Poetry Fridays: Joy Harjo

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Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

A member of the Muskoke/Creek Nation, Joy Harjo has said “Poetry, music and dance came into the world together. Will go out that way, together, too.” So it is no surprise that, during the Friday Afternoon Poetry Sampler at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival, she introduced her second poem by saying, “It’s a little poem. It’s a song. Same thing.” To get a feel for what she means, listen to her recite/chant/sing her poems “No” and “No Huli.”

In all cultures, song, dance, chant and poetry were once part of group activities, celebrations, ceremonies and rituals that involved the entire community. Although we don’t know exactly when they emerged, we know poetry and song existed long before written language and musical notation. Most anthropologists agree that recognizable human speech is at least 50,000 years old. Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey has argued that the skulls of much older hominids offer evidence that a speech area of the brain may have developed hundreds of thousands, even a million years ago.

But song predates human beings. Choirs of crickets and frogs sang long before the first hominid appeared. Perhaps we, too, sang before we had speech. The cooing and babbling of babies almost always falls into rhythm, repetition, even melody long before they have spoken words.

The Native American Indian tradition of referring to animals as people may come from an understanding that we share many of our deepest impulses, including the impulse to sing, with our nonhuman relatives. Certainly Harjo’s suggestion that “we’re in a big old canoe together” comes out of a worldview that sees kinship before it sees difference.

But Harjo’s poems will not allow us to idealize this worldview. The poems dip down into dark, brutal images as quickly as they rise back up into song. Listen to her again. How can singing be a response to the violence the singer has witnessed?

“No Huli” can be found on Joy Harjo’s most recent CD, Winding Through the Milky Way. For a wide selection of poems spanning her publishing career, see How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Joy Harjo.

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye and others.

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