Reading the Voice: Native American Poetry on the Page

By Kloppenburg, Michelle R | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Reading the Voice: Native American Poetry on the Page


Kloppenburg, Michelle R, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Reading the Voice: Native American Poetry on the Page. Paul Zolbrod. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

This is a book about poetry: about its sacred under-pinnings, its broad presence in everyday life, its necessity to the human community-all of which go largely unnoticed as the printed world and literature move insidiously away from wide public view (preface, vii).

With these words Paul Zolbrod opens his thoughtprovoking theoretical study of Native American oral poetry. By basing his observations on experiences gained while participating in the Navajo community and from witnessing numerous recitations of sacred poetry and performances of storytellers, Zolbrod proves that Native American oral poetry is as worthy of recognition as "Europe's print-driven legacy" (2), and he proposes that mainstream America can employ the knowledge gained by examining Native American poetry to recover its own poetic awareness, which is in danger of extinction during our electronic age.

In his introductory chapter, Zolbrod expands the definitions of literary terms such as poetry, fiction, and drama; he urges his readers to move poetry off the written page-from school-books, anthologies, and periodicals-to include oral performances and even the "electronic poetry" of film. He also points out some key differences between the Euro-American and Native American cultures, namely that the indigenous cultures of the Americas did not distinguish between the secular and the sacred (12), whereas the Christian religion restricts its definition of sacred texts to the Bible and related hymns (20), and he calls for an expansion of the narrow Judeo-Christian definition of the sacred to include such texts as the American Declaration of Independence or the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (20).

In chapter 2, Zolbrod's case study of four sacred Iroquois texts reveals the deeply poetic nature of the Iroquois Story of Creation, the narrative and thematic unity of the Thank-You Prayer, the intrinsic poetic quality of the Dekanawide Myth, and the poetic surface of the Condolence Ritual. He effectively demonstrates that one should not dismiss these texts as mere myths. In chapters 3 and 4, Zolbrod presents alternative methods for classifying poetic texts according to voice and mode, presenting the categories of lyric poetry and colloquial poetry, the dramatic mode and the narrative mode in a new light, and his references to examples from the former biblical, Greek and Roman cultures as well as from contemporary American popular culture are helpful parallels for those readers who are uninitiated in Native American cultures. …

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