her volume She Had Some Horses, which incorporates prayer-chants and animal imagery. Nature is also a prominent theme of her prose poetry collection, Secrets from the Center of the World, in which each poem is accompanied by a photograph of the American Southwest. Each poem and picture underscore the importance

of landscape and story within the Native American world view. In Mad Love and War focuses on politics, tradition, remembrance, and the transformational aspects of poetry. The first section relates various acts of violence, including attempts to deny Harjo her heritage, the murder of an Indian leader, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, and events in war-torn Nicaragua. The second half of the book frequently emphasizes personal relationships and change. Her recent collection, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, is named for an Iroquois myth about a female creator. The poems are concerned with the vying forces of creation and destruction in contemporary society, and utilize images ranging from wolves to northern lights and subjects such as the devastation of alcoholism and the Vietnam War.

Critical Reception

Harjo is considered an important figure in contemporary American poetry. Scholars note that while Harjo's work is often set in the Southwest, emphasizes the plight of the individual, and reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs, her oeuvre also has universal relevance. She is often criticized for being too political in her work. Yet some critics see her concern over injustice as an integral part of being a Native American woman living in the twentieth century. Some commentators analyze the recurring image of the American urban landscape in her poetry, asserting that Harjo often juxtaposes the modern city with traditional Native American culture in order to underscore the alienation of native peoples in modern American society. Many critics trace her maturation as a poet, maintaining that as the body of her work unfolds, she expresses herself with increasing confidence and a stronger...

(The entire section is 17,785 words.)