Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Poetry Ancestors

Joy Harjo

Lesson time 13:47 min

In this lesson, Joy encourages you to look at your favorite poems to determine your “poetry ancestors” and see how relationships to past poets emerge in your writing. Discover how everyone fits into the poetic tradition, and that there is an extensive web that includes all of us.

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Topics include: Poetry Ancestors * Case Study: Audre Lorde * Case Study: N. Scott Momaday * Finding Your Poetry Ancestors


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Every poem has poetry ancestors. What that means is that every poem-- no poem exists within a vacuum. There's always connections, probably ultimately to every poet in the world. I realize that people have always called them influences, what are the influences of your poetry. But influences doesn't make relationship. Influences has a certain kind of sound. It's like, oh, here's an influence here, here's one here. But ancestor said, these people, you're their relative. There is a relationship. That's the way in our Muskogee Creek culture that we made relatives of people who came into the community. Ekvnv-Cakv, Mother Earth, is a relative. We are the-- we are children. When that happens, when that kind of relationship comes into being, it changes everything. It changes your relationship to a poem or to poetry and to your place in it. So one example of poetry ancestors would be looking at Walt Whitman, who broke convention with his long lines and his wild embrace of the beingness of everything. And following in his footsteps is Allen Ginsberg, who also broke convention, but considered Walt Whitman his poetic father. Poets of my age would point to Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman as poetry ancestors. And you could teach a whole class for a semester a year by everyone bringing in a poem, and then you trace the ancestors of that poem. And pretty soon, when you line them all up, you'll have a map, and everyone will be connected. At some point, you become a poet, but I'm always learning. It's important. I mean, that's part of it. We are here at a relatively short time on Earth, and we come here to learn. And there's no end to learning. One of my poetry ancestors-- I have many of them, and one of them is the poet Audre Lorde. I met Audre first in her book "Coal" when I was a student at University of Iowa and found her book of poetry, and stood in the university bookstore reading her poetry. And I needed that book of poetry. It's a good exercise sometimes to write out in longhand a poem that you really love. It teaches you something. And then to read aloud that poem, and then to memorize, memorize the poem. Then you have it always in your heart. Audre's poetry really came-- she started writing out of civil rights movement, out of-- she was quite the activist, very much a warrior poet/ would speak her truth even when her truth was not always welcome, her truth about race, about sexuality and gender, her truth about history, American history. "For those of us who live at the shoreline, standing upon the constant edges of decision, crucial and alone, for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice, who love in doorways coming and going, in the hours between dawns, looking inward and outward, at once before and after, seeking a now that can breed futures, like bread in our children's mouths, so their dreams will not reflect the death of ours. And when the sun rises, we are afraid ...

About the Instructor

As the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo has written poetry that explores her personal experiences, the history of her ancestors, and social change. Now she’s teaching you how to find the language to express yourself and approach your art with deeper motivation. Explore rhythm in art, navigate the world of revisions, and unlock your innate creativity to help you express your unique stories.

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Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate, teaches you how to find the language to express yourself and approach your art with deeper meaning.

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