Spirituality, Humanity, and Purpose: Joy Harjo Shares Her Life Through Poetry

Poetry transcends individual identity and serves as a vessel for greater meaning, according to Joy Harjo.

“It’s really not about me at all—I’m just a kind of messenger,” Harjo said. “There’s something else that comes to your voice, to the poem, that is larger and larger and deeper than being just this foolish human.”

Harjo visited Boston College on Feb. 21 to speak about her Indigenous poetry and native literature. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma. In 2019, she became the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate. Harjo is the second person to serve as poet laureate for three terms, ending her tenure in 2022.

Harjo said she never thought writing poetry would be her path until she got to college.

“It wasn’t until I was a student at the University of New Mexico where I began to understand how much language and putting together words in such a concise manner can make a difference—in terms of transformation of nations, transformation of lives, and so on,” Harjo said.

Throughout her time as a student, Harjo and her classmates struggled to identify the meaning behind poetry, she said.

“Immediately, the teacher would say, ‘What does the poet mean?’” Harjo said. “And immediately, we’re like, ‘What? We’re kids here. How do we know what the poet means?’”

Harjo encouraged the audience to partake in poetry and its beauty without over analyzing the meaning or intent of the author, comparing the experience to listening to a song on the radio.

“You’re not required to know every single one of the lyrics, you don’t know what they mean, and most of the time you don’t care too much because you’re dealing with the musicality of it,” Harjo said.

Part of Harjo’s poetry writing process includes reading her poems aloud, she said.

“First, there’s reading in your head,” Harjo said. “But then you read it aloud and you hear it differently, and if you read it aloud to someone else, it opens up how you hear. And if you read it aloud to a large audience, you’re taking a lot of risks.”

Harjo said the last line of her poem “Without” came to her unexpectedly during the writing process.

“That’s what I love about poetry. I had no idea that line was coming, and I fought with it,” said Harjo.

Harjo read several of her works aloud to the audience, including “Without,” “Eagle Poem,” and “An American Sunrise.” Harjo said she thinks of poetry as a form of prayer.

“I think maybe all poems are prayers, because who are you speaking to or with or with what?” Harjo said.

Harjo also detailed the works and the intent behind her book An American Sunrise: Poems, which she said was written after a dark long night and paints a scene in which she comes out of the shadows into a sunrise.

Harjo left the audience with thoughts on the temporal experiences of life on Earth and the ability of humans to grow “spiritual muscles.”

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re in detention where Earth is a classroom and we must be in detention here,” Harjo said.

Harjo emphasized poetry’s role in creating empathy and self-awareness throughout life’s challenges.

“The stories nourish—even as we go through the struggle that all of us are continually going through—so that we can understand ourselves better and understand each other,” Harjo said. “And that’s what poetry has given to me and so many others.

February 22, 2024