Maurice Kenny Essay - Critical Essays

Kenny, Maurice


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."

Principal Works

The Hopeless Kill (poetry) 1956
Dead Letters Sent, and Other Poems (poetry) 1958
With Love to Lesbia: A Sheaf of Poems (poetry) 1958
And Grieve, Lesbia: Poems (poetry) 1960
North: Poems of Home (poetry) 1977
Dancing Back Strong the Nation (poetry) 1979; enlarged edition, 1981
Only as Far as Brooklyn (poetry) 1979
Kneading the Blood (poetry) 1981
Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues, b. March 11, 1607, d. October 18, 1646 (poetry) 1982
Boston Tea Party (poetry) 1982
The Smell of Slaughter (poetry) 1982
The Mama Poems (poetry) 1984
Is Summer This Bear (poetry and short stories) 1985
Rain, and Other Fictions (short stories and drama) 1985; enlarged edition, 1990
Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems 1956–1984 (poetry) 1987
Last Mornings in Brooklyn (poetry) 1991
Roman Nose, and Other Essays (essays) 1991
Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1735–1795): Poems of War (poetry) 1992


Paula Gunn Allen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: An introduction to Dancing Back Strong the Nation: Poems by Maurice Kenny, Blue Cloud Quarterly Press, 1979.

[A Laguna Pueblo novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, educator, and critic, Allen edited Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983). In the essay below, which was originally written in 1978, she comments on the overall themes of Dancing Back Strong the Nation, nothing that as a Native American poet, Kenny allows Native and non-Native readers to "discover what our common journey is about and to understand each step as within a totality."]

Poets are a unique breed of people, and Native American poets are, perhaps, even more so because of the nature of the modern Native American experience. Poets must say things that others might not allow themselves to think; they must transmute the ordinary into the extraordinary, and the extraordinary into the mundane. Poetry, that peculiar quirk of mind, requires that the hidden become clear while the evident sinks into obscurity. It is the poet's task to articulate the significance of human life by weaving discordant bits of life into meaningful patterns. The Native American poet, whose life is discordant at every level, faces the necessity of creating wholeness from a life that is biculturated—broken into pieces of the past and lumps of the fragmented present, and fuse them into coherence—make a meaningful rubric of beads and chrome, cities and wilderness, plants and machine, time immemorial and no-time-at-all. For the modern Native American...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

James Ruppert (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1980, pp. 87-110.

[An American educator and critic, Ruppert specializes in Native American literature. In the excerpt below, he identifies the stylistic and thematic elements in Kenny's poetry that have been drawn from the Native oral tradition.]

Maurice Kenny, publisher of Strawberry Press and Coeditor of Contact/II, among his many talents has developed a finely-tuned lyric voice. Kenny's background includes a seeking out of the works of Whitman, Williams and Louise Bogan after which he "returned with their teachings to my proper place … home / north." But to their world of things, men and especially nature, Kenny brings an atavistic self. He sees his role not so much as a storyteller, but as a singer of spirit. His song/poems express him as a medium for the voices he hears, the voices of the spirits of creation: plant spirit, animal spirit and human spirit. His poetry does not directly assume a persona, rather he sings the songs of everything and every thing. In assuming a persona we explain and explore character, whether personal, social, or mythical. Kenny wants to sing the songs, to praise and celebrate individual things, while a poet like Peter Blue Cloud may desire to pierce the web of spirit in nature or pick up the false-face to mask his own. Kenny at times becomes the nature he expresses. He has said "I am one of those pieces of sage" to indicate the extent of his unity with natural things.

"Wild Strawberry"

vines crawl across the grassy floor
of the north, scatter to the world
seeking the light of the sun and innocent
tap of the rain to feed the roots
and bud small white flowers that in June
will burst fruit and announce spring
when wolf will drop winter fur
and wrens will break the egg

my blood, blood berries that brought laughter
and the ache in the stooped back that vied
with dandelions for the plucking,
and the wines nourished our youth and heralded
iris, corn and summer melon

Here Kenny's fusion with the natural is so complete that it is almost unnoticed, a fusion and communion not achieved by Whitman's excellent, though "I" studded verse. His life and the life of the strawberry are irrevocably fused. The renewal of one is the renewal of spring which is the renewal of both, of all. Memory renews in recreating the past and the present. In creating an image, Kenny is exact in the memory of names—the names of animals, plants and minerals, for in naming those things he is in a sense calling on them, giving them a chance to speak. Here he reveals a commitment to Williams' "No ideas but in things" because his use of natural imagery communicates elegantly its intellectual wisdom to mankind. Kenny's approach "through image, symbolically" lets him sing of natural objects such as...

(The entire section is 1324 words.)

Carolyn D. Scott (essay date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: "Baskets of Sweetgrass: Maurice Kenny's Dancing Back Strong the Nation and 'I Am the Sun'," in Studies in American Indian Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 8-13.

[In the following essay, Scott examines Kenny's focus on nature and concern with community and tradition in Dancing Back Strong the Nation and "I Am the Sun."]

Maurice Kenny's slim volume of only 23 poems, Dancing Back Strong the Nation, now out of print, has its origins, fittingly, in the sacred Longhouse of the Mohawk Nation, oldest in the country, resting on the borders of Canada and the U.S. A second printing adds six more poems, but preserves essentially the same...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)

Joseph Bruchac (review date September 1984)

SOURCE: A review of The Mama Poems, in The Small Press Review, Vol. 16, No. 9, September, 1984, p. 12.

[Bruchac is a Native American educator, poet, and editor who has edited numerous works on Native American authors and literatures. Below, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Mama Poems.]

With the release of [The Mama Poems], Maurice Kenny moves closer towards achieving recognition as a major figure among American writers. Already seen by some critics as one of the 4 or 5 most significant Native American poets, Kenny speaks in The Mama Poems with a distinctive voice, one shaped by the rhythms of Mohawk life and speech, yet one which both...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Edward Butscher (review date March-April 1985)

SOURCE: "The Historic Present," in The American Book Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, March-April, 1985, p. 18.

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Maurice Kenny (essay date February 1986)

SOURCE: A prelude to Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems 1956–1984, White Pine Press, 1987, pp. 1-5.

(The entire section is 2530 words.)

Daniela Gioseffi (review date April 1987)

SOURCE: "Wild Berries," in The Small Press Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, April, 1987, pp. 4-5.

[Gioseffi is an American poet, short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the review below, she remarks on Kenny's poems and stories in Is Summer This Bear and Rain, and Other Fictions.]

Maurice Kenny, accomplished poet, winner of the 1984 American Book Award of The Before Columbus Foundation for his Mama Poems, in his new collection, Is Summer This Bear, continues in the fine nature tradition of Native-American poetry which he has helped to foster as one of its four or five most mature and significant voices. Kenny, whose Blackrobe:...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Autumn 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems 1956–1984, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, p. 709.

[In the following review, Berner surveys the strengths and themes of Kenny's poetry.]

For three decades the work of the Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny has been largely ignored by the literary establishment but has been widely admired by the present generation of young Indian poets for its service to the old idea that poetry, before it is anything else, is an oral art. We can only hope that the handsome retrospective Between Two Rivers will bring his work to a larger audience.

Though Kenny is deeply committed to...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Maurice Kenny (essay date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: A preface to Rain, and Other Fictions, White Pine Press, 1990, pp. 9-10.

[In the excerpt below from an essay first written in 1989, Kenny comments on fiction and poetry writing.]

Never have I seriously considered myself a storyteller. This is not to say that I do not take the writing of fiction seriously. I take all my writing seriously—poetry, plays, essays, book reviews, letters, and fiction. Writing is my life, and life is a most serious matter indeed. Not writing is almost like ceasing to breathe; it is breath itself, as important as the morning stroll down my Saranac Lake hill or the Oklahoma University campus walk through flowering ovals, the listening...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 11 May 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Rain, and Other Fictions, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 19, May 11, 1990, p. 254.

[In the following review, the critic offers a negative assessment of Rain, and Other Fictions.]

Introducing his five stories and a one-act play [in Rain and Other Fictions], Kenny says that writing these kinds of narrative is "an exercise in ridding poetry of the statement of prose." Regrettably, this disappointing collection suggests that the exercise also strips his tales of poetry, the element that may have lifted them above the mediocre. In "And Leave The Driving to Us," a teenager rides a bus from Denver to San Jose, Calif., in search of the...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Rain, and Other Fictions, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 169.

[In the following excerpt, Berner comments favorably on the play and stories in Rain, and Other Fictions, noting their relationship to Kenny's poetry.]

Maurice Kenny may be the most distinguished figure in the renaissance that has occurred in American Indian poetry over the last three decades. Rain and Other Fictions is his first collection of fiction. In its preface he tells us that he has never considered himself a storyteller and that his interest in his fiction, as in his narrative poems, has been "not necessarily to spin a tale but to...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Last Mornings in Brooklyn, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1922, p. 387.

[Below, Berner remarks favorably on Last Mornings in Brooklyn.]

Maurice Kenny is perhaps the dean of American Indian poets, and his Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems 1956–1984 revealed a wide range of skills and approaches to verse. Last Mornings in Brooklyn is a sequence of forty-six very brief poems (or a single poem in forty-six brief parts), composed of everything perceived in a particular street from an apartment window in Brooklyn Heights on a particular Saturday morning. Though the poet may not consider it a major addition to...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Maurice Kenny (essay date March 1992)

SOURCE: A preface to Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1735–1795): Poems of War, White Pine Press, 1992, pp. 9-14.

[In the following excerpt, written while Kenny was visiting the En'owkin Centre in Okanagan, Canada, he comments on Molly Brant and his reasons for writing a volume of poetry about her.]

This moment finds me far from Iroquois country. This March morning I sit before the t.v. watching the Syracuse and Seton Hall basketball teams battling for a berth in the Final Four Tournament. This is about as close as I can get now to Molly Brant and home country, the Mohawk Valley and the high peaks of the Adirondacks where I live in the village of Saranac Lake … currently...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Lisa A. Mitten (review date 1 February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Tekonwatonti: Molly Brant (1735–1795); Poems of War, in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 2, February 1, 1993, p. 84.

[Below, Mitten comments favorably on Tekonwatonti.]

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1735–1795): Poems of War, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 649-50.

[In the following review, Berner offers praise for Tekonwatonti, but questions Kenny's claims of historical accuracy.]

Molly Brant was the sister of the great Mohawk chief Joseph Brant and the wife of Sir William Johnson, who during the French and Indian War convinced the Mohawks that their best hope for political survival was to side with the English. Molly herself led the Mohawks on behalf of the English during the American Revolution and after the defeat lived out the rest of her life in Canada.


(The entire section is 550 words.)

Craig S. Womack (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Spirit of Independence: Maurice Kenny's Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant: Poems of War," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1994, pp. 95-118.

[Womack is a critic of Creek-Cherokee descent. In the essay below, he examines Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant, focusing on Kenny's characterization, narrative voice, depiction of male-female tensions, and contribution to Native American history.]

Citizens of the Six Nations have long been known as keepers of tribal histories. The Tuscaroran Reverend David Cusick probably wrote the first native tribal history, his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations, published in 1848....

(The entire section is 7768 words.)