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A Collection of Quotations Relating to N. Scott Momaday's Poetry

Compiled by Kenneth Roemer


Lucy Maddox

The appearance of a discrete chapter on Native American poetry in a volume devoted to a survey of poetry of the United States is an event worth remarking. Only within the last few years has Native American writing attracted sufficient notice to earn it a distinct place in texts devoted to American literature or in the curriculum of academic departments where American literature is taught. The reasons for the belated appearance of the literature are many, and certainly one reason has been the reluctance of the academy to enlarge the definition of American literature to include the productions of writers living in the United States whose work has deliberately foregrounded their specific racial or ethnic identities. Another (not related) reason, however, is that only recently have we had a critical mass of published writing by Native Americans that fits the generic categories that have traditionally been used to organize academic texts and courses. (729)

from "Native American Poetry." Lucy Maddox. The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 728-749.

Michael Castro

Partially in response to this widespread interest [during the mid-1970s] by white readers and writers [in American Indians], a different an very powerful new force emerged during this time: literature written in English by Indian peoples themselves. This literary activity paralleled a new Indian consciousness and assertiveness in politics, which culminated in the Wounded Knee protest in 1973. It was also, however, a reaction to the literary popularization, co-optation, and distortion of their heritage, identity, and consciousness. Native Americans, of course, could write about these things from authentic personal knowledge. They did not have to work to get there because they had been there. [Vine] Deloria [,Jr.], Momaday, [Leslie Marmon] Silko, and [Simon] Ortiz (among others) came to the forefront of a very active literary movement that is reflected on the national list of publishers, like Harper & Row, and even more so in the evolving of Native American and "Third World" literary magazines and small presses. (157)

From Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets and the Native American. Michael Castro. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1983.

Andrew Wiget

In the same year that Momaday's Pulitzer Prize powerfully signaled the emergence of a contemporary Native-authored fiction, John Milton's special edition of The South Dakota Review entitled "The American Indian Speaks" more quietly heralded the arrival of a contemporary Native American poetry. On its pages besides the poetry of Simon Ortiz and James Welch, were poems by students of T. D. Allen at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. From its beginnings in 1963 the Institute has ventured into English-language poetry as a field of endeavor for its students as legitimate as sculpture. painting or dance. Ms. Allen encouraged her students to draw upon poetic forms familiar from their tribal oral literatures and emphasized the need for very tactile imagery which would communicate powerfully and immediately. Elsewhere other writers were finding their way into print through more familiar outlets, publishing first in newspapers and magazines like Akwesasne Notes, The Indian Historian, and Wassaja, the readership of which they knew to be sympathetic to their interests. Many followed the well-traveled path to the small presses. As a result, today a contemporary Native American poetry is flourishing. (599)

"Sending a Voice: The Emergence of Contemporary Native American Poetry."   College English 46 (1984): 598-609.

James Ruppert

. . . . I think we can conclude that the oral tradition is carried on in a variety of ways by contemporary poets. Momaday is correct in assuming that it informs the character of their poetry, but the ways it does this are as varied as the writers themselves. Still some parallels exist. It seems that as the oral becomes transformed into the written, the emphasis shifts from process to product. The poets become more concerned with the transferring of the vision and wisdom of the oral, than in duplicating oral transmission. Generally they take their inspiration from the oral tradition as subject rather than medium. Perhaps [Maurice] Kenny's use of the lyric, [Peter] Blue Cloud's use of persona, [Ray] Young Bear's surreal imagery, and [Elizabeth] Cook-Lynn's retellings with commentary count as oral forms of written language or perhaps as transitional forms, yet they are forms that already exist in written English. They may have had oral backgrounds, but they are now assimilated. Perhaps these offer a Native American poet a good chance to mediate between the demands of the oral and the written. (106)

"The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets." James Ruppert. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4.4 (1980): 87-110.

Kenneth M. Roemer

The study of contemporary American Indian literature poses a frustrating problem, one that forces readers to define the limits of diversity and the unity of new voices in American literature. Even a passing glance at modern Indian essays, fiction, and poetry -- especially poetry -- reveals [an impressive variety]. The spectrum ranges from literal translations of traditional chants and myths to protest essays, stream-of -consciousness fiction, and poems that, unless included in an anthology of American Indian literature, would probably not be considered American Indian poetry. And yet there are recurring patterns. For example, one often finds certain types of narrators, particularly young, first-person narrators; similar settings: reservations, bars, highways, urban ghettos; familiar characters: respected grandparents, white policemen, priests, government officials, enduring [American Indian] mothers, the Indian returning from the white man's war; recurring episodes: how Indian trick non-Indians, how non-Indians cheat or misunderstand Indians; and often-used themes: the traditional religious Indian facing non-Indian secular ways, members of "dead" cultures trying to revitalize empty modern lives, and the power of words. One also notices the authors' commitment to give themselves "up to a particular landscape in [their]experience, to look at it from as many angles as [they] can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.* (178)

* Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1969. 83.

 "Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary American Indian Poetry." Kenneth M. Roemer. Studies in American Indian Literature. Ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Modern Language Assn., 1983. 178-91.



In addition to being an autobiographer and novelist, N. Scott Momaday is a fine poet. His Gourd Dancer (1976), includes his earlier Angle of Geese (1974) and contains many of the themes present in The Way to Rainy Mountain and House Made of Dawn, particularly in such poems as "Rainy Mountain Cemetery," "Angle of Geese" and "[The] Bear." A student of Yvor Winters [at Stanford University] and a scholar of American literature, Momaday used sharply etched images and a clear style in his lyric poetry. His ability to create a vivid landscape is exemplified in these lines from "Rainy Mountain Cemetery":

The early sun, red as a hunter's moon,
Runs in the plain. The mountain burns and shines;
And silence is the long approach of noon
Upon the shadow that your name defines --
and death this cold, black density of stone. (30)

"[The] Bear" reflects the influences of Blake's "Tyger" and Faulkner's treatment of the bear in his fiction. In this poem Momaday effectively captures the power of this animal so sacred to many Indian cultures: . . . . Especially interesting is the four-poem sequence "The Gourd Dancer," dedicated to his grandfather, Mammedaty, which stresses the importance of place, family, and tribe. The series of poems entitled "Plainview" demonstrate Momaday's skill in written descriptive-reflective verse. Both "Plainview 2" and "Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" evoke the spirit of Indian song in their use of repetition." (77-78)

American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Assn., 1990.

Matthias Schubnell

N. Scott Momaday described his work as developing from a reflection of oral poetry to the strick formal tradition of English verse and then to syllabics and a kind of free verse. Yvor Winter's instruction [at Stanford] in traditional English verse forms is clear in Momaday's early unpublished poems and also in some of his later works, particularly "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifiction" and "Plainview 1." Winters was also responsible for Momaday's experimentation with syllabics and postsymbolist imagery.

After his studies at Stanford, Momaday directed his attention to free verse and to what may best be described as prose poetry, while continuing to write syllabic verse. The stages by which Momaday described the evolution of his poetry are not strictly chronological or mutually exclusive. For example, of the published poems which antedate Momaday's studies at Stanford, one is in free verse, while another is an adaptation of Navajo verse patterns similar to the latter syllabic poetry. . . . (189).

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Matthias Schubnell. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

Andrew Wiget

Although all [Native American] poets are concerned with language, these poets [the "formalists"] seem more conscious of the stylistic resources available to them, perhaps because as a group they are familiar with American and European literary traditions and not infrequently seek models there. Many hold advanced degrees and teach literature professionally. They share a preoccupation with the external form of the poem, and often deliberately convoluted syntax, and distinctive gifts for metaphor and verbal irony. Two of them, Momaday and [Wendy] Rose, explicitly seek their emerging identities in their craft. (100)

Native American Literature. Andrew Wiget. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Kenneth Lincoln

Clearly Momaday experiments with the mythos and metric syllabics of Native American verse rhythms crossing into modernist forms. He was directly influenced by [Henry David] Thoreau, [Frederick] Tuckerman, [Emily] Dickinson, [John] Muir, [D. H.] Lawrence, [Mary] Austin, [Isak] Dineson, [William] Faulkner, and [Wallace] Stevens, among other modern writers of the native and natural world. "You are an Indian in a whiteman's world and are doubly isolated," Yvor Winters wrote his advisee, April 21, 1965, "but the fact gives you a remarkable pint of view." At Stanford, Winters taught Momaday manistream tenents of verbal concision, image precision, musical phrasing, and symblist indirection, tools comparable with a native storyteller's elliptical plain style, winter-count eidetics, Sun Dance drumbeat, or the haunting power of Native American chanting. His grandmother's storytelling and great-grandmothers singing set a lyric pulse keening in the young writer's heartbeat, and a conscious craft grew as he grew and traveled. Dickinson showed Momaday "economy and precision," he told Charles Woodward, to "present a great idea in very few words," * as [Ezra] Pound had taught Winters in modernist credos. With a true sense of Pounds Oriental ideogram, this Kiowa poet then weds generic rhythms, Oklahoma and New Mexico, to twentieth century formal acculturations, beyond the wasteland. (247-48)

*Charles L. Woodward. Ancestrial Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989. 95.

Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Kenneth Lincoln. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.


On "Plainview 3"

Matthias Schubnell

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. (220)

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

 On "Buteo Regalis"

Matthias Schubnell

"Buteo Regalis," like "The Bear" descriptive in character," captures the flight of a hawk ready for the kill. The elegance of its descent and the prey's instinctive knowledge of danger are combined in a sharp portrayal of nature's splendor and asperity." (215-16)

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Matthias Schubnell. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.


On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

Kenneth Lincoln

In the beginning [of"Crows in a Winter Composition"], the poet broods on "nothing," which by its nature does not appear; but out of absences then gather the"soft distances" and "several silences / Imposed one upon another," mutually "unintelligible." Winter itself muted, receding, layered, and indistinct, is evoked in this waiting time with "nothing." The poet seems almost at peace with no demarcations, no meanings, no edges in the snowy landscape, no words. "Sometimes you look at a thing and see only that it is opaque," that it cannot be looked into," Momaday relfects in The Names. "And this opacity is its essence, the very truth of the matter." *

But crows crow. The raucous cries come "whirling down and calling" on this quiet scene, as noisy words break the peace of silence and dark definitions intrude on the white expanse. The crows stand in the yard below highlighting "the gray, luminous crust" of snow. The marginal tone sullies winter's calm by realizing things grayly into focus. To leave the scene blurred, no-colored, silent seems preferable -- but obviously the poem proceeds, and gets written, by this tension and contrast. The "words" -- dirty, staining, noisy, compared with untinctured silence -- offer the only way a poem can get written, albeit in a fallen medium. Language stands forth"definite" and defining as "the hard nature of crows" crowing; words equivocate and here violate the poet's private impulses to speak softly, if at all, to stay out of things, to escape into the "great Voice" breathing "silent" in Black Elk's vision. (100-01)

* Momaday. The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. 146.

Native American Renaissance. Kenneth Lincoln. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

Matthias Schubnell

Momaday seems to be playing here with the tension between the real and the ideal, between the well-defined, ordered, and concrete reality which is intelligible but ultimately dull and an abstract, vague dimension which is incomprehensible yet appealing to the observer's imagination. In suggesting a bias toward the supremacy of the imagination over reality, Momaday strikes a Stevensian note. The poem's setting resembles that of [Wallace Stevens's] "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." And his lines "The several silences. / Imposed on one another" are reminiscent of Stevens's reference to the earth as "the mute, the final sculpture / around which silence lies on silence." (243-44)

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Matthias Schubnell. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

 On "Carriers of the Dream Wheel"

Kenneth Lincoln

Those who follow the ancestors, as in the ancient migrations, move on and carry the dream wheel of tribal stories and ritual songs. The "Wheel of Dreams," primal, circular, mobile, unending, carries on in living voices, chanting and dancing in a tribal round, spinning the names of ground and sky back to a native "red-earth" Adam. The poet's role is not so much to name, as to remember and repeat the ancient "aboriginal" namings, that is, names "from" the "origins" of all things. Old to young, dead to living, these voices circle and recycle in an arced continuum. . . . Age makes language sacred -- what is remembered binds us across time. Not "make it new," so much as "make it natively," Pound could have rephrased modernism by the century's end -- to live again with each generation, passing in and passing on, continuing the dream. . . . (251)

Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. . Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.

Matthias Schubnell

The first four lines of the poem establish the reciprocal relationship 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 traditions have existence in and through it. It is 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. (232-33)

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background.. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

 On "The Stalker"

Matthias Schubnell

In three short pieces of prose poetry [in The Gourd Dancer ] 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. (218-19).

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Matthias Schubnell. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

 On "Purple" from "The Colors of Night"

Matthias Schubnell

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 "quintessential 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 the night. He explained that he was not thinking of traditional Indian colors," but "of times of the day, and trying to associate all the colors of the night into one thing." **

. . . Section seven, "Purple," relates the transgression of the sacred rules which regulate the relationship between man and the animal world. A man has slaughtered a buffalo, [for the Kiowa] 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 of 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. (233, 235-36)

*Momaday, "Image, Time, Place, Presence." Commencement Address. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. 18 May 1975.

** Interview with Matthias Schubnell. Tucson. Dec. 1981.

N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Matthias Schubnell. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

 On "The Burning"

Kenneth Lincoln

. . . The tenets of impressionistic painting and mythic shading govern here; varying angles of light and shadow tonalize objects, known more as presences that material things, through the hours and over seasons. . . . With a common strangeness Momaday scallops thin, hesitant lines, poised for revelation, surviving on small truths. By its ending, "The Burning" records a careful diminished attention:

And in the foreground the fields were fixed in fire,
And the flames flowered in our flesh.

The lines strain in parallelisms, alliterations, rhymes, and near rhymes. The epigrammatic form almost erases the visceral world, as the poet's apprenticeship with nineteenth-century verse filters through: Frederick Tuckerman's minutiae, Emily Dickinson's shy touch, and Winter's insisting on the crystallization of common things through aesthetic form. (97-98)

Native American Renaissance. Kenneth Lincoln. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

 On "The Shield That Came Back"

Howard Meredith

In the Presence of the Sun, a collection of poetry, stories, and visual-art pieces, presents a set of individual works that define Scott Momaday's style, from his early period and to more recent times, as well as his visual expression in still lifes and figure studies. . . .

. . . Dream images recur throughout but are ever more powerfully expressed in the stories [or prose poems] and drawings entitled "In the Presence of the Sun: A gathering of Shields." The expression of dreams, visions, and natural events finds unity in the power of the special medicine of these words. Momaday explains through allegory, to those who are prepared to listen, the nature of medicine power and the miracle of the Kiowa mind-set, which extends beyond the dualism and the adversarial nature of Western dialogue to provide for personal understanding and empathy within the unity of creation. He indicates a path through which the individual can move to become one with the universal mind and spirit. (650)

[Review of In the Presence of the Sun, 1992] Howard Meredith. World Literature Today 67 (1993): 650.

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