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T H O M A S W. F O R D University of Houston The American Rhythm: Mary Austin’s Poetic Principle There is little agreement of opinion on the elusive subject of the nature of rhythm. Precision certainly has not been reached, and there are not many subjects which show a wider range of opinions among the experts. Yet it takes no expert to admit that rhythm does exist, that it is a very real experience. Although a search for the exact source of rhythm may turn out to be a hunting of the snark, the search has engaged the interests of musicians, poets, psychologists, and philosophers in the past, and will doubtless con­ tinue to attract their attention in the future. It may be this very elusiveness, in fact, that adds a special charm to speculation about the subject. A notable effort to define a peculiarly American rhythm was made by Mary Austin in 1923 in her book The American Rhythm —notable because of its almost radical simplicity and notable be­ cause of its even more radical departure from the tradition that sees American poetry as a scion of English and European fathers. Mrs. Austin sees the rhythms of American poetry not as descending from the Old World, but rather as originating in the New World— specifically in the American West, and even more specifically in the primal energy contained in the land itself. What is perhaps even more astonishing, she sees a kinship between American Indian poetry and later American poetry, if not, indeed, almost a con­ tinuous development from one to the other. Her claim should not be summarily dismissed as the distorted vision of a woman whose views became clouded because of devotion to the American Indian, although her great love for the Amerind is common knowledge and quite naturally would affect her judg­ ment. Nor should it be tagged as simply another assertion of American intellectual independence from English and European models, in the tradition of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” or Melville’s “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” To do so would deny revelation of significant, if partial, truths about the nature of 4 Western American Literature rhythm, and more particularly about the nature of American Indian poetry and, just quite possibly, about American poetry. Mrs. Austin argues that rhythm is an experience, and as such is distinct from our intellectual perception of that experience. Motor impulses are started in the body in response to certain stimuli, and a succession of muscular tensions and releases follows. The stimuli come from the environment, from the land, and a sense of well-being occurs in the human organism when the rhythms are coordinated. Rhythm, she believes, is something that comes from the autonomic centers of experience.1 The Amerind, receiving stimulation from the land, responded with the rhythms of his poetry. This muscular and motor rseponse of the human organism to en­ vironmental stimuli continued, she argued, in some of our present poets; consequently, we should expect similarities between Indian poetry and later American poetry since both derive from response to the American land. Proceeding, then, on the basis that rhythm is not an intellectual perception but a product of the autonomic centers of experience, Mrs. Austin attempts to show how Indian poetry was the Indian’s way of linking himself with the energy, with the “god-stuff” of creation: The Amerind makes poetry because he believes it to be good for him. He makes it because he believes it a contribution to the well­ being of his group. He makes it to put himself in sympathy with the wokonda, the orenda or god-stuff which he conceives to be to some degree in every created thing.2 Making use of mimesis, the Indian attempts to know the universe by “doing as it does.”3 Poetry for the Amerind, she maintains, is a method of communion, not of communication. Mary Austin re­ jects any Freudian interpretation, instead seeing the Indian’s pri­ mary need as the desire to relate himself to nature or to the Allness. The Indian, then, is in tune with his environment, and the land itself is a most important factor in furnishing...


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