Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

THE INDIAN AS POET

[by Constance Lindsay Skinner; published in The Path on the Rainbow : An Anthology of Songs and Chants from the Indians of North America, ed. George W. Cronyn. New York : Boni and Liveright, 1918.]


 

     To interpret the native heart of this New Earth, poets must travel, via the Rainbow, in the footprints—still discernible, happily—of the first, the Native, American Bards.
     The Path of the Rainbow is Poetry’s Highway—its arch reaching the threshold of the Great Spirit because broad-based enough to span all Nature.  The primitive poetic impulse begins at the base of the Rainbow, as a blind urge feeling for man’s relative place in Nature.  Nature, the Tremendous, is the primitive bard’s habitat.  He is moved to discover himself in relation to Her and to communicate to his tribe the emotions stirred in him by his first dim perception of kinship—moved, to both, by that poetic impulse which, paradoxically, sets him apart from, in advance of, the crowd, yet makes him all mankind’s and naturekind’s intimate.  His first song is only a phrase or two in a language too limited for clear articulation.  An example [Page 341] is the Water-Song from the British Columbian Coast, which contains evidence to bear out the statement that it is the oldest Indian poem—

“Water.  The river, the sea, the rain.
The-face my wet.”

Thus, on the steep Northern slopes where the rains wrap the timbered loins of the mountains, the ancientest poet uttered his first vague feeling of physical identity with the natural world that shared—with his body—the rhythms of water.  He discovered that river, sea and rain were kin in water; and that, in his daily experience, he was related to the three waters.  There was emotional significance in this, for him, since it compelled him to sing; and his little stammer has lived sacredly with his tribe because they feel what he felt.  Yone Noguchi has said of the famous Hokku translated by him: “The old pond!  A frog lept into—list the water sound!”—that the Japanese mind turns the words into poetry because “it draws at once a picture of an autumnal desolation reigning on an ancient temple pond, whose world-old silence is now broken by a leaping frog.” [Page 342]
     The Indian water-song is poetry to me because of a memory:—an old chief, his hair grayed and his broad brown face deep-lined by a hundred and ten years, his sightless eyes—almost hidden under sagging crinkled lids—raised to the wet air.  He sat in his doorway—a low oval entrance in the trunk of his totem-pole, which towered, with its grotesque carvings of finny and winged beasts, thirty feet into the fine misty rain, that dropped, silent and opaque, on the earthern cliff, the sightless sea and the blind eyelids of the old chief.  He seemed to have been sitting there since the day when the first rain fell and the gray sea first flapped her wings on the shore, as her weird brood fluttered from under them to roost on the totem pole.
     After the inter-relation of man and Nature is felt, the primitive bard’s senses are liberated to rhythm.  He expresses haltingly still, but rhythmically; he repeats snatches, and so the refrain is “invented.”  Launched on the rhythms of Nature, his imagination wakes and grows.  Objects in Nature are more than they appear; they are conscious, they comprehend.  He ceases to believe in death.  Life is endless rhythm, endlessly flowing.  So death becomes for him a winter that calls him forth [Page 343] again—with new vision, quicker imagination, enlarged sense of beauty and wonder, his feeling for rhythm intensified and diversified.  The actual and the mystic are so blent in him, that he arrives again at the earth base of the Rainbow as conscious Interpreter.
     In the Red Men’s Camp, he discerns the tribe’s daily doings anew, poetically.  He sings of them in rhythms suggested by the flicker of campfires, the swish of wind-dancing figures, the swirl of tree-tops, the slow march of hills under clouds and changing lights, swaying masses of cattle and horses—tossing of curved horns and rippling of black manes—the dawn-dance of birds and the movement of men among the tepees.  All is “finished in beauty,” beautiful alike in what it appears and what it symbolizes: all is matter for song.  He finds, and interprets through, analogies—as the young Lillooet, lying in the bunch grass, observes five hawks circling on high, knows they bring a threat of storm and likens them to Her-I-Wish-For.
     In the Paleface lodges amid the noise and surge of blind hearts grubbing for a legendary pot of gold, the Bard must listen sacredly to catch the pure rhythms of life across the false time-currents that seethe [Page 344] over him: for the true song, the arresting song, the clarion song, is still the song of kinship.  The measures of song are still the rhythms of life flowing from spiritual overtones that, today, sound clear as the scarlet trumpets of daybreak; even as they once sounded to the Judean Shepherd-poet and to the Indian poets of the plains and sea-coast of this New Earth.  The poetry of our Indian bards is, as art, worthy to rank with other classics, bequeathed to us—since it is true to the four first (not first four) postulates of Poetry, which may be stated:—Form is the body-servant of Idea, dictated by Idea: Idea is an emotional inspiration, defined—that is to say, clarified, registered (not limited)—by an intellectual concept: Tone is the vocal expression of the sound and color of Idea as it breaks on the poet’s consciousness: and Rhythm is the law, in action, of the inter-relation of Idea, Sound, Color, Form; it conveys the unity of the poem to the listener.
     If we think of native poetry in the New World as beginning with that halting phrase of relation to physical Nature—the Water-Poem—and as having reached, so far, its fullest expression in the cosmic song of Whitman; or, say, in that single great kinship song in which he relates Lincoln [Page 345] to the Springtime of Democracy, through the image of the lilac-bush a-flower in the dooryards of the home-making men and women for whom the Emancipator spent and gave his life, to interpret to them their oneness with each other and with their Soil—if we so think of it, we see that the Rainbow Path always leads the Bard back to elemental emotions and aspirations; that, in a sense, there is no “new” song but there is always a deeper note to be sounded on the theme of Kinship: for that theme includes all, binds all together; it is the starry girdle about the Universe.
     The aboriginal songs in this collection are inspiration and instruction: and the Interpretations are significant in that they bespeak a native, a purely American influence.  The poet looks first for beauty, and where he finds it he finds truth and acknowledges brotherhood.  Authors of these Interpretations who have been inspired by the Native poems—have yielded to Indian beauty, willingly sought to enter into the Indian consciousness and to sing of it from within, interpretatively.  As to myself, I was born in an Indian country and my father knew Indians as they permit few whites to know them; and I cannot [Page 346] remember a time when I did not believe, with them, in the conscious earth, in the comprehending communicative friendships of trees, rocks, and waters, in the beneficence of Supreme One—nor a time when I was not stirred by the rhythms of forest and river and the crashing song of the sky in the Northern Lights.  If we are denounced as “heathen” for this I feel sure that the other Interpreters will also gladly accept the—stigma!  One thing only is important—that before he says his final wile-hseqa to the flesh and is launched on new rhythms, the Bard may be able to say truly in his own soul: “Ka Nola, Hai-lik-yala, Kui-qalalag-yilis K’ank’o-is.  I am the Elder Brother, I am the Priest Making Right, I am the Councillor of Earth in the Place-Where-Always-Calm.”
CONSTANCE LINDSAY SKINNER.
     Kui-qalalag-yilis—Councillor of Earth, “earth” meaning also “my own country.”  The meaning is rather “appointed by Earth to be a member of the Council to my own country.” [Page 347]