SEARCHING FOR TRADITION BY JILL O'MAHONY
(Poetry Ireland News, May/ June 2011)
What good is poetry? To what extent can poetry do anything? Can it be more than a reflection of society’s weaknesses and strengths? Can it change perceptions or dominant ideologies? Can it reconcile fragmented identities? The first step on a long road to answering these questions, and many more, is a new compilation of Native American and Irish Language poetry The Willow’s Whisper. (The second step is a volume authored by myself due for publication in 2012 which will be more concentrated on the theoretical issues emerging from The Willow’s Whisper.) From N Scott Momaday and Joy Harjo to Paddy Bushe and Biddy Jenkinson, this compilation showcases poetry from the finest poets in both communities. Native America and Ireland: you might ask – what are the commonalities? Furthermore – why bring them together through poetry?
A fundamental feature of both Native American and Celtic Irish communities is a deep awareness of, and respect for, the earth surrounding them. The land or the natural environment was and is of great importance to these two cultures and this has influenced their understanding of the world and their place within it, even today. This belief can be related to, and considered a ‘traditional’ element of, both communities. Nature is regarded as a vital component of any existence on earth. To the Dinè (Navajo), nature is Mother; life giver and sustainer. Without her all beings would cease to exist. With the European enlightenment and the following prevalence of rationalism as a way of thought in ‘Western’ cultures (I use this term hesitantly), the respect afforded to the natural environment as an equal in status and right had begun a decline.
Perhaps in becoming so separated from the earth and the land we live on, we became separated from ourselves. If we are all connected through and with the natural world, it stands to reason that when this bond is broken we become fragmented as subjects.
Native American and Irish Language poets enjoy a unique positioning – between two cultures in some cases and more in others. The distinctive nature of this literature lies in each poet’s cultural situation; in creating cultural artefacts between two or more societies they have the benefit of an insight into both the ‘traditional’ way of life on the one hand and that society which they may live apart from but within on the other, in perhaps a ‘trans-cultural’ manner. The view from this transculturalist mind then, is that which allows the poet access into additional cultural ‘truths’ and renders them (more) objective. Their poetry is a discourse on the traditional, the contemporary, and the conflict between the two and/or the desire to make them co-existent. This is the development of a voice from the middle ground. It is an acknowledgment of a troubled yesterday, a controversial today and the dream of a progressive tomorrow.
The Native American community across various tribes have had to live with a post-colonial legacy. However, in order to reinforce their identity as a people separate from the dominant foreign culture they were surrounded by, they strove to differentiate themselves and promote their own traditions and unique cultural heritage. This raised questions relating to authenticity regarding heritage and led to a situation where one had to prove they belonged to a particular tribe before they were accepted. ‘Issues’ that came to the fore were related to disputed ‘genealogical’, tribal or geographical authenticity. In the world of literature, questions like ‘Is it ethnologically authentic to restrict yourself solely to works within your native language?’ or ‘Must you have a blood connection of more than a certain degree to be a bona fide member of an indigenous group?’ became dominant in the debate. Following from this, a range of problems emerge regarding the use of native cultural traditions in general and artistic approaches such as poetry in specific.
Nature as life force is a concept found in the Navajo, Lakota, Cherokee, Celtic Irish and Cree cultures (and this list could go on). The use of Salvia in the Chippewa tradition, Peyote in the Huichol and many Southwestern Athabaskan language groups has been documented as a method of connecting with a type of esoteric knowledge. The Celtic Irish Druids consumed Fly-Agaric Mushrooms in order to engage in a state of trance, with the aim of accessing both subjective and objective knowledge and truth given to them by the earth. When literature is written within one language while illustrating a context foreign to that language it can be understood as a native language depicting cultural truths of a trans-cultural situation. Does this create a new discourse capable of another level of awareness? I suppose that if we didn’t think poetry had unique or trans-formative properties, we wouldn’t have written, read and recited it for centuries.
The fundamental feature of this approach to life is the element of possibility, and that ethos is demonstrated in The Willow’s Whisper. We may have become too literal in modern times and so have stopped seeing what might be and instead see what we are given to see, that which we are convinced is tangible and rational. We need to find other ways of conceptualising the world in order to create or recreate and perhaps re-imagine new identities so that we can instigate positive change. Literature has always been a valuable conduit for social commentary and in many cases has been the voice of hope or possibility. The Native Americans and the Irish have a similar legacy – however, what we do with that legacy will ultimately define us as a people. Perhaps to actually progress as a society, we need to think ‘regressively’ into the past rather than ‘progressively’ into a world that we cannot separate from a capitalist, open market economy. Because in essence – the more we accumulate, the bleaker our future actually becomes.
The Willow’s Whisper (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), edited by Jill O’Mahony and Mícheál Ó hAodha, will be launched on Friday 13 May 2011 at 7pm in The Book Centre, 25 Barronstrand St, Waterford.
Jill O’Mahony is a lecturer in the Waterford Institute of Technology.