N. Scott Momaday Momaday, N. Scott (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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 tribes; and "Plainview 4" relates the story of Milly Durgan, who was captured by the Kiowas in 1864 when she was eighteen months old. It is a pessimistic view of the death of plains Indian culture. Momaday's next collection, The Gourd Dancer, consists of three parts—"Angle of Geese," "The Gourd Dancer," and "Anywhere Is a Street into the Night"—with each section dedicated to one of Momaday's three daughters. Each represents different aspects of Momaday's poetic philosophy and development. The first section addresses the themes of death and mutability, and contains all of "Angle of Geese" as well as two additional poems. "The Gourd Dancer" focuses on Native American culture and includes all of the "Plainview" poems and "The Gourd Dancer," a poem in four sections written as a tribute to Momaday's grandfather Mammedaty. This section also contains the poem "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee," which celebrates the land and native culture. Tsoai-Talee is a Kiowa name given to Momaday by a paternal relative. The name, which means "rock-tree boy," refers to the two-hundred foot volcanic butte in Wyoming which is sacred to the Kiowas and is known to Anglo-Americans as Devil's Tower. Many of the poems in part three of The Gourd Dancer were written when Momaday was in the Soviet Union in 1974 and evince his poetic mastery. The poems in this section focus on the American Southwest as well as Momaday's experiences in Russia. In the Presence of the Sun (1993) is a collection of Momaday's short stories and poems. In addition to including early poetic works, the volume contains numerous new poems and a poetic sequence concerning the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, a prominent figure in Momaday's artwork and his novel The Ancient Child.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Momaday's poetry has been enthusiastic, with commentators praising both his early syllabic verse and his later prose poems and free verse. Yvor Winters first brought critical attention to Momaday's poetry in his 1967 study Forms of Discovery, in which he placed Momaday within the post-symbolist tradition. Since then, critics have both agreed with and refuted Winters' conclusions. Although Momaday's early poetry has been hailed as among the most significant of the century, with some critics calling such poems as "The Bear" and "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" masterpieces of syllabic verse in English, more recent critics have stated that they prefer Momaday's prose poems for their exploration of Kiowa concerns and incorporation of native oral traditions. They also note that these works are less abstract and more personal and celebratory than Momaday's earlier, more formal works. Momaday himself has stated that after composing his syllabic poems, "I worked myself into such a confinement of form that I started to write fiction and didn't get back to poetry until much later." Despite the tendency to divide Momaday's poetry into two distinct types or periods, scholars have consistently praised Momaday for his ability to work with various poetic forms, his talent for exploring different cultures from diverse perspectives, and his imaginative interweaving of myth, history, and contemporary Native American experience.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Angle of Geese, and Other Poems 1974

The Gourd Dancer 1976

In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 1993

Other Major Works

The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman [editor] (poetry) 1965

The Journey of Tai-me (folktales) 1967

House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968

The Way to Rainy Mountain (autobiography) 1969

Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (nonfiction) 1973

The Names: A Memoir (autobiography) 1976

The Ancient Child (novel) 1989

Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story (juvenilia) 1994

The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (essays, short stories, sketches) 1997

Yvor Winters (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Post-Symbolist Methods," in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English, Alan Swallow, 1967, pp. 251-97.

[Winters was an American critic, poet, short story writer, and editor who emphasized that all good literature serves a conscious moral purpose. Momaday, who studied under Winters at Stanford University, has noted that Winters greatly influenced his writing. In the excerpt below, Winters offers an analysis of "The Bear, " "Buteo Regalis, " and "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion, " placing Momaday's work within the Post-Symbolist tradition.]

I use the term "post-Symbolist" to describe a kind of...

(The entire section is 2789 words.)

John Finlay (review date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday's Angle of Geese" in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XI, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 658-61.

[In the following review, Finlay offers a stylistic and thematic description of Angle of Geese, praising the volume as Momaday's best work.]

N. Scott Momaday's reputation, before Angle of Geese, rested upon two works of prose, House Made of Dawn, a novel concerned with the dislocation and eventual disintegration of an Indian youth in urban America (parts of which were first published in The Southern Review), and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a half-mythical, half-historical account of Momaday's...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Roger Dickinson-Brown (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," in The Southern Review, Lousiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 30-45.

[In the excerpt below, Dickinson-Brown offers a stylistic analysis of several poems in Angle of Geese.]

It is surprising that Momaday has published so few poems. Angle of Geese contains only eighteen—the considered work of a great poet around the age of forty. But the poems are there, astonishing in their depth and range. "Simile," "Four Notions of Love and Marriage," "The Fear of Bo-talee," "The Story of a Weil-Made Shield," and "The Horse that Died of Shame" are variously free verse (the first two, which are...

(The entire section is 3427 words.)

Kenneth C. Mason (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 61-83.

[In the following essay, Mason provides an in-depth analysis of The Gourd Dancer, examining the major themes of each section and the volume as a whole.]

N. Scott Momaday's first full-length collection of poems was finally published in 1976. Previously he had published some eighteen poems in the chapbook, Angle of Geese and Other Poems. These poems plus two others make up part 1 of The Gourd Dancer, a book which is the summation in poetry of that evolution of ideas and verbal skill we have observed in prose in House Made of Dawn,...

(The entire section is 8787 words.)

N. Scott Momaday with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with N. Scott Momaday, in American Poetry Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August, 1984, pp. 13-18.

[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in December 1982, Momaday discusses such subjects as Yvor Winters' influence on his works, the difference between poetry and prose, the major themes in his poetry, and Native American literature.]

[Joseph Bruchac]: In a recent book entitled Four American Indian Literary Masters, Alan R. Velie links your poetry strongly with those whom he calls "the post-symbolists" and your former teacher, Yvor Winters. Do you think that really was correct?

[N. Scott Momaday]:...

(The entire section is 5580 words.)

Alan R. Velie (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Search for Identity: N. Scott Momaday's Autobiographical Works," in his Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 34-49.

[In the essay below, Velie provides background information on Momaday' s life and career and discusses how Yvor Winters and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman influenced his early poetry. Velie concludes that although Momaday is a good poet overall, he is at his best in his prose poems.]

After he had exhausted reservation schools, Momaday spent his last year of high school at a military school in Virginia and then enrolled in the...

(The entire section is 4657 words.)

Matthias Schubnell (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Momaday's Poetry," in his N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 189-254.

[In the following excerpt, Schubnell discusses Momaday's poems that center on his Native American heritage, focusing in particular on part two of The Gourd Dancer.]

This [essay] is devoted to Momaday's poetic statements on his American Indian heritage and his particular treatment of the American earth. Most of the poems I will discuss belong to part two of Momaday's The Gourd Dancer collection. While many of them are written in a loose style approaching prose, there are also examples of syllabic and free verse as well as one...

(The entire section is 8070 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Trimble, Martha Scott. "N. Scott Momaday (1934-)." In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, pp. 313-24. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Provides an overview of Momaday's life, a discussion of the major themes of his works, critical reception of his writings, and a listing of primary and secondary sources.


Bode, Barbara. "Imagination Man." The New York Times Book Review (March 14, 1993): 15.

Praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as...

(The entire section is 265 words.)