The following is a piece written by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo as part of the Library of Congress Magazine’s “Last Word” series. It is reprinted from the November–December 2019 issue of LCM, “Inventing the Modern Age.” The issue is available in its entirety online.
All cultures and peoples turn to poetry during times of celebration, transformation and challenge—those times when ordinary language cannot carry meaning beyond our understanding. The road from childhood to adulthood is a precarious path, yet full of miracles. We need poetry as we navigate that archetypal journey.
I came to poetry through my mother. In my earliest childhood, she sat at our kitchen table and wrote songs. Her poetry songs made safe harbors of joy in a world often turned upside-down with historical and family disruption. While she cooked—and sat at the same table that sometimes held her Underwood typewriter, as well as her fresh-made biscuits, pies, potato salad, fried chicken and cream gravy—she sang. That was the path from which I stepped into poetry.
The only book we had in our house was the Bible. I read it, labored through the “begetting” of the Old Testament to the poetry of the Book of Psalms and Song of Solomon. There, I lingered in pockets of prayer language, the love talk of a besotted lover. This was my first poetry book, followed by “The Golden Treasury of Poetry,” which I requested on my eighth birthday. I often escaped into that anthology, carried it to my hideaway, a closet in a bedroom shared by my two brothers and sister.
I went to my first library in the fifth grade. We actually had a library class in which we were required first to recite poetry. I loved the way poetry rolled over my tongue and through my ears and how the power of knowing what is unspeakable emerged. In the next place we lived, we had a branch library down the road in a shopping center. I would check out the maximum number of books every week and read everything from Dickens novels to medical texts. The library became my home away from home. Each book held a voice, a world, and even the greatest escapes.
This summer, I was welcomed into the Library of Congress as the country’s 23rd U.S. poet laureate. One of my first requests was to get to know the Library, and before my term started I got to spend time with Library staff and the collections. At the American Folklife Center I heard stickball songs and a lullaby recorded early in the last century. I held Walt Whitman’s cane and saw early manuscripts of writers and poets, some of them Native American, in the Manuscript Division. And in the Prints and Photographs Division, I discovered an image of one of our ceremonial ground leaders, Chitto Harjo—a historical photograph I had never seen before. I visited many other departments, all with amazing collections available to the public for study and use.
For me it began with poetry, which is always hanging close to music and dance. They emerge from myth and history, through time and with time. My poetry was given muscle and inspiration from all my forays to the library. Poetry keeps the door open to awe and ensures that we will find our way through the broken heart field of wars, losses and betrayals to understanding, compassion and gathering together.