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Joy Harjo Reflects on the ‘Spirit of Poetry’

August 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our stories on poets and poetry. Tonight, Native American poet Joy Harjo. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

JOY HARJO, Poet and Musician: I’m Joy Harjo. I am a member of the Muskogee people. I’m a poet, a musician, a dreamer of sorts, a questioner. Like everyone else, I’m looking for answers of some sort or the other.

I have a name to live up to: Joy Harjo. In Muskogee, Harjo is “Hadjo.” And one definition is, “So brave, you’re crazy.”

I clearly remember the day that poetry, the spirit of poetry came to me and looked at me and shook its head and took pity on me. It said, “You poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. Listen to me. Listen.”

So when I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to others. And I think most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.

“Eagle Poem”

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

We were born, and die soon, within a

True circle of motion,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

We pray that it will be done

In beauty.

In beauty.

And I realized, as I became more and more involved with my tribal culture and ceremonies, that poetry for our people doesn’t come in by itself, but it comes in with dancing, it comes in with music.

(singing): My heart is close enough to sing to you in a language too clumsy for human words.

I love the sound of the saxophone. It became my singing voice, and it sounds so human. The saxophone could carry the words past the border of words. It can carry it a little bit farther.

The creative act amazes me. Whether it’s poetry, whether it’s music, it’s an amazing process, and it has something to do with bringing forth the old out into the world to create and to bring forth that which will rejuvenate.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here”

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what,

we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the

table so it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe

at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what

it means to be human. We make men at it,

we make women.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow.

We pray of suffering and remorse.

We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table,

while we are laughing and crying,

eating of the last sweet bite.

JIM LEHRER: For more poems by Joy Harjo, to see and hear other poets, and to sign up for our poetry podcast, just visit our Web site at PBS.org.