"The Poetic Languages of Ray Young Bear"--by James Ruppert
Contemporary American Indian writers are mediators. By that I do not mean that they are spokesmen or apologists for a cultural sphere, but rather that they are participants in two cultural and literary traditions. Through their work, they express amazing potential for synthesis and creation. They address two audiences -- white and Indian, or maybe three -- a local one, a pan-Indian one and a white one. This multiplicity of background and audience forces the work into a complex texture. In this complexity, the writer may utilize the epistemological structures of one culture to illuminate the other, stay within one code or change every other line. This incredible ability to move from one epistemological code to another is what I call mediation. It is the axis which generates the text producing a text which is a record of mediative discourse.
Ray Young Bear's poetic languages illustrate a range of response possible in mediation. While uniquely exploring the functions and processes of oral tradition as they emerge into print, Young Bear uses traditional Indian values and traditional Western ways of knowledge to express his insights. The contemporary Indian writer, especially the poet, must find a way to speak successfully to all the audiences and still hold his/her vision intact. That act and vision are not static reinterpretations of one's cultural traditions, but rather a dynamic constantly informing the text. American Indian writer Paula Allen puts it this way:
A contemporary American Indian is always faced with a dual perception of the world: that which is particular to American Indian life and that which exists ignorant of that life. Each is largely irrelevant to the other except where they meet--in the experience and consciousness of the Indian. Because the divergent realities must meet and form comprehensible patterns within Indian life, an Indian poet must develop metaphors that will not only reflect the dual perceptions of Indian/non-Indian but that will reconcile them. The ideal metaphor will harmonize the contradictions and balance them so that internal equilibrium can be achieved, so that each perspective is meaningful and in their joining, psychic unity rather than fragmentation occurs. (Allen, 1982: 41-42)
The image must be completed in a mediation of language. A balancing metaphor must harmonize the divergent oral and written realities. While stressing oral form and content, one of Young Bear's special strengths is his consistent introduction of the function of oral tradition into mediation. His poetic languages are pulled toward various oral functions. A writer with a political motivation must create those balancing images, and yet speak to all his/her audiences. Young Bear's most powerful poetic language is built on a mediatory base which fuses oral functions with contemporary poetry.
For the purpose of analysis, one could isolate two discourse poles on the spectrum of oral tradition -- ceremonial language and oratorical language. In a well-known piece, Allen has commented that the purpose of ceremony is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one (Allen, 1983: 10). The individual's vision is expanded and he is restored to harmony. This general purpose is, of course, modified by the more specific purposes of individual ceremonies, but the bedrock function is to create and support the expanded community of beings. An essential element of this oral function is the individual's experience in the ceremony and the way in which that individual's experience is harmonized with the context of interrelated spirit. 'The person sheds the isolated, individual personality and is restored to conscious harmony with the universe' (Allen, 1983: 10). The voice behind the Kachina mask speaks for all, not just himself. The experience of the ceremony guides the language and not the individual's expression. Ideally they should unite, but experience is the predominant element. It would be unthinkable for the voice behind the mask to complain about car payments. The purpose would be destroyed. Clearly, the experience of the speech act structures the language and meaning.
On the other hand, oratorical language is concerned with the singular expression of an individual. The function of the speech act is to define the individual as thinking and feeling in a way different from those around him. Any harmony or unified thinking that results must be built on the individual's message. The discourse is intended to influence the listener, and the language is one where expression dominates experience.
Two writers have addressed similar concerns provocatively. Writer-essayist Simon Ortiz discusses song in the oral tradition. He insists that rightly understood song is a fusion of expression and experience. Song should be appreciated as a whole. The experience of singing brings one into a position to perceive the essence of song as act as well as personal expression. We learn what we can express by experiencing the context of the song. 'Language as expression and perception that is at the core of what a song is.... Song at the beginning was experience. There was no division between experience and expression.... I express myself as well as realize the experience' (Ortiz, 1977: 3-5). He explains how one must learn to sing the song properly so as to realize the physical, mental, cultural and spiritual context that gives the song meaning. Viewed as prayer, then, song and, perhaps by extension, ceremonial language are ideally a unity of experience and expression. Yet, it is important to learn the song right, to follow the process by which the learner realizes the 'original meaning' of the song and thus situates himself in the context which makes the song meaningful and substantial. The function of song and of ceremonial language seems similar, and experience determines expression at some initial point. But perhaps it is inappropriate to make the extension from song to ceremonial language. Perhaps one should, consider it as a mid-point between ceremonial and oratorical language with ramifications for written texts because of its ideal mediatory position.
In looking at a few old texts which straddle an oral and written tradition, Tzvetan Todorov identifies two modes of speech which seem to structure such intermediary texts--Speech-as-Action and Speech-as-Narrative. These ideas complement the terms of experience and expression because they attempt to place the discourse in an interactive context. He is concerned with the effect produced and how the words are uttered.
First, in the case of speech-as-action, we react to the referential aspect of what is said [it is concerned with the act performed which is not simply the utterance of the words.] ... Speech-as-action is perceived as information, speech-as-narrative as a discourse. Second, and this seems contradictory, speech-as-narrative derives from the constative mode of discourse, whereas speech-as-action is always performative. It is in the case of speech-as-action that the whole process of speaking assumes a primordial importance and becomes the essential factor of the message; speech-as-narrative deals with something else and evokes the presence of an action other than that of speech itself. (Todorov, 1977: 59)
For the purpose of discussion, one could see the two modes of speech as functioning similarly to the two poles of oral tradition, ceremonial language and oratorical language. Ceremonial language like speech-as-action centers on the primary importance of the act of speaking. The act of uttering, chanting and praying carries the meaning as much if not more than the words. It creates its own referential frame and seeks harmony with all-that-is by the very act. Experience leads and molds expression until they are one. On the other hand, oratorical language like speech-as-narrative points to something outside the speech act itself and calls for action on another plane. Its referential frame is fixed and somewhat expected since the speech act is seen in the context of a larger set of interactive discourse. The message is strongly conditioned by the speaker's intention and expression. This is not to say that oratorical language does not have prescribed rules of discourse, nor that either could ignore their common cultural and philosophical contexts, but that the speech act itself has varying goals and differing determinants within that context.
Young Bear's poetic languages are pulled toward these two poles. They dot the spectrum from discourse oriented oratorical language to the non-discourse story language that leans toward the ceremonial pole. In a previous essay, I tried to identify a group of poems that placed the reader in the epistemological frame of the old story reality (Ruppert, 1980). These story reality poems incorporate many of the elements of speech-as-action. Not that these poems are ceremonies, or that he of necessity uses traditional ceremonial words, but viewed from the function of the speech act, these poems come closest to the ceremonial pole of oral tradition. Poems such as 'the way the bird sat', 'the cook', 'in dream: the privacy of sequence' and 'waiting to be fed', to name a few, constitute a pole of poetic language which becomes intensely internal, metaphorical, surreal. The language and the images turn in upon themselves creating their own frame of reference. The poem may participate in larger mythical structures, but the reader must experience the immediacy of the poem first. It calls for a creative response on the part of the reader. In that experience of the poem and finding significance in it, the reader finds harmony in the many worlds of all-that-is. Of course, the nature of the response may vary with the different audiences addressed in the text, but the reader is placed perceptually in the middle of a story/myth in the making, and the reader must let the mythic logic take over. A reader may sense the power of the piece, but remain uncertain of its exact significance until he allows his mythic imagination to grasp the story. The reader must experience the story and the experience of it determines the meaning of the reader. The poem is performative, it is speech-as-action.
In poems like 'in viewpoint: poem for 14 catfish and the town of tama, iowa, Young Bear is attracted toward the oratorical pole and discourse begins to dominate the text. The poetic voice attempts to overtly influence the reader. The poetic language surges through expression. The language points outward to a frame of reference easily identifiable, one that exists before the speech act enclosed in the text of the poem. Here is a section of that poem:
but the farmers and the local whites
from the nearby town of tama and surrounding
towns, with their usual characteristic
ignorance and disregard, have driven noisily
over the ice and across our lands
on their pickups and snowmobiles
disturbing the dwindling fish
and wildlife --
and due to their
own personal greed and self-
displeasure in avoiding the holes
made by tribal fishermen in
search of food (which would die
anyway because of the abnormal weather),
the snowmobilers ran and complained
like a bunch of spoiled and obnoxious children
to the conservation officer, who, with
nothing better to do along with a deputy
sheriff and a highway patrolman, rode out
to tribal land and arrested the fishermen
and their catfish.
(Young Bear, 1980: 136)
The sense of injury, indictment and violation call out clearly to the reader. The poem goes on to develop a political point about racism and society in a public and political language. The oratorical functions are fulfilled as the poem strives to reinforce cultural and social cohesiveness. Yet, expression predominates experience. The reader's mythic imagination is not engaged, and he is not brought to a new experience in the text. He integrates the discourse into his own defined frame of reference, at once common and public.
However, much of his poetry, perhaps most, falls somewhere between the two poles of attraction. At these points, the texts become records of mediative discourse, not only between the two oral language poles, but also between the epistemological positions and contemporary American poetry. I would like to refer to this position of the text as mediatory language, and I think this is what Allen refers to when she speaks of the image unifying world-views, or Ortiz' Acoma ideal of perception and expression merging. These poems construct their own frames of reference while pursuing expression through linkage with existing frames. They encourage the reader's experience while they express. As an example of these poems, I would like to look at the poem 'all day i have seen you'.
it would have to be a very good reason.
i would see you off and then the next thing
i'd know you'd be gone, permanently.
everything that is us is represented
by secondhand furniture.
i keep thinking i can withstand it.
it's easy to sit towards the east
on a summer evening, erasing the memory
of your absence with a cold beer.
all thoughts centered on the bird's airway.
the small dish of food which i placed
by the stream last summer was the closest
and only thing i did to remind the dead
and the sacred of my presence.
once, a one-eyed rabbit came right up
to me and i greeted it. another time,
a ground squirrel ate its way through
the plastic garbage bag. it dragged out
a photograph of us holding each other
both of our eyes lost in miscarriage
it would have to happen on a dull grey day
like this. i like to make myself believe
that i will have things planned long before
you have notions of leaving me.
you walk towards me from the west
with your head bowed down. the sound
of a bicycle leaves behind you. all day
i have seen you hanging clothes.
as you walk toward me you lose your
footing and i catch you by your wrists.
i ask how you see me. i always thought
you were kind. you know that one boy who
everybody thinks is a pervert? he's going
to wait for me until i finish school.
a tall and lone figure comes out
from the house and we hide behind
the station wagon, swatting mosquitoes
with the one towel which i eventually
give to you, i don't trust him. he is
good friends with the fly now
in sioux city.
how do you see me?
(Young Bear, 1980: 105-106)
There are many aspects of the poem which mark it as contemporary American poetry. The notes of alienation and searching for identity are clear and characteristic. The audience is presented with a direct, personal voice which tends to transform the public voice into the personal. The poem presents a struggle with what in Western psychological tradition we would call the ego. The voice of the poems seeks identity outside itself as the voice questions an ego definition. On a personal level, the poem strives to unify the subjective (how one is perceived by others and oneself) with the objective (one's true identity).
The voice in the poem ties identity with a sense of its own control and capacity to dominate events. Clearly, as it does so, it reveals a fear that the attempt to control events such as the other person's leaving, will be in vain much as the attempt to define identity. This fear could, of course, have roots in man's existential fear of letting things outside himself define and dominate him. Subsequently, much of the poem seems to be the ego defending itself from destruction. The breaking point of the fear comes when the 'you' approaches the speaker, stumbles and is caught by the wrist. The definition of identity linked to ego-control gives way to one of inter-relatedness of tentative connections, of a fall checked in mid-air, of two together with the loss of a miscarriage. With its emphasis on ego and identity, the poem encourages the audience to read it in terms of Western psychological thought and contemporary poetic practice.
Yet, when contemporary American poets meet this question, they tend to adopt a schizophrenic approach. They feel that the non-ego parts of self have value because of their more natural connection with immanent values in the world around us. Consequently, they often pursue ways to merge the unconscious or personally mythic with nature. These poets of pre-sense seek the experience of immanent values in the world, unsure of where to find them. Yet they must retain ego to create poems, and poems have value. Their solution is to create a poetry whose purpose is to put the reader and poet in a position to find value himself.
For Young Bear, the existence of those immanent values is an unstated assumption. The world of values is in harmonious existence, and it is the individual who has momentarily separated himself from the web that connects the sacred to human relations such as those with the person who may be leaving and the tall person who is not trusted. He questions to reestablish connections, not to create new ones. It is not the psychological state of the poet that is important, but the act of the poem. He questions to allow for some tentative unity. In Western terms he asks the people around him for self-definition while in keeping with the Indian code assuming that identity extends from the web of inter-relatedness. Thus, the poem encompasses the function of ceremony as Allen has described it -- to bring the individual into harmony with all-that-is, reaffirming a place the individual always had. The assumption of an Indian epistemological stance predominates the poem while contemporary poetic codes are utilized to create mediation.
Also the poem emphasizes the multiple significance of event as much Indian tradition does. The animal references in the second stanza take on personal and mythical significance after the poet mentions centering his thoughts on the natural medium between birds and nature. This realm is traditionally associated with spirit, and the poet's sense of separation from the sacred deepens the context in which to see his interaction with animals. They seem full of message, of tentative painful connections which the poet still holds. The animal, human and spirit realms all conspire to encourage the questioning of the poet. Only through the questioning can the separation be eliminated.
With this in mind, the tentative union in the last stanza takes on added significance. While feeling a certain alienation from the natural, spiritual and communal worlds, the "you' and 'I' of the poem meet, united by fear, perhaps outside the communal web as represented by the tall man and his friend. This tentative union is paralleled by the potential union of the outcast boy and the 'you', or by the picture of the two together 'lost in miscarriage'. The last stanza reminds us that appearances are not always true as the boy is not a pervert, but really kind and patient. The merely social definition of identity is discredited. Another untrusted character the fly is mentioned. His name is written in italics perhaps to emphasize his mystery or mythical connections. This character's apparent spiritual and animal definition of identity is not to be trusted. However, the tenuous union at the end does give rise to some hope, some connectedness beyond the value of mere questioning. With this balance of union and doubt, the final question increases in resonance.
Viewed psychologically, the moment of union provokes a renewal of the internal questioning 'How do you see, me?' aimed at the 'you' of the poem. Viewed from a mediatory angle, the reader must see that the definition of identity is not only existential. Traditional American Indian thought encourages the individual to participate in identity defined more through social and cultural terms than through personal terms. While the final question seems ostensibly aimed at one person, the poem explores a satisfactory sense of identity on a larger plane. As the union at the end of the poem carries a wider significance than the merely personal, so does the question. A good case could be made that it is addressed to the reader, but that again locks a definition of identity into a narrow, Western sense. Since it follows after some tentative connections to the web of interrelations from which the poet has felt alienated, we could see it as a non-restrictive question, one addressed to the powers of interrelation, the harmony, the sacred, the community -- all at once. This stance would be very much in keeping with traditional Native American assumptions about harmony and identity.
The final image of the two hiding behind the station wagon and the final question express the characteristics of mediation -- cross-illumination of epistemological codes. The image also functions to harmonize the contradictions between two perspectives as described by Allen. The questioning psychological code is fulfilled while the holistic apsychological code is implied and satisfied.
Also the poet's expression of his feelings, his attitudes fuses with his perception of his relation to the universe around him. One determines and complements the other. The situation is much as Ortiz' father thinks of song: 'My father teaches that a song is part of the way you're supposed to recognize everything, that the singing of it is a way of recognizing this all-inclusiveness because it is a way of expressing yourself and perceiving. It is basically a way to understand and appreciate your relationship to all things (Oritz, 1977: 9). The more he expresses himself, the more he perceives his relationship to all things. The question at the end has grown in meaning until it expresses the poet's tentative connection to the all-inclusive, and ultimately the poet seeks to define himself in its terms.
In the mediation of the poem, the distinction Todorov makes between speech-as-action and speech-as-narrative becomes modified by the two poles of oral tradition functions. While the poem may lean toward the ceremonial function and an identification with speech-as-action, it does break out of its referential frame. The message being communicated is as important as the act of speaking. Yet this apparent speech-as-narrative aspect is mediated by the fact that the speaking of the poem is an integral part of its message. The poem has successfully harmonized traditional functions. The process of questioning in the poem and the act of writing the poem are essential in helping the individual understand his place in the universe. The Indian frame of reference which supplies context for speech-as-action gives meaning to the message of the speech-as-narrative discourse. In Ortiz' words, perception is expression. The poem and its images harmonize the various perceptual worlds, and a mediation has occurred.
One may rightly ask how I all this fits into the topic of this volume -- political mobilization. I hope to make that clear shortly. It is certain from the foregoing discussion that Young Bear is a man of many talents; many languages. His poetry is pulled between two poles by the demands and functions of an oral tradition and conditioned by contemporary poetry. At one end, Young Bear and many other Indian writers write what has been called 'Protest poetry'. In this poetic language, expression dominates. The voice is strongly public, and the statement while powerful, is expected. The reader has a ready frame of reference in which to place the semantic message, and he recognizes the text as discourse, or the speaker's visible attempt to influence the reader. The presentation of the message is less important than the expression of the message. The reader then accepts the discourse or not. This speech-as-narrative invokes the presence of political and social problems to indite and confront. Those readers, Indian or white, that agree with the expression and have had similar experiences previous to the poem, may be ready to mobilize for action.
At the other end of the spectrum, Young Bear's story reality poems exist as speech-as-action. They contain an unidentifiable narrator. The expression merges with perception and the ceremonial functions of oral tradition are fulfilled as the poem sets the reader into the story reality. The poems create their own referential frame, and the reader must develop his mythic imagination to participate in meaning. In this poetic language, oral tradition may be more completely reproduced. Indian and white readers may be mobilized to value oral tradition more as they participate in it on a wider and more conscious level. Political mobilization on the basis of an increased appreciation and dedication to Indian cultures may result. Yet, the referential frame created by these poems may be too restricted and subjective to motivate a wide readership into any immediate or effective political action.
I would argue that those poems, that express the poetic language of mediation effectively and convincingly encourage political mobilization. Political poetry must recognize foremost the tremendous gulf between the ideals of one's position and the grimy reality which does not admit those ideals, or perhaps only in a debased form. Political poetry must profoundly engage the reader's sympathies, if not his political allegiance. It must move from within the reader's social and epistemological code and transform it. Ideals make dualists of us all, but the most effective position that Young Bear and other Indian writers can take is a mediatory position which does not let social conflict remain abstract and predictable, nor invites self-righteous judgements. Equally ineffective for political purposes is a poetry that circles around ideals, creating a world with a narrow referential frame. One solution might be to acknowledge that differing poetic languages may be useful for reaching different audiences, matching language and political goal, but a lasting and powerful poetic ethic that unites audiences must be built on a broad mediatory base.
Young Bear's poems of mediative discourse build on a fusion of public and private voice. They create a persona in the process of defining self. The projected results of political mobilization in the social world find ready parallel in the remaking of the self imaginatively. His struggle gives meaning and authority to any pursuit of a new alignment of the social order. The reader is brought into a new frame of reference and his perception is educated while mediated. As with 'all day i have seen you', the reader is encouraged to epistemologically grow with the poet to realize the harmony Allen speaks of and in it to value American Indian experience more fully. Such a poetic language is conditioned by a sense of drama and conflict. Such a poetic persona can speak to society, not just lament the impersonal fiendish forces of society, nor dwell purely in idealized mythic worlds. When a poet desires political mobilization, he must speak with two tongues, see with two sets of eyes.
From Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Ed. Bo Schöler. Aarhus, Denmark: English Dept., University of Aarhus, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by James Ruppert. Reprinted with permission.
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