Louise Erdrich Erdrich, Louise (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Louise Erdrich 1954-

American poet, novelist, and author of memoirs and children's books.

The following entry presents criticism from 1985 to 1999 on Erdrich's life and works. See also, Louise Erdrich Literary Criticism and Love Medicine Criticism.

Erdrich is a poet and award-winning novelist whose works explore themes of family and personal survival and cultural continuity. The daughter of a German American father and an Ojibwe French mother, Erdrich populates her fiction with central characters drawn from both Native and non-Native cultures, and her poems reflect the unresolved tension of trying to preserve a minority cultural heritage in the face of the dominant white culture. Because it addresses universal concerns of motherhood and sisterhood as well as the unique life experiences of Native American women, Erdrich's work has garnered both praise and criticism for its wide appeal and lack of overt politicism.

Biographical Information

Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, on June 7, 1954, and was raised as the oldest of seven children in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her Ojibwe (Chippewa) grandfather was once the tribal head of the Turtle Mountain Reservation nearby, and her parents worked at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich was a member of the freshman class at Dartmouth University in 1972, the year that women were first admitted as students. The university established its Native American studies department that year as well, and its first chairperson was anthropologist Michael Dorris. In a class taught by Dorris, who would later become her husband, Erdrich first began the cultural examination of her heritage that would later inspire her poetry and fiction, including Jacklight, her first volume of poetry, and the novel Love Medicine, both of which were published in 1984.

In 1978, Erdrich began a graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, and after completing a Master of Arts degree, she was invited to return to Dartmouth to give a poetry reading. Dorris attended the event, and they subsequently began a literary friendship that led first to professional collaboration and then to marriage in 1981. During the next decade and beyond, Dorris and Erdrich worked closely on all of their literary projects while raising a family that consisted of adopted and biological children. The collaborative partnership, revealed in more than two dozen interviews in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (1994), began to unravel during the mid-1990s. The couple separated in 1995, and Dorris committed suicide in 1997.

Since the publication of her second volume of poetry, Baptism of Desire, in 1989, Erdrich has focused primarily on writing long and short fiction, and in the late 1990s she began writing children's stories as well. While she continues to document the life experiences of full- and mixed-heritage Native American women in her novels, she has also adopted an interest in learning and preserving the language of the Ojibwe, known to its speakers as Anishinibe.

Major Works

Erdrich's first volume of poetry, Jacklight, is based on works she first conceived as part of her master's degree studies. The poems of this collection comprise five general thematic groupings. These include poems that explore the conflict of Native and non-Native cultures; poems that celebrate family and the bonds of sisterhood; songs of love; autobiographical poems that bring to life characters from the poet's childhood; and poems that elicit the mythical, storytelling aspects of her Ojibwe heritage. One of the best-known poems of this collection is the frequently anthologized “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”; another is “A Love Medicine,” the family and sisterhood themes of which also form the basis of her novel Love Medicine.

With her second poetry collection, Baptism of Desire, Erdrich draws deeply on her experience as a mother, caretaker, and life partner, noting that many of the poems were “written between the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy.” The volume's title refers to a little-understood tenet of the Roman Catholic faith tradition in which Erdrich was raised; the poems embrace a complex spirituality born of the co-mingling yet conflicting religious traditions of her dual heritage. “Hydra,” which masterfully intertwines themes of myth, maternity, Native intuition, and Catholic theology, finds the poet speaking to both the child in her womb and the mythical serpent, likening herself to the biblical mothers Eve and Mary. The solitude of maternal wariness in the presence of sleeping children is evoked in “The Ritual.” Describing this collection, critic Carolyn Dunn wrote, “The ordinary and the extraordinary are woven into one seamless whole.”

Although she began her literary publishing career as a poet, Erdrich is best known for her fiction, which includes short stories written for periodicals and anthologies, and more than a half dozen novels. The earliest of these, Love Medicine, was first published in 1984 and released in an expanded edition in 1993. The next four, The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996), continue the stories begun in the first novel of three interrelated families whose experiences span most of the twentieth century. Set in and around a reservation in a fictional North Dakota town, these novels reveal Native American families living in cultural conflict while simultaneously depicting the universal issues of family life that cross cultural boundaries.

The Antelope Wife, which appeared in 1998, was Erdrich's first major work published without the literary or editorial influence of Michael Dorris. The late 1990s also saw the publication of two children's books by Erdrich: Grandmother's Pigeon (1996), and The Birchbark House (1999). Her most recent novels include The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) and The Master Butchers Singing Club (2002).

Critical Reception

Most of the critical attention devoted to Erdrich's work has focused on her long fiction, especially the five interrelated novels; literary analysis of these works often praises Erdrich's intuitive narrative style and non-chronological portrayal of time. However, many of the cultural themes identified by reviewers of her novels—elements of Ojibwe mythology combined with aspects of Roman Catholic religious life; the depiction of women's relationships with loved ones and society as a whole; and portrayal of life experiences from both Native and non-Native perspectives—are also noted approvingly by reviewers of Erdrich's poetry. In a review of Jacklight, James McKenzie wrote that Erdrich's poetry “fills an important space in our evolving, collective knowledge of who we really are.” Praising Baptism of Desire, Helen Jaskoski wrote, “The language is rich, the imagery sometimes almost hallucinatory.”

Erdrich's literary approach to representing the Native American experience has been criticized on cultural and political grounds by some peers, including Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko's observation about the novel Love Medicine, for example, is that Erdrich does not accurately or fully address the political, psychological, or economic hardships endured by Native Americans in the dominant white culture. Other critics concur, however, that although Erdrich's unconventional use of narrative and descriptive language doesn't lend itself to overt political commentary, it fully communicates her deep concern for cultural preservation and continuity. As such, the universal appeal of her fiction and poetry is considered a strength, rather than a weakness, by such observers of her work.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Jacklight 1984

Baptism of Desire 1989

Imagination (nonfiction) 1980

Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993

The Beet Queen (novel) 1986

Tracks (novel) 1988

The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991

The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994

Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris [with Allan Richard Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin] (interviews) 1994

The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoirs) 1995

Grandmother's Pigeon (juvenilia) 1996

Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996

The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998

The Birchbark House (juvenilia) 1999

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (novel) 2001

The Master Butchers Singing Club (novel) 2002

Louise Erdrich and Jan George (interview date spring 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Jan George. “Interview with Louise Erdrich.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (spring 1985): 240-7.

[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses her early works and talks about the life experiences that influence her poetry and fiction.]

“If there's a story there, that's enough,” says Louise Erdrich, who brings to life the history and mythology of her people and, therefore, her identity: Chippewa, German, woman, Midwesterner. By juxtaposing and weaving past and present together, Erdrich gives shape to the prairie land and its people in her book of poems, Jacklight, and her novel, Love Medicine (both 1984, Holt,...

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James McKenzie (review date spring 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McKenzie, James. Review of Jacklight. North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (spring 1985): 257-9.

[In the following review, McKenzie asserts that Erdrich's first volume of poetry successfully portrays North Dakota's varied population of “ordinary” people of both Native and European American heritage.]

The new North Dakota license plate blends romantic figures from the state's territorial past (Sakajawea, the Seventh Cavalry, Teddy Roosevelt) with objects from its present (a curve of highway, a farm silo, the capitol tower) to form what must be the most complicated image on any of the fifty states' license plates. Old Glory, in the middle of the montage,...

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Vernon Shetley (review date April 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. Review of Jacklight. Poetry 146, no. 1 (April 1985): 40-1.

[In the following review, Shetley offers a brief criticism of Jacklight.]

Louise Erdrich's rough-hewn poems view the American West they inhabit under two contrary aspects: as wild, daemonic nature or as landscape of human loneliness, whose physical correlatives are on the one hand forest and plain, and on the other roadside and small town. In the former mode, she seeks what was once called the “deep image,” a logically inexplicable but archetypally resonant cluster of language meant to liberate an elementally powerful emotional response. While her reading has probably...

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Richard K. Waters (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Waters, Richard K. Review of Jacklight. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 9, no. 4 (1985): 136-9.

[In the following review of Jacklight, Waters comments on Erdrich's exploration of her mixed heritage through poetry.]

In Jacklight Louise Erdrich has achieved something unusual in the field of Native American poetry, where all too often the voice of the poet too stridently insists that the reader give attention to the poet's Indian-ness. Not that it is wrong to be read as an Indian poet, but usually the poets of such works contradictorily beg to be read as poets in the mainstream, despite the inevitability that poems written about...

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Michael Loudon (review date winter 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Loudon, Michael. Review of Jacklight. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 159.

[In the following review, Loudon offers favorable criticism of Jacklight.]

Designating someone's “first book of poems” as such is typically an apologetic strategy. For Erdrich, “first-rate,” “first ground,” and “first light” are more descriptive of the forty-four poems of Jacklight. I felt early in the reading the same narrative force, precise images, and complex characters that eventually found full expression in her celebrated novel Love Medicine (1984), but the poems are far from mere exercises on the way to a novel. They are...

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Elaine Jahner (review date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jahner, Elaine. Review of Jacklight. Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 1 (1986): 29-34.

[In the following review, Jahner offers a critical review of Erdrich's Jacklight.]

In an age and culture where the sheer volume of poetry written on a given day must approach that of personal letters, critics know that words like “new” or “unique” are so shopworn as to threaten meaning. Nevertheless, these adjectives retain their original full force of signification when applied to Louise Erdrich's Jacklight. The poems in this volume demonstrate an awareness that words, well-placed, will pull at the bit, will make us realize that we can't...

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Louise Erdrich and Miriam Berkley (interview date 15 August 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Miriam Berkley. “PW Interviews: Louise Erdrich.” Publishers Weekly 230 (August 15, 1986): 58-9.

[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses the development of her career and her collaboration with husband Michael Dorris.]

When Louise Erdrich was a child in North Dakota, her father encouraged her to write by paying her a nickel a story. Once in a while, a story found its way into a book hand-sewn by her mother. Still, she had no urge to be a writer, she says, “until I got to college and found I wasn't much good at anything else.” If Erdrich is, one suspects, being unduly modest about her nonliterary achievements, there can...

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Louise Erdrich and Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Joseph Bruchac. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, pp. 73-86. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses geographic, cultural, and family influences on her poetry and fiction.]

It was a sunny day in New Hampshire when Louise Erdrich and her younger sister, Heidi Erdrich, a student in Creative Writing at Dartmouth, met me at the airport. We drove to the house her sister was subletting from Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and teacher at Dartmouth. Louise and I sat out on the back deck above a field where...

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Helen Jaskoski (review date winter 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jaskoski, Helen. Review of Baptism of Desire. SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, 2d ser., 3, no. 4 (winter 1991): 55-7.

[In the following review, Jaskoski discusses Erdrich's second volume of poetry.]

In Catholic doctrine, Baptism of Desire has a rather technical meaning: a person who is unable to manage conventional baptism of water can, by earnestly and truly wanting to be baptised, gain the benefits of the sacrament, i.e., entry into the church and eligibility for heaven. Longing and will may serve where form and ritual are impossible. In Louise Erdrich's latest collection of poems the technical meaning of longing to be baptised in the...

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Carolyn Dunn (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunn, Carolyn. Review of Baptism of Desire. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17, no. 3 (1993): 188-93.

[In the following review, Dunn offers a critical overview of the poems contained in Baptism of Desire.]

When classifying American Indian literature, literary critics seek to define just what is distinctly Indian about these writers. Most of the writers today come from varied tribal and nontribal backgrounds, so it is difficult to categorize Indian writers under that simple heading: Indian. Male writers tend to explore themes of ritualistic death and rebirth through a communion within the community; female writers tend to look outward in...

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P. Jane Hafen (essay date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hafen, P. Jane. “Sacramental Language: Ritual in the Poetry of Louise Erdrich.” Great Plains Quarterly 16, no. 3 (summer 1996): 147-55.

[In the following essay, Hafen offers a critical analysis of Erdrich's poetry, focusing on her portrayal of culture and ritual through literature.]

As an intensely personal genre, poetry intimately reveals Louise Erdrich's voice as her well-known fiction does not.1 Evident in that voice are elements of the mosaic of cultural experiences that comprise Erdrich's life: Catholicism, German ancestry, working class, university education, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa.2 Erdrich's poetry is her first published...

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Robin Riley Fast (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Fast, Robin Riley. “Resistant History: Revising the Captivity Narrative in ‘Captivity’ and Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23, no. 1 (1999): 69-86.

[In the following essay, Fast compares literary treatments of colonial Indian captivity stories, as represented in selected works of Erdrich and Maurice Kenny.]

Many contemporary American Indian writers are engaged in the shared project of complicating and revising the received history of the Americas. Kimberly Blaeser reminds us that survival is at stake here when she says that “the creation and interpretations of histories have … functioned directly as the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Fast, Robin Riley. “Claiming History.” In The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry, pp. 183-206. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 1999.

Seventh chapter includes a discussion of Erdrich's poem “Captivity” among a selection of works that offer literary variations on historic accounts of relations between native and nonnative peoples in Colonial America.

Finch, Annie. “Poets of Our Time.” Belles Lettres 5, no. 4 (summer 1990): 30-1.

Review of Erdrich's Baptism of Desire.

Hughes, Sheila Hassell. “Falls of Desire/Leaps of Faith:...

(The entire section is 351 words.)