Native American Poetry

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Oral traditions of the South American Indian

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The categories of verbal arts among peoples with oral cultures are not always the same as genres in written literatures. The English category of “verse,” for example, has no counterpart in many North American Indian literatures. Speakers of indigenous languages may say, “We have no poetry in our language,” meaning that spoken, metered verbal artifacts are not composed; the same languages may, however, have a highly developed song tradition, which will be recognized as comparable to the European concept of lyric. For example, the O’odham (Papago) of southern Arizona maintain that “poetry” as it is defined in English does not exist in their language, but they have many songs. Moreover, songs belong to a special category of verbal production; they are composed in a unique language used only for songs, and special composition processes and performance requirements go along with the production of songs. The following Papago song illustrates some of these characteristics:

In the great night my heart will go out.Towards me the darkness comes rattling,In the great night my heart will go out.

The words and music were not consciously composed by the song’s “owner” but were received in a dream from a person who had died. “Song dreaming” is a feature of traditional Papago literary composition. The function of the song, as part of a ritual intended to heal the sick and prevent death, is also characteristic of many oral poetic traditions.

Lyric poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In Native American Literature (1985), Andrew Wiget identified two major types of American Indian poetry: lyric poetry and ritual poetry. Lyric poetry, while it may have ritual or religious subject matter, is personal, expressive, and often highly emotional. Although composers and their audiences would be likely to divide songs into very different categories, non-Indian readers of translated lyrics may recognize familiar classifications such as love songs, elegies for grief, or lyrics of exultation and boastfulness. An elegy translated from Tlingit, a language spoken in coastal British Columbia, is by a woman whose brothers were drowned; it alludes to the place and manner of their death as she expresses the grieving emotions of sorrow, denial, and despair: “Your reef has beaten me, Kagwantan’s children./ But take pity on me.”

Not all lyrics are tied so closely to personal experience or emotion. Like other peoples, Native Americans have a large store of songs identified with various functions of daily living. Some recognizable categories are work songs, such as corn-grinding songs or rowing songs (which accompany the carrying out of repetitious tasks), lullabies, hunting songs, and gambling and game songs, such as the many songs still being composed to accompany the widespread hand game. Numerous traditional corn-grinding songs, some very old, are part of the literatures of the agricultural peoples of the Southwest. This corn-grinding song from the pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico, has characteristic forms and devices:

I-o-ho, wonder-water,I-o-ho, wonder water,Life anew to him who drinks!Look where southwest clouds are bringing rain;Look where southeast clouds are bringing rain!

Like many others, this song contains vocables; these untranslatable syllables or phrases may be remnants of archaic languages, they may be part of the special poetic language reserved for songs, or they may simply be rhythmic units incorporated into the total structure of the song. Rain, water, and clouds appear repeatedly in all the songs and stories from this arid region. Directional signals are important for the continual expression of the people’s relationship to the center of their universe; the balancing of southeast and southwest integrates the life of the community with the four cardinal directions.

Ritual poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Ritual poetry, in relation to lyric poems, is more communal and less personal in expression, composition, and performance. While the actual texts of ritual poems may appear quite short, often elements are intended...

(The entire section is 6,628 words.)