N. Scott Momaday Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Two themes predominate in all of N. Scott Momaday’s work, both poetry and prose. First, he celebrates material, sensory existence. The writer lovingly examines nature and the artifacts of human life, from the smallest creature to the most vast panorama. Whether describing a ghost town in Colorado or the coming of rain to a southwestern desert, he is concerned to express the perceptual and emotional experience of physical life with eloquence and precision. The prose is often lush; the poetry can be spare, but exceedingly resonant.
A second preoccupation is with imagination, that power of mind that transforms and illumines the perceptible world and endows it with meaning. Momaday sees language as the primary vehicle for this transformation and affirms again and again the elemental importance of words. Collective imagination working on natural existence creates culture, and in his examination of the contrasts and interweavings of the cultures of his experience, Momaday explores them as products of the human imagination. In an early essay, he speaks of two Kiowa legends, which he then shows to be emblematic of Kiowa thought and history and of the Kiowas’ response to their history. In the same essay, he points to the metaphorical language of a non-Indian historian whose imagery betrays his fundamental bias and underlies a whole theory of civilization versus savagery.
Momaday’s prose works—his essays, autobiographies, and fiction—treat the dynamic of the two elements—sensory life and the power of imagination—discursively and sometimes analytically. His poetry, on the other hand, focuses most often on the fundamental meeting of nature and imagination in the act of perception itself. This is a consummately introspective procedure, and the poetry collected in The Gourd Dancer demonstrates a loving attentiveness to the natural world as it impinges on the mind.
The number of Momaday’s published poems is small—The Gourd Dancer contains fewer than fifty—and he has spoken of the slowness of writing. Nevertheless, the poems derive from a wide variety of traditions, from the eighteenth century epigram to Whitmanian self-celebration to Native American ceremonial lyrics. They consist of free verse, metrical verse, prose poems, and syllabic verse. Throughout Momaday’s poems, in those reflecting his time in the Soviet Union, astronauts’ lunar explorations, a vision of planetary holocaust, reflections on landscape—and in his prose works as well—there is woven this theme of the relationship between material reality and the signifying imagination.
“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion”
The subtlest and most complex of Momaday’s poems is probably that titled “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion.” The poem is a meditation on being and nothingness. The painted scene evokes in the speaker an imaginative reconstruction of the death of Jesus as a historical event, and he muses on the despair that comes with his recognition of nonbeing. The painting also calls to mind the sea, and memory evokes a recent vision of nature. Nature, however, holds ultimate emptiness for the speaker, whose consciousness of death permits him to see the void beyond death and alienates him from the merely natural process of dying. No inherent significance resides in natural life, and mere imagination remains the only (largely unavailing) defense against the inconsequent passage of time.
It is a profoundly pessimistic poem, and one with a specifically European, post-Cartesian formulation. Momaday has a great admiration for Emily Dickinson, and he has quoted her poem beginning “Farther in summer than the birds” as a realization of this alienation from nature, along with the anguish that such knowledge brings. This perception of humans and nature, he believes, is also contrary to the vision of nature in Native American thought. Traditional Indian philosophy regards humans as part of nature, indivisible from its processes and kin to all its creatures.
The poem titled “Angle of Geese” draws implicitly on this cultural tradition. This poem had its genesis in a particular event, the death of a friend’s child, and it also alludes to a geese-hunting trip Momaday went on as a young adolescent. The goose in the poem is not mere meaningless nature, however, but ancestral, and the poem implies a usable wisdom in nature and affirms human continuity with all forms of life.
The development of Momaday’s use of traditional materials can be traced through the poems that appear in his novel, House Made of Dawn, and in the two autobiographical works, The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names. In general, he moves from using traditional texts to inclusion of material learned at firsthand to personal and family traditions and incorporation of general elements of form and content.
Momaday’s Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy) incorporated the Kiowas’ sacred mountain Tsoai (Devil’s Tower in South Dakota) and the Kiowa word for boy, talee. In The Names, Momaday extends the process of personal mythologizing begun in The Way to Rainy Mountain by inventing an episode in which his great-grandmother’s husband, Pohd-lohk, presents him to the family, relates to him the history of the people, and finally gives him the name Tsoai-talee.
“The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee”
In “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,” appearing in his first collection, Angle of Geese, and Other Poems, Momaday draws on Indian traditions and on the nineteenth century American Romanticism that he has admired particularly in Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Emily Dickinson. The first-person emphasis, as well as the catalog of items in the natural world, call to mind the second song that Benally sings in House Made of Dawn. Unlike the Navajo song, however, in which each item has a specific meaning in a highly complex religious symbology, Momaday’s poem reflects more than anything else Walt Whitman’s expansive identification of his own persona with emotionally felt nature. The Names carries other echoes of this Whitmanian exuberance, notably in the epilogue with its imaginary journey across the land.
(The entire section is 2583 words.)