Unless it's an American presidential inauguration, the New York Times rarely is known to publish an original poem. Years ago it was an excellent market for a quick buck. The Op Ed page ran poems continuously, poems by poets such as Frances Frost and Louis Ginsberg; often topical, sometimes lyrical, mostly brief. An extra joy to combat the depressing news of the day. Those poems and poets are missed by the Times readers.
On June 21, 1991, the Times published five poets celebrating the advent of summer, on its first day. Poets published were Lucie Brock-Broido, Edward Hirsch, Mona Van Duyn, Charles Simic . . . both Pulitzer awardees . . . and a poem by Creek Indian poet Joy Harjo titled "Fishing." Her prose-poem deals with the death of a Creek elder who was a poet and storyteller, Louis (Little Coon) Oliver, born and raised in Oklahoma, Indian Territory. Oliver, born in 1904, passed away in the spring of 1991.
Ms. Harjo is an extraordinary poet of lyric and passionate power, and she brings that power of song and sense of loss into her gentle but forthright lyrical tribute to Little Coon and his fascinating and compelling humerous storytelling and serious poetry . . . At times his stories border on the erotic yet are always traditional, always wise with a wink of the eye. It is a pity Ms. Harjo's poem can not be reprinted here; this journal may well be put out of business with lawsuits from the original publisher.
Louis lived his many years in Oklahoma and came late to publication and to any type of recognition, even by his Native American literary peers. If memory is correct, it may well have been Joseph and Carol Bruchac of the Greenfield Review who first brought the poet into print. To the best of recall the Times never printed a review of any of his books in the book supplement . . . to its shame . . . It took his death to find his name in the newspaper's pages, and it took a well known, fairly established poet to memorialize him there in print. A despondent coment on contemporary culture. Corporations have denied the wider reading audience to this delightfully gifted man's truly special creativity.
We do, however, have Joy Harjo to thank for reminding society in which we all live and work, pleasure and labor, of this gentle being who passed through our light ever so quietly. We should join Ms. Harjo in her adowe, her thanks, for Louis Oliver's chuckle, his wisdom, his marvels of storytelling - his moving poems. We need also to thank Ms. Harjo for reminding us once again of the many fine American poets who never receive awards nor make the New York Times bestseller list. May the sun shine on her lyric, her song which may be the "first song" forever, and the beauty and creativity of Louis Oliver. May we all meet at the "fishing hole" in the spirit world, as Ms. Harjo suggests. Little Coon will be waiting to greet us at that Oklahoma fishing hole "under the relentless sun of the Illinois river." Adowe.
© 1988 Maurice Kenny
Reprinted in On Second Thought, University of Oklahoma Press.
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