Joy Harjo Harjo, Joy (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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 poetic voice.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


The Last Song 1975

What Moon Drove Me to This? 1979

She Had Some Horses 1983

Secrets from the Center of the World [with Stephen Strom] 1989

In Mad Love and War 1990

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky 1996

The Good Luck Cat [with Paul Lee] 2000

A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (poetry and short stories) 2000

Other Major Works

Origin of Apache Crown Dance (screenplay) 1985

The Spiral of Memory (interviews) [edited by Laura Coltelli] 1996

John F. Crawford (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Notes towards a New Multicultural Criticism." A Gift of Tongues, Marie Harris and Kathleen AGuero, eds., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987, pp. 155-95.

[In the following essay, Crawford provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Harjo's She Had Some Horses.]

In her early writing, Joy Harjo already addressed themes of land and people, fear and healing. Speaking of her native landscape, she remarked:

What is breathing here is some sort of dangerous anger that rises up out of the Oklahoma landscape. The earth is alive with emotions, and will take action on what is being felt. This way of seeing is characteristic of most native poets and writers of Oklahoma. That which has happened to the earth, has happened to all of us as part of the earth….

What Oklahoma becomes, in a sense, is a dream, an alive and real dream that takes place inside and outside of the writer…. Our words begin inside of the dream and become a way of revealing ourselves within this landscape that is called Oklahoma. Language becomes all of the people that we are. Living voices surround us and speak from the diverse and many histories we have been, the ones we have become, and most of all, how we will continue. There are those voices among us who will assume the cadence of an ancient and living chant.15

Nothing in Harjo's early work quite prepares the reader for the overall arrangement—a plot structure operating on several levels—of She Had Some Horses, her third book, published in 1983.16 The book begins by confessing the poet's fear. It then describes the fate of other "survivors" like herself who have had to deal with such fear. It introduces intermediary figures—human and symbolic—who negotiate between the poet and her fear. It tells a story of the breakup of the poet's relationship with a man and her discovery of the love of a woman. It ends with the freeing of the horses, who are the symbols of her frightened spirit, and the freeing of the poet from old, repressive images to live her own life. The end is a ritual prayer, closing off the matter begun with the first poem.

The first poem, "Call It Fear," introduces most of the thematic material in the book.

The "edge" of fear is the subject of the book. The fear is protean, taking many shapes: notably the backwards-talking Holy Rollers on the radio and the nightmare of the horses pulling the poet's entrails out of her belly ("Or name it with other songs"). The people of Harjo's acquaintance sit by the volcanic cliffs outside Albuquerque trying to propitiate this fear ritually by talking and singing and "walking backwards." Still it persists ("Under our ribs / our hearts are bloody stars"). Someone who might stand as an intermediary between the poet and her fear, Goodluck, her friend and a symbolic figure, has been unable like her to "[break] through the edge of the singing at four a.m."

Succeeding poems speak of those who survive even in a hostile environment. The poet quickly establishes her sense of identity with people of color in America in her poem to Audre Lorde, "Anchorage":

The survivors take many forms, but perhaps the most stirring image in these poems is the relationship of women to the earth. It begins in the poem "For Alva Benson, and for Those Who Have Learned to Speak":

And the ground spoke when she was born.
Her mother heard it. In Navajo she answered
as she squatted down against the earth
to give birth. It was now when it happened,
now giving birth to itself again and again
between the legs of women.

The image is heightened in a later stanza, the action of which makes a completed circle, with Mt. St. Helens the governing symbol:

The child now hears names in her sleep.
They change into other names, and into others.
It is the ground murmuring, and Mt. St. Helens
erupts as the harmonic motion of a child turning
inside her mother's belly waiting to be born
to begin another time.

Contrasting to this woman-image of cyclic restoration is the tragic image of the man, drinking and out of control, which repeats itself in several poems. In "Night Out" it is a man in a barroom on New Year's Eve:

The poet takes pains to universalize and understand the figure:

These poems show separate ways of knowing: a man's way, harsh and fatalistic, of meaningless rebellion, or a woman's way, embracing the history of the whole earth of which one is a part. It is the second way the...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)

Joseph Bruchac with Joy Harjo (interview date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Story of All Our Survival: An Interview with Joy Harjo," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press and Sun Tracks, 1987, pp. 87-103.

[In the following interview, Harjo discusses the role of memory and storytelling in her poetry as well as the major themes and images found in She Had Some Horses.]

This interview took place on December 2, 1982, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Joy Harjo was living while a student in a post-graduate film-making program at the College of Santa Fe. Although the interview was done before the publication of her new book of poems, She Had Some Horses (Thunder's Mouth...

(The entire section is 4840 words.)

Nancy Lang (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Twin Gods Bending Over': Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory," in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 41-9.

[In the following essay, Lang emphasizes the importance of memory in Harjo's poetry by examining her depiction of various urban American landscapes.[

Contemporary Native American poet Joy Harjo expresses and reflects patterns of ongoing, multilayered and multivocal memories within the narratives of her poems. These memories flow and interweave on a continuum within a metaphysical world that begins deep within her personal psyche and simultaneously moves back into past memories of her Creek (Muskogee) heritage, as well as forward into current pantribal...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Mary Leen (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Art of Saying: Joy Harjo's Poetry and the Survival of Storytelling," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 1-3, 5-15.

[In the following excerpt, Leen explores the function of storytelling in Harjo's poetry.]

In her poem titled, "The Book of Myths," Joy Harjo (1990:55-56) introduces "stories / that unglue the talking spirit from the pages" (lines 33-34). Stories have the power to take action, to unglue a spirit, to revise words on a page, to cross sacred boundaries to revisionist myth-making. Another Native American writer addresses storytelling and crossing boundaries in his short story, "Four Skin." Gerald Vizenor (199:91) crosses...

(The entire section is 6226 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Goodman, Jenny. "Politics and the Personal Lyric in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and C. D. Wright." MELUS 19, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 35-56.

Examines recent poetry by Harjo and Wright, contending that the two authors "work consciously at the borders of aesthetics and politics, reshaping the available language for both."

Harjo, Joy. "Writing with the Sun." In Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited by Sharon Bryan, pp. 704. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Traces Harjo's interest in poetry and assesses the impact of her Native American background on her maturation as a writer.


(The entire section is 310 words.)