N. Scott Momaday

Start Free Trial

Yvor Winters (essay date 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2789

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 poetry which develops most commonly and most clearly after the French Symbolists but which sometimes appears before them or independently of them. Logically, it should follow them and should follow from them, but these things happen as they will.

The associationistic doctrines taught that all ideas arise from sensory perceptions, and gradually it came to be thought that all ideas could be expressed in terms of sensory perceptions, but this effort, as in Pound's Cantos or in much of Williams ("no ideas but in things"), was doomed to failure. The result is very often a situation in which the poet offers us, or seems to offer us, sense-perceptions for their own sake, and for the sake of whatever vague feelings they may evoke. This dissociation of sense-perception and feeling on the one hand from conceptual understanding on the other finds its chief theorist in Mallarmé, although Rimbaud and Verlaine are also such theorists. These three men are the most distinguished apologists for, and practitioners of, deliberate obscurity. The reader may examine Rimbaud's "Larme" as a remarkably brilliant example of the practice.

The Romantic poets, both English and French, were interested in sensory perception, natural detail, but the interest was for the greater part theoretic; they talk about sensory details, they refer to them, but in stereotyped language … they do not see them or even try to see them. My three Frenchmen see them, hear them, feel them, and sometimes smell them, and with clarity and intensity which is often startling; and they try to isolate them from meaning, and they are surprisingly successful at it. There is nothing like this in British poetry. There is comparable visual imagery in Hardy, but it is not so employed. This clarity of perception, usually of visual perception, is characteristic of the post-Symbolist poets, but the clear perception is employed in ways different from the Symbolist way and different from Hardy's.

Valéry, in his two great poems, "Ebauche d'un Serpent" and "Le Cimetière Marin," is the heir to this sensory perception—but these two poems are not poems of hallucination; they are philosophical poems. Both poems contain a good deal of abstract statement, so that there can be no real doubt as to their themes. The sensory details are a part of this statement—they are not ornament or background. The language is often sensory and conceptual at the same time, for example in this line describing the sea: "Masse de calme et visible réserve." The line should be considered carefully. Calme and réserve are both nouns indicating potency; but both suggest the possibility of immediate act. They are metaphysical abstractions; or to be more precise, they are clearly substitutes for the metaphysical abstraction potency, substitutes brought closer to the visual, very close indeed when we remember that the line describes the sea, and substitutes which suggest the abstraction act, or actuality, but act in visible form. Masse and visible render the perception clearly visible, make it clearly the sea. That is, the sea is rendered as visibly the embodiment of potency on the verge of becoming actual. As a visual image, the line is brilliant; as an intellectual perception it is profound; the visual and the intellectual are simultaneous—they cannot be separated in fact.

There is nothing resembling this line, in the totality of its qualities, in any of the Symbolist predecessors. Nor is there anything comparable in British poetry save, perhaps, for a few lines in Bridges and T. Sturge Moore. The two poems by Valéry are what one might call classical examples of the method, but I have discussed them elsewhere and will not discuss them here. Equally clear examples are "The Cricket," by F. G. Tuckerman, a poem written about 1870 or shortly before, and without benefit of the French, and "Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens, which was written and the early version of which was published a year or two before the first of the two poems by Valéry (Stevens, of course, knew the French Symbolists quite as well as did Valéry).… THE poem of the kind which I shall describe is usually but not always put together from beginning to end on the principle of carefully controlled association. We have seen controlled association without imagery in Churchill's "Dedication." In some of the poems which I shall discuss we have controlled association in conjunction with post-Symbolist imagery; in some we have post-Symbolist imagery with the rational structure of the Renaissance. The controlled association offers the possibility, at least, of greater flexibility and greater inclusiveness of matter (and without confusion) than we can find in the Renaissance structures; the post-Symbolist imagery provides a greater range of thinking and perceiving than we have ever had before. The method, I believe, is potentially the richest method to appear. In fact, I will go farther: I believe that the greatest poems employing this method are the greatest poems that we have.…

N. Scott Momaday (1934-) may seem too young for inclusion in a discussion of this kind, but I would remind the reader of my definition of a great poet: a poet who has written at least one great poem. In my opinion Momaday has written the poem, as well as a few fine lesser poems, and his work is very much to my purpose.

I will quote a poem called "The Bear." The poem owes something to Faulkner, but it is essentially Momaday's. It is written in syllabic verse. The first and third lines of each stanza contain five syllables apiece, the second and fourth contain seven; as in all syllabic verse, the accented syllables must vary sufficiently in number and position that they do not form a pattern (a pattern would give us standard meter) but must still contribute to the rhythm:

The poem is more descriptive than anything else, yet in the third and last stanzas the details are more than physical and indicate something of the essential wilderness. The sensory perception is very acute, very quiet, as if the observer himself were almost as much at home in the wilderness as the bear. The language is at every point very quiet and could as well be the language of distinguished prose. The poem is poetry by virtue of the careful selection of details and the careful juxtaposition of these details, selection and juxtaposition which result in concentration of meaning, and by virtue of its rhythm, which is the rhythm of verse, but very subtle. Of all the poets of the past decade or so who have experimented with syllabic verse, Momaday is the only one to use it with real success.

My next poem, "Buteo Regalis," describes a hawk at the moment of attack. The lines of this poem are of ten syllables each; lines two, four, five, and six are in iambic pentameter, and the others are syllabic—Momaday controls this change of movement with perfect success:

His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
It veers, and veering, tilts broad-surfaced wings.
Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
And falls, alternately white and russet,
Angle and curve, gathering momentum.

This seems to be more purely descriptive than "The Bear." The language could be that of prose, except for the rhythm, but of absolutely distinguished prose, free of all cliché, not of journalistic prose. Yet the language deserves more attention. We are given a rodent, not a rabbit, or a prairie dog, or a kangaroo rat. His frailty is discrete, that is, considered separately, just as his purely rodent nature is considered separately, in the defensive turn. It is the abstract movement of the abstract rodent, which we might get in a line-drawing of two or three strokes. The first and third lines, in their syllabic rhythm suggest the sudden hesitation; the four pentameter lines suggest the smooth motion of the soaring hawk; the last two lines in their syllabic rhythm and fragmented phrasing, suggest the rapid and confusing descent. This is done with absolute economy, quietly, yet with uncanny perception. Perception of what, however? Is it only the perception of physical objects observed? It seems rather perception of the "discrete" wilderness, the essential wilderness. It is this quality in both of these poems which brings them within the limits of my present subject.

Both of the poems just quoted, though remarkably fine, are minor poems. The next poem is Momaday's most impressive achievement. It is in standard meter throughout; the general method is that of controlled association:

"Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion"
The Mission Carmel
June 1960

I ponder how He died, despairing once.
I've heard the cry subside in vacant skies,
In clearings where no other was. Despair,
Which, in the vibrant wake of utterance,
Resides in desolate calm, preoccupies,
Though it is still. There is no solace there.

That calm inhabits wilderness, the sea,
And where no peace inheres but solitude;
Near death it most impends. It was for Him,
Absurd and public in His agony,
Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued,
Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym:

A vague contagion. Old, the mural fades …
Reminded of the fainter sea I scanned,
I recollect: How mute in constancy!
I could not leave the wall of palisades
Till cormorants returned my eyes on land.
The mural but implies eternity:

Not death, but silence after death is change.
Judean hills, the endless afternoon,
The farther groves and arbors seasonless
But fix the mind within the moment's range.
Where evening would obscure our sorrow soon,
There shines too much a sterile loveliness.

No imprecisions of commingled shade,
No shimmering deceptions of the sun,
Herein no semblances remark the cold
Unhindered swell of time, for time is stayed.
The Passion wanes into oblivion,
And time and timelessness confuse, I'm told.
These centuries removed from either fact

Have lain upon the critical expanse
And been of little consequence. The void
Is calendared in stone; the human act,
Outrageous, is in vain. The hours advance
Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.

The first two stanzas deal with the experience of the Crucified, as it was suggested in the mural. They bring up the idea which will recur in the fourth stanza, the desolate calm following any tragic event, a calm the nature of which we may sense in the wilderness, near the sea, especially near death; and in the latter part of the second stanza we have a statement of the uniqueness of this experience for the Crucified. These lines are worth our attention: to say that the experience was unique and then try to describe it would be a contradiction, a falsification; Momaday does not try to render the unique experience but instead gives us a statement of the nature of uniqueness, in relation to the inner experience of Christ, after the line on his outer and public appearance. These lines are as powerful as any I know; they illustrate a way in which abstract statement can be utilized effectively. In the third stanza he recollects that this is, after all, a mural, old and disintegrating; the scene of the mural, mute in constancy, is not real. The sea is real, but in the distance it also is mute in constancy; he remembers how the view of the sea had held him till his eyes had drifted back after the cormorants. And then the mural comes back to mind. The third stanza may seem obscure on first reading if we do not keep in mind the position of the observer, in the old mission near the ocean, his mind moving back and forth between the two objects.

"The mural but implies eternity." I have italicized two important words. The mural does not render eternity, nor explain it; Momaday is too cautious an observer of his experience to suspect anything so foolish. It merely implies eternity but it does imply it, and it implies nothing else. The line ends with a colon, which indicates that the implication will be explored. The first line of the fourth stanza may bother the reader for a moment, for, in the usual sense, death, like any other occurrence, is change; but this is not what Momaday is talking about. Death itself is a process, a part of life; but in the silence after death we have a different state entirely, an essentially inscrutable state, which is implied by the immobile mural. The remainder of the fourth stanza describes the mural, with reference to the details which imply eternity, details which resemble our experience but suggest a state removed from it, details which are neither the one thing nor the other, which are sterile though beautiful.

The fifth stanza is a commentary on the fourth but refers back to the third as well: it tells us that in the mural there are none of the movements which indicate the presence of time, nothing to

a phrase in which we are reminded of the ocean swell outside, now as if it were at hand and powerful, but in which the swell appears to be stayed even before the fact is stated in the next few words. Time is stayed; we are in eternity in the mural; but for the moment we are in eternity this side of the mural as well. On this side of the mural the Passion wanes into oblivion; time and timelessness seem to become one. The phrase "I'm told" is not something inserted for a final foot and a rime, as one of my young friends once suggested; it is there for a clear purpose. It is a weary confession that we are dealing with a mystery, about which we cannot know as much as some people claim.

In the first two lines of the fifth stanza we have a quick light rhythm as we see the little movements which indicate life in time; this is slowed somewhat in the third line, which summarizes and begins to move into the magnificent image of time; this sentence is compact but complex in syntax and rhythm alike. The rhythm of the fifth line is slow and pensive, and that of the sixth is similar. The command of rhythm, whether linear, syntactic, or in some other way stanzaic, is that of a master; but the reader who has learned to read poetry aloud can find this command throughout.

The last stanza is a commentary on what has preceded, a summing up and a final judgment. The phrase either fact indicates two facts: the real crucifixion and the crucifixion depicted in the mural. The expanse has been critical in two senses: it has been a test of the centuries following the Crucifixion; it should have been a period of crisis, of great change. But nothing really to the purpose has occurred; there was a moral void; time was geological, not human; the extreme sacrifice was in vain. The indications of time before us are as trivial as flecks of foam moving in to disappear in the beachsand.

I have tried to explain this poem in great detail, because the poem, although not obscure, is difficult and requires careful reading. I myself did not understand it for a long time, and I know other readers, and very intelligent readers, who do not understand it yet. The poem is worth understanding. Every word, every mark of punctuation, every cadence, every detail of grammar and syntax is a precise and essential part of an act of profound understanding.

The poem displays both of the post-Symbolist methods which I have been discussing. First we have controlled association: this is seen most clearly in the third stanza and in the movement back and forth thereafter between the mural and the ocean, but it occurs throughout the poem. Second, we have post-Symbolist imagery, imagery weighted with intellectual content; the fifth stanza is the most obvious example, in "the cold unhindered swell of time," but we can find it elsewhere. And there is purely abstract statement on occasion, and very powerful abstract statement.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

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.

John Finlay (review date 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

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 Kiowa ancestors, beautifully illustrated by the poet's father. These two books are considerable achievements, especially The Way to Rainy Mountain, which contains some of the most powerful prose written in recent years, or any year, for that matter. Yet Angle of Geese, made up of eighteen poems, three of which are in prose, is by far the greatest thing Momaday has done and should, by itself, earn for him a permanent place in our literature. Considering, though, the general insistence upon the loose and the anecdotal in contemporary poetry, I should realistically add that Momaday's poetic reputation will probably be quiet and underground.

Nearly all of his poems are concerned with what Yvor Winters, in his discussion of Momaday in Forms of Discovery, calls "the essential wilderness," the post-Romantic landscape of modern, secular thought, inscrutable and divested of ethical values, against which the human act takes place. More often than not, this act is personified by an animal, but one that has become, in the poem, emblematic and applicable to human terms. Because Momaday realizes the ultimately philosophical implications of this wilderness, his poems end up as serious meditations on the absolute distinction between what he calls in the title poem "the pale angle of time," the informed world of identity and purpose, and the state of death and non-being, "the essential wilderness" that finally destroys that world. Like Bowers and the other post-Symbolist poets, his approach is through description permeated with philosophic awareness:

This theme is most perfectly realized in his greatest poem, "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion." On the one hand, there is the "critical expanse," operating in time and motivated by the human desire for "utterance" in art and religious thought; on the other, the nonhuman vacancy of a universe that completely frustrates that desire:

These centuries removed from either fact
Have lain upon the critical expanse
And been of little consequence. The void
Is calendared in stone; the human act,
Outrageous, is in vain. The hours advance
Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.

The emotional control he is able to maintain in the face of this tragic perception, and with no religious belief to support him, is a measure of his greatness. The quietness and the concentration of the style reveal a mind that is as humanly fortified as it can be against the despair necessarily inherent in the subject.

In other poems this perception is less extreme. They are more concerned with the conditions of survival than with the inevitability of extinction. "The Bear," along with "Pit Viper," is an excellent example. The identity of the creature, worn down to the mere "fact of courage," holds itself together in the wilderness through an attitude of self-sufficient stoicism, a sort of expert indifference to the dangers always lurking behind the "countless surfaces" of the leaves. And in "Walk on the Moon," an epigram inspired by the Apollo mission, the emphasis is on the tentative human extension into and appropriation of the essentially nonhuman:

Extend, there where you venture and come back,
The edge of time. Be it your furthest track.
Time in that distance wanes. What is to be.
That present verb, there in Tranquility?

And other times he is capable, after the fact of annihilation, of a beautiful evocation of what he most loved in the past, the laughter and the old stories of his race, which is the subject of "Earth and I Gave You Turquoise," one of the most moving elegies in modern poetry:

Finally, to give one an idea of the stylistic achievement evident throughout all of Angle of Geese, I should like to quote entire a poem entitled "Buteo Regalis":

His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
It veers, and veering, tilts board-surfaced wings.
Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
And falls, alternately white and russet,
Angle and curve, gathering momentum.

What we have in this brief poem is a concise descriptive statement of a creature that knows its aim and lets nothing interfere with itself as it goes straight to the object. The intense concentration and power of the bird as it swoops down, "gathering momentum," upon the unprotected rodent, is unforgettable. The style also has the same concentration and singleness of purpose. The meter is syllabic, with no rhyme or rhetorical embellishments to enliven its "dryness," as J. V. Cunningham characterizes syllabic verse; the diction and word order as close to prose as is possible; and the tone of the poem is objective and matterof-fact, each word quietly insistent upon its denotative value. Nothing stands out of the evenly controlled context. And the movement of the poem is lean and muscular. If for no other reason than for its style, Angle of Geese would be an important book for anyone seriously interested in what modern American poetry is still capable of.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 84

Poetry

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

Roger Dickinson-Brown (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3427

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 slight and sentimental) or prose poems. They partake of the same discrete intensity that characterizes the storytelling in The Way to Rainy Mountain, and which makes them some of the few real prose poems in English.

The poems written in grammatical parallels are much better: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" and "Plainview:2." In the latter, Momaday has used a form and created emotions without precedent in English:

I saw an old Indian
At Saddle Mountain.
He drank and dreamed of drinking
And a blue-black horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse hurting.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse hurting.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.

Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.

A horse is one thing,
An Indian another;
An old horse is old;
An old Indian is sad.

I saw an old Indian
At Saddle Mountain.
He drank and dreamed of drinking
And a blue-black horse.

Remember my horse running.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse wheeling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse blowing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse standing.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse falling.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse dying.
Remember my horse.
Remember my blue-black horse.
Remember my blue-black horse.
Remember my horse.
Remember my horse.
Remember.
Remember.

A chant or a parallel poem is necessarily bulky and especially oral. I have often recited this poem to individuals and groups, in part to test its effect upon an English-language audience. My own voice is consciously based upon the oral readings of Pound, Winters, and Native American chant, with a dash of childhood Latin Mass. I read the lines without musical intonation but with emphatic regularity and little rhetorical variation. The results are extreme: about half the listeners are bored, the other half moved, sometimes to tears. The poem is obviously derived from Momaday's experience of Indian chant, in which, as in most other cultures, small distinction is made between music and poetry. In this respect "Plainview:2" is a part of the abandoned traditions of Homer, The Song of Roland, oral formulas, the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chant, and even certain Renaissance poems. The various forms of repetition in these works are still common in the Islamic and black African and certain other worlds, but they survive in the West (where individual originality has destroyed community), only through such traditional popular genres as commercial song (which, unlike "modern intellectual" poetry and "classical" music, preserves the fusion), nursery rhymes, and among the non-white minorities. These are our surviving traditions of form, which is by nature repetitive.

In addition to the obvious repetitions in "Plainview:2," the repetition of stanza 1 at stanza 10, and the two-line rehearsal of the four-line stanzas turn the poem. The whole poem is, in fact, simply a subtle variation, development, and restatement of the first stanza, with the extended, reiterated illustration of both the beauty of the horse's actions and its death. The ninth stanza occupies the poem like a kernel of gloss, but even its third and fourth lines are simply restatements of its first and second.

The form of this poem distinguishes with rare clarity what we call denotative and connotative. In a literate age of recorded language, where memory and repetition—sides of a coin—have each faded from our experience, we are inclined to regard such hammering as a waste of time—but it can, instead, be an intensification and a kind of experience we have lost. That is precisely the division of modern response to the poem.

The rest of Momaday's poetry is traditionally iambic or experimentally syllabic. Winters has called the iambic pentameter "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" a great poem, and perhaps it is, in spite of a certain stiltedness and melodrama, reminiscent of the worst aspects of House Made of Dawn. Yet the iambic poems are certainly among the best of their kind in Momaday's generation, and it is only the exigency of space that limits me to a few lines from "Rainy Mountain Cemetery":

Most is your name the name of this dark stone.
Deranged in death, the mind to be inheres
Forever in the nominal unknown.…

Momaday's theme here is an inheritance from Winters, though it is as old as our civilization: the tension, the gorgeous hostility between the human and the wild—a tension always finally relaxed in death. Winters did a great deal to restore and articulate that consciousness, after and in the light of Romanticism. And it was Winters too who taught Momaday one of his greatest virtues, the power and humanity of abstraction—heresy in the cant of our time: deranged is a pure and perfect abstraction.

And there is more Winters:

… silence is the long approach of noon
Upon the shadow that your name defines—
And death this cold, black density of stone.

We have already seen this in House Made of Dawn. Winters called it post-symbolist method. The physical images carry the full force, often through double sense, of abstraction: the shadow defines; and death is the impenetrability, the incomprehensibility, of black density. Yet the images are not metaphors, for they are not subservient to the abstractions they communicate, nor are they synecdochical. They persist in the very mortal obstinacy which they mean. This style is everywhere in Momaday, but it is something which Winters could not have duplicated, for it is also profoundly Kiowa.

Momaday's syllabic verse is best introduced with a brief general introduction to the nature and current state of syllabic verse in English. Syllabic verse—a patterning of the number of syllables per line, with no other competing patterns—has been written occasionally in English at least since the Renaissance in England. There it reached a kind of peak at the turn of the century in major syllabic poems by Robert Bridges. His daughter Elizabeth Daryush, who continued her father's tradition in her own way, was (during her lifetime) England's most underestimated poet.

So many American poets—J. V. Cunningham, Lewis Turco, John Hollander, for examples—have recently turned to syllabic verse that, in statistical quantity at least, the prosody offers to become something other than the minor experimental form it has been. Syllabic verse in English could solve a major problem for contemporary poets: the malady of the iamb, which poets as different as Turco and Cunningham have sometimes perceived as overweighted with historical emotions and meanings unavailable to a contemporary poet—a kind of verse cathedral. And of course most contemporary poets, all over the Western world, have simply dropped tradition and form altogether, as if the latter were fused to the former. In English, syllabic verse is a form without tradition.

The arguments against syllabic meter in English are weak. Syllabic prosody has been perhaps the world's most important prosody, not only in unaccented languages like French but also in Spanish and Italian, which are certainly not accented as English is, but which are close enough to establish a strong theoretical possibility of success for the prosody in English, and to eliminate the usual argument that syllabic poetry in accented English is "finger-counting." And then, we have by now an important body of successful syllabic poems in English—easily enough for an intelligent and interesting anthology.

Yet most syllabic poetry in English is finger-counting—I am sure that the poets themselves have had to count, for there is no meter, nothing to feel. All of the world's syllabic poetries, be they Japanese or Italian or French, have created modes of distinguishing the lines as entities, usually by end-stop or rhyme, so that the lines (which, with the syllables, are the only units), may be felt rhythmically, may distinguish themselves, and may thereby, through an individuality played against the intensity of pattern, create and control meaning and, especially, feeling. English-language syllabic poets have sometimes, like Cunningham, also thought it wise to avoid even numbers of syllables, because of potential confusion with iambic measure; sometimes, like Daryush, they have argued for an incomplete departure from iambic movement (some of Daryush's syllabic poems are in fact iambic)—in any case the irregularized "sprung" accent will be the most important variant in the line; sometimes, like Momaday, they have marked the line-end with off-rhyme, that major aspect of modern prosody first mastered by Dickinson. In general, Daryush's own intense statement of the subject is the best I know:

… a strict syllable-count, although of course essential, is, in my view, merely the lifeless shell of its more vital requirements.

Accepting that not only a work of art but every aspect of its medium is intrinsically a contrived relation between the known and the uncomprehended, the fixed and the unpredictable, recalling, too, that in accentual verse, as in barred music, the fixed element is that of time, and the unfixed that of number (of syllables or notes) we can assess what part should be played by these factors in a truly syllabic system. Here the position is reversed: the fixed element is no longer time but number; the integrity of line and syllable is challenged by the stress-demands of sense or syntax. The aim of the artist will be so to balance these incommensurables as to reflect his own predicament of thought or feeling, thereby enhancing his consciousness of an imagined relation with the unattainable. The rules for achieving this are by their very nature unwritten ones, but a few guidelines can be laid down.

In general, meaning should make the greatest possible use of time-variety without losing sight of the number-pattern. First, therefore, the line-ending, the highest point of emphasis and tension, being no longer led up to by steps of regular stress, must be established and maintained by other means. The first few lines of a syllabic poem should when possible be complete sentences or phrases. Rhyme is almost indispensable, but since it can be unaccented need be neither over-obvious nor monotonous. The integrity of the syllable must be ensured by the avoidance of all dubious elisions. Stress-variations are more effective in fairly short lines, and more easily obtained from those with an odd syllable-count, since here there is a choice of two equally accessible stress-counts. Full advantage should of course be taken of the release from stress-restrictions, with their often unavoidable distortions of the natural speech-rhythm. Inversions should now be used only for meaningful emphasis.

With these main principles in mind, the writer replaces the usual regular stress-waves by such other currents and cross-currents, such expectations and disappointments, as may further his purpose. He may, for instance, introduce the same irregularities into the corresponding lines of a lyric's every stanza; or he may repeat, often with great effect, in the last line of a poem, some startling upheaval in the first; or, again, he may use a similar break in a previously established pattern to express some violent change of mood or thought. These and many similar devices will with practice become the instinctively chosen instruments of the poet whose ear is attuned to their possibilities.

Without them, there will be no poem.

(Elizabeth Daryush, Collected Poems [Carcanet New Press, 1976]).

Momaday's syllabic poetry is his best and experimentally most exciting work. Even deprived of the rest of the poem, the middle stanza of "The Bear" seems to me among the perfect stanzas in English, rhythmically exquisite in its poise between iamb and an excess of syllabic looseness, utterly comprehensive in its presentation of the motionless wild bear and its relationship to time:

"Comparatives" is a tour-de-force of alternating unrhymed three- and four-syllable lines, again with Momaday's abstract and physical fusion. Momaday succeeds in presenting such unrhymed, short lines rhythmically, in spite of a necessarily high incidence of enjambment; the faint lines convey a melancholy appropriate to the antiquity and death which are the consequence of his juxtaposition of the dead and the fossil fish:

… cold, bright body
of the fish
upon the planks,
the coil and
crescent of flesh
extending

just into death.
Even so,
in the distant,
inland sea,
a shadow runs,
radiant,
rude in the rock:

fossil fish,
fissure of bone
forever.
It is perhaps
the same thing,
an agony
twice perceived.

Momaday's greatest poem is certainly "Angle of Geese," a masterpiece of syllabic rhythm, of modulated rhyme, of post-symbolic images, and of the meaning of language in human experience. Although perhaps none of its stanzas is equal to the best stanza of "The Bear," each functions in a similar way, shifting from perfect to imperfect to no rhyme with the same supple responsiveness Dryden mastered, but with more range. Nevertheless the largest importance of this poem, even beyond its extraordinary form, is its theme, which is probably the greatest of our century: the extended understanding of the significance of language and its relation to identity—an understanding increased not only by the important work done by the linguists of our century but also by the increased mixture of languages which has continued to accelerate over the last hundred years or so: French or English among Asians and Africans, often as first or only languages among nonetheless profoundly non-European people; Spanish established on an Indian continent; and, of course, English in America. These are non-native native speakers of English, as it were, further distinguishing literature in English from English literature. Their potential has much to do with their relative freedom from the disaster and degeneracy which Romantic ideas have created among their European-American counterparts: many of these new English writers still have deep connections with their communities, instead of the individualistic elitism which characterizes contemporary European-American art, music, and poetry. They are more like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Homer. And they often have fewer neuroses about the evils of form. Momaday, as a Kiowa, a university scholar, and a poet of major talent, is in an excellent position to take advantage of these multi-cultural possibilities. The result is "Angle of Geese":

The poem is difficult and a little obscure, mostly because the subject is—but also because Momaday has indulged a little in the obscurantism that makes modern poetry what it is—and an explication of the poem is therefore necessary.

The first stanza presents the subject and observes that the Darwinian animal which we were, who is our ancestor, cannot be rediscovered in our language, which is what moved us away and distinguished us from the animal.

The second stanza explains the divorce: we have become civilized, but not wholly. "The mute presence" may, by syntax, seem to be the presence of language, but it is not. It is the presence of wilderness which is mute. We live in connotation, which is wild response. "Mulls" and "civil" are odd diction. The third stanza contemplates this ambivalence, this incompleteness, and moves from the general to the particular. We are almost whole, or wholly civilized and conscious, and to precisely this extent we have lost our own wilderness. The speaker, introduced at this point, is slow to realize, outside language, what is wild in him. The language is typical of Momaday in its outright and exact abstraction: "mere" in the old sense of pure or unadulter ated—here, by language and civilization; "margin" because this is where humans, with their names and mortality, overlap with wilderness, which has neither; "repose" because what is wild is forever and at every moment perfect and complete, without urgency, going nowhere, perpetuating itself beautifully for no sake at all. It is useful to remember wilderness here primarily in terms of immortal molecules and galaxies, without number or name—except those collective names imposed upon them by men who have to that extent simply perceived and thought about that which is unaltered by thought, which does not know the thinker, and which is, finally, a kind of god—not a god, as Stevens said, "but as a god might be." It is a kind of altered Romantic god, but one supported rather more by the pure sciences than by Deism and Benevolism: a nature pure and perfect, composed of sub-atomic particles and framed in an unimaginable universe with no edge. Language contradicts itself with this god, who is its enemy. It is the wilderness of our century, deprived of Romantic benevolence but retaining its old terrifying innocence and immense and nameless beauty, which ignores us and must destroy us, one by one. It is a god of mere repose. The goose, which the hunter waits for one November, is almost perfectly a part of the god (Momaday only implies the word), although a goose shares with men certain forms of individual consciousness of itself and others. Some animals have some language, and to this extent the goose knows the same clear and lonely condition we do, and is an imperfect symbol of the wilderness. The long watch, in any case, implies the eternity which is the whole of which the goose is an indiscriminate part: as if forever. The goose is huge because it is inseparable from the wild deity: what Emerson called the "not I," which neither names nor knows itself, which cannot die—whatever is, like the grasshopper of the ancient Greeks, immortal because the individuals have no name. That is our ancestor who does not know us, whom we hardly know.

So, in the fifth stanza, the symmetry of the angle or V of the flock of geese implies the perfection for which geometry and symmetry have always served as imaginary means. A goose is shot, and falls out of the angle, into the speaker's world.

The last stanza gives the goose a little of that hope and hurt which grants this sophisticated animal a part of what will kill the speaker: a conscious identity. But the goose is essentially wild, and it holds, like an immortal cockatrice, an inhuman gaze—motionless, outside the time in which we live and die, wildly, purely alert—fixed on the receding flurry of the flock out of which it fell, growing as dark and distant physically as it is in truth to the dying speaker who watches it too and for whom, alone, something has changed. The word "flurry" fuses with the flock all the huge vagueness which is our blind source.

"Angle of Geese" seems to me the best example both of Momaday's greatness and his importance to contemporary literature: it profoundly realizes its subject, both denotatively and connotatively, with greater art in an important new prosodic form than anyone except Bridges and Daryush. It also presents, better than any other work I know—especially in the light of what has only recently been so developed and understood—perhaps the most important subject of our age: the tragic conflict between what we have felt in wilderness and what our language means.

Kenneth C. Mason (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8787

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 Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Names.

The Gourd Dancer clearly establishes Momaday as a poet of some stature and demands that the close attention given his prose be given to his poetry as well. The book presents a distinct and distinguished music in post-modern poetry and a fresh and compelling vision. Momaday has brought the same intense concision, the same scrupulous craftsmanship to his poems that he brought to his prose. More important perhaps, he has treated the themes of his prose with a poetic rhetoric of marked originality.

The Gourd Dancer is divided into three parts, each of which is dedicated to one of Momaday's three daughters. This tripartite structure is a departure from his prose works, which make use of a four-part division as a thematic device. Here, however, the structure is not so much thematically as chronologically determined. Each successive part investigates a different facet of Momaday's poetic consciousness, and each notes a progression in the development of a broad artistic sensibility. This does not mean that each new part leaves behind the concerns of past parts, but that the themes and subjects of each successive part are leavened with vital new elements to create a richer, stronger poetic voice.

Part I, "Angle of Geese," includes those poems we have often seen in anthologies: "The Bear," "Bueto Regalis," "Pit Viper," "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," etc. It is one of the best-known of these poems, "Angle of Geese," that we can turn to for an indication of the themes Momaday will be examining in this part. "Angle of Geese" evinces the qualities of precision and cervine grace that are the hallmarks of all Momaday's poetry. This poem (like most of Momaday's poems) is in syllabic verse: each quatrain is composed of alternating lines of five and seven syllables. Lines so short place great demands on the poet for exactness and compression of statement, and lend a certain tautness to the rhetoric of each quatrain (each of which is end-stopped). There is also the conscious use of alliteration: "Will lag in the wake of words," "The mute presence of mulls and marks;" and assonance: "The great shape labored and fell."

But more importantly we find the dense complexity and penetration of utterance—nearly, but never wholly obscure. The poem is highly serious: it charts the poet's reaction to death. The death is that of a friend's first-born child, and the occasion of the poem is the first meeting of the friends in grief. The first three stanzas are a subtle evocation of the psychology of that meeting: before the hard, ineluctable datum of death, they are initially chary of speech, but "custom" leads them to speak. Real communication though, is subverted by the stark consciousness of death—the force of its recognition is beyond the power of words to comprehend or express: "More than language means, / The mute presence mulls and marks." The friends are left to "take measure of the loss," to try to live with it. We are assured that, painful as this is, the poet does "find / The mere margin of repose," the least edge of acceptance.

How the poet finds it is revealed in the final three stanzas. The death of the child is related to the death of the "huge ancestral goose." The shooting of the goose is a reenactment of an ancient pattern from the poet's heritage. Appropriately, the poet is filled with wonder at the beauty and mystery of the geese. Their "symmetry" in flight suggests a transcendent order and harmony—a meeting of "time / And eternity." The dead goose is delivered from the accidents of time, it is "quit of hope and hurt." Its "gaze" is "wide of time" and "held" "On the dark distant flurry"—the symbolic angle. It is in this transfiguration of death that the poet finds solace for the loss of the child. Both deaths become part of the greater order of time's conjunction with eternity in nature.

A similar poetic structure is used in "Comparatives," another meditative poem on the meaning of death. In this poem death is seen as an ever-recurring process in the larger action of nature. First there is the death of the caught fish, which is the one startling circumstance on "the seaside / of any day." This reminds the poet of the fossil fish once seen far inland. The poet concludes that the dying of the present moment and the timeless, ancient death preserved in the rock are "the same thing, / an agony / twice perceived." Momaday's craft adds greatly to the impression of the identity of the two deaths by making the fossil fish seem vital and alive. This is conveyed by alliteration, which gives the lines describing the fossil a sense of urgency and immediacy: "a shadow runs, / radiant, / rude in the rock…." The succeeding lines (again, noticeably alliterative) in effect cancel this perception of animation in the fossil and leaves the reader with the objective perception of death written in rock: "fossil fish, / fissure of bone / forever." Momaday has allowed the reader himself to experience these two events as "the same thing," to see the present "agony" in the silence and hard stillness of the fossil in the rock.

The result of this imaginative perception of the ubiquitous presence of death is offered in the final stanza, in which this "agony" is viewed as "mere commotion," part of the ceaseless agitation and flux of material being. And this is all we can know or conclude about it; the naked fact of death is "perceptible—but that is all."

The two poems, "Angle of Geese" and "Comparatives," show that Momaday is primarily a meditative poet—working directly in the American tradition of meditative poetry. The predominant mood is quiet reflection; the tone is sober and serious. We can also say that Momaday is a metaphysical poet, since he seeks to explore the difficult and elusive nature of reality: not only the facts of death and mortality, but also those of life and the immortality of the moment. This last brings us to the second major intention of the poems in part I of The Gourd Dancer : to reveal something of the secret core of existence through the intense presentation of a single moment—through an act of imagination that magnifies and imbues this moment with a profundity of meaning and import.

"Pit Viper" is an especially effective poem of this sort. The poem captures in an instant of vision the beauty and dangerous power in nature's renewal of itself, the viper's sloughing of the old skin and the shining emergence of the new. The change is rendered in keenly descriptive lines, charged with the excitement of the reactivation of the creative process in nature. An indication of the adeptness with which Momaday suits form to subject is the first sentence: "The cordate head meanders through himself: / Metamorphosis." The meter places an end-stop after the first line, giving the word "Metamorphosis" in the second line a suddenness and impact that creates the very impression of quick transformation that the lines describe.

But with an intellectual subtlety that is a distinctive feature in Momaday's art, the poet turns from the viper, an instrument of death, to the poet's ability to concentrate force in language, giving his words the imaginative potency of the viper's bite: "Blurred eyes … have seen death— / Or simile—come nigh and overcome." Actually, the whole poem can be read as an elaborate "simile," a conceit about the poetic process and the latent power inherent in the poet's shaping of words. "Pit Viper" is an example of the complexity of thought and the suggestiveness of image that Momaday can achieve in the fewest possible lines.

"Pit Viper" succeeds well in presenting a dynamic moment of closely-rendered vision. Momaday offers even greater intensity in his treatment of Isaac McCaslin's first encounter with Old Ben in "The Bear." More than just the title suggests the identification of the scene in the poem with the scene in Faulkner's short story. The physical details of the bear's maimed foot and of his ghost-like coming and going are taken from the story. Further, Momaday's superb line drawing of a boy rapt in wonderment that faces the poem supports this identification. But just how much has Momaday borrowed from Faulkner? The encounter in the story is in actuality shorter than the poem:

He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off, and knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was facing him from the cane or behind him. He did not move, holding facing useless gun which he knew now he would never fire at it, now or never, tasting in his saliva that taint of brass which he had smelled in the huddled dogs when he peered under the kitchen.

Then it was gone. As abruptly as it had stopped the woodpecker's dry hammering set up again.…

This passage from the story is particularly helpful in explaining the question with which the poem begins. The "ruse of vision" refers to the fact that the bear is not really seen, but only apprehended intuitively. Yet that initial question is open to another interpretation, which can exist independent of any connection with the story. The "ruse of vision" is the image created in words by the poet, and the answer to the question, "What ruse of vision … / would cull and color / his somnolence," is the moment of epiphanic vision that is the poem.

Yvor Winters notes this about "The Bear" [in his 1967 Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English]: "The poem is more descriptive than anything else, yet in the third and last stanzas the details are more physical and indicate something of the essential wilderness." The bear in the poem, then, like the bear in Faulkner's story, represents the potent, primordial force of nature, and the poem offers a moment of insight, in which we understand something of the age and mystery of the land.

"The Bear" is distinguished for the strength and solidarity of its lines and the grace with which it carries its syllabic rhythm and rhyme. We might single out for comment two examples of Momaday's poetic command of his subject. The first stanza is notable for the sibilance of its lines, which creates verbally a dazzling sensation of wonder. Secondly, stanzas number three and five enlarge on the sudden coming and going of the bear given in Faulkner, with marvelous effect. These stanzas give the poem greater dramatic moment, and infuse it with a sense of the mystery and ineffability of nature. The final simile is not only rather ingenious, but also singularly effective in generalizing the mystery of the bear to include all of nature: "Then he is gone, whole, / without urgency, from sight, / as buzzards control, / imperceptibly, their flight." This lends the poem's suggestiveness far greater impact. "The Bear" is certainly one of the very finest of Momaday's early poems.

"Bueto Regalis" is a brief but startlingly vivid insight into a totally different aspect of nature. It is meant, like "The Bear," to present an epiphanic moment. But unlike "The Bear," its object is to give a potent sense of the raw wild strength in nature.

"Bueto Regalis" is wholly descriptive. As such, it meets Momaday's own requirement for descriptive writing [as outlined in an interview with Momaday appearing in the March 1973 issue of Puerto del Sol]:

I'm interested in description and when I describe something in writing I always ask myself if I have described what it is I set out to describe; of course, you can write beautiful description which is inaccurate but still beautiful. But my idea of writing good description is writing something accurately.

It is just its accuracy in description which is so impressive in this poem. Lines two and three—"What sense first warns? / The winging is unheard, / Unseen but as distant motion made whole …"—are remarkable for their realism and their apparent ease in handling a very difficult perception. Lines five through eight recall Hopkins' "The Windhover" in their sound effects and imagery, and not altogether to their disadvantage. Indeed, when we remember that Hopkins' poem is also wholly descriptive, we can see a similarity, in the intentions of the two poems. Hopkins makes his falcon a symbol of the glory of Christ, while Momaday makes his hawk an emblem of the physical glory of nature.

We can see, then, that Momaday has two principle concerns in Part I of The Gourd Dancer: to present meditations on death and mutability, and to offer instants of vision that penetrate to the very essence of nature. Both of these concerns are evident in what may be the strongest poems in this part, the four "Plainview" poems.

"Plainview: 1" is perhaps Momaday's most lyrically beautiful, yet also poignant, poem. In form the poem is a modified sonnet, written in seven heroic couplets. It is Momaday's only published attempt in this traditional form, but its success shows that he has fully mastered its difficulties. The poem's purpose is to offer an almost mystical insight into nature—a "plainview." Essentially, the poem is a description of the slow advance of a storm, and as such, it is telling in its realism. Yet the grave tone, the meditative mood, and the haunting, evanescent imagery suggest something far deeper.

The key is the magpies. They appear three times, and are seemingly a clear, distinct perception: there are eleven of them. When the storm breaks, however, we find that they are "illusion." So, the magpies come to symbolize the limited nature of human percipience, as well as the fundamentally illusory nature of material reality: i.e., material things have no reality per se, but only as they symbolize spiritual or ideal reality. Momaday makes much this same point in the third of his Santa Fe New Mexico Viva columns, where we see his attraction to a rather Berkleyan idealism: "A thing is realized by means of perception, and not otherwise. Existence itself is illusory; we inhabit a dream in the mind of God" [30 April 1972]. This idea is supported by the shimmering caducity of the images in the poem: "a wind informs / This distance with a gathering of storms / And drifts in silver crescents on the grass, / Configurations that appear, and pass." "Plainview: 1" allows us to see the whole panorama of the plains in an intensified moment of flux and change. Still, there is permanency too. Behind the transitoriness of the moment, there is the initially tentative, but later forcibly manifest, presence of the storm—the greater pattern of reality behind the ephemeral impressions.

"Plainview: 1" amply evinces the sureness of Momaday's poetic control, as well as the difficulty and depth of his perceptions. It is one of the finest of post-modern sonnets. In fact, stanzas two, three, and seven are reminiscent of Shakespeare's own sonnets in their measured music and grace.

"Plainview: 2" takes its form from the Native American oral tradition (which should not disguise its syllabic rhythm). It is a powerfully sustained elegy for the horse culture of the American Indian. It is a commentary on the death of a culture, of a way of life. The old Indian in the poem now lives solaced by drinking and the dream of drinking. But he challenges the reader (and we must assume, particularly the Indian reader) to preserve and hold the old life in memory. The exhortation, "Remember my horse," is repeated again and again like a drumbeat in the poem.

We can only realize the importance of this idea when we understand the significance of the horse to the Plains Indians. Momaday explains this significance in an early essay:

… the horse brought a new and material way of life. The Kiowa pulled up the roots which had always held him to the ground. He was given the means to prevail against distance. For the first time he could move beyond the limits of his human strength, of his vision, even of his former dreams…. But the greatest change was psychological. Seated behind the withers of a horse elevated to a height from which the far world was made a possession of the eye, sensually conscious of an immense fund of living power under him and nearly part of him the Kiowa was greater than he was.

["The Morality of Indian Hating," Ramparts 3, No. 1 (Summer 1969)]

The psychological destruction necessarily inherent in the destruction of the horse culture then, is staggering. This gives the overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss to the poem. The middle stanza is especially expressive of this loss: "A horse is one thing / An Indian another / An old horse is old / An old Indian sad."

This elegiac treatment of cultural death is reinforced by the movement of the imagery, very evident in the last stanza: first the horse is seen as vigorous and healthy: "running," "wheeling," "blowing," "standing"; then the horse is seen in images of death: "hurting," "falling," and "dying." The joining of the first two lines from stanzas two through eight creates a very swift, intense finale to the poem. The closing lines, moving from "Remember my blue-black horse" to "Remember my horse" to "Remember / Remember" is forceful and potent in evoking the theme. The drumbeats become more rapid, and suddenly stop. "Plainview: 2" as a whole is incredibly moving. It places the human experience in the plains. This experience is tragic. "Plainview: 3" returns to the impersonal view of the land of "Plainview: 1," which suggests an affirmation of the eternality of nature behind the human pathos. The poem is a brief, incisive succession of metaphors for dawn. It carries us quickly beyond the mere fact of sunrise to a joyous celebration of the spirit of the renewal, beautiful and harmonious, of the day. It is a poem of spiritual regeneration through the land.

"Plainview: 3" can also be read as prayer of praise to the sun. For, as James Mooney tells us in Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, the Kiowas were a sun-worshipping people: "The greatest of the Kiowa gods is the Sun; by him they swear, to him they make sacrifice of their own flesh, and in his honour they hold the great annual kado or sun dance." The note of praise is evident in the increasing vibrancy in the images of the poem. "Plainview: 3" is doubtless a minor effort; but it plays an important role in the development of the sequence.

"Plainview: 4" turns again to the darker vision of human experience. Indeed, the movement from "Plainview: 3" to "Plainview: 4" is a movement from the golden age of the Plains Indian culture to its death. The predominant tone here is one of remorse, of sad regret. Poor Buffalo's house is empty now. Yet the poet had known a time when it was filled with life, when the Kiowa captive, Millie Durgan, had lived there. The mood in the first part of the poem is wistful reflection. The mention of Millie Durgan leads to the jauntier ballad stanza on the captive. The tone now is light and happy: the time recalled is the heroic age of the Kiowas, when they commanded the prairies, stole captives, and relished the freedom of distance. Millie Durgan was stolen in 1864 at the age of 18 months. Mildred P. Mayhall mentions her in her book, The Kiowas: "Millie (Sain-toh-oodie) grew up a Kiowa, married a chief, Goombi, had children, and only learned late in life of her true origin." So, Millie Durgan was wholly a Kiowa in culture.

The last part of the poem is heavily ironic in its statement. The poet hears "a music" "about the house"—the folksong, "Shoot the Buffalo." Though this song gives a superficially lively ending to the poem, it lends a profoundly pathetic note to the poem's subject. The killing of the buffalo effectively marked the extinction of the old, nomadic life of the plains. Momaday says this about the destruction of the buffalo in "The Morality of Indian Hating": "Perhaps the most immoral act ever committed against the land was the senseless killing of the buffalo. The loss of the Sun Dance was the blow that killed the Kiowa culture. The Kiowas might have endured every privation but that, the destruction of their faith. Without their religion there was nothing to sustain them." The sequence closes then on a note of deep sadness. Together with "Plainview: 2" this poem offers a tragic meditation on the death of a great culture, a loss that transcends the personal and becomes a moral failure for all Americans.

This sequence of "Plainview" poems not only contains two of Momaday's finest poems, it also marks as a whole the most powerful single moment in part I of The Gourd Dancer. It also prefigures the dominant theme of part II: Momaday's Native American heritage.

"The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee" is Momaday's own song of joy, and it is particularly expressive of his Plains Indian heritage. In form the poem makes a playful glance at Whitman's catalogues, but it really reflects the oral tradition. The poem is about the imaginative integration of the self into the land. Momaday has identified his spirit with the land, and shown the beauty and psychic sanity that identification promises. That this integration is peculiarly an act of the imagination is shown in the last line of the first stanza: "I am the whole dream of these things."

Momaday has emphasized many times in his Viva columns his feeling of unity with and fulfillment in the land:

I came to know the land by going out upon it in all seasons, getting into it until it became the very element in which I lived my daily life. [25 June 1972]


And I too, happen to take place, each day of my life, in my environment. I exist in a landscape and my existence is indivisible with the land. [30 July 1972]

What really emerges from the poem's first stanza is Momaday's perception of the beauty of the land, and of its vitality. Momaday asks in his essay, "A First American Views His Land," [which appeared in National Geographic 150, No. 1 (July 1976),] where the Native American concept of the land derives from: "Perhaps it begins with the recognition of beauty, the realization that the physical world is beautiful." This appreciation of beauty has its moral aspects, too. Momaday explains the Indian view of the land and how it is achieved in that same essay:

Very old in the Native American view is the conviction that the earth is vital, that there is a spiritual dimension to it, a dimension in which man rightly exists. It follows logically that there are ethical imperatives in this matter. I think: Inasmuch as I am in the land, it is appropriate that I should affirm myself in the spirit of the land. I shall celebrate my life in the world and the world in my life. In the natural order man invests himself in the landscape and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience. The trust is sacred.

The process of investment and appropriation is, I believe, preeminently a function of the imagination. It is accomplished by means of an act of the imagination that is especially ethical in kind.

It is this very "investment" in the land, this celebratory affirmation of the spirit of the land that is the purpose and subject of this poem. The repeated line, "You see, I am alive, I am alive," emphasizes the fact that it is in making this imaginative investment in the land that man fully realizes himself as a living creature. The poem is truly a "delight song," a singing of the beauty of the union of man and land. It is a meditative poem, but unlike the other meditations in part I, it is a meditation on the meaning of life, not death. In part I of The Gourd Dancer, "Angle of Geese," we see the whole nature of human existence examined, both life and death. It is just these two themes that we find in the sister poems from The Way to Rainy Mountain, "Headwaters" and "Rainy Mountain Cemetery."

"Headwaters" is about the Kiowa emergence myth narrated in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The poem revisits—just as Momaday does in prose in the conclusion of The Names—the log in the intermontane marsh from which the Kiowas emerged one at a time into this world. The log is described in the poem, but the real theme of the poem comes in the final four lines.

The last lines evince the focus of the poem as the power that made the myth, which related conscious man to his universe, endowing him with identity and a place in the land. This power of the mind, the imagination, is aweengendering in the endless fertility of its resources. Momaday surveys the physical scene in a finely drawn still-life and asks, "What moves?" His answer is a recognition and affirmation of the myth-making power: "What moves on this archaic force / Was wild and welling at the source." These lines are filled with the resonance of the spiritual health and strength of the Kiowa people. There is a suggestion of unbounded energy in the creations of the cultural mind.

Still, the poem is not merely nostalgic. For in the very imaginative act that is the poem, there is a recrudescence of the primeval power that shaped the original myths. And in the waters that "Stand brimming to the stalks," there is a hint that this power is still a dynamic force, a spiritual resource.

"Rainy Mountain Cemetery" is a searching meditation on death; in this case, that of Momaday's grandmother, Aho. The name of the poet's grandmother no longer stands as a symbol of herself, but of "this dark stone." Death "deranges" the possibilities of a life, precludes them ("the mind to be"), and they remain "Forever in the nominal unknown." The last lines of the first stanza reveal the pathetic position of the living, who, in trying to confront and understand the personal significance of a death, hear only "The wake of nothing audible."

In stanza two the eternal presence of the land is contrasted with the personal loss of death. The mood is one of resigned grief, of acceptance of the irrefragable obscurity of death. One instance of the subtlety of Momaday's craft is how the half-rhyme at the end of each stanza (the poem's only irregular rhymes) serves to create the feeling of painful and inescapable loss. This may show the influence of Emily Dickinson, one of Momaday's favorite poets.

We come nearly full circle in "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" to the themes we discussed in "Angle of Geese." Yvor Winters is certainly right in thinking this poem "Momaday's most impressive achievement" among his early poems; and Winters' remarks on the poem show great sensitivity. The poem's first two stanzas reveal the attitude of Christ toward his self-sacrifice. The first stanza enlarges upon the last moment of critical despair. In the "vibrant wake of utterance," Christ's outcry, despair is overweening; it "preoccupies, / Though it is still." It "preoccupies," that is, the poet, who is compelled by its power: it is a despair for which "There is no solace there," in the silence after the cry. There is no possibility of amelioration or assuagement.

The second stanza makes another comment on the silence after the cry. It is the "calm" of nature, a stillness in which the human mind can find no assurance or "peace" but in the face of silence or "solitude" itself. The poet turns to consider the sacrifice itself.

Christ, though to the onlookers who are excluded from his knowledge and despair, "Absurd and public in his agony," himself owns a moment of crystal lucidity: his despair at his imminent death is for Him, "Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued, / Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym: / / A vague contagion." This is the inner understanding that has nothing to do, really, with the outer spectacle. This is the moment of clairvoyant consciousness that so "preoccupies" the poet.

In the third stanza we turn from the mural and the thoughts it inspires to the poet's memory of the sea, the sea in which the poet has told us (in stanza two) that this same "calm" of despair is perceived. The sea, so "mute in constancy," represents the eternity that "The mural but implies." In meditating on the muteness of the sea, the poet comes to understand the reality of death: "Not death, but silence after death is change." In the "calm" then, of Christ's despair, and in the muteness of the sea, we have an apprehension of death—the reality that is in its stark fact, a "change" from life.

The fourth and fifth stanzas take us back into the scene described by the mural. In the meditative entrance into the painting, the poet knows for a moment the "eternity" implied by the scene depicted.

The final stanza reflects a moral dimension not hitherto evident in the poem. The concern with time in the preceding stanzas reminds the poet that "These centuries removed from either fact / Have lain upon the critical expanse / And been of little consequence." Man, perhaps because he has perceived only the "Absurd and public" aspect of the crucifixion, has learned little from the great act of suffering and sacrifice: "The void / Is calendared in stone; the human act, / Outrageous, is in vain." There is genuine pathos in the realization that not only have these twenty centuries been a moral "void," but that time continues, without abatement, with no moral transformation evident: "the hours advance / Like flecks of foam borne landwards and destroyed." The metaphoric return to the sea, here so utterly opposite, in its association, the serene sea of stanza three, creates a depth of suggestion and a structural unity in the poem.

"Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" is a brilliant achievement in meditative poetry, begging comparison with the best poems of Theodore Roethke's "North American Sequence" or the finest of Robert Lowell's meditations in Lord Weary's Castle.

Part II, "The Gourd Dancer," departs from the metaphysical themes of part I and engages in a consideration of the subject Momaday is best known for: his Kiowa heritage. The first poem in this part is the title poem, "The Gourd Dancer." This is one of Momaday's two or three strongest poems, and certainly the outstanding poem in part II. It enunciates the themes of this second part, just as "Angle of Geese" enunciates those of the first part.

"The Gourd Dancer" is divided into four sections; section 1 is called, "The Omen." It is written in blank verse, and is very much akin to those poems of part I which describe an epiphanic appreciation of nature. The first line—"Another season centers on this place"—tells us that time has passed, and that the poem's subject, the poet's grandfather, Mammedaty remains only in memory. The next lines show the poet's identification with the land, which is said to be "like memory," an act of the mind.

The final two lines of the first stanza and the whole of the second stanza are descriptive. The appearance of the owl is the omen, though its meaning is obscure. In speaking of the Kiowas' religious beliefs, James Mooney makes a comment on owls that may be helpful here: "There is an indistinct idea of transmigration, owls and other night birds being supposed to be animated by the souls of the dead…." Thus the owl can function for the poet as a symbolic reminder of Mammedaty. The omen provides an occasion for the rest of the poem, which is three separate but related memories of Mammedaty.

Section 2 is called "The Dream." It is told in prose, and is in its narrative manner reminiscent of the stories in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The first lines are lyrically descriptive, telling of Mammedaty's building of his house—a house we come to know well in The Names. But the truly important lines deal with his "dreaming," which should remind us that dreaming for the Plains Indian cultures is equivalent to having a religious vision. Mooney explains that "dreams and visions are supernatural revelations, to be trusted and obeyed implicitly." Mammedaty dreams while dancing in the Gourd Dance: "He dreamed of dreaming and of the summer breaking upon his spirit, as drums break upon the intervals of the dance, and of the gleaming gourds." This dance leads to the dream and to union with the earth ("summer"). This brings us to the third section of the poem, titled "The Dance," written in free verse lines of increasing length in each stanza—which may be a reflection of the physical progress of the dance.

Momaday has devoted [his 23 July 1972 Viva column] to the Gourd Dance, relating the legend of the dance's origin, and telling of his own initiation in 1969 into the Taimpe (Gourd Dance) Society. He also offers a description of the dance, which should be of help in looking at "The Dance":

It is an ineffable music, low like thunder, and hypnotic. You become caught up in it, dancing, and it carries you away to the center of the world. For a time there is no reality but that, the pure celebration of your being in relation to the singing and the drums and the dance. It is the most profound experience of music that I have ever known.

Likewise, Mammedaty "dreams" as he dances, and becomes one with the center of reality; there is a pure identity of the land and the spirit: "The long-wind glances, moves / Forever as a music to the mind; / The gourds are flashes of the sun." The Gourd Dance unites the dancer, too, with the ancient, enduring traditions of his people: "He takes the inward, mincing steps / That conjure old processions and returns." The dance is the living evidence as well as the symbol of the strength and vitality of the culture.

The second stanza evinces how the accountrements of the dance, the moccasins, sash, and bandolier, "Contain him [the dancer] in insignia"—symbolize the essence of the man who has given himself up to the dancing. Mammedaty's eagle-feather fan "holds upon the deep, ancestral air," again revealing the union in the dance with his heritage.

"The Giveaway," the final, prose section of the poem, may require some cultural background to be fully appreciated. Momaday explains in the same Viva column: "After each song there is a 'giveaway' ceremony, an ancient custom of the Plains whereby various people are honored through the giving of gifts." Momaday's whole poem first appeared in his column for November 4, 1973. But in an earlier column, he had described Mammedaty's dancing and the giveaway afterwards. The details are essentially the same as those of the poem, but the poem gives some a greater emphasis. For example, the earlier column reads: "Mammedaty's name was called out, and he arose and stepped forward." This moment in the poem is highly intensified. The cultural significance of the name is explained, and the calling of Mammedaty's name is given special importance: "Someone spoke his name, Mammedaty, in which his essence was and is. It was a serious matter that his name should be spoken there in the circle, among the many people, and he was thoughtful, full of wonder, and aware of himself and of his name." This enlargement upon the bare journalistic fact of the column not only serves to create a finer dramatic moment, it also reveals something of the man, Mammedaty. In similar fashion, the description of the black horse is lyrically intensified in the poem.

We must remember the absolute preeminence of the horse in Plains Indian cultures if we are to fully comprehend the meaning and force of the gift of the horse in the giveaway. Mooney's comments on the acquisition of the horse by the Plains tribes add to what we have learned from Momaday:

It is unnecessary to dilate on the revolution made in the life of the Indian by this possession of the horse. Without it he was a half-starved skulker in the timber, creeping up on foot toward the unwary deer or building a brush corral with infinite labor to surround a herd of antelope, and seldom venturing more than a few days' journey from home. With the horse he was transformed into the daring buffalo hunter, able to procure in a single day enough food to supply his family for a year, leaving him free to sweep the plains with his war parties along a range of a thousand miles.

Hence, the gift of a horse is the greatest possible gift; it is an event of the highest magnitude. The last sentence of the poem tells us that the gift "was for Mammedaty, in his honor," and that the poem is, too. "The Gourd Dancer" is a superb tribute to the man, Mammedaty, and it is a remarkable example of imagined recollection.

"New World" leaves the personal and historical for the mythical past, telling of primal man's first view of his pristine new world on earth. "New World" opens with the command, "First Man, / Behold," and the rest of the poem is an evocation of the world he beholds. The four sections of the poem are spliced into Momaday's essay, "A First American Views His Land," and Momaday's comments on the Indian's aesthetic, moral, and religious perceptions of the land illustrate well the values implicit in this poem. "New World" illustrates particularly well what Momaday says in the "first truth" of the Indian: "The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful; I delight in it; I am alive in it." The poem, with its crisp formalism (two beat syllabic rhythm), shows in a succession of quickly drawn but poignant images the beauty of the wild land, and the delight one can take in it. For one example we might take the almost Virgilian simplicity and lyricism of section 3: "At noon / turtles / enter / slowly / into / the warm / dark loam / Bees hold / the swarm. / Meadows / recode / through places / of heat / and pure / distance." There is no sense at all here of man. There is only untamed natural beauty.

The first section of "New World" presents a broad first vision of the new land. Sections 2-4 seek to capture the essential spirit of the land at three representative moments: dawn, noon, and dusk. The imagery for each section is appropriate, and there is no lapse in the purity of Momaday's vision in any section. Together, these three moments stand for a whole day and the day presented offers an integral vision of a sacred natural richness before the advent of the course of empire. "New World" is a poem of imaginative celebration of the earth. It resembles, earlier poems like "Pit Viper" and "Bueto Regalis" in that its form is based on what might be called a series of epiphanic perceptions of nature.

"Carriers of the Dream Wheel" defines better than any poem I know the spirit of the oral tradition. William Stafford, in his poem, "A Stared Story," addresses the Indian "survivors" of the twentieth century, who are "slung here in our cynical constellation." These people must now "live by imagination." Momaday's poem shows that it is the imagination that has always given life to Indian cultures. It is the "Wheel of Dreams," their "sacred songs" and "old stories," living orally, ever one generation from extinction, that expresses their reality, and enables them to find and feel a wholeness and meaning in existence: "This is the Wheel of Dreams / Which is carried on their voices, / By means of which their voices turn / And center upon being." The Wheel of Dreams, which is both the body of the songs and stories and the dynamic imagination that calls them into being, defines the reality of the First World: men "shape their songs upon the wheel / And spin the names of the earth and sky, / The aboriginal names." In The Names Momaday explains his belief that the real essences of things are inherent in their names. Thus, the great power of the Wheel that enables men to name things, and, in a manner of speaking, create or reveal the nature of the world.

The most evocative lines in the poems are the final four. They express just how the oral tradition sustained and renewed itself and gave life to the people. The contemporary relevance of these lines and of the poem is that it states how the old traditions can be preserved and regenerated today. Contemporary Indian poets are the current "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," and it is through their poems that contemporary Indians can define their reality and "center upon being." This is obviously what Duane Niatum had in mind when he used this poem as the title poem of his anthology of contemporary Indian poetry.

If "Carriers of the Dream Wheel" reveals the essence of the oral tradition, "The Colors of Night" presents it directly in eight brief prose stories. Each of these stories reveals a different aspect of the Indian world view, Section 1, "White," is based on a historical incident recorded by Mooney, and it is an excellent example of how the poetic imagination can shape historical fact to its own purposes. Here is Mooney's account:

In the spring of 1870, before the last sun dance, the son of the noted chief Set-angya ("Sitting Bear") … had made a raid with a few followers into Texas, where, while making an attack upon a house, he had been shot and killed. After the dance, his father with some friends went to Texas, found his bones and wrapped them in several line blankets, put the bundle upon the back of a led horse and brought them home.… While on a march the remains were always put upon the saddle of a led horse, as when first brought home.…

What Momaday has added to this bare narrative is the father's emotional response to his son's death. The death is seen, not as a tragic event, but rather, as a transcendence. The boy has become part of the beautiful pattern of nature, beyond loss or pain; his bones now "gleam like glass in the light of the sun and moon," and the boy has become "very beautiful."

Section 2, "Yellow," also treats the theme of death's transcendence. A boy drowns, but he does so fulfilling a vision that is beyond place and time: "His vision ran along the path of light and reached across the wide night and took hold of the moon." Perhaps because of the power of the vision, a grace is found beyond death; the boy is transformed and a black dog emerges on the other shore. The dog howls all night at the moon, showing the continuing truth of the vision. As in all stories of transformation, there is a distinct air of mystery here, a mystery that excites the imagination, even as it precludes certitude.

Section 3, "Brown," is a somewhat humorous parable on the pursuit of knowledge. Quite simply the story shows how mere empiricism, minute knowledge of external detail, cannot reveal the essence of a thing. The boy looks hard at the terrapin and memorizes its face, yet "he [fails] to see how it was that the terrapin knew anything at all." This knowledge requires a spiritual insight, an intuitive rapport with nature and a humility before its mysteries.

Section 4, "Red," however, shows how knowledge can be misused and what the consequences are. The man has the "powerful medicine," and he is able to fashion the woman out of leaves. But when the man abuses the woman, the result is destruction and death. She is "blown apart" by a whirlwind and scattered as leaves across the plain. The whirlwind represents the power and potency of the sacred, a force that is always removed from man's complete comprehension.

Section 5, "Green," is the shortest and most enigmatic of the stories. But like section 2, it testifies to the truth of visionary perception. Though the vision of the tree and the shape made of smoke are objectively qualified by the statement that they are "only an appearance," the last words of the sentence affirm the strength of the vision: "there was a tree." This section of the poem is a glimpse into the nature of extra-visual knowledge, and it is imbued with a sense of mysterious potency.

Section 6, "Blue," also treats an instance of visionary perception. Here, however, the reality of the perception is denied. If the tribe is right in denying the vision, the story illustrates that a requisite of visions is that they not be too obscure to be of any use: "'After all,' said an old man, 'how can we believe in the child? It gave us not one word of sense to hold onto.'"

The irrational nature of human evil is examined in section 7, "Purple." The man kills a buffalo for no reason but to see it die. The tribe is ashamed of and grief-stricken at the deed. But the blood of the buffalo runs into the sky and is transformed into the stars. In its etiology the story reaffirms the power of the sacred even over the most heinous human crime.

That the mystery of the sacred is real and that it interpenetrates the affairs of man seems to be the point of section 8, "Black." The long black hair, the "shadow which the firelight cannot cleave," is a good emblem for this mystery. This section of the poem enunciates a theme of the whole poem: there is a mystery in the nature of things which can be partially penetrated or intuitively comprehended—as through stories—but never fully dispelled; and it should not be. The eight stories or myths of this poem are each colors of the night, explorations of this mystery, and each has something unique to reveal about the Indian's world view.

The last four poems in part II, "The Gourd Dancer," are more contemporary in their subjects. But they are nonetheless related to the themes of the preceding poems in this part. Each of the poems presents an insight into nature or place that is particularly Indian. Part II, as we have seen, basically tries to present the philosophy and world view of the Native American. The poems are a rich and valuable extension of the themes Momaday treated in The Way to Rainy Mountain.

Part III of The Gourd Dancer, "Anywhere Is a Street into the Night," represents a final maturity in Momaday's poetic development. Now the poet is the master of his craft and all his circumstances. Anything can provide a subject for a poem—"anywhere is a street into the night." The poet can write about the intrusion of crows in a winter solitude, an old woman sitting in a room, two women who differ radically in personality, an observance of an acting class, the danger of praise to the artist, or the social isolation of the tourist visiting the Soviet Union. Anything that appeals to the poet's imagination can provide an entrance into a poem. This is the theme of the poem that gives its title to this section. In this poem the poet waits at the window (the symbol of poetic observation of life), and of itself the desire for creation comes. The poet feels the "old urgency," and "anywhere / Is a street into the night, / Deliverance and delight…." The mastery of the poet is not only seen in this imaginative ability, but also in his recognition that each poem, each street into the night of the imagination, "will pass"—that for the poet there can be no standing on the achievements of any one poem; he must return another time to the window and wait.

Given this new poetic assurance, it is not surprising that Momaday can treat his Native American themes with a new freshness and intensity. "The Burning," like "Plain-view: 2," is an elegy for the heroic age of the Indian cultures. The poem is a conceit: the apocalyptic destructiveness of the fire is a very apt metaphor for the ravaging advent of the white man ("always alien and alike"). The poem catches with great success the tragic innocence of the Indians as they learn of the approaching disaster, watch for its arrival, and finally succumb to the inexorable will of its drive. What is most striking about the poem is the ease and naturalness with which Momaday sustains the conceit. The imagery is stark and suggestive, and the detail precise and telling. The final lines are extremely moving in their desperate inevitability: "And in the foreground the fields were fixed in fire / And the flames flowered in our flesh." "The Burning" is a new and significant direction for Momaday in his treatment of native materials. It is also a fine attempt at a mature summation of the themes he has treated before.

"Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu" is a major poem, summing up Momaday's ideas about the land. It is a joyful meditation on the beauty of the earth. The real subject of the poem, though, is the special bond and communion between two artists; it is fitting that Momaday should find Georgia O'Keeffe a kindred spirit. In his [10 December 1972] Viva column he has spoken of her with admiration: "In her the sense of place is definitive of her great, artistic spirit. She perceives in the landscape of New Mexico an essence and quality of life that enables her to express her genius, and she, too, is a native in her soul." Like Momaday, Georgia O'Keeffe finds her inspiration and her spiritual sustenance in the land, and she is identified with it.

Because they are open to the beauty of the earth the poet and the artist stand in good relation to it. They share an appreciation of the dried snake bones, the cow and sheep skulls, and most of all, the small stones (which are the very emblem of the land). The poet wishes "to feel the sun in the stones," the life source and principle. He gives a stone to the artist and she "[knows] at once that it [is] beautiful," just as she knows the greater forms of the earth at Abiquiu. The final lines evoke the timeless impersonality and grandeur of grandeur of the land forms in winter.

As the first lines of "Forms of the Earth … " tell us, the poem is an act of imagination. It is in the imagined recreation of experience that the poet can find and reveal the meaning of experience. And it is in the making of the poem, that the experience is given a timeless form. Momaday has achieved this timelessness in "Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu."

Momaday closes The Gourd Dancer with the short poem, "Two Figures." Brief as this poem is, it is singularly poignant. The poet faces his own mortality, faces it with a stoic acceptance of its inevitability. Though his poems have an independent life of their own, the poet is inescapably involved in death and time. "Two Figures" rounds the collection very nicely back to the themes of part I, making the structural circle that is the hallmark of all Momaday's books, the circle of wholeness and completion.

The Gourd Dancer is an organically unified body of poems tracing the evolution of a new and accomplished voice in American poetry. It is a summation of nearly twenty years of writing. Through his skill and the power of his rhetoric Momaday is able to make the themes that emerge distinctly his own: death and time, the beauty of the land, and his Indian heritage. The Gourd Dancer will surely bring the attention to Momaday's poetry that has already been awarded his prose. One only hopes that we will not have to wait another twenty years for his next book of poems.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

Bibliography

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.

Criticism

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

Praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as well as his use of voice and language in In the Presence of the Sun.

World Literature Today 67, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 680.

Argues that In the Presence of the Sun achieves Momaday's purpose, which is to "express my spirit fairly."

Reynolds, Susan Salter. Review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, by N. Scott Momaday. Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 December 1992): 6.

Praises Momaday's focus on identity, nature, native chants, artifacts, and traditions in In the Presence of the Sun.

Roemer, Kenneth M. "Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary American Indian Poetry." In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, pp. 178-91. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1983.

Comparative analysis of Momaday's "The Bear" and Leslie Marmon Silko's poem "Snow Elk."


Additional coverage of Momaday's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 34; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 19, 85; Discovering Authors; Native North American Literature; and Something About the Author, Vols. 30, 48.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5580

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]: Well, to an extent, yes. I don't remember what Velie had to say, exactly. "Post-symbolist," by the way is Yvor Winters's term, not Velie's. It is an important concept in Winters's critical canon, and I would not presume to say what it is or what it has to do with my work. Anyone interested in it ought to go directly to Winters's last work, Forms of Discovery. I didn't know much about the traditional aspects of poetry until I went to Stanford and studied under Winters. Winters was a very fine teacher, and no doubt he had a significant influence upon a good many of his students over the years. In 1959, when I went to Stanford, I was just ready to be educated in terms of prosody, and I owe a good deal of what I know about poetry to Yvor Winters. I think that my early poems, especially those that are structured according to traditional English forms, are in some respects the immediate result of his encouragement and of his teaching.

Poems such as "Angle of Geese" or "The Bear".…

"Angle of Geese" and "The Bear" are written in syllabics; that is, the number of syllables in each line is predetermined and invariable; it is therefore the number of syllables to the line, rather than the number of "feet," which constitutes the measure. I was just playing around a lot with syllables at Stanford—I wasn't even aware of the term "syllabics" until I went to Winters's class in the writing of poetry. So, yes, those would be two examples. But I got tired of the traditional forms. When I left Stanford I had worked myself into such a confinement of form that I started writing fiction and didn't get back to poetry until much later—three years, perhaps—and when I did, I started writing a very different kind of poetry.

I notice, before we talk about that different kind of poetry, that you chose the poem, "The Bear." What is it that made you choose that poem to read [before our interview]? What is important to you about that particular poem?

It was pretty much a random choice, but I like the poem because it is early and it is one of my first really successful poems, as I think of it. It deals with nature, as much of my work does, and it is rhymed in syllabics, and so there are good, solid controlling devices at work in the poem, and that, that aspect of control, is important to me. I wanted to see how closely I could control the statement, and it seems to me that I controlled it about as well as I could. "The Bear" won some sort of prize at Stanford—a prize awarded by the Academy of American Poets, I think. I was ecstatic.

What forms do you think you 're working in now in your poetry? I've heard them described as prose poems by Velie and other people. In some cases, I know some aren 't.

No. I continue working in syllabics. I have written what is called "free verse," though to my mind that is a contradiction in terms. I'm greatly interested in the so-called "prose poem," another contradiction in terms, but what I mean is, I like writing what is essentially a lyrical prose in which I'm not concerned with meter, but with rhythms and fluencies of sound, primarily. I wrote a piece, which no doubt you've seen in The Gourd Dancer, called "The Colors of Night," which is really a collection of quintessential novels, I suppose—very short, lyrical stories. I would like to continue working in that free form.

As a matter of fact that particular poem is one of my favorites in The Gourd Dancer. I thought it interesting that in that book you combine both the earlier poems and the later poems, and they didn't seem to be combined in a chronological order but rather in terms of subject matter. When you put the book together what was your structuring theory or device?

I wanted, as you say, to group the several poems in certain ways. There is a chronological progression to it. The early poems, recognizably traditional forms, I think, are contained in the first section, then the second section is of a very different character, informed by a native voice, and the third section is, or was then, quite recent work. Much of it was written in the Soviet Union.

Did it affect your writing when you worked in another country?

I think it did. I'm not sure that I can say how, exactly. There was a great compulsion there to write, and that surprised me; I could not have anticipated that. But when I got there and had been there a while and had begun to understand a little bit about my isolation and my distance from my native land, this somehow became a creative impulse for me, and so I wrote much more than I thought I would. And I wrote about things I saw and felt in the Soviet Union. "Krasnopresnenskaya Station" is an example. The little poem called "Anywhere is a Street into the Night" is a comment upon my understanding of that distance that I mentioned a moment ago. But I also found myself writing about my homeland, the Southwest—perhaps as a kind of therapy. I wrote the poem that I dedicated to Georgia O'Keeffe ("Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu") there, for example, and it is very much an evocation of the Southwest, isn't it?

This Southwestern landscape which turns up in your poems throughout your writing … how do you define that landscape? What are the important qualities of it for you? The qualities of life in the Southwest which are important….

Well, I think it's a much more spiritual landscape than any other that I know personally. And it is beautiful, simply in physical terms. The colors in that landscape are very vivid, as you know, and I've always been greatly moved by the quality of light upon the colored landscape of New Mexico and Arizona.

Yes, that's evident in your work.

And I think of it as being inhabited by a people who are truly involved in it. The Indians of the Southwest, and the Pueblo people, for example, and the Navajos with whom I grew up, they don't live on the land; they live in it, in a real sense. And that is very important to me, and I like to evoke as best I can that sense of belonging to the earth.

I think that idea of belonging is also of central importance. In The Names or even in some of your poems, you present us with situations where there is a possibility for distance, or a possibility for alienation. But I don't see that alienation coming about. I see, rather, a motion in a different direction—towards a kind of resolution. Am I correct in seeing this?

I think that's a fair statement.

Why is that so? Why are you not an existentialist, for example, a "modern " man looking at the world as separate from the person?

Well, I'm a product of my experience, surely, of what I have seen and known of the world. I've had, by the way, what I think of as a very fortunate growing up. On the basis of my experience, trusting my own perceptions, I don't see any validity in the separation of man and the landscape. Oh, I know that the notion of alienation is very widespread, in a sense very popular. But I think it's an unfortunate point of view and a false one, where the relationship between man and the earth is concerned. Certainly it is one of the great afflictions of our time, this conviction of alienation, separation, isolation. And it is certainly an affliction in the Indian world. But there it has the least chance of taking hold, I believe, for there it is opposed by very strong forces. The whole world view of the Indian is predicated upon the principle of harmony in the universe. You can't tinker much with that; it has the look of an absolute.

Do you differentiate between prose and poetry in a strict sense?

When I talk about definitions, yes. Prose and poetry are opposed in a certain way. It's hard to define poetry. Poetry is a statement concerning the human condition, composed in verse. (I did not invent this definition, skeletal as it is. I think I may be repeating something I heard in class years ago.) In that refinement, in that reservation, "composed in verse," is really, finally, the matter that establishes the idea of poetry and sets it apart.

I wonder, because I see in the work of a number of American Indian writers, for example Leslie Silko, places where prose suddenly breaks into what appears to be verse in parts of Ceremony. There the stories that are told are in a form I would describe as verse. I see, also, in a number of other writers who are American Indians, if not a blurring of that distinction, a passing back and forth, rather freely, between verse and prose. I see it, also, in your work … your prose in such books as House Made of Dawn, and especially The Way to Rainy Mountain. There are sections which one could read as poems. Is this observation a good one? Why do you think it's like this, with yourself and other American Indian prose writers?

That's a large question, and I've thought about it before. The prose pieces in The Way to Rainy Mountain are illustrations of the very thing that I was talking about before, the lyrical prose, the thing that is called the prose poem. The oral tradition of the American Indian is intrinsically poetic in certain, obvious ways. I believe that a good many Indian writers rely upon a kind of poetic expression out of necessity, a necessary homage to the native tradition, and they have every right and reason to do so. It is much harder, I suspect, for an Indian to write a novel than to write a poem. The novel, as a form, is more unfamiliar to him in his native context. (That he does it at all is a kind of tour de force. I am thinking of Jim Welche's Winter in the Blood, for example, a fine novel, to my mind.) Again, I have to quibble with the word "verse." Verse, after all, strictly speaking, is a very precise meter of measure. My "Plainview: 1," for example, is composed in verse. If you look at it closely you see that it is a sonnet, composed in heroic couplets, rhymed iambic pentameter. "The Colors of Night," on the other hand, is not verse. Meter, as such, is simply not a consideration in that piece. You can make the same distinction between, say, "Abstract: Old Woman in a Room" and "Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu." I will indeed quibble over terms here, for they are important. Verse greatly matters, though too few contemporary poets take it seriously, I'm afraid. Verse enables you to sharpen your expression considerably, to explore and realize more closely the possibilities of language. A given prose poem, so-called, may be superior to a given Shakespearean sonnet, but we are talking about an exception; the odds are against it. Sometimes, of course, it is worthwhile to go against the odds.

Vine Deloria complained, in an interview in 1977 in Sun Tracks that so many young American Indian writers turned to verse rather than writing in what he thought was a more useful form to communicate with the Anglo world, fiction or prose. Yet you 're saying that really isn't so much of a choice, as a natural step.

I think so. At least, that's how I think of it.

I have noticed that certain themes appear to turn up again and again in your work. What are those themes? Do you think about them or are they there subconsciously?

I would say that much of my writing has been concerned with the question of man's relationship to the earth, for one thing. Another theme that has interested me is man's relationship to himself, to his past, his heritage. When I was growing up on the reservations of the Southwest, I saw people who were deeply involved in their traditional life, in the memories of their blood. They had, as far as I could see, a certain strength and beauty that I find missing in the modern world at large. I like to celebrate that involvement in my writing.

You don't think of yourself though as a person who is sort of conserving something that's disappearing, do you? I've heard that description of their work given by many non-Indian writers who have written about Indian ways. And I'm not just talking about anthropologists, but also some of the novelists of the early part of the century who thought of themselves as both celebrating and preservingalmost like an artifactsomething which was vanishing. Yet I don't think that is characteristic of your approach.

No, I wouldn't say so. There is an aspect of this matter that has to do with preservation, of course—with a realization that things are passing. I feel this very keenly. But I'm not concerned to preserve relics and artifacts. Only superfically have things changed in the world I knew as a child. I can enumerate them. When I was growing up at Jemez Pueblo—I lived there for several years from the time I was twelve—I saw things that are not to be seen now. I wrote about some of them in The Names. I remember one day looking out upon a dirt road and seeing a caravan of covered wagons that reached as far as the eye could see. These were the Navajos coming in from Torreon to the annual Jemez feast on November 12, 1946. It was simply an unforgettable sight. But the next year it had changed considerably; there were fewer wagons, and there were some pickups, and the year after that there were still fewer wagons and more pickups, and the year after that there were no wagons. And I had later the sense that I had been in the right place at the right time, that I had seen something that will not be seen again, and I thank God for that. But the loss is less important to me than the spirit which informs the remembrance, the spirit that informs that pageantry across all ages and which persists in the imagination of every man everywhere.

Yes, that's a great example. Are words magical?

Oh, yes.

How so?

Well, words are powerful beyond our knowledge, certainly. And they are beautiful. Words are intrinsically powerful, I believe. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe—and I'm talking now about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds—in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his fields so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith—and may I say, wisdom—has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will remain a thing worthy of our highest level of human being.

You mention poets and singers. Are they related or are they different?

I think they are the same thing. You might make this sort of superficial distinction. The poet is concerned to construct his expression according to traditional and prescribed forms. The singer, too, composes his expression according to strict rules, but he is a more religious being, on the whole, less concerned with form than with the most fundamental and creative possibilities of language. The American Indian would be in the second of these categories. This distinction, of course, requires elucidation, but, for the time being, I shall spare you that.

And do you think there are some Indian poets who are still singers or vice versa?

Yes.

Could I ask you to read this one? I think it goes well with what we were just talking about.

Yes.

"The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee"

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen
tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

I've always liked this poem of yours very much. As you may know 1 chose it for translation into some European languages. This is your own song, isn't it?

Yes.

This is the name which you were given by an older relative?

The name was given to me by an old man, a paternal relative, actually. His name was Pohd-lohk, and he gave me the name when I was very young, less than a year old. Tsoai-talee means "rock-tree boy." It commemorates my having been taken, at the age of six months or so, to Devils Tower, Wyoming, which is a sacred place in Kiowa tradition. And the Kiowas call it "rock-tree." Therefore, Pohd-lohk gave me the name. All of this is set down in detail in The Names.

This poem or song makes me think of some very traditional poems or songs. I feel as though I can see, for example, that Southwestern influence, the traditional songs of the Navajos and Pueblo people. Especially the Navajo people. I also feel I see something which comes out of Plains Indians structures, a statement of who you are. Not so much a boasting song as a definition of being alive. Do you see all those things coming together in this? Is this part of what you did consciously or did the form of the poem come in and of itself?

I see those things in it, but I'm not sure that I set out to reflect them consciously in the poem. As I recall, the writing of it came quickly, without effort … it's not a poem that I crafted over a long period of time. It is more spontaneous than most of my poems.

Yes, you mention the word "dream " in here. Again it seems to me like the poem that comes out of a dream … the poem that traditionally would come as an inspiration from another voice.

Dreams, I suppose, are also a constant theme in my work. I'm very much aware of the visionary aspect of the Plains culture, especially the vision quest, so-called. I have more to say about that, I think, in another context. I'm writing a piece now, based upon a vision quest. It will be a novel, I think.

The idea of dreams, then … what are dreams?

Yeah, what are dreams? Has there ever been an answer to that? There is so much we have yet to know about dreams and dreaming. Dreams are prophetic, meaningful, revealing of inmost life. But no one knows how they work, as far as I know. I have powerful dreams, and I believe they determine who I am and what I do. But how, I'm not sure. Maybe that is how it ought to be. Mystery is, perhaps, the necessary condition of dreams.

The term, "the great mystery," is often used by some of the plains people to describe the Creator or that life force which is beyond and above all human, in other life. That's not a mystery that, I sense, native people wish to pierce. It's a mystery which they live in the knowledge of without wanting to know "what" it is. It seems rather counter to the Western approach to things. The Anglo approach is to always know.

Yes, yes. I don't know.

I was talking about the contrast between the Western, Anglo, view and the American Indian view. I'd like to take that back directly to literature and ask what you think the difference is between, let's say, an Indian view of what literature is, and I don't mean just a traditional Indian person, but, let's say someone who has been raised in the twentieth century and who is writing still as an Indian, as opposed to that writer who is non-Indian.

I think there is only one real difference between the two, and that is that the Indian has the advantage of a very rich spiritual experience. As much can be said, certainly, of some non-Indian writers. But the non-Indian writers of today are culturally deprived, I think, in the sense that they don't have the same sense of heritage that the Indian has. I'm told this time and time again by my students, who say, "Oh, I wish I knew more about my grandparents; I wish I knew more about my ancestors and where they came from and what they did." I've come to believe them. It seems to me that the Indian writer ought to make use of that advantage. One of his subjects ought certainly to be his cultural investment in the world. It is a unique and complete experience, and it is a great subject in itself.

One thing which I'm concerned with is a sense of the continuance and the survival of various things which seem to be central to a number of American Indian writers. Do you see your work as continuing some tradition?

Yes. I think that my work proceeds from the American Indian oral tradition, and I think it sustains that tradition and carries it along. And vice versa. And my writing is also of a piece. I've written several books, but to me they are all parts of the same story. And I like to repeat myself, if you will, from book to book, in the way that Faulkner did—in an even more obvious way, perhaps. My purpose is to carry on what was begun a long time ago; there's no end to it that I can see.

That's a question that I was going to ask. I'm glad you led into it. In House Made of Dawn there is a sermon which is given by a Kiowa character. He's not terribly likeable in some ways. Yet those words turn up again in The Way to Rainy Mountain out of, I assume, your own lips. The things that happen in The Gourd Dancer also seem to be a continuance of that same voice and, of course, in The Names you have that repetition. I've heard some people say, "Momaday 's repeating himself Dosen 't he have any new material?" But I've suspected this repetition was a conscious thing.

Oh, yes. In a sense I'm not concerned to change my subject from book to book. Rather, I'm concerned to keep the story going. I mean to keep the same subject, to carry it farther with each telling.

Some traditional songs and stories begin each new movement by repeating. They repeat and then go a bit further. That's the structure in your work?

Yes, indeed, and I believe that is a good way in which to proceed. It establishes a continuity that is important to me.

What are the links in your everyday life to American Indian traditions?

Well, I have the conviction that I am an Indian. I have an idea of myself as an Indian, and that idea is quite secure. My father was Huan-toa; my grandfather was Mammedaty; my great-grandfather was Guipagho. How can I not be an Indian? I'm a member of the Gourd Dance society in the Kiowa tribe, and when I can, I go to the annual meeting of that society, and it is a great thing for me, full of excitement and restoration, the deepest meaning. Since I've returned to the Southwest I feel new and stronger links with the Indian world than I felt in California, where I was for twenty years in exile. Then, too, I have children. And my children are, much to my delight, greatly interested in their stake in the Indian world. So that's another link for me as well as for them. Of course I have Indian relatives. I lost my father, who was my closest tie with the Kiowa world; he died last year. But there are others who sustain me. I keep in touch.

You could say then, perhaps, of "The Gourd Dancer," of your poem (although it's dedicated to your grandfather) that Gourd Dancer is also you.

Oh, yes, yes. Again the continuity. That part of the poem which refers to the giving away of a horse: I wasn't there, of course. But it really did happen; my father was only eight years old, but it remained in his memory as long as he lived. And I absorbed it when I was the same age, so that it became my memory as well. This is a profound continuity, something at the very center of the Indian perception of the world. We are talking about immortality, or something very close to it, though the American Indian would not have that name for it. He would say, perhaps, if he were Kiowa, Akeah-de, "they were camping." In that word is the seed of the same idea.

The American writer some people might link you most closely to who is non-Indian is Walt Whitman. Whitman's life was a single work. Leaves of Grass, which went through different stages of development. Vine Deloria and Geary Hobson have both pointed out, (Geary in an article in New America Magazine and Vine in that Sun Tracks interview), that there have been cycles of interest in American Indians and in the publication of American Indian literary work. As you know D'arcy McNickle more or less stopped being published after a certain point in the late thirties and only was published just before his death in the current resurgence in the late seventies. In the thirties, it was Luther Standing Bear, twenty years before that Charles Eastman. Do you think that this kind of cycle will happen again with American Indian literature or is there something different about the current surge of writing by American Indians and interest in their writing?

I really don't know the answer to that. Oh, I suppose there will be cycles; the popularity of books by and about American Indians will pass, and then there will be regenerations of interest, ad infinitum. That's the nature of the publishing world, isn't it? I'm not worried about it. The American Indian is indispensable to the soil and the dream and the destiny of America. That's the important thing. He always was and always will be a central figure in the American imagination, a central figure in American literature. We can't very well do without him.

I also wonder if, too, it might not be different this time because we now have more Indian people who are literate, who do read. We now have also our own audience as opposed to an audience of people who are non-Indian.

I'm sure that's true.

What is it that contemporary American Indian poetry has to offer to the world of literature or to the world as a whole?

Well, I think it's a legitimate and artistic expression in itself, first of all. Here is my voice, and my voice proceeds out of an intelligence that touches upon the inexorable motions of the world. There is design and symmetry in the pattern of my speech, my words. That in itself is a noteworthy thing. Another such thing is the perception that we were talking about a moment ago. I believe that the Indian has an understanding of the physical world and of the earth as a spiritual entity that is his, very much his own. The non-Indian can benefit a good deal by having that perception revealed to him.

I 've been interested in the place that women seem to be taking in American Indian literature. There seems to be a good deal of strong writing coming from American Indian women, perhaps more so than any other ethnic minority, if you want to call it that, in America. Why is that so? Do you have any ideas on that subject?

No. It's not something that I have thought much about. But it doesn't surprise me, what you say. Women in the Indian world have always had strong, sometimes supernatural, voices. In Plains culture those voices were often understated for obvious reasons—it was a warrior society, after all—but even in that culture women have always had a prominent position. And it is appropriate that we see Indian women writing now. You're right, there are many, and more to come. And some are doing remarkably fine work. I spoke at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe a few months ago. I was speaking particularly to the creative writing students there, and I met several young women, in particular, whose work was very impressive. I met very good young men who were writing well, too, but the women won the day.

In a recent interview, as a part of a National Public Radio program that focused on American Indian women poets called "The Key is in Remembering, " Paula Gunn Allen said that reading House Made of Dawn was one of the major turning points in her life. It made things possible for her that were never possible before. And it is certainly true that you ve been a very important inspiration for many American Indian writers. Just the fact that the two best anthologies of American Indian writing, Carriers of the Dream Wheel and The Remembered Earth, both draw their titles from your work, is a very clear indication of how important people think you are to them. What do you feel about your place as a sort of to use an academic term, dean of American Indian writers?

It's something that I don't often think about. I don't know what that's worth, really. I do very much appreciate people who say the sorts of things that Paula Gunn Allen said on that occasion. But I'm not conscious of my place in that whole scheme of things as yet. And I'm rather reluctant to think in those terms, really, because I want to get on with my work. I'm afraid that if I started thinking of myself as the dean of American Indian writers I might not work so well. I might be tempted to slow down and accept the deanship when I really want to be out there among the subordinates doing my thing.

Deans tend to be administrators, right.

Exactly.

Well, I would like, if you would, for you to read one more poem just to finish things off. I'd like you to choose one that perhaps continues those central concerns in your work, those strong images.

This one, let me read "Plainview: 1":

There in the hollow of the hills I see,
Eleven magpies stand away from me.

Low light upon the rim; a wind informs
This distance with a gathering of storms

And drifts in silver crescents on the grass,
Configurations that appear, and pass.

There falls a final shadow on the glare,
A stillness on the dark, erratic air.

I do not hear the longer wind that lows
Among the magpies. Silences disclose,

Until no rhythms of unrest remain,
Eleven magpies standing in the plain

They are illusion—wind and rain revolve—
And they recede in darkness, and dissolve.

Alan R. Velie (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4657

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 University of New Mexico. It was there that he began writing poetry, and in 1959 published his first poem, "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," in the New Mexico Quarterly. After college Momaday tried a year of law school in the University of Virginia but decided that he did not like it.

When Momaday submitted some poems to a creative writing contest sponsored by Stanford University, Yvor Winters, who judged the poetry entries, awarded Momaday a graduate scholarship to Stanford and took him under his wing. Winters was a distinguished poet, famous for his powerful personality as well as for his scholarship and criticism, and he exercised an enormous influence on Momaday's verse. Winters died in 1968, and Momaday is now experimenting with new forms that Winters probably would have taken a dim view of, but his influence is still evident in much of Momaday's work.

Winters was a great whale of a man, imposing both intellectually and physically, with very marked ideas and a decidedly contentious disposition. His major scholarship was the championing of poets whose work, though excellent, had fallen into obscurity. Among his favorites were Barnabe Googe, Fulke Greville, Jones Very, and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. None of these names are household words today, of course, but their poetry is worth reading, and, thanks to Winters's attentions, it has been republished recently. In fact, Momaday put together an edition of Tuckerman's works [The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, 1965] for his dissertation at Stanford.

Along with his habit of heralding the obscure, Winters had a way of dismissing the famous. He viewed the works of Wordsworth, Keats, Poe, and Whitman with contempt. All this may make Winters sound like a crank, but he was a very sound scholar and a brilliant teacher, and those who knew him never ignored or slighted his opinions. Momaday was very fond of Winters, although, as he admits now, his affection was mixed with awe. Winters, for his part, was endlessly impressed with Momaday. Winters was not one to understate, and after Momaday left Stanford, Winters used to tell students that not only was Scott a great poet and scholar, but he was also powerful enough to pull down the pillars of the building in which they were sitting.

Momaday earned his Ph.D. in English at Stanford and has taught English and comparative literature in the University of California (both Santa Barbara and Berkeley) and at Stanford, and is now teaching at the University of Arizona.

Winters meticulously taught Momaday the poet's craft. He introduced Momaday to a kind of poetry that Winters called post-symbolist, and under Winters's tutelage Momaday adopted post-symbolist methods.

The poets Winters identifies as post-symbolists are a diverse lot, starting with Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Emily Dickinson, and including Wallace Stevens, Louise Bogan, Edgar Bowers, and Winters himself. As Winters was well aware, the post-symbolists were in no sense a group. He makes clear that Tuckerman and Dickinson, who lived only a few miles apart in Massachusetts, neither knew, nor were influenced by, each other and certainly never thought of themselves as part of a movement. In fact, Winters makes no case for the influence of any of the post-symbolists on any of the others.

What the post-symbolists have in common is the use of imagery in such a way that descriptions of sensory details are charged with abstract meaning. Winters argues that in traditional European poetry, before the symbolists, imagery was primarily ornamental. Donne, for instance, used metaphor to illustrate a clearly stated theme. "The vehicles are more interesting than the tenor," Winters wrote, "therefore they are ornaments, and the tenor—the essential theme—suffers." With the symbolists, image and sensory description largely replace abstract meaning. Symbolist poetry cannot be paraphrased or reduced to rational meaning; meaning, such as it is, resides in the feeling and tone of the poem. Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine are among the writers whose poems disassociate sense perception and feeling from conceptual understanding. In post-symbolist poetry, according to Winters, "the sharp sensory detail contained in a poem or passage is of such a nature that the detail is charged with meaning without our being told of the meaning explicitly, or is described in language indicating such meaning indirectly but clearly." Let us consider Momaday's "Angle of Geese" to see how a post-symbolist merges abstract meaning and sensory detail:

The poem is difficult to understand until we know more about the circumstances Momaday is describing. The first three stanzas are his reflections on the death of a friend's child, and describe the inadequacy of language to encompass such grief. The last three stanzas turn to an incident that happened on a hunting trip Momaday took as a teenager: he had retrieved a goose that one of the hunters had shot and was holding it as it died. In the lines "How shall we adorn / Recognition with our speech?" Momaday indicates, by his choice of the verb adorn, that language functions in this painful situation merely as decoration. He is alluding to the poverty of words that one always feels in our culture at such times. Very few Americans say, "I'm sorry your little boy is dead"; it sounds so pitifully inadequate. They usually use some peripherasis—"I'm sorry to hear the news"—hoping by vagueness to imply something more meaningful. But the idea here is that, whatever is said, the "Dead first-born / Will lag in the wake of words."

It is important to remember Momaday's roots in Indian culture in reading the poem. When he says "We are civil," one should be aware of the connotation of civilized and should contrast the traditional Indian custom of keening the tremolo, cutting off one's hair, and even occasionally a finger, in wild lamentation, with the "civilized" Anglo's custom of repressing grief. Indian mourning is a violent release and purgation of grief. Accompanied by the passionate emotions of the Indian mourning ceremonies, words would have more force. "I am sorry that your child is dead," would not have a hollow ring in an Indian context. The context of "Angle of Geese," however, is Anglo-Saxon America, and in taking "measure of the loss," Momaday is "slow to find / The mere margin of repose," the way to come to grips with the event emotionally. He cannot even find the margin, the edge, or beginning, of repose.

In the second half of the poem Momaday shifts without transition from the dead child to the dying goose. The link between the two is associational, to use one of Winters's favorite terms. The doctrine of association can be traced to Hobbes and Locke, who argued that ideas arise from association of sensory perceptions. The literary application of this idea affected poetic structure by replacing the traditional logical construction of poems with what Winters called "the structure of revery," and it brought about the post-symbolist practice of expressing ideas through images, which are a verbal record of sensory impressions.

In "Angle of Geese" Momaday moves in memory from the dead child of the present to the dying goose of his childhood. Momaday has described the incident at length in a column he wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican [September 23, 1973]. His account is beautifully written, and seems worth reprinting in total, both for its own sake and for its help in explaining the poem. It also shows the work of compression that Momaday has done in turning the childhood incident into poetry.

One of the Wild Beautiful Creatures

That day the sun never did come out. It was a strange, indefinite illumination, almost obscure, set very deep in the sky,—a heavy, humid cold without wind. Flurries of snow moved down from the mountains, one after another, and clouds of swirling mist spilled slowly down the slopes splashing in slow, slow motion on the plain.

For days I had seen migrating birds. They moved down the long corridor of the valley, keeping to the river. The day before I had seen a flock of twenty or thirty geese descend into the willows a mile or more downstream. They were still there, as far as I knew.

I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I suppose. I had a different view of hunting in those days, an exalted view, which was natural enough, given my situation. I had grown up in mountain and desert country, always in touch with the wilderness, and I took it all for granted. The men of my acquaintance were hunters. Indeed they were deeply committed to a hunting tradition. And I admired them in precisely those terms.

We drew near the river and began to creep, the way a cat creeps upon a sparrow. I remember that I placed my feet very carefully, one after the other, in the snow without sound. I felt an excitement welling up within me. Before us was a rise which now we were using as a blind. Beyond and below it was the river, which we could not yet see, except where it reached away at either end of our view, curving away into the pale, winter landscape. We advanced up the shallow slope, crouching, leaned into the snow and raised ourselves up on our toes in order to see. The geese were there, motionless on the water, riding like decoys. But though they were still they were not calm. I could sense their wariness, the tension that was holding them in that stiff, tentative attitude of alert.

And suddenly they exploded from the water. They became a terrible, clamorous swarm, struggling to gain their element. Their great bodies, trailing water, seemed to heave under the wild, beating wings. They disintegrated into a blur of commotion, panic. There was a deafening roar; my heart was beating like the wings of the geese.

And just as suddenly out of this apparent chaos there emerged a perfect fluent symmetry. The geese assembled on the cold air, even as the river was still crumpled with their going, and formed a bright angle on the distance. Nothing could have been more beautiful, more wonderfully realized upon the vision of a single moment. Such beauty is inspirational in itself; for it exists for its own sake.

One of the wild, beautiful creatures remained in the river, mortally wounded, its side perforated with buckshot. I waded out into the hard, icy undercurrent and took it up in my arm. The living weight of it was very great, and with its life's blood it warmed my frozen hands. I carried it for a long time. There was no longer any fear in its eyes, only something like sadness and yearning, until at last the eyes curdled in death. The great shape seemed perceptibly lighter, diminished in my hold, as if the ghost given up had gone at last to take its place in that pale angle in the long distance.

These words, like the poem, were written long after the event, after Momaday had undergone a change from an unquestioning, romantic acceptance of hunting to a viewpoint which, the reader can infer, is more critical. What remains in his mind as an adult is a memory of the pathos of the dying goose, yearning to take its place in the "bright angle" with the rest of the flock.

The poem is post-symbolist in technique because Momaday imbues his childhood experience with an abstract significance. The goose becomes the "huge ancestral goose," a prototype of geese, rather than one bird. Momaday compares the formation of the flock in flight to the angle of time and eternity, imbuing their flight with a metaphysical or transcendental dimension. The wounded goose, between life and death, is still alive and alert, and yet it is "wide of time"; that is, its impending death has released it from the bondage of time.

Using post-symbolist technique, Momaday implies a meaning in his description of the scene, though never implicitly stating it. Put baldly, the meaning is that death is not something to be dreaded but a means of escaping the trammels of time. This formulation is oversimple, only a portion of the statement that the description makes, but it does inhere in and is at the center of it. Post-symbolist images cannot be very satisfactorily reduced to prose, yet the prose element, the tenor, is definitely a crucial part of them.

"Angle of Geese" is written in syllabic verse, rather than in the accentual syllabic verse of most traditional poetry. In a syllabic line the "accented syllables must vary sufficiently in number and position that they do not follow a pattern (a pattern would give us standard meter) but must still contribute to the rhythm," whereas accentual syllabic verse contains a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. In "Angle of Geese" the first and third lines of each stanza contain five syllables and the second and fourth lines contain seven. The rhythm of the poem is very subtle, and its effect not markedly different from that of prose, even though the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme. Since the rhymed lines are not usually heavily endstopped, they are not at all obtrusive and, indeed, might even escape the notice of a casual reader.

The poem recalls Winters in its solemn tone and stately rhythm, in its curiously formal and abstract diction, and in its fondness for polysyllabic, latinate words. "How shall we adorn / Recognition with our speech?" is reminiscent of some of Winters's verse, for instance ["To William Dinsmore Briggs Conducting His Seminar"]:

Amid the walls' insensate white, some crime
Is redefined above the sunken mass
Of crumbled years; logic reclaims the crass,
Frees from historic dross the invidious mime.

The rhyme is heavier, the meter iambic pentameter, but, as in Momaday's poem, the diction is formal, the language abstract and latinate.

Winters was considered an academic poet, and in Momaday's early verse we can sometimes get a faint whiff of the lamp. Consider, for instance, "The Bear."

The reader might naturally suppose that a poem by an Indian about a bear has been inspired by a hunting incident, but, as it happens, the model for this bear is Old Ben in Faulkner's "The Bear." Momaday not only depicts the same scene as Faulkner—the confrontation of the hunter and the huge, old bear—but he borrows from Faulkner's diction as well:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

Momaday uses Faulkner's passage the way Shakespeare uses Plutarch's description of Cleopatra's barge, borrowing the most vivid phrases, preserving the essence of the description, and transmuting prose into poetry. Like "Angle of Geese," "The Bear" is syllabic verse, lines one and three of each stanza having five syllables, and lines two and four having seven. Momaday makes greater use of rhyme here than in "Angle of Geese," with alternating lines rhyming. Still, there is not much endstopping or heavy stress on final syllables, so the rhyme is unobtrusive.

Winters had commented that the language of the poem is very quiet, and "could well be the language of distinguished prose." He concludes that it is poetry "by virtue of the careful selection of details and the careful juxtaposition of these details, selection and juxtaposition which result in concentration of meaning, and by virtue of its rhythm, which is the rhythm of verse, but very subtle." This is exaggerated, since the language of prose never includes rhyme, but it is worth noting because it indicates that, even at its most formal, Momaday's poetry was not that far from his recent prose poetry, although at first the new poems seem a dramatic departure.

The importance of noting that Faulkner's Ben and not some real bear provided the model for Momaday's poem is that it reminds the reader that Momaday is a man of letters, not a noble savage, and that his poetry is in the same literary tradition as that of any American writing today. But "The Bear" is not only literary; like most of Momaday's verse, it is vividly descriptive. More than anything else Winters detested vagueness, and inveighed against it to Momaday and all his other students. Winter's argument with the romantics was that they seldom described poetic subjects in visual terms.

Shelley was one of Winters' favorite examples of this romantic tendency, because his famous poem "The Skylark" is a series of similes, none of which serve to describe the bird in its avian manifestation. In the poem Shelley compares the lark to a "cloud of fire," a "poet hidden," a "high-born maiden," and an "unbodied joy." In contrast, Momaday presents the bear, not in full detail, but in a few descriptive strokes, as in a line drawing that suggests as much as it depicts, but nonetheless presents a fully realized creature. We see, or sense, the bear—massive, old, still, and maimed.

Momaday's bear, however, is no less a symbol than Shelley's lark. To Faulkner, Old Ben was not only a bear, but also a symbol of the vanishing wilderness. Momaday incorporates a sense of this into his poem. As Winters describes it, "The poem is more descriptive than anything else, yet in the third and last stanzas the details are more than physical and indicate something of the essential wilderness." Momaday is careful to soften the effect by the use of "seems," but the bear, "dimensionless, … forever there," is clearly more than one particular animal; he is also the incarnation of some primeval, fundamental truth about the wilderness.

Another poem in which Momaday combines symbols with minute and keen description is "Buteo Regalis":

His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
It veers, and veering, tilts broad-surfaced wings.
Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
And falls, alternately white and russet,
Angle and curve, gathering momentum.

Here is a brief sketch of a hawk swooping to its kill. The prey is an unspecified rodent; we are not told whether it is a rat, mouse, or prairie dog. Momaday alternates the use of syllabic verse with iambic pentameter (lines 2, 4, 5, and 6 are iambic), and Winters suggests, persuasively, that "the first and third lines, in their syllabic rhythm suggest the sudden hesitation; the four pentameter lines suggest the smooth motion of the soaring hawk; the last two lines in their syllabic rhythm and fragmented phrasing, suggest the rapid and confusing descent."

Notice Momaday's description of the rodent: its frailty is "discrete"—separate—a reference to its isolation in its last moments of life. Momaday depicts the hawk impressionistically. The rodent senses it more than sees it—"Unseen but as a distant motion made whole." The vignette is not completed—Momaday does not tell us whether the hawk gets his prey or not. Somehow the outcome seems less important than the iconic glimpse we get: hawk stooping, rodent turning. It is a glimpse into the wild heart of nature. As Winters puts it, "It seems rather a perception of the 'discrete' wilderness, the essential wilderness." After Winters, the most important influence on Momaday's early poetry was the work of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, the nineteenth-century New Englander whose poems were the subject of Momaday's Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford. Momaday's interest in Tuckerman persisted beyond his dissertation. He wrote an article on Tucker-mans' "The Cricket," published an edition of Tuckerman's poems, and still includes Tuckerman in his course on the antiromantic movement in nineteenth-century American literature.

There are some notable parallels between Momaday and Tuckerman. Tuckerman, the earliest of the post-symbolists, wrote poetry that combined subtle and detailed descriptions of nature with symbolism, a practice Momaday has emulated. Momaday, like Tuckerman before him, is an amateur naturalist. Furthermore, both men studied but never practiced the law, preferring to become poets.

Tuckerman influenced Momaday both stylistically and philosophically. Stylistically, Momaday admired and adopted Tuckerman's naturalist's eye for detail. Tuckerman's poems are full of references to flowers like bloodroot, king orchis, pearlwort, and jacinth, and herbs like wastebalm and feverfew. Sometimes Tuckerman just names the plants; sometimes, in his best verse, he describes them, briefly but vividly. Momaday describes Tuckerman's poems as "remarkable, point-blank descriptions of nature; they are filled with small, precise, and whole things: purring bees and varvain spikes, shives and amaryllis, wind flowers and stramony." The impression one has to Tuckerman is of a man who sees the world of nature clearly and distinctly, rather than through a romantic blur.

But Tuckerman is just as capable as Shelley of making a creature into a symbol. In "The Cricket," which in Momaday's opinion is Tuckerman's greatest poem, the cricket is a complex figure symbolizing the forces of nature. Tuckerman asserts that to understand the cricket's song is to understand the universe, an idea akin to Tennyson's statement in "Flower in the Crannied Wall." Tuckerman concludes that it is an immoral act to pry into nature's secrets, what Chaucer called "Goddes pryvetee." Although Tuckerman does not make the comparison, he apparently sees the invasion of the natural world by the probing mind as similar to the original sin of eating of the tree of knowledge. Tuckerman's conclusion is existential; the universe is impenetrable, and the important question, as Momaday put it in his article on "The Cricket," ["The Heretical Cricket," Southern Review 3, Nos. 1-2 (1967)] is "how to live in the certainty of death."

Philosphically, although it would be too simplistic to attribute Momaday's existential views solely to Tuckerman's influence, it is worth noting that the men share a similar outlook. Momaday's poem "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" is informed by ideas very similar to those of "The Cricket":

I ponder how He died, despairing once.
I've heard the cry subside in vacant skies,
In clearings where no other was. Despair,
Which, in the vibrant wake of utterance,
Resides in desolate calm, preoccupies,
Though it is still. There is no solace there.

That calm inhabits wilderness, the sea,
And where no peace inheres but solitude;
Near death it most impends. It was for Him,
Absurd and public in His agony,
Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued,
Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym:

A vague contagion. Old, the mural fades …
Reminded of the fainter sea I scanned,
I recollect: How mute in constancy!
I could not leave the wall of palisades
Till cormorants returned my eyes on land.
The mural but implies eternity:

Not death, but silence after death is change.
Judean hills, the endless afternoon,
The farther groves and arbors seasonless
But fix the mind within the moment's range.
Where evening would obscure our sorrow soon,
There shines too much a sterile loveliness.

No imprecisions of commingled shade,
No shimmering deceptions of the sun,
Herein no semblances remark the cold
Unhindered swell of time, for time is stayed
The Passion wanes into oblivion,
And time and timelessness confuse, I'm told.

These centuries removed from either fact
Have lain upon the critical expanse
And been of little consequence. The void
Is calendared in stone; the human act,
Outrageous, is in vain. The hours advance
Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.

Like W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," this poem is about a poet's reaction to a painting, and his consequent reflections about life. From the outset it is apparent that Momaday takes an existential view of the crucifixion: God is dead. Christ dies in despair, his cry subsiding in "vacant skies"—skies empty of God. Man is alone on earth, "where no peace inheres but solitude." To Momaday, Christ's agony is absurd and inscrutable, or it has meaning only as a singular gesture; it did not, as Christianity teaches, bring redemption to man. Christ's death is often misconstrued, Momaday says, or translated into art, into pictures like the mural. The mural implies eternity, but there is none. The change after death is not to eternal life, but to silence, nothingness. During one's lifetime there is little comfort because time is relentless. Momaday's great image is taken from the sea he watches in the poem. "The cold / Unhindered swell of time" is a prototypical example of a post-symbolist image. Momaday expands on the image in the last stanza: "The hours advance / Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed."

The idea that time is passing ceaselessly is of course one of the most familiar themes in poetry, the basis of ubi sunt and carpe diem poems, for example, but Momaday's lines are particularly reminiscent of the best lines in "The Cricket":

Behold the autumn goes,
The Shadow grows,
The moments take hold of eternity;
Even while we stop to wrangle or repine
Our lives are gone
Like thinnest mist,
Like yon escaping colour in the trees.

Momaday continues to write poems in his conservative, Wintersian mode—poems, for instance, like "Anywhere Is a Street into the Night," the title poem from the collection that he published after a trip to Russia. But he has also begun to experiment with a more fluid form, the prose poem. These are usually about Indian subjects, and although, as Winters pointed out, even his most traditional poems approached the "rhythm of stately prose," these prose poems seem a radical departure. They most resemble the oral tradition of the Indian tale, and, indeed, most of them are short narratives.

     "The Fear of Bo-Talee"

Bo-talee rode easily among his enemies, once, twice, three—
and four times. And all who saw him were amazed, for he
was utterly without fear; so it seemed. But afterwards he said:
Certainly I was afraid. I was afraid of the fear in the eyes of
my enemies.


     "The Stalker"

Sampt' drew the string back and back until he felt the bow
wobble in his hand, and he let the arrow go. It shot across
the long light of the morning and struck the black face of a
stone in the meadow; it glanced then away towards the west,
limping along in the air; and then it settled down in the grass
and lay still. Sampt'e approached; he looked at it with wonder
and was wary; honestly he believed that the arrow might take
flight again; so much of his life did he give into it.

These two short recitatives might have appeared as chapters in The Way to Rainy Mountain. They have the stately oral cadence of the Indian teller of tales and, although strongly rhythmical, have shed the last formal regular strictures of verse.

Momaday is a fine poet, but in my opinion he is at his best in prose. His prose is masterful in House Made of Dawn, but it is at its best in the lyrical short passages of The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names. These new poems, like "The Fear of Bo-talee," seem to indicate that Momaday's verse and prose, once so different, are conjoining to create a single and powerful voice. Momaday's prose, both fiction and nonfiction, had been written solely from an Indian point of view; his verse, academic and formal, showed more trace of his literary than of his ethnic beginnings. These new prose poems are Indian in tone and subject.

Matthias Schubnell (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8070

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 sonnet. This variety of styles suggests a greater ease of expression compared with the rigid and formalized work of Momaday's Stanford period.

In three short pieces of prose poetry, similar in style to those in The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday evokes different stages in the evolution of Kiowa life. "The Stalker" shows the fragility of Kiowa existence before the acquisition of the horse; "The Fear of Bo-talee" is a salute to the heroism and humanity of a Kiowa warrior at the height of the horse culture; "The Horse that Died of Shame" combines a story of an act of cowardice, signifying the decline of the Kiowa spirit, with a description of the way in which this traditional tale prevails in Momaday's imagination and dreams and affects his vision of the world around him. In a fourth poem of similar character, "The Story of a Well-Made Shield," Momaday tries to approximate the inexpressible potency he senses in nature.

"The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" reflects an aboriginal ethic which holds that man is an integral, but not dominant part of creation. It is a prayer of thanks for having existence in a world of endless wonder and beauty. Momaday, one of whose Kiowa names is Tsoai-talee, introduced an early version of this poem with the following words: "It is a day to sing a song, or to run deep into a sunlit field, or to sit easily with someone who is old and alone. It is a day to rejoice. On such a day as this I would tell a story to a child, I would deal in delight. I would say, and the child would say after me: 'I am a feather in the bright sky.'"

The lines which follow illuminate a particularly native attitude toward the natural world, and its form is a deliberate emulation of Navajo song patterns. Mary Austin, whose life and work in the Southwest and study of aboriginal American verse gave her a deep insight into the Indian's sense of the land, described [in her The Land of Journeys' Ending] the embeddedness of Indian life in the natural environment which is at the heart of Momaday's poem, in these paragraphs:

Man is not himself only, not solely a variation of his racial type in the pattern of his immediate experience. He is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources, half noted, or noted not at all except by some sense that lies too deep for naming. He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys; his is the rhythm of its seasonal processions, the involution and variation of its vegetable patterns.…

… By land, I mean all those things common to a given region …: the flow of prevailing winds, the succession of vegetal cover, the legend of ancient life; and the scene, above everything the magnificently shaped and colored scene.

The use of parallel structures, repetition, and accretion is a common feature in Navajo songs. The final six lines of the poem, which are separated from the main body, correspond to the traditional evocation of personal harmony which concludes many Navajo chants. Such evocations are designed to place the singer into the center of the universe, surrounded by the four cardinal directions, the spirit world above, and the underworld below. The following example is a case in point:

May it be beautiful before me
May it be beautiful behind me
May it be beautiful below me
May it be beautiful above me
May it be beautiful all around me
In beauty it is finished.

"The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" is a contemporary appropriation of the individual to the universe, based on native tradition and resulting in harmony and delight.

The four poems of the "Plainview" sequence are, as the title suggests, reflections on the world of the Kiowas in the southern plains. "Plainview: 1" and "Plainview: 3" are evocations of the Oklahoma landscape at Rainy Mountain, near Mountain View, the home of Momaday's father. "Plainview: 2" and "Plainview: 4" deal with Kiowa history; the first poem delineates the glory and decline of a Plains culture, the second relates the extraordinary captivity story of Milly Durgan among the Kiowas. The widely differing forms of the four poems indicate Momaday's technical virtuosity and scope.

Momaday introduced the first publication of "Plainview: 1" by saying: "I remember having been at Rainy Mountain in a stormy season, and I write a commemorative poem, a sonnet." The poem is one of the clearest examples of Momaday's kinship with Wallace Stevens. The landscape Momaday creates is more than the sum of carefully selected and precisely observed details. Momaday renders the scene in terms of its impact not only on the senses but also on the imagination. It is this poetic strategy, the creation of a landscape of the mind, which is also the hallmark of Steven's work. Steven's poems fuse reality and imagination to create a fiction, a constructed world particular to the poet alone. One critic has summarized the relevance of this theory to geography: "The idea that place is made of an integration of human concept and external reality and that man's familiar scenes are dependent on his imagination—this idea is basic to an understanding of the supreme fiction" [Frank Doggett, in "This Invented World," in The Act of the Mind, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce and J. Hillis Miller].

In "Plainview: 1" Momaday composes a fiction out of sense perceptions—light and shadow, sound and motion, shapes and color—combined with the result of his imaginative response to the ominous mood which informs a landscape under the threat of an approaching storm. The eleven magpies the person sees are figments of the imagination, "illusions," as the last stanza makes clear. But at the same time they are an integral part of the poet's reality; the poem proceeds in relating the imaginative magpies to the physical world. The resulting reality is a synthesis of sense perceptions and imagination.

"Plainview: 2" is an emulation of indigenous poetic patterns: as with "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee," its parallel structures, repetition, and accretion are characteristic of American Indian chants. The poem is an elegy on the decline of the Plains Indian world. The peoples of the plains—among them the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Dakotas—reached their golden age after acquiring horses from the Spaniards. Horses gave them mobility and power, both as buffalo hunters and warriors. It is therefore appropriate to render the disintegration of these cultures in terms of the demise of a horse. Deprived of the animal around which his culture flourished, the old Indian is left with memories and dreams of a better time. His flight into alcoholism is an expression of his inability to adapt to new circumstances as well as a way of easing the pain of his nostalgia.

"Plainview: 3" is a celebration of the sun, the central object of veneration among the Plains tribes. Momaday renders the spectacle of sunrise impressionistically, using concrete language and images. Three metaphors are compounded in this depiction of the rising sun: "a pendant / of clear cutbeads, flashing; / a drift of pollen and glitter / lapping, and overlapping night; / a prairie fire."

"Plainview: 4" deals with the extraordinary story of Milly Durgan, whose experience epitomizes the drama of frontier life in Texas and Oklahoma at a time when white settlers were still at the mercy of powerful Kiowa raiders. When she was eighteen months old, Milly Durgan was kidnapped in a raid led by the Kiowa warrior Little Buffalo at Elm Creek, Young County, Texas, on 13 October 1864. While the other captives were later ransomed, Milly was adopted by the famous Kiowa warrior, Au-soant-sai-mah, and given her Indian name, Sain-toh-oodie. Most Kiowa captives were treated as slaves, but Milly was raised by kind foster parents and enjoyed the wealth, status, and protection of a respected family. She worshiped the Kiowa idols, Tai-me and the Ten Grandmother bundles, and when the first Baptist missionaries arrived at Rainy Mountain, she fiercely resisted their demand that she adopt the new religion. It was only in old age that she converted to Christianity. She married the Kiowa chief, Goombi, and never regretted her Indian existence when, late in life, she learned about her true origin. After a brief visit to her relations in Texas she returned to the Kiowas in Oklahoma.

In a manuscript version of "Plainview: 4," Momaday described this remarkable woman: "She was made much of in her time, for she had come over an unimaginable distance and crossed the native strain with a hard, exotic blood—a frontier intercession." The two worlds of Milly Durgan are reflected in Momaday's use of excerpts from American folksongs and his emulation of Kiowa oral tradition. The introduction of the first prose section, "Once upon a time I saw the people there," indicates that Momaday is creating an oral tradition out of his direct knowledge of the Kiowa captive and his imaginative recreation of her life.

The middle section takes the form of a folksong. In the manuscript version the two final lines of this passage read: 'Aye, Milly Durgan, you've gone from your home / Away to the prairie with red men to roam." While this version refers to the kidnap only, the two lines in their published form are ambiguous: they suggest not only Milly's forceful removal from her home in Texas by the Kiowas but her departure in death from her house at Rainy Mountain. It is now her spirit which roams the prairie.

The excerpt from "Shoot the Buffalo" that concludes "Plainview: 4" is a reminder of the tragic consequences for the Kiowas of the encroachment of the settlers and buffalo hunters. It must have been particularly traumatic for Milly Durgan to see her adopted culture destroyed by people of her own blood. The four poems of the "Plainview" cycle are celebrations of a place in which Momaday is rooted by birth and of a time which prevails in the poet's mind.

"The Gourd Dancer" is a tribute in four sections to Momaday's grandfather Mammedaty, whom he never knew in person but came to know in his racial memory and the verbal dimension of Kiowa lore. Momaday is a successor to his grandfather in the Gourd Dance Society. Thus, the poem makes a statement about the relation between generations in the larger context of Kiowa history and, on a metaphysical level, about the notion of immortality and individual human life in an oral tradition.

In a number of prose works Momaday has directed his energy at salvaging the memory of his ancestor, most notably in The Names and in two of his Viva columns. In [the column] "A Memory that Persists in the Blood" he deals with the giveaway in honor of Mammedaty which is the subject of the fourth section of "The Gourd Dancer." He points out that the event took place "… some years ago, before I was born. And yet it is an important event in my mind, important to me and to my understanding of an Indian heritage. I remember it, as it were, in the way that we human beings seem at times to remember Genesis—across evolutionary distances. It is a memory that persists in the blood, and there only."

The first section of "The Gourd Dancer" is entitled "The Omen." Consisting of two quatrains in blank verse, it establishes in its opening line the centrality of the Kiowa homeland. "This place" is the repository of tribal myth and history, the focal point of Momaday's personal and racial heritage. Through the use of grammatical inversion in lines two and three, Momaday stresses the dependence of blood memory and the passage of time—the receding sun and the seasonal rhythm stand as images of change—on the changeless, everlasting land. Memory and time have existence only in relation to place.

Lines five and six describe the physical landscape, but they also suggest its effect on the human imagination. "A vagrant heat" intimates the flux and intensity of memories, while "shadows turning like smoke" evoke the elusive and indistinct imaginative responses to the physical environment. The omen refers to the owl, a bird which symbolizes transmigration in Kiowa thought. The owl, a creature animated by the souls of the dead, functions as a catalyst for Momaday's epiphany of his grandfather. "Remote within its motion, intricate with age," the bird signifies the world of the past. In its distant and aloof nature, it is a challenge to the human imagination.

In this context the owl carries a second meaning. It refers to Mammedaty, who was an owl prophet. According to a newspaper description of the Gourd Dance, he "received the medicine of the owl when he was cooling off at a creek and a screech owl spoke to him. At a later time, he went into a cataleptic state, visiting the land of the dead. He became knowledgeable about the spirit world." In the light of this biographical detail it becomes apparent that Momaday is presenting a landscape twice perceived: once by Mammedaty, whose encounter with the owl made him a medicine man, and then by the poet himself, who conceives of the bird as a carrier of an ancestral spirit. Momaday and Mammedaty are linked by memory and the imagination, which in turn are moored to the land. Change within constancy finds expression not only in the cycle of seasons but in the chain of generations passing through the Kiowa world.

The poem's second section, "The Dream," reinforces the notion of ancestral interrelatedness established in "The Omen." It consists of Momaday's dream of his grandfather's dreaming about dreaming, a deliberate construction of a chain of imaginative experiences, dreams, and recollections which constitute the oral tradition. Again, the opening line establishes the fixed point as "this house," to which everything else is related. This first sentence, "Mammedaty saw to the building of this house," suggests more than just a physical activity. The verb points beyond its primary meaning of "attending to" the construction of the building; Mammedaty is involved in a spiritual activity, having envisioned the house and pursued this vision as a matter of course. Momaday establishes a link between the sound of the hammers, implied in the silence after the day of work, and the sounds of nature, which take over when human activity rests. The blows of hammers find an echo in the drumbeats of Mammedaty's imaginative dance. The magnificent image, "a low, hectic wind upon the pale, slanting plane of the moon's light," owes something perhaps to the opening line of Emily Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light."

Mammedaty's dreaming of the imaginative in the last three lines of this second section is described in terms of the physical. The dream of "the summer breaking upon the spirit" is likened to the drumbeats and gleaming gourds of the Gourd Dance. Implicit in this poetic strategy is the notion that the worlds of dream and reality are the same, an idea corroborated by Momaday's beliefs in the illusory nature of existence and the reality of dreams.

Section three, "The Dance," of "The Gourd Dancer" opens with an inversion: at the end of "The Dream" Mammedaty was dreaming of the Gourd Dance; now he is actually dancing, dreaming of the mythical past which gave rise to the Gourd Dance ceremony. This inversion is designed to dissolve even further the separation between the real and the ideal dominant in Anglocentric thought but alien to American Indian philosophy.

In the third line Momaday again takes up the images of wind and "the pale slanting plane of the moon's light." Momaday's use of the verb "glance" is an example of the richness and economy of his language. In its first meaning, "to strike a surface obliquely so as to go off at an angle," "glance" refers to the wind being deflected by the slanting plane of the moonlight. In a second meaning, "to flash or gleam with quick intermittent rays of light," the image is linked to the flashing and gleaming of the gourd rattles. In its third meaning, "to make sudden quick movements," it is related to the "mincing steps" of the dancer. While the first meaning establishes a connection within the poem, the second and third meanings point beyond its immediate context to the story about the beginning of the Gourd Dance.

The three lines "The long wind glances, moves / Forever as a music to the mind; / The gourds are flashes of the sun," suggest that Mammedaty, in his dream, is drawn toward the mythical origin of his dance. The story of the origin of the Gourd Dance tells of a young man who, on a solitary quest, encounters an enemy in the shape of a wolf. He kills the wolf-like man. "Then," the story continues, "the young man took up the enemy's arrows in his right hand and held them high and shook them. They rattled loudly like dry leaves in a hard wind, and to the music the young man danced around the dead enemy."

The sound and motion of the wind in Mammedaty's dream evoke the music to which the hero in the story is dancing. As the landscape in "The Omen" is a landscape twice perceived, so the wind is a music twice heard. It is "a music in the tribal mind," where it prevails. The motion of the wind relates to the movement of the dance, suggesting a kinship between ritual and nature. The same expression of ritual in terms of nature informs the line "The gourds are flashes of the sun." While the stress here is on the visual impression, the image also evokes the sound and motion of the rattling arrows, again a reminder of the Gourd Dance's origin. In taking the "inward, mincing steps," both in the dance and in the imagination, the past becomes alive for Mammedaty in "old processions and returns." The ritual creates a realm in which time is suspended and the accumulated experience of the race is accessible to the participant.

The second stanza of "The Dance" elaborates on Mammedaty's place within Kiowa tradition. His being is contained in his ritual garb as well as in his name and the story of the giveaway. His part in the Gourd Dance ensures cultural survival. By simulating an eagle's flight, the eagle-feather fan effects Mammedaty's extension not only into the natural world but, more important, into the tribal past and future. His hold upon "the deep ancestral air" constitutes a privilege as well as a responsibility. Momaday's careful use of the word "air," with its double meaning of song and life, implies that through a scrupulous adherence to ritual and song the Gourd Dance will keep Kiowa tradition alive and breathing. The adjective "concise" in the description of Mammedaty's handling of the fan suggests language in being "marked by brevity of expression or statement; free from elaboration and superfluous detail." Momaday appears to draw a deliberate parallel between the motion of the fan and the style of his writing about it, indicating his personal investment in the perpetuation of Kiowa tradition both as a Gourd Dancer and as an artist.

The final section of "The Gourd Dancer," "The Giveaway," amplifies the significance of language in Kiowa culture. Momaday's imaginative reenactment of the ceremony in Mammedaty's honor is framed by two statements on the physical and verbal dimension of human existence. According to Kiowa thought a name is "as much part of the owner as his hand or his foot." It is never dealt with lightly. A name contains the essence of its bearer, not only during his lifetime but beyond it. This attitude toward names is typical of oral cultures. Mammedaty, on hearing his name spoken in public, is aware of the seriousness of the impending event. He is "thoughtful, full of wonder, and aware of himself and of his name." Momaday draws attention to this dual existence in body and language which constitutes the central premise of the oral tradition. It is in the verbal dimension that life becomes timeless. Existence in place is temporary; in language it is eternal, as long as the old stories continue and the names prevail in the memory of the people.

Momaday conjures up the giveaway ceremony in all its dignity and excitement. The black horse, Mammedaty's gift of honor, is a symbol of the life force, of "the wild way." Its excitement is analogous to Mammedaty's in view of the seriousness of the occasion. For the ceremony is not only a matter of honor; it represents the making of a tradition. In that his name is attached to the ceremony, which is perpetuated as a story in Kiowa oral tradition, he is being immortalized. The giveaway is thus something of an initiation ceremony in which Mammedaty enters the verbal dimension of existence which goes on forever in the tribal mind.

In "New World" Momaday combines syllabic verse and imagistic expression with the ambiguity and creativity of sound typical of the oral tradition to generate a sense of the aboriginal perception of the universe. The poem was published simultaneously in The Gourd Dancer and as part of an essay entitled "A First American Views His Land" [National Geographic Magazine 150, No. 1 (July 1996)], in which Momaday adumbrates the moral implications of the relationship between Indians and their land. Some statements from this article are useful for putting the poem into perspective. Momaday noted that "Native American oral tradition is rich with songs and tales that celebrate natural beauty, the beauty of the natural world." "New World" exemplifies the oral-aural quality of some of Momaday's poetry because of not only its subject matter but also its subtle use of imitative sound and phonic effects. These effects come alive when the poem is read aloud or, better still, when one listens to Momaday's own reading of it.

"New World" is a hymn to the beauty of nature. If the language, at times, has a biblical ring to it, the implication is clearly that the scene generates a religious experience in the beholder, a sense of communion between man and earth. Momaday expressed this communion: "The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful; I delight in it; I am alive in it." It would be wrong to see the poem merely as an attempt to reconstruct the scene as it presented itself, in the beginning, to "First Man." As in "The Gourd Dancer," the landscape is mythical, but it is also contemporary. If the perceiving eye can take hold of the mystery of the natural world, its field of vision extends across time to the moment of creation. Momaday describes the experience [in "So Crisply Summer," Viva, October 8, 1972]: "It was simply exciting to be overtaken by the dawn, to see the world emerge from the darkness. There is something like Genesis, like Creation at that hour of the day; and outside, breathing deeply of it, you feel intensely alive." "New World" is more than a poem; it is a prayer for communion with the universe and for the strength which emanates from the beginning of the world.

Momaday's poetic construction of the natural world rests on the use of juxtapositions and the careful selection of minute details. The main oppositions are earth and sky, sun and moon, light and shadow, heat and cold, motion and motion suspended. The poem's structure is cyclical: after setting the scene in the first stanza, Momaday follows the course of a day from dawn to noon in stanzas two and three to dusk and night in the last stanza.

The three opening words, "First Man / behold," are characteristic of American Indian creation myths, in which a creator lines up the people to view, for the first time, their new world. The notions of creation and procreation are sustained by the images of rain and pollen, two fundamental elements in the chain of life. The sun, implicit in the glittering of leaves and the glistening of the sky, and the wind as carrier of pollen and seed are other life-giving agents. Momaday indicates that what he selects for description is beautiful not only in its appearance but in its interrelatedness and function within nature. Sky and wind attain a distinct concreteness: the sky is conceived of as a surface reflecting the sunlight; the "winds that low and lean upon the mountains" have almost a personal character. "Low" suggests not only sound, a voice, but also movement, as the winds lower themselves on the mountains for support. Apart from alliteration, which occurs frequently throughout the poem, the choice of words with phonic effects is the most striking device Momaday employs and the one most closely related to the oral tradition.

Another example of such ambiguity of sound is the word "borne" in "Pollen / is borne / on winds." In print the distinction of "borne" and "born" is obvious, but it is much less so in the poem's true medium of sound, where the verb's suggestiveness of birth connects with the explicit theme of creation in the first stanza. The unusual choice of the archaic word "hie" in the second stanza is justified by the homophonous character of the word, suggesting at the same time the rapid motion and height of the eagles at dawn. Similarly, "plain" in "eagles / hie and / hover / above / the plain" resonates with the additional meaning of "plane," evokes an image of light as in "The Dream" section of "The Gourd Dancer," and anticipates the "planes / of heat" in the third stanza. The verb "lie" in "shadows / withdraw / and lie / away / like smoke" is another case in point. Not only does it suggest the retreat and eventual disappearance of shadows, it simultaneously connotes the deceptiveness of the phenomenon.

In this second stanza Momaday also succeeds in creating a sense of the space and height of his world. He uses a double perspective, one angle of vision from below, focusing on the eagles in the sky, and one from the eagles' vantage point above, centering on the pools of light on the plain. Finally, the image of the moving shadows is a powerful evocation of the passage of time as the sun approaches its pivotal point at noon.

The opening of the third stanza suggests a slowing down of life in the heat of noon. Through the use of long vowels Momaday achieves an effect of phonic mimesis. The second sentence, "Bees hold / the swarm," is of twofold interest. On the level of sound "Bees hold" is a play on "behold" in the first stanza, a deliberate repetition with a variation, another call to be mindful of the natural world. On the conceptual level this sentence raises the question of the relation between the parts and the whole; inasmuch as the bees hold the swarm, the swarm unites the bees. It is a small example of the mystery of nature: the interrelatedness of individual parts which form an organic whole.

The final stanza opens with a stark silhouette. Momaday's images of animal life immobilized in the cold of the approaching night have the quality of abstract line drawings. In the atmospheric cold motion is suspended, "foxes / stiffen" and "blackbirds / are fixed / in the / branches." The latter image is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens's solitary blackbirds sitting "in the cedar-limbs" on a snowy and dark winter afternoon.

The final image of moonlight over the river is rendered by one of Momaday's typical poetic devices, inversion: "Rivers / follow / the moon, / the long / white track / of the / full moon." It is, of course, the moonlight which follows the track of the river; but in ignoring logical order, Momaday creates a sense of wonder and mystery. He points to a dimension of reality which is closed to the analytical mind. The vision of the river following the moon is an imaginative transformation, a mode of reality based on belief rather than knowledge, and therefore mythical in character.

In "The Eagle-Feather Fan," Momaday turns his attention to ritual. The poem reflects his participation in the annual Kiowa Gourd Dance ceremonials at Carnegie, Oklahoma. It captures some typically indigenous assumptions about human existence: the belief in magic, the belief in the value of tradition, the belief in the unity of creation, and the belief in the relationship of reality and the imagination.

Central to the magical world view is the idea of power, or medicine. It is conceived of as an intrinsic element of the natural order, a force which the individual can appropriate through ritual and utilize in his dealings with the world. The opening lines, "The eagle is my power, / And my fan is an eagle," indicate the connection between the dancer and his power through the ritual implement of the eagle-feather fan. The fan "is real," not a symbol of power but power itself. No distinction is made between the physical and spiritual, the "real" and the imaginative; such a separation would be alien to the American Indian view of the universe. The equation of the fan's beaded handle with "the twist of bristlecone" suggests the ancient nature of the ritual and its potential for tapping the life force. Bristlecones are among the oldest known living trees, and Momaday has noted "the impulse of life" in these "thorns of the ancient earth."

The next lines express man's ritual extension into and identification with the natural world: "The bones of my hand are fine / and hollow; the fan bears them. / My hand veers in the thin air / of the summit." The bones are fine and hollow like those of an eagle's wing; moreover, Momaday makes the point that the fan bears the hand rather than the other way around, as one might expect. This inversion implies first and foremost that ritual sustains human existence and, second, that man's ritual activity sustains the ceremony.

Through his adherence to tradition, his capacity for belief, and the power of his imagination, the Gourd Dancer can transcend the individual boundaries of human existence and unite himself with the cosmos. The association of power with the eagle, eagle with the fan, fan with the bristlecone, and the Gourd Dancer with all of them suggests the infinite chain of creation of which man is one small link.

If ritual is one form of human expression which ensures man's link to tradition and the web of life, the oral tradition is another. In "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," Momaday explores the verbal dimension of American Indian cultures. An individual inherits his tribe's accumulated wealth of orally transmitted stories and songs, "the dream wheel," which shapes his existence and his perception of the world around him.

The first four lines of the poem establish the reciprocal relation between the dream wheel and its carriers. The imaginary realm of histories and myths, visions and songs, survives in their voices, and the keepers of the oral tradition have existence in and through it. It is a fundamental tenet of American Indian thought that the world came into existence through language, that nothing truly exists unless it has existence in language. This theory of creation is intimated in the lines "It [the Dream Wheel] encircles the First World, / This powerful wheel. / They shape their songs upon the wheel / And spin the names of the earth and sky, / The aboriginal names." The concluding six lines combine the ancient and contemporary aspects of the oral tradition: as long as this heritage is kept alive in the communal experience of American Indians, they will continue to know who they are and what their destiny is.

The sequence of eight prose poems which constitutes "The Colors of Night" is a product of Momaday's stay in Moscow in 1974. He has described the poems as "quint-essential novels, concentrated stories of time, place, and presence." In attributing a color to each of the sections Momaday creates a spectrum, a dark prism which makes up night. He explained that he "was not thinking of traditional Indian colors," but "of times of day, and trying to associate all the colors of night into one thing." Traditionally, of course, night is the time of Indian storytelling; the poetic sequence manifests a slice of the oral tradition, revealing a number of characteristic ethical and epistemo-logical issues. The stories are imbued with a sense of wonder and mystery which accounts for their peculiar charm.

The first story, about a man who retrieves and cherishes the bones of his dead son, is a moving example of the respect for the deceased which is common among Indian peoples. Moreover, the old man's proclamation "that now his son consists in his bones" powerfully attests to his belief in the indestructibility of a man's essence or, to use the Christian term, his soul. The color white refers to the polished bones which "gleam like glass in the light of the sun and the moon." The story is a poetic treatment of a historical incident recorded by James Mooney [in Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians.]:

In the spring of 1870, before the last sun dance, the son of the noted chief Set-ängya ("Sitting-bear"), … had made a raid with a few followers into Texas, where … he had been shot and killed. After the dance his father with some friends went to Texas, found his bones and wrapped them in several fine blankets, put the bundle upon the back of a led horse and brought them home…. While on the march the remains were always put upon the saddle of a led horse, as when first brought home, the [funeral] tipi and the horse thus burdened being a matter of personal knowledge to all middle-age people of the tribe now living. He continued to care for his son's bones in this manner until he himself was killed at Fort Sill about a year later, when the Kiowa buried them.

The second section, "Yellow," is an etiologic myth about how it came about that dogs howl at the moon. Enchanted by the yellow brilliance of moonlight on a river, and inspired to sing what is to be his death song, a boy follows the mystery of sound and vision and drowns in the swirling waters. The story is, however, primarily concerned not with death but with metamorphosis: the boy emerges from the river as a dog, howling at the moon, presumably reproaching the moon for its deceit. As in the first poem, death is presented as a matter of transformation rather than annihilation.

In the third section, "Brown," Momaday makes a humorous claim against empiricism. The secret of how terrapins evade a flood by climbing to higher ground defies the most scrupulous observation. The implication here seems to be that although nature has been stripped of many of its wonders by analytical, scientific investigation, there still remain mysteries which frustrate reason and feed the imagination.

Section four, "Red," deals with the moral implications of magic. A man has used his "powerful medicine" to create a woman out of sumac leaves, and he lives with her for a while. The title of the poem refers to the woman's skin color, which resembles that of pipestone. When the man mistreats her, he loses both his magic power and the woman, who disintegrates and becomes part of nature again, "leaves scattered in the plain." Once more, the story bears witness to the belief in the infinite possibilities of creation, transformation, and deconstruction.

The fifth section, "Green," is a puzzling statement on the nature of reality: "A young girl awoke one night and looked out into the moonlit meadow. There appeared to be a tree; but it was only an appearance; there was a shape made of smoke; but it was only an appearance; there was a tree." Momaday's oral reading of this passage shows a declining stress from the first "there," which carries great weight and functions as a demonstrative and prepositional referent, putting the existence of the tree beyond doubt, to the third "there," which is no more than an unstressed reference to an indefinite object.

Despite this variance of stress and the repetition of "it was only an appearance," Momaday's intention is obvious: he is trying to eliminate the distinction between appearance and reality. Human reality goes beyond what is verifiable by reason; it is constituted as well by dreams, visions, and illusions. Momaday had noted that "there are modes and modes of existence." The reality of a tree, he seems to say, is valid, whether it is a product of sense perception or of the imagination.

In the following section, "Blue," Momaday qualifies the nature of reality in an important way: reality, he suggests, is ultimately a function of language; only what has existence in language can be said to be real. The parable of the child who appears in a camp and talks to the people in an unintelligible language is the account of a vision the reality of which is denied because it cannot be transformed into language: "After all … how can we believe in the child? It gave us not one word of sense to hold on to." Had the child given his name, he would have acquired an identity and a sense of reality.

Section seven, "Purple," relates the transgression of the sacred rules which regulate the relation between man and the animal world. A man has slaughtered a buffalo, the animal representation of the sun, for no reason other than sport. His fellow people witness the sacrilege with shame and grief. The moral implications of the story are amplified by its etiologic character. The buffalo's hump and spine are transformed into a mountain on the western horizon, and its blood, bright and purple, colors the setting sun, darkens, and creates the night sky. The results of these metamorphoses are permanent reminders of the sacrilegious act in the people's physical environment.

The final section, "Black," is another illustration of the existence of mysterious forces in the universe which cannot be accounted for but have to be believed. What the woman who "steals into the men's societies and fits her voice into their holiest songs" represents remains in doubt. However, what is important is not what she is but that she is, timeless, ever-present, inexplicable. At the end of a sequence of poems which centers on a world of magic and mystery, she stands as the embodiment of mystery itself.

"Colors of Night" is an attempt to give some clues to the way in which American Indians view the world. Theirs is a mythical world view, a fact which accounts for the difficulties a non-Indian reader may have with this poetic cycle. Momaday once quoted Isak Dinesen's remark that "it is not necessarily bad that a story should only be half understood." If the eight poems generate a sense of wonder and delight, they have fulfilled their purpose. If they set in motion the reader's imagination and motivate him to expand and retell them, they indeed acquire the status of "quintessential novels" which Momaday intended for them.

The concluding five poems of part two of The Ground Dancer are evocations of different landscapes, delineating various human reactions to the natural world. "The Monoliths" seems to refer to the three awesome stone columns which tower over Monument Valley. The four-line poem suggests that the poetic persona experiences simultaneously a communion with and separation from his environment. While the wind upon him makes him part of the scene, the monoliths are of an order which defies his approach. Defined by the contrast of stone against light, they appear as pillars of eternity, generating the sense of awe and wonder which enters the human mind when man is obliged to relate his existence to the grandeur of the world around him.

"North Dakota, North Light" is a reflection on the terrible powers of winter. Man and animals seem frozen in a dazzling, brilliant winter landscape. After an opening statement on the encroaching presence of cold, Momaday frames the remainder of the poem by references to "the sheer, lucent plane," repeated with slight modification in the final line, "… the sheer, shining plane." The only motion in this scene of extraordinary beauty is the wind which is deflected from the hunter's weapon: "A glassy wind glances / from the ball of bone in my wrist."

Life has come to a total halt. The rabbits in the foreground rest under the force of the sky which is "clenched upon them" like the claws of a bird of prey. The hunter, too, seems motionless, arrested by the deadening cold. Significantly, its effect is both physical and mental: "… and I cannot conceive / of summer, / and another man in me / stands for it, / wills even to remain, / figurative, fixed, / among the hard, hunchbacked rabbits." The cold is so overwhelming that it halts even the imagination; the pronoun "it" in line eleven refers back to "summer," suggesting that there are two separate manifestations of the persona, one for winter, another for summer. This distinction may indicate man's spiritual and physical subordination to the cyclical, seasonal rhythms of nature. Since the summer manifestation is powerless in the face of wintry forces, it wills to remain "figurative, fixed," submitting itself to their reign as do the "hard, hunchbacked rabbits."

"Winter Holding off the Coast of North America" addresses itself to man's instinctual fear when he confronts irresistible natural forces. Momaday captures this abstract idea in the word "dread" in the opening line. The simile and images which follow evoke this notion through clear sensory details and communicate tightly controlled emotions in response to the facts of human vulnerability and insignificance.

The simile "like a calm" and the adjective "colorless" simultaneously describe and explain the sense of dread. The powerful forces at work are beyond visual and auditory perception, but they are nevertheless real and make themselves felt. They are defined in terms of cold and suspension of motion and represent a kind of anti-life. This theme is suggested by Momaday's use of the adjective "dead" to describe the approaching cold. The poem is related to "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion," in which the latent presence of death also informs the calm of the sea. The only reference to human presence in "Winter Holding off the Coast of North America" is "the stricken palm," an image of man's exposure and fragility which evokes the crucifixion.

The last stanza, in its depiction of the natural world charged with an irresistible and inexorable destiny, belongs to Momaday's most powerful poetic statements: "Out there, beyond the floes, / On the thin pewter plane, / The polar currents close, / And stiffen, and remain."

While the previous two poems dealt with hostile, life-denying winter landscapes, "To a Child Running with Outstretched Arms in Canyon de Chelly" communicates the exhilaration and joy derived from the spectacular scenery near Chinle, New Mexico, where Momaday spent a brief part of his childhood. The poem can therefore be seen as a projection of Momaday's own wonder and delight into the figure of the child. The idea of "spirit of place" is related to aesthetic and historical considerations in this poem. The play of light and shadow as well as the natural stone sculptures which abound in the canyon appeal to the aesthetic sense.

But it is not only in geographical terms that "the backdrop is immense." Rock paintings and ruins of cliff dwellings are silent witnesses to the culture of the Anazasi, the Ancient Ones, who lived in Canyon de Chelly centuries before the Navajos made it their home. Here also the Navajos made their brave if futile stand against Kit Carson's military expedition in 1864, which led to the enforced relocation of the tribe known as the Long Walk, perhaps the darkest chapter in Navajo history. But the Navajos returned, and their sense of belonging to a homeland of majestic beauty is ample reason for excitement and joy.

"Long Shadows at Dulce" is written in syllabic verse of six syllables to the line and consists of four individually numbered stanzas, each of which represents a miniature poem in its own right. These four stanzas capture in a highly personal, imagistic manner the mood and activities of autumn at Dulce, a small town on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in northern New Mexico. Although only two months are referred to by name, the four stanzas form a sequence from September to December. In its progression through the season, its compressed imagistic form, and perhaps even in the title the poem shows parallels to Yvor Winters's poetic cycle "The Magpie's Shadow." Winters's one-line poems are reflections on a year at Madrid, a coal mining camp twenty miles south of Santa Fe where he taught grade school in 1922 after recovering from tuberculosis. Momaday's poem is a commemoration of impressions during a brief stay at Dulce where he worked as a schoolteacher in 1958.

In the first stanza Momaday addresses the ambiguous nature of September. His characterization of the month as "a long illusion of itself" presumably refers to the transition from summer to fall which lies in the air but is nothing more than a vague presence defying sensory perception. The third line, "the elders bide their time," is ambiguous: it may refer to old people who await the approach of winter, perhaps of death; simultaneously it alludes to the elderberry trees which seem to defer the change of color, the sign of the arrival of autumn.

Stanza two captures the joy and excitement among the children when, at the end of summer, the sheep are rounded up in the camps and the community gathers for social activities. Stanza three communicates the atmosphere of November by way of an extended metaphor. It is the time of the bear hunt: "November is the flesh / And blood of the black bear, / Dusk its bone and marrow." The sense of melancholy and the slowing down of life which announces the coming of winter are brilliantly reflected in the image of the final stanza: "In the huddled horses / That know of perfect cold / There is a calm, like sorrow."

These five poems which conclude part two of The Gourd Dancer reflect not only a greater freedom and flexibility in poetic expression compared to the Stanford period but also a shift from the largely abstract, philosophical themes explored under Winters's supervision to more immediate, personal concerns. The self-exploration in terms of his American Indian background, which Momaday pursued in prose in The Way to Rainy Mountain, is the central theme in the second part of The Gourd Dancer.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Momaday, N. Scott (Literary Masters)