- Native Poetics
“By God,” quod he, “for pleynly, at a word, Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a toord! [. . .] Lat se wher thou kanst tellen aught in geeste, Or telle in prose somwhat, at the leeste, In which ther be som murthe or some doctryne.”—Geoffrey Chaucer, “Heere the Hoost stynteth Chaucer”
As for native American individuality, though certain to come, and on a large scale, the distinctive and ideal type of Western character [. . .] has not yet appear’d.—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891
Finding myself now surrounded by professors of hip-hop; by clones of Gallic-Germanic theory; by ideologues of gender and of various sexual persuasions; by multiculturalists unlimited, I realize that the Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible.—Harold Bloom, “Elegiac Conclusion,” The Western Canon
Native is generic for natural “birth” rights in a given place. The noun poetics, originally “makings” in Greek, turns problematic in time—suspiciously “made up,” or decorative, even delusional among [End Page 146] late twentieth-century arts. Given that human beings are born-making things the world over, this cross-cultural study tracks the figure a poem makes in our time. Whether that figure melts as ice on a hot stove, or disappears as a pheasant in the bush, today’s canonical poem often seems elusively “made,” relatively marginalized from the workings of society, even oddly antiquated. Native American aesthetics, by contrast, still premises art as morally, kinetically, even spiritually engrained in the natural tribal world—a native good, not so much personally made or made up as naturally given and passed through an artist.
New World writers polarize a trans-ethnic dialogue, one that cuts acculturatively both ways: making and crafting, or receiving and bearing native arts. Early this century, as Georgia O’Keeffe was coming from New York to Abiquiu, D. H. Lawrence left England and caught the Pueblo drift of native poetics: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” Émigré to the Southwest after the First World War, Lawrence felt himself less the poet as maker than receptor of natural art:
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted[. . .]
“Admit them,” Lawrence addressed “the three strange angels” knocking at midnight in the New World, his early modernist “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” N. Scott Momaday, the Nobel-nominated Kiowa poet, half a century later wrote to O’Keeffe in “Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu”:
I made you the gift of a small, brown stone, And you described it with the tips of your fingers And knew at once that it was beautiful— At once, accordingly you knew, As you knew the forms of the earth at Abiquiu: That time involves them and they bear away, Beautiful, various, remote, In failing light, and the coming of cold.
Drawing coalitional ties across territorial boundaries, the term “native poetics” cross-refers Anglo-American and American Indian literatures as they have evolved over a century. I am not trying to prove [End Page 147] or disprove any Big Bang Theory, hypertextual or otherwise, nor do I champion what Harold Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” in ethnic and feminist studies. My focus is basic: as critics hassle a reconstructed historical polemics behind Euro-American texts, classical or emancipated, can readers address a native poetics? We need to locate textual benchmarks in this hybrid new land. Since the Harper, Norton, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heath revised anthologies of American literature are layered now with American Indian writings, why is there no whisper of ceremonial tradition or native literatures in Bloom’s Western Canon? An ax is buried in the curriculum.
No doubt, to trace comparative aesthetics through our multicultural histories will intersect tangled thoroughfares. Why bother to conflate mainstream and so-called ethnic texts when both sides vex the middle? Clearing a two-way path may weed respected texts of canonical presumption; equally, this indigenous tracking can help to rescue ghettoized new writings from ethnocentric obscurity, dismissed as upstart or politically correct...