JOY HARJO – USHERING IN A NEW AGE IN AMERICAN POETRY

by Tamar Moshkovitz

This Wednesday, 19th June, the poet Joy Harjo was named the US’s 23rd Poet Laureate.  She is the first Native American to be appointed to the role, and we should all be excited to hear her perspective – a voice previously unheard, or ignored by the tradition of American poetry and America’s colonial national narrative. 

In a press release, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said: ‘Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry… for over four decades. To her, poems are “carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,” and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making.’

Harjo is a prolific artist, having published several volumes of poetry, prose, and music spanning from 1975 to the present day. Some of her many achievements include winning the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and receiving a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. 

But her appointment is far from just the culmination of an illustrative creative career – it’s also a new phase of American poetry. Harjo’s position finally offers recognition and validation to the Native American narrative: her unflinching poetry often acts as a damning indictment of the first European colonisers, of their rapid and ruthless occupation of the continent, and of their attempts at a genocide both cultural and literal. 

(…)her unflinching poetry often acts as a damning indictment of the first European colonisers, of their rapid and ruthless occupation of the continent, and of their attempts at a genocide both cultural and literal. 

The poem “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” is the perfect example of Harjo’s uncompromising voice. With a blend matter-of-factness and unique lyricism, Harjo sketches a picture of the changing landscape of America through time, both human and natural. She doesn’t shy away from frank and painful depictions of the violence inflicted by white colonisers – ‘The American soldiers trampled the white flag in the blood of the peacemakers’ – or of the way the Native American community feels the wounds to this day: ‘There is a suicide epidemic among native children. It is triple the rate of the rest of America. “It feels like wartime,” said a child welfare worker in South Dakota.’

Joy Harjo has the immense potential of setting us free from a restrictive, colonial form of language to one that encourages us to look at it as an inseparable part of our identities and cultures.

And yet there is a note of optimism to Harjo’s writing. She looks for a way forward, for some sort of resolution. As Poet Laureate, we may see her go on to bring this perspective to her official duty of raising the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. Harjo calls poetry ‘soul talk’, and her very idea of it is inextricably linked to her Native American heritage, ancestors and language. It’s the sort of viewpoint where everything from word choices, through structure, to form can exist outside of a long-established tradition of poetry shaped by European men and European ideas of language and art. Joy Harjo has the immense potential of setting us free from a restrictive, colonial form of language to one that encourages us to look at it as an inseparable part of our identities and cultures.

In a Facebook post reacting to the news, Harjo wrote: ‘Mvto/thank you everyone for your kind words and congratulations on the U.S. poet laureateship honor–I am still overwhelmed by all that it means, and in much thought of how to make it most useful to us in these times.’ Harjo’s a fiercely political poet, and the significance of her appointment should not go unnoticed, especially during the presidential term of a virulent racist and fascist as well as while the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues to go largely unaddressed.

She added: ‘I am only one of many wonderful Native poets in this country.’ And she is already busy working on a historical anthology of native nations poetry, titled When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through and due for release in August 2020 (W.W. Norton). 

Joy Harjo’s new collection of poetry, An American Sunrise, is due to be published this August. 

Featured image by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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