American Indian Literature

and Cultures

Week 7: Poetry


Readings: Text: Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry. Please read all the

poems by the following poets plus the individual poems listed below: Mary Tallmountain, Nora Dauenhauer, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, Paula Gunn Allen, James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Linda Hogan, Roberta Whiteman, Wendy Rose, Ray Young Bear, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich. ALSO:

Dieter:       P. Gunn Allen, "Dear World"       Suzie:                                          
Mike:                                           Jody:                                           
Barbara:                                        Kerri:                                          
Rebecca:                                        Ben:                                            

Artwork/Music/Folklore: selected by people in the class (please bring anything relevant)

Article: Introduction to the Harper's Anthology


Writing Assignment: there is no one-page paper due this week. Your final draft is due on Friday 8/1 outside my office door. Please make sure you schedule a paper conference with me to discuss your draft.


Focus: This week we will be putting into practice the skills we have been developing throughout the class and adding a few new tricks. Some of the new tricks include how to close read a poem and identify the form. Some of the skills we will be continuing will be how to read a work of American Indian literature within its tribal context. You should read all of the poems by the authors listed above and then spend extra time closely reading the poems chosen by your classmates. You should make sure that you have looked up any relevant information about your poem (e.g. words you don't know, cultural or mythological references), determined the form (and thought about why the poet is using that particular form), and be prepared to lead a brief discussion about it.


1. How to Do a Close Reading of a Poem

Please see the previous handout on close readings for a guide to the steps to take in doing a close reading of a poem. If you have lost this handout, you can either (1) look at the handout on-line or (2) ask me for a new one. Reading a poem usually takes at least three steps/tries. Step one is to determine what the poem is saying (this includes looking up references). Step two is to notice how it is saying it (the information below and on the previous handout is designed to give you a way to look more closely at the poem) Step three is to determine why it is saying it the way it has been said. (I have given you some resources below, but a lot of step number three may be ideas that we come up with in class.) Please do not skip the first two steps or you may get feel overwhelmed. Similarly, make sure that you look at the previous handout since it contains a number of more basic questions and "warm-up" exercises before you get to the more detailed information listed below. One final note: if you have never had a class on reading poetry (or if it has been awhile) don't freak out or overload on the poetic side of things. Pick one or two aspects of poetics that interest you and do those and keep the rest of the handout for reference.


2. Poetic Form

At the end of this handout is a cheat sheet to poetic forms which I promised you before. The signs that poem may be in a form are

*there are set number of lines per stanza (the poetic equivalent of a paragraph--e.g. see the poem on p. 13)

*there is a repetition of end words or sounds (e.g. the poems on pp. 10-11); please remember that in 20th Century poetry rhymes are often half (or "slant") rhymes--i.e. they are words that almost rhyme. This counts in determining the form, but should be kept in mind when thinking about HOW the poet is using the form. (If a poet is any good, one should assume that (s)he is changing the form to make a particular message, not because (s)he is a lame poet.)

*there is a repetition of lines (e.g. see the section on "repeating forms"--there are not many of these in our anthology, but I have given you one below to look up for the next class).

*there is a set number of syllables per line. (this suggests a regular meter; sometimes there will be variation)

*if none of the above seems to apply, the poem may be in free verse (see below), in accentual verse (where the form is determined by the number of stressed sounds) or syllabic verse (the number of syllables). (For example, Momaday's poem "North Dakota, North Light" is based on an Old English Verse form that uses these strategies. In general the latter two of these options involve a level of complexity that is beyond our immediate needs, but if you pick a poem and you think something wacky is going on, email me or stop by and I will give you some help.


After you have picked your poem you should determine what form you think it is using the cheat sheet (this is one of the question you should ask in step two the how of the poem is written). It is useful to determine what the form is because forms contain a built in symbol system and because they set up certain expectation which provide the structure for the poem. For example, Religious sonnets contain the general progression from the number four (in lines, meter and images) to the number three. This symbolized the movement from this world towards God/the trinity. If a sonnet with religious themes attempts to undercut this movement, it suggests a problem with the concept of faith or the narrator's difficulty in achieving this transformation (why of the poem). To determine the symbolism behind the form in your poem, look up the form in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. (hereafter refereed to as PEPP).


For practice determine the forms of the following poems:

Frank Prewett, "If I Love You" (3)

George Clutesi, "A Song of the Yellow Cedar Face" (11: remember that some rhymes may be slant rhymes)

Gerald Vizenor, "Surrendered Names" (73-74)

R.H. Whiteman, "From the Sun Itself" (223)

Duane Niatum, "The Art of Clay" (117)



3. Free Verse

There is a common notion that Free Verse means that the poet is liberating him or herself from structure. In good free verse (see below) this is never the case. Free verse merely means that the poet invents his or her own symbol and ordering system rather than inheriting one from a predetermined form. This section of the handout is designed to give you some ideas about what free verse is, how poets order free verse poems, and how to read free verse.


A. Definitions

--poetry free of traditional metrical and stanzaic patterns (Frye 202)

--lacks a "structuring grid based on counting of linguistic units and/or position of linguistic

features" (PEPP 425)


B. Quotable quotes

--T.S. Eliot: "No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job"; "...only a bad poet could

welcome free verse as a liberation from form. It was a revolt against dead form, and a preparation for new form or for a renewal of the old; it was an insistence upon the inner unity which is unique to every poem, against the outer unity which is typical" (A Retrospect 12; Frye 202)

--Ezra Pound: "I think one should write vers libre only when one `must,' hat is to say, only when

t the `thing' builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres, or more real, more a part of the emotion of the `thing,' more germane, intimate, interpretative than the measure of regular accentual verse; a rhythm which disconnects one with set iambic or set anapestic" (A Retrospect 12)

--W.C. Williams: "No verse can be free, it must be governed by some measure, but not by

the old measure" (Frye 202)

--Robert Bly: free verse "implies not a technique, but a longing" (Frye 203)

--Donald Wesling: "free verse insists on at least an aura of candor, at least a myth of

dangerous autonomy, poetic anarchy" (148)


C. Ordering Principles

1. End-stopped lines: end of line signals a pause; each line is a breath unit (Whitman,

Ginsberg's "Howl")

2. Parallelism: same stress patterns (Whitman)

3. Simple repetition of words & phrases: opening of lines ("anaphora" Whitman), whole lines

(H.D.), words (Plath). Listing like objects (a catalog) can work similarly to create cohesion.

4. Stress pattern repeated (Marianne Moore's "The Fish," W.C. Williams)

5. Visual repetition or Pattern (Moore's "The Fish")

6. Sound repeats, no fixed pattern of rhyme (Plath)

7. Images repeat: causes a circular movement, as opposed to the linear movement of prose

(Plath, "Daddy")


D. Some things to look for when reading free verse

1. Line breaks. Are the lines end-stopped? (i.e. are they syntactically complete?) If not,

where does the enjambment fall? Is there variation between the two? (Remember that Wesling argues that "the distinguished poem in free verse usually contains lines that are coincident with sentences and lines that are not," 161). Does the "scissoring" of sentences & lines create interesting metrical moments? (If line breaks occur within phrases, the poetic speech may seem discontinuous.) Has the poet broken lines so as to achieve feminine or masculine line breaks? Do the lines break so as to disrupt what might otherwise become a stable meter? (i.e. are the original syntactical phrases iambic? This happens often with Plath's later poetry.). You may want to try rearranging the poem as Hass does on p. 124 ("Listening and Making") to see what the effect would be if the line were broken elsewhere. Wesling notes that thoughtful line breaks are essential to the pleasure we receive from the poem: in his mind, "unless the poet breaks sentences over lines with care, patterns of movement will be wearingly similar and prosodically as uninteresting as the despised second order metered poetry" (162).

2. Line length. All short? All long? Mixed? The PEPP editors make the following observations:

"The short line is preferred for speed, or for slowness gained by isolating clots of phrase....Alternation of long and short lines gives a conversational cast" (426).

3. Base Meter. How many stresses do the lines usually have? Are the lines broken with caesurae?

l Are the stresses equally distributed on either side of the pause/caesura (creating a sense of balance)? (See Hass pp. 128-130.) Does the meter work mimetically, effectively, associatively, emphatically, or does it create connection, pattern, or cohesion?

4. Rhymes. What words are "mated" through rhyme? Do these rhymes work to produce an

accentual cadence or a sense of closure?

5. Visual Devices. Does the author use space to indicate disjunctures, heavy capitalization,

dashes? Here one must consider both the print and the white silence that surrounds the print.

6. Shape/Movement. Forms imply a certain structure which the argument will follow.

Does the free verse poem create an overall structure? What is the logical flow and connection between stanzas? What is the syntactical and argumentative "drive" in the poem? How does this relate to the subject of the poem?

7. Punctuation. Does the poet use punctuation? Is the poem coherent without it? Do the

ambiguities enhance or detract from the meaning?

8. Expectations. Does the opening set up any expectations about line length, syntax, meter,

etc.? Are these broken later in the poem? Does the poet achieve closure at the end of the poem? If so how? If not, how does (s)he avoid closure?


E. Evaluating Free Verse: How do I know if it's any good?

1. Is the poem organic? In free verse, "the image of the work is not anterior to the work"

(Wesling 150). This means that there should be a relationship between the subject and the form created. As Wesling argues, "Modern poetry becomes the art of invention, not of expression" (150).

2. Does the poem acknowledge an order which it is rejecting? Wesling notes, "if the poem

is to be more than asyntactical gibberish, more than the rudimentary configuration of type that is concrete poetry, the freedom must be partial, conditional....The artist's distortions, we assume, are significant, If they are within a reigning paradigm, they constitute a variation; if they make a break with it, they constitute an innovation" (150-51). If it is being innovative, what "pleasures" does it create? (See above for possible sources of pleasure.)


4. A Sample Explication of a Poem which pays attention to Form.

The point of this essay is not to freak you out. (Please remember that this is by a student who has taken an entire class on how to read poetry). Instead, I am hoping to give you some ideas on how people analyze the details of a poem (Step Three above). We will go over this final step more in class. As you read the essay below, though, please notice the author says what the poems says, then how and then why. In general, the author does this in each paragraph; however, the majority of the paragraph is taken up by analysis (why) NOT paraphrase (the what part). This is a good strategy to keep in mind in any close reading (and for when you give evidence in your final papers). It is also worth noting that in your poem, your frame of reference will primarily be the cultural context (since this is what we have been studying). The discussion of poetic technique on this handout and the previous one is designed to supplement such an analysis but not to replace it. (The author below spends a lot of time discussing the importance of the sonnet form; however, you might want to spend more time thinking about the importance of a certain mythological figure or cultural reference. Like forms, this is another type of shorthand.) As you read the essay you may want to make a brief list in the margins of things which the author does that you feel are useful strategies or annoyances to be avoided. We will discuss these briefly either in class or in paper conferences.


For privacy reasons, I have chosen not to include this essay on-line. Please see the hard copy of your handout.

5. Themes

Niatum suggests some themes which are common in American Indian Poetry. Having read the above selections, would you add any to this list? What themes would you add from the fiction and nonfiction we have read?


6. Authenticity

What, according to Niatum, are the core attributes of American Indian poetry? How does his definition of American Indian literature compare to those we have read so far this semester (particular the essays from last week)? Does the poetry he includes support his definition, complicate it, or challenge it?



Frye, Northrop, et. al. The Harper Handbook to Literature. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures. New York: Ecco Press, 1984.

Heninger, S.K., "The Origin of the Sonnet: Form as Optimism,"The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1994: 69-118.

Pound, Ezra, "A Retrospect," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound.

Preminger, Alex & TVF Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.

Wesling, Donald. The New Poetries. Lewisburg: Bucknell U.P., 1985.