Joy Harjo, Newly-Appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Reads Her Poems, “Remember,” “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” “An American Sunrise” and More

In Car­olyn Forché’s stun­ning new mem­oir, What You Have Heard is True, the poet and activist makes a sad obser­va­tion about poet­ry in Amer­i­ca. When it is “men­tioned in the Amer­i­can press, if it is men­tioned, the sto­ry begins with ‘Poet­ry doesn’t mat­ter,’ or ‘No one reads poet­ry.’ No mat­ter what is said. It doesn’t mat­ter.”

But of course, Forché believed poet­ry mat­tered a great deal—that we need it in the strug­gle “against for­get­ting,” a phrase she took from Milan Kun­dera for the title of an anthol­o­gy of the “poet­ry of wit­ness.” Poets resist injus­tice and inhu­man­i­ty, she says “by virtue of recu­per­at­ing from the human soul its nat­ur­al prayer and con­scious­ness.”

Such a poet is Joy Har­jo, new­ly appoint­ed Poet Lau­re­ate in the Unit­ed States, the first Native Amer­i­can woman to hold the post. Har­jo asks us to remember—to remem­ber espe­cial­ly that the grand sweep of his­to­ry can­not sev­er us from the nat­ur­al world of which we are an inex­tri­ca­ble part, and which is itself the source of “the dance lan­guage is.”

Remem­ber the plants, trees, ani­mal life who all have 
tribes, their fam­i­lies, their his­to­ries, too. Talk to 
lis­ten to them. They are alive poems.

The stargaz­ing, tree-hug­ging exhor­ta­tions in “Remem­ber” are rad­i­cal state­ments in every sense of the word. Maybe poet­ry doesn’t mat­ter much to most Amer­i­cans. We can­not, as William Car­los Williams wrote, “get the news from poems,” and our hunger for fresh news is nev­er sat­ed. But maybe what we find in poet­ry is far bet­ter suit­ed to sav­ing our lives, offer­ing a release, for exam­ple, from fear, as Har­jo speak/sings in her charis­mat­ic per­for­mance from HBO’s Def Poet­ry Jam in 2002.

Har­jo remem­bers the hor­rors her ances­tors endured, and tells the fear that fol­lowed through the cen­turies, “I release you. You were my beloved and hat­ed twin. But now I don’t know you as myself.” A mem­ber of the Muskoke/Creek Nation, Har­jo was born in Tul­sa, Okla­homa in 1951 and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop in 1978. She went on to pub­lish sev­er­al books of poet­ry and non­fic­tion and win mul­ti­ple pres­ti­gious awards while also per­form­ing poet­ry across the coun­try and play­ing sax­o­phone with her band Poet­ic Jus­tice.

Her soul­ful deliv­ery con­veys a fun­da­men­tal­ly Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence of the strug­gle against era­sure, a strug­gle against pow­er that is waged, as Kun­dera wrote, with the weapon of remem­ber­ing. Echo­ing Langston Hugh­es, Har­jo weaves the sto­ry of her com­mu­ni­ty back into the coun­try’s past and its present—a sto­ry that includes with­in it demands for jus­tice that will not be for­got­ten. Poet­ry should mat­ter far more to us than it does. But those who hear the country’s newest Lau­re­ate may find she is exact­ly the fear­less voice we need to remind us of our unavoid­able con­nec­tions to the past, the earth, and our respon­si­bil­i­ties to each oth­er.

Har­jo stopped by the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets this month in cel­e­bra­tion of her appoint­ment. Just above, see her read “An Amer­i­can Sun­rise.” “We are still Amer­i­ca,” she says, “We / know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die / soon.”

These read­ing will be added to the Poet­ry sec­tion of our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Mary Oliv­er (RIP) Read Five of Her Poems: “The Sum­mer Day,” “Lit­tle Dog’s Rhap­sody in the Night,” “Many Miles” and “Night and the Riv­er”

“PoemTalk” Pod­cast, Where Impre­sario Al Fil­reis Hosts Live­ly Chats on Mod­ern Poet­ry

An 8‑Hour Marathon Read­ing of 500 Emi­ly Dick­in­son Poems

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Lainie Levin says:

    Love these videos! I’m espe­cial­ly excit­ed to share “Amer­i­can Sun­rise” with my kid­dos. Has any­body else noticed that it’s a gold­en shov­el poem based on Gwen­dolyn Brook­s’s poem “We Real Cool?” Ter­rance Hayes start­ed the trend with “The Gold­en Shov­el.” Check it out!

  • Jerry Lemons says:

    Har­jo’s “poet­ry” is frag­ment­ed prose, not poet­ry.

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