Modernism in Native American Heritage Month

Getting crafty with Langston Hughes, by Avery Younis–you can move the strips to recreate poems

Some terrific people at my university just organized our first ever Native American Heritage Month, involving two lectures, two documentaries, and a poetry reading with tastings of traditional foods. I made it to four out of five events, and every one was interesting, moving, and really fun–I’m so grateful to the organizers for their work.

The commemoration also made me return to a teaching/ research question that’s bothered me for a long time. My “modernist” poetry course hasn’t, in fact, carried that label for years, because I find it limited and misleading. Instead, I teach “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Alongside the modernist canon I was trained in, and the white women poets I added to my mental list of innovators during my PhD years, we read the formalisms of Frost, Millay, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others, and the poetic experiments of the New Negro Renaissance (these people and bodies of work overlap, of course). I’m currently teaching the most inclusive version of this course I’ve ever constructed. So where are the Native American poets?

There are a few modernist scholars out there doing great work to answer that question. I read a 2017 essay by Kirby Brown last week that I found really helpful: “American Indian modernities and new modernist studies’ ‘Indian Problem.'” He trains some light on Native prose writers–some of whom I knew, like Zitkála-Šá, and some novel writers of the 1930s I’d never heard of, especially John Joseph Mathews, D’Arcy McNickle, and Oskison. Of course, many scholars would say my periodization is wrong. I’m ending my course around 1950, and it’s easier to find work by marginalized writers in the modernist style, or bearing some relation to the style some call modernism, in the 50s and 60s. The prime example there is always Scott Momaday, whose hybrid novel (containing lots of poems) House Made of Dawn was published in 1969. Once you get into the 1970s and 80s, there’s a much richer array of Native writers publishing in every genre, and there’s no excuse for syllabi surveying those periods excluding them.

But what it I want to focus on the jostle of poetic styles and agendas in North American in the first half of the century–defining the class by decade instead of by style? I know Native America was visible and interesting to certain white writers, especially Marianne Moore (who taught business English in the Carlisle Indian School as a very young woman), H.D. (mostly in her novels), and William Carlos Williams. I have also observed that numerous biographies ascribe Native American heritage to poets of the New Negro Renaissance, although usually in a vague, distant way. Anne Spencer knew she had Seminole forebears and identified with that nation; biographers of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes, however, merely say they had “French, African, and Indian blood,” with no hint of how to find out more. I point out those intersections to my students, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Kirby Brown did give me one lead I’m excited to follow up: Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), most famous as a playwright (he wrote the play upon which the musical Oklahoma! is based), also published poetry. I’ve ordered the one collection he published in his lifetime, The Iron Dish (1930), and the posthumous collection, This Book, This Hill, This People (1982), but they’re out of print so might take a while to arrive. In the meantime, I showed my students a few poems published by Poetry and therefore easy to find online (bless the Poetry Foundation!): a sonnet about loss, “Dawn–Late Summer,” and an incantatory, mysterious poem in quatrains, “The Room” (1943). Maybe I can assign a more robust grouping, with more understanding of how to read them, next time. That’s always the hitch, and the intriguing puzzle, isn’t it? As the endlessly irritating and yet not wrong T. S. Eliot observed, each new writer makes you reconsider everything that has come before. I need to find ways to read Riggs, and doing so will put the whole canon in a different light, just as making a deep study of Millay, Hughes, and modernist poetry performance did.

In the meantime, my students have given me permission to share their visual readings of my favorite long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. They’re pretty great, including one reading typgraphy as musical notation, and another, by Garrett Clinton, clocking the poems’ hours. (See here or here for more on how I construct the assignment.) There’s just one more week of classes after the Thanksgiving break (on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat). As usual, I feel sad about that–and not a little grateful.

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  1. Leslie, Do you know Robert Dale Parker’s anthology CHANGING IS NOT VANISHING: A COLLECTION OF AMERICAN INDIAN POETRY TO 1930? D’Arcy McNickle, e.g., is better known as a novelist but wrote some fine poems. Look also at Mary Cornelia Hartshorne.

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