Joy Harjo: The New U.S. Poet Laureate

by Melannie Svoboda SND on August 5, 2019

We have a new U.S. Poet Laureate. What is a Poet Laureate? The Library of Congress calls the position “the nation’s official poet.” Through various projects, the Poet Laureate tries “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” The new U.S. Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo, 68, a native of Utah and a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation. She is the first Native American to hold this position,

Harjo is the author of eight books of poetry. Her memoir, Crazy Brave, discusses her alcoholic father, abusive stepfather, teen motherhood, a failed first marriage, and living in poverty. Poetry helped her find her voice, a voice she needed “in order to live.” At age 40, she picked up a saxophone for the first time. Since then she has released five albums of original music. One reviewer calls her music a blend of “traditional Native American rhythms and singing with jazz, rock, and blues.”

Harjo’s poetry often celebrates the persistence of Native people. She writes: “We are still America. We / know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die / soon.” In her poem “She Had Some Horses,” she describes the often contradictory “horses” within a woman: “She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / These were the same horses.”

In the poem “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” Harjo writes: “The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. / It sees and knows everything. / It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing. The door to the mind should only open from the heart. / An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.”

Harjo says that humanizing and healing will be her aims as Poet Laureate, “a healing of people speaking to each other, with each other.” She adds, “I really believe if people sit together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond political divisiveness, it makes connections.” You might want to check out her website (www.joyharjo.com.) or Youtube to hear her reciting some of her poems and playing some of her music.

You don’t have to be a poet laureate, however, to write good poetry. I would like to share this little poem written by Donna Butler, a Sister of Providence I met at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Entitled “Dandelion,” the poem suggests that the dandelion should be declared “the patron flower of prophets.”

“Dandelion”

Unwelcomed

save by children,

dandelion,

I declare you

patron flower of prophets.

 

Who would

believe such power

lies within

the beauty

of your soft

geometric fluff

poised to take

a ride

on the wind

and land in

uninvited places?

 

 

Did anything in this reflection stand out for you?

Do you use poetry in your prayer?… in your daily life?

Do you ever write poetry?

Our song today is a poem written and performed by Joy Harjo. It’s called “Eagle Poem.”  For me, it is a beautiful “description” and experience of prayer… I would love to hear your response to this poem…

So, what are you thinking and feeling right now? My other readers and I would love to hear from you below!

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas DeFreitas August 5, 2019 at 4:35 am

Sr Melannie and fellow readers, hello!

Yesterday I was at a reading featuring two superlative poets, Krysten Hill and Shara McCallum. The reading took place at the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the capacious shade of a huge and ancient tree whose phylum and genus escape me at the moment. Krysten Hill is from Missouri and teaches in Boston. Shara McCallum is from Jamaica and teaches in Pennsylvania. These two voices, both of women of color, were strikingly different and equally powerful.

The afternoon’s reading struck me as reinforcing my long-held conviction that the voice is as essential to poetry as the printed page. McCallum’s poems remembering Jamaica (she immigrated to the States when she was nine) are enlivened when we hear them in the poet’s delicate, definite Caribbean cadences. Hill voiced her poems with fortitude and urgency.

Yesterday was a joy and a grace. I bought both poets’ books, and got to meet both poets at a small after-gathering.

There’s a marvellous quote from Ray Bradbury about reading the poetry of (one of my favourites!) Dylan Thomas. I paraphrase clumsily, but Bradbury says: maybe your “mind” doesn’t get Dylan Thomas, but your nerve-endings do. Yes. If I don’t “understand” a poem at first, I’m open to going wherever the poet leads, if I’m liking the ride!

It is my singular joy to know several poets, who are not only fine crafters of words, but also wonderfully down-to-earth human beings. I’ve benefited from the community of poetry workshops, where the other participants scrutinize charitably, with an eye to the good of the poem. One feels, intuitively, the truth of Shara McCallum’s observation (which she prefaced by noting “I’m not the first to say this!”) that there is a connection between poetry and prayer. Both have the capacity to revitalize life, to build community, to focus the attention. And both involve a kind of gently persistent diligence, a patience, a trusting labour that is the opposite of haste.

Thank you for this week’s reflection, Sr Melannie! Thank you for reminding me of Joy Harjo’s fine work. I look forward to hearing from everyone else who feels moved to comment. Peace and light.

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Kathleen Magiera August 5, 2019 at 5:18 am

Good Morning Sr. Melannie!

Joy Harjo’s reading of her poetry was so musical reflecting her people beautifully. Thanks for sharing another viewpoint of prayer. It was stunning.

A great way to start a busy day! God bless you.

Kathleen

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Roseann August 5, 2019 at 5:29 am

When reading about Jo Harjo, St. Kateri Tekawitha came to mind and the struggles she faced and braved through her ultimate faith in God.

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John E Hopkins August 5, 2019 at 5:42 am

Good morning, Sr. Melannie….
Good morning, all….

Where to start? I think Joy Haro’s poetry springs from a deep, primal reservoir, a place that predates doctrine. “The door to the mind should only open from the heart./An enemy that gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.” How good is that!

I can’t quote this precisely, but somewhere in the Bible, God says something like, “I will write my word in their hearts.” Joy Haro has found that word! I also think of her when I hear the psalmist sing: “My lips speak words of wisdom. /My heart is full of insight./I will turn my mind to a parable,/with a harp I will solve my problem” (Psalm 49: 2-3).

Donna Butler’s poem does what all good poetry should do: find the transcendent in the mundane. I will never view a dandelion the same way again, and, hopefully, I’ll be more welcoming to this prophet of “uninvited places.”

Have a great week, everybody!
Thank you, Melannie!

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Ed Johnson August 5, 2019 at 6:16 am

Sister Melannie,
Such beauty from the heart of Joy Harjo. Thank you for introducing her. In the quiet of this early morning, her words and music penetrate my soul………And the dandelion poem: wonderful, whimsical, profound. Peace and Blessings.
Ed J

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Kathleen August 5, 2019 at 7:33 am

This was a beautiful surprise for me today. It settled my agitated spirit and I felt hope rising. I am going to search out more of her poetry and just breathe in the Spirit.

Thank you.

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Shirley August 5, 2019 at 8:51 am

Thank you Sister for this beautiful poem by Joy Harjo. What a beautiful way to lift ones spirit! Have a blessed week.

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Mary Therese August 5, 2019 at 8:55 am

Wow…what a joyful surprise to find poetry on your blog this morning, and being able to learn Joy Harjo is our new poet laureate. I’ve been in a woman’s spirituality book club at our church for 15 years, and recently made my first book suggestion, “Love Poems From God” edited by Daniel Ladinsky, which I was introduced to through this blog. There wasn’t a lot of initial enthusiasm that we would read a book of poetry, but these women, all in their 60s, 70s and 80s agreed to give it a whirl. We met yesterday for the first time since starting the book to share our thoughts on Rabia. I was happy to find that all the women were delighted with the book, and found themselves reading her poems over and over. We took turns reading our favorite one and discussing their meaning within our lives. We owe this all to you sister Melannie! Thank you for including poetry in your blog!

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Mary M Nausadis August 5, 2019 at 8:59 am

I’m having a difficult time corraling my feelings to put to words. Having been a single mother for many years and facing times when it seemed as though I may not survive until tomorrow, I couldn’t help thinking of how she reached this point of such certainty of God’s love and hope for the hopeless, as I listened to her poetry in her own words.

I know from personal experience that the tough roads are what helps with transformation. I don’t know that I would choose it, but certainly am glad that God’s “tough” love was the foundation of my transformation.

I would love to have the opportunity for a heart to heart talk with this woman and listen to her story.

Thank you Sr. Melannie for bringing her into my life.

Happy Monday to everyone

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Barbara Erdmann August 5, 2019 at 9:56 am

What a wonderful way to start a monday.only wish I had watched it before Mass.

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Josita August 5, 2019 at 9:58 am

Thanks, Melannie,
This was my first introduction to Joy Harjo. Her beautiful poem was a perfect ending to my retreat .
God continue to inspire you so you can inspire us!
Blessings, Josita

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Jean Canatsey August 5, 2019 at 10:10 am

Where to start? I loved the poem, “This Morning I Prayed for My Enemies”, especially the stanza, “The door to the mind should only open from the heart./An enemy who gets in, runs the risk of becoming a friend”.
If only everyone’s mind opened from the heart…..
Sr. Donna Butler’s poem, Dandelions” took me back to my early childhood in central, rural Indiana, where I can see myself holding a dandelion and blowing it’s fluffy remnants into the breeze. I never thought of them as prophets which might land in uninvited places. How appropriate, since wherever they land, a new dandelion takes root.
I do find myself writing poetry occasionally, sometimes in the most unexpected places….on a cruise ship balcony after a storm and once even in a public restroom watching my toddler “find” herself in a mirror.
Thank you, Sr. Melanie, for introducing my husband and I to the poetry and song of Joy Harjo. and for always starting our Monday’s off in a prayerful, reflective mood.
PS

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Marilyn Woidat August 5, 2019 at 10:33 am

How very timely is your subject matter this Monday, Sister Melanie.
After my usual time with the Lord this morning I went to read your blog.

Perhaps my focus for the rest of today will not be on the mass shootings
of the past weekend. Perhaps I will allow my troubled mind and heart
to envision God’s created gifts filling us with healing and hope to be
a better society, less greedy, less impatient, less judgemental, and to
choose LOVE and to model in this day in our words and actions.

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Terri Butel August 5, 2019 at 11:09 am

Thanks, John (E Hopkins) for using the word “primal”. It was that for me, hearing this lovely woman speak this poem, a visceral “YES!!!” of solidarity, the recognition of common clay (a nod to John O’Donohue)….

Sr. Melannie, I did not know of Joy just fifteen minutes ago, and I love and am hearkened to write poetry now and again. What a gift to meet Joy and to begin Monday with hers and Sr. Donna’s lovely poetry. Many thanks…

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Donna Butler August 5, 2019 at 2:13 pm

I love Joy Harjo’s song and thanks for sharing my poem and for those who commented on it.

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John E Hopkins August 5, 2019 at 3:29 pm

Just beautiful, Donna! “Save by children” — a terrific line on so many levels!

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