Maurice Kenny Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maurice Kenny 1929–

(Full name Maurice Francis Kenny) American poet, short story writer, editor, and playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Kenny's career through 1994.

Kenny has been a leading figure in the renaissance of Native American poetry since the 1970s. His works typically focus on the links between humanity and nature, the spiritual forces of renewal and creation, and prominent figures in the history of the Mohawk people. Although his works derive their subject matter primarily from Iroquois culture and traditions, he has also written knowledgeably and sympathetically about other Native American peoples; as Robert L. Berner has stated, "Maurice Kenny is perhaps the dean of American Indian poets."

Biographical Information

Kenny was born in Watertown, New York. When he was thirteen, his parents divorced, and he moved to New York City to live with his mother. Later, he returned to upstate New York to live with his father, who was of Mohawk descent. It was during this time that Kenny developed his ties to Iroquois culture. He attended Butler University, St. Lawrence University, and New York University, where he studied under Louise Bogan, whom Kenny has identified as a principal influence on his development as a poet. With her guidance, he published Dead Letters Sent, and Other Poems (1958), his first major collection of poetry. His epic poem Blackrobe (1982) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, as was Between Two Rivers (1987) in 1987. His collection The Mama Poems (1984) received the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation in 1984. Kenny is the editor and publisher of the Strawberry Press and frequently travels to colleges and universities across the United States and Canada to give poetry readings.

Major Works

Kenny's works often draw on Iroquois traditions, and a recurring motif in his works is the strawberry, which possesses spiritual power in Mohawk culture. The poem "Wild Strawberry" and the short story "Yaikini," for instance, both depict the picking and eating of strawberries as sacred acts associated with growth and renewal. Many of the poems in Dancing Back Strong the Nation (1979) draw on the social dances and songs performed in the longhouse, the communal dwelling and center of social interaction for the Mohawk and other Native American peoples. Such poems as "Dance," "Drums," and "Mocca-sin," for example, are based on Mohawk dance and drum rhythms and, like the songs, emphasize the ceremonial naming of objects as a means of locating the essence of their sacredness. Kenny has also written about historical confrontations between the Mohawk people and European missionaries and settlers. The epic poem Blackrobe, for example, centers on the brief career of Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary whom the Mohawks killed in 1646, while the narrative poems in Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1735–1795) (1992) focus on the life of Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman who convinced the Mohawks to support the British during the French and Indian War and led the Mohawks in support of the British during the American Revolution. Kenny's works, however, are not limited to Mohawk history, culture, and concerns. The well-known poem "I Am the Sun," for instance, is based on a Lakota Ghost Dance song and was inspired by the armed confrontation between members of the American Indian Movement, U.S. federal marshals, and Federal Bureau of Investigation officers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. The short story "Rain," which concerns a Mohawk who travels with a Pueblo family to witness a rain dance in Santa Ana, New Mexico, similarly comments on questions of tribal identity and pan-Indianism.

Critical Reception

Praising Kenny's ability to depict a world in which humankind and nature are united, critics have noted his adept use of oral traditions, dance rhythms, and symbolic images from the longhouse to create a sense of community in his poetry. Commentators on his historical poems have additionally lauded his balanced treatment of European and Native American characters and articulate presentation of the Mohawk people's myth-oriented worldview. As Robert L. Berner has observed: "Kenny's most successful efforts derive from his greatest strength as a poet, his ability to let his themes emerge out of his Mohawk context."