Friday, February 26, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

In their own way, poems teach the reader.  Frequently they teach the reader something about the reader, sometimes about the subject of the poem, and sometimes about poetry itself.  Some poems are relatively straightforward in that one can get an idea of what the poem is about early on and finds no surprises when one reaches the end.  Others?  Sometimes one has an idea of the poem and suddenly one line changes the way one views the poem and frequently forces one to go back and read it again.  Robert Frost does that, regularly, and so regularly that I now read his poems and wait for the turn near the end. 

This is one of those poems that at the end suddenly produces a surprise. It is by N. Scott Momaday, and  I thought I knew what the poem was about, but that line near the end changed my view of the poem.

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star 
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems

What do you think?  Is there a line that changed your idea about the poem?  Did you go back and read it again?  Do you think this is a major or a minor change?   Does it add something or take away something or does it really make no difference to you? 


  1. Fred, thank you for your thought-provoking offering today. A posting at my site later about Emily Dickinson will reinforce my gratitude. But, now, I am intrigued by Momaday's poem in several ways: (1) the many tropes in the first section give way to something more precise but subjective in the second section; (2) the unfamiliar names -- native American words/names -- puzzle me and force me to do some research; (3) each word and phrase in the poem -- as happens in the best of poems -- force me to parse and examine each element, looking for both precise (literal) and suggested (subjective) meanings/interpretations; (4) this poem, like the best among millions of others, has no single meaning, especially when different readers see it the form of a lens (seeing outward in different ways) and a mirror (seeing themselves via self-discovery); and (5) the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But perhaps you have a different reaction. I look forward to your POV.

    1. R.T.,

      As you say, the best poems are characterized by being able to be seen in many different ways. I think it is when a work is perceived in only one way that it disappears from view.

      I do see that the poem is in two parts, but the first part seems to be far more specific than the second part: wind, dawn, lake, snow, in the first part, seem to more specific than earth in the second part.

  2. one of the best examples of "living in the moment" i've ever read; in addition, he connects his being with his love: a true commitment one would think...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I think being in love is the cause of the ecstatic expressions.

  3. could very well be... although somehow i would expect that indians might identify with nature as a consequence of loving; i guess i think momaday is expressing a moment of realization here... a general awakening, as it were...

  4. Mudpuddle,

    As a friend of mine put it, after reading the poem, it's lust not cosmic consciousness that's driving the ecstatic experience. Of course, lust is part of the natural world, so . . . Or, one could argue that he has now moved out past his lust into cosmic consciousness, which is a good thing.

    I think it's a neat poem.