Every Poem Has Ancestors


Celebrating N. Scott Momaday

On April 12, The Paris Review announced N. Scott Momaday as the recipient of the 2021 Hadada Award, presented each year to a “distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” In the coming weeks, the Daily will publish a series of short essays honoring the multifariousness of Momaday’s achievements. Today, in an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo recalls how Momaday’s poem “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” inspired her to begin writing poetry.

N. Scott Momaday. Photo: Darren Vigil Gray.

Though I loved poetry all of my life, it wasn’t until poems like “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” by N. Scott Momaday that I turned to the making of poetry. Like Momaday, I came to poetry as an artist who painted and drew. And both Momaday and I have a love of those traditional rituals that place the speaker/singer into an intimate relationship with a place on earth, a people. I believe every poem is ritual: there is a naming, a beginning, a knot or question, then possibly revelation, and then closure, which can be opening, setting the reader, speaker, or singer out and back on a journey. I can hear the tribal speaker in his voice, in whatever mode of performance. And when I trust my voice to go where it needs to be, to find home, it returns to where it belongs, back to the source of its longing.


Every poem has ancestors. Kiowa singers and orators can be found staking words to the ground, with poetic lines appearing as prayer flags waving in the winds in Momaday’s poem “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee.” I can also hear the long-legged poetry of Walt Whitman, who is considered one of the original American poetry ancestors. I wonder who influenced Walt Whitman to release poetry from the highly stylized European forms, to make a poetry that flowed like the winds rippling over vast fields of leaves of grass.

Whitman had quite the interest in American Indians. His life was framed by the Trails of Tears banishments of tribal nations from the East to the West. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred near the end of his life. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, American Indians/Natives appear in five of the twelve poems. Whitman was the only American poet known to have worked in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, where he met and conversed with Native delegations of tribal nations. It appears, then, that he might have been somewhat familiar with Native oratorical skills, and with the craft apparent in those skills that informs poetry. The Library of Congress holds an original draft of his poem “Osceola,” in which he recounts the death of the Seminole leader by that name. Early in his writing career Whitman also wrote a novella, The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier. It’s time that Native nations’ early influences in American poetry be recognized.

Yet Whitman, like others of his age, though he was sympathetic with the “plight” of the country’s indigenous peoples, agreed that American Indians were at the root savages in need of what civilization could offer.

Momaday’s poem, and perhaps every poem, establishes itself as a kind of “I am” assertion. A poem exists because it says: “I am the voice of the poet or what is moving through time, place, and event; I am sound sense and words; I am made of all this; and though I may not know where I am going, I will show you, and we will sing together.”

Like Whitman, like the Kiowa people long before the establishment of what is now called the United States, Momaday’s poem establishes that no matter who we are on this earth, we embody everything, we are related to all life, all beings. This assertion appears at the opening of nearly every ritual gathering in indigenous lands and cultures. We stand at the center of the circle that the poem has established with words and images, and as we do, we are in good relation, and alive.

In this time of a virus roaming methodically across the earth, infecting the earth’s population, this poem centers us in the natural world, and declares a healing. I imagine the voice of Earth speaking the first stanza. The Earth, and all beings, are always moving toward healing. This poem reminds us.

“The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee”

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

Every poem has poetry ancestors. My poetry would not exist without Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” without Mvskoke stomp dance call-and-response, without Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” without Meridel Le Sueur or N. Scott Momaday, without death or sunrise, without Walt Whitman, or Navajo horse songs, or Langston Hughes, without rain, without grief, without—


Joy Harjo is an internationally known performer and member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and the first (and current) Native American poet to serve as U.S. poet laureate. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Crazy Brave and ten books of poetry, including An American Sunrise. The essay above is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir Poet Warrior, which will be published by W. W. Norton & Company on September 7, 2021.

“The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” from Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems, by N. Scott Momaday. Copyright © 2011. University of New Mexico Press.