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“IM A G E A N D W ORD C A N N O T BE D IV ID E D ”: N. SC OTT M o m a d a y a n d K io w a E k p h r a s is W illia m m . C l e m e n t s The titles of several poems in his 1992 collection In the Presence of the Sun evoke N. Scott Momaday’s interest in the visual arts: “Crows in a Winter Composition,” “Wide Empty Landscape with a Death in the Foreground,” and “Woman Waiting on a Porch.” These titles could be the titles of paintings— in fact, of the very drawings and watercolors with which the poet has illustrated this particular book. Moreover, several of the poems are dedicated to visual artists: Georgia O’Keeffe (“Forms of the N. Scott Momaday. The Muddy Horses Shield (from In the Presence of the Sun 102). Courtesy of the artist. Referred to as figure 4 in text. W il l ia m m . C l e m e n t s 1 3 5 Earth at Ahiquiu” [38]); his father, A1 Momaday, who taught art at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools (“My Words Do Not Hold” [135]); and an unnamed painter (“The Hotel 1929” [126]). Such recognition of the affinity of the verbal and the visual in artistic expression figured early in Momaday’s imaginative life. In his memoir The Names, he recalls an early artistic act, a drawing he made of his grandfather, Mammedaty. Yet Momaday had never met that grandfather, who died several years before his birth. He had never physically seen his subject except in a photograph which he describes in The Way to Rainy Mountain (73) and reproduces in The Names (95). The drawing came from the child’s imagination, and that imagination had been fueled both by the photo­ graph and by verbal art, oral literary traditions about Mammedaty, espe­ cially the account of his being honored by a gifting at a Gourd Dance, a subject an older Momaday was to treat in the poem that provides the title for one of his collections. Words helped to shape this early drawing.1 The visual and the verbal commingled again somewhat later in Momaday’s life when he wrote “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” (dated 1960 and first published in Southern Review in 1965) as well as other poems, including some of those listed previously, which respond to works of visual art, undoubtedly stimulated by the “ekphrastic” tradition in Western literature in which writers represent visual art. Momaday would have encountered ekphrasis while working on his Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford University. He has written and spoken in interviews about specific writers who probably affected his creative vision. Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Isak Dinesen, and Wallace Stevens are ones that come to his mind whenever an interviewer asks a question about influence— though, in response, he carefully stresses that while these are writers whom he admires, they are not necessarily direct sources for his own art. They are all highly visual writers, some of whom (Stevens, for instance) wrote works directly responding to paintings. Nevertheless Momaday’s literary work, which increasingly coexisted with his own drawing, etching, and painting, also connects with visual creativity in the expressive culture of Native American traditions, including that of his own ancestral people, the Kiowas, and their neighbors on the southern Plains. These American Indian sources could have influenced Momaday to turn from the con­ ventional contemporary conception of an ekphrastic poem or other lit­ erary work as a response to a piece of visual art. Instead, Momaday has more and more opted for a dynamic interactional relationship between the process of creating literature (his own writing, at least) and pro­ 1 3 6 WAL 3 6 . 2 S U M M E R 2 0 0 1 ducing visual art. While some precedent for such a view of ekphrasis exists in Western tradition, it finds more definite expression in the traditional aesthetics of some Native American cultures, the most likely source for what Momaday has been doing. Within the Western literary tradition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 134-152
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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