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  • Not Primitive Enough to Be Considered ModernEthnographers, Editors, and the Indigenous Poets of the American Indian Magazine
  • Michael P. Taylor (bio)

In February 1917 Harriet Monroe, founding editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published the magazine’s first issue dedicated almost solely to “aboriginal poetry” (“Aboriginal” 251). Although Monroe is celebrated for bringing together into a single magazine the leading poetic voices of her time—Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, H.D., and so on—Helen Carr reports that Monroe was “particularly proud of the way the magazine pushed beyond the hegemonic Anglo-American Anglo-Saxon, whether in publishing Rabindranath Tagore’s own translations of his Bengali poems, or in Pound’s and others’ Chinese translations, or in issues devoted to Native American traditional verse” (42). Poetry professed “to exhibit all that was modern and contemporary in poetry—whether it was found in imagism, regionalist verse . . . , the Bengali Tagore, or the culture of Native America” (Carr 34). It is curious, however, that from the selection of poems published within Poetry’s 1917 “aboriginal” issue, not a single Aboriginal poet is identified by name. Rather, Monroe presents the poems as primal specimens collected, transcribed, translated, and altered by non-Indigenous ethnographers, editors, and poets: “The poems we present are not translations, but interpretations; they use subjects and rhythms drawn from aboriginal life and song . . . [and] should be read—or rather chanted—to the accompaniment of a posture of dance and the strong beat of an instrument” (“Aboriginal” 251).

Although the editors of today’s leading anthologies of modern American poetry have taken critical steps to include a wider representation of Native American and other marginalized poets, most continue to privilege ethnographic works over “modern” Indigenous poets without acknowledging, as Jace Weaver (Cherokee) argues, that “limiting consideration or admission to the canon to orature [collected tradition [End Page 45] and culture] is a way of continuing colonialism” (23). In The New Anthology of American Poetry (2005), for example, Steven Gould Axel-rod, Camille Roman, and Thomas Travisano present sixteen songs collected by ethnomusicologists Frances Densmore and James Mooney to represent Native American poetry from 1900 to 1950. They also include four poems published by two early twentieth-century Indigenous poets, Alexander Posey (Muscogee Creek) and Louis Oliver (Muscogee Creek); however, the featured poems represent Posey’s and Oliver’s politically milder poetry that can be dismissively read as presenting images of isolation, illiteracy, and inevitable death, rather than featuring either poet’s more striking poetic evidence of Native resistance and survival.1

Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000), on the other hand, even excludes collected Indigenous orature, presenting N. Scott Momaday’s (Kiowa-Cherokee) early poems from the 1960s as the beginning of twentieth-century American Indian poetry. Similarly, Rita Dove’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011) begins its representation of “modern” Native poetry with works from the 1970s by Blackfeet writer James Welch. Together, these leading editors choose not to correct Monroe’s misrepresentation of Native American poetry, and they announce an important oversight in the scholarship surrounding the missing Indigenous poets of the early twentieth century. Nelson’s and Dove’s choices overlook over fifty years of Native poets. Axelrod, Roman, and Travisano privilege non-Indigenous ethnographers over contemporaneous Indigenous poets. In an academic culture that celebrates individual artistic genius and, by extension, the communities such individuals represent, were there no Indigenous poets in North America at the turn of the twentieth century to write and recite their own poetry? According to Monroe and today’s mainstream anthologies, the answer is no, only non-Indigenous interpreters of the “primitive” poetics of a disappearing race. Although each of these major anthologies has made critical innovations in diversifying modern American poetry, and although each includes a broader selection of Native American poetry than its predecessor, Robert Dale Parker’s Changing Is Not Vanishing (2010), which provides an extensive recovery of pre-1930 Native poetry, is the first anthology to begin to represent the intricate poetic networks and broad production of early Indigenous poetry in North America. And as Changing Is Not Vanishing demonstrates, Monroe’s now-canonized misrepresentation does not stem from...


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pp. 45-72
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