N. Scott Momaday

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(Poetry Criticism)

N. Scott Momaday 1934–

(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, artist, and children's writer.

Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as a seminal figure in both Native American and mainstream American literature. Considered a major influence by numerous native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, beliefs, and the role of Native Americans in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for the novel House Made of Dawn (1968), winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Momaday considers himself primarily a poet and notes that his writings are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern man's relationship to the earth, the importance of heritage and dreams, the elusive nature of reality, and the nature and origins of Native American myths.

Biographical Information

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott, Momaday is of Kiowa, white, and Cherokee ancestry. His father was a Kiowa artist and educator whose work has often been featured in Momaday's books. Although primarily of white descent, Momaday's mother, who was also an educator, strongly identified with her Cherokee roots—even dressing in native clothes and adopting the name "Little Moon." Her advocacy of "self-imagining" as a means of achieving native identity is considered a basic premise of Momaday's writings. During his early years, Momaday moved about the American Southwest with his parents, who eventually settled on the Jemez Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. He attended a military school in Virginia, the University of New Mexico, and Stanford University where he worked under the guidance of American critic and poet Yvor Winters, (who strongly influenced his early poetry.) Momaday published his first poem, "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," in 1959 in the New Mexico Quarterly. He later gained widespread critical attention after winning the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn A member of the Gourd Dance Society and an accomplished artist, Momaday has taught at numerous schools, including Stanford, the University of Arizona-Tucson, and the University of California-Berkeley where he was instrumental in instituting a Native American literature program.

Major Works of Poetry

Momaday's verse is collected in Angle of Geese (1974), The Gourd Dancer (1976), and In the Presence of the Sun (1993). In Angle of Geese, which contains eighteen poems, Momaday utilizes iambic verse, short-line free verse, and prose poems to explore such themes as identity, death, native customs, survival, and philosophical issues regarding nature. One of the best-known poems in the volume, "The Bear," is written in syllabic verse and is influenced by American writer William Faulkner's short story of the same name. In this poem, Momaday uses abstract language to describe an old, maimed bear. Another descriptive poem written in syllabic verse, "Buteo Regalis" utilizes rhythmic language to reflect a hawk's movements as it attacks its prey. "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion," a poem that describes a person contemplating a mural of Christ's crucifixion located in an old mission by the sea, is filled with post-symbolist imagery and explores the ways people react to death. "Angle of Geese," a difficult and obscure poem, is considered a masterpiece of syllabic rhythm. In this work, Momaday relates the death of a friend's first-born child to the killing of a goose by a hunter in order to address the inadequacy of language, its relationship to identity, and mysteries of time and nature. Angle of Geese also contains Momaday's four "Plainview" poems: "Plainview 1" is a modified sonnet and describes the approach of a storm in Oklahoma; "Plainview 2" utilizes Native American oral tradition and is an elegy for the lost horse culture of the plains; "Plainview 3" is a celebration of the sun, which is venerated among plains...

(The entire section is 35,715 words.)