The Sounds of Navajo Poetry

A Humanities of Speaking

by Anthony Webster (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 168 Pages


The Sounds of Navajo Poetry analyzes five poems by Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim in order to think through questions of linguistic relativity and translation. In fundamentally rethinking linguistic relativity, this book argues for a humanities of speaking that attends to poetics as a key site for coming to terms with the ways languages facilitate imaginative acts. This book will be of particular interest to researchers in anthropology, linguistics, Native American studies, sound studies, and translation studies. The Sounds of Navajo Poetry will be particularly appropriate for courses on verbal art, language and culture, contemporary Native American poetry, translation, and sound studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Humanities of Speaking
  • Punning, Poetry, Sound and Linguistic Relativity
  • Poetry as Equipment for Living
  • Outline of Book
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1: The Mouse That Sucked
  • The Poems
  • On “Quickness” and “Thought Poems”: Or Why Think about a Sucking Mouse?
  • Conclusion
  • The Mouse That Sucked Redux
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2: X Marks the Spot: Co-authored with Blackhorse Mitchell
  • Poem: na’ashchxiidí
  • Translating the Poem, or Seeing the Morphemes but Not the Feeling
  • Expressive Features in Native American Languages and Their Discontents
  • Control in Navajo
  • The Expressive Work of -x- in Navajo
  • –x- Marks the Spot
  • On the Fate of an Expressive
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: In the Fall
  • Saad éí nitsí’iiłkees
  • Ak’eego
  • From ajik’eed to Fuck
  • “You can’t say the F word”
  • “Everything got kinda strange after a while”
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Seductive Ideophony
  • Unavoidable Sound-Worlds: Music and Myth
  • The Poem and Its Translations
  • The Morphology of a Poem
  • Interlude: A Conversation with Blackhorse Mitchell
  • Seduced by Ideophony
  • Stick Dice Resonances: Blood, Lightning and Thunder
  • Seductive Ideophony and Misunderstanding
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5: The Art of Failure
  • Translating the Phonosonic Nexus
  • “I am a poet”
  • “Fragile like a cobweb:” Transcript and Commentary
  • Creative Transposition: náhookqs ndi náhookqs
  • “And I will not tell you all about that”
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion
  • Index
  • Series index

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Table 2.1 Examples of Expressive Implication Changed by “Aspiration”

| ix →

First, and as usual and most importantly, I want to thank the many Navajos who have taken time to talk with me about poetry, about languages, about sound, about punning, and about so much more. This book does not exist without their kindness. I specifically want to thank Rex Lee Jim, Blackhorse Mitchell, Laura Tohe, Sherwin Bitsui, Esther Belin, Gloria Emerson, Tina Deschenie, Venaya Yazzie, Cliff Jack, Ford Ashley, Orlando White, Larry King, Damien Jones, Ben Barney, Wesley Thomas, Irvin Morris, Jennifer Denetdale, Jalon Begay, Hershman John, Luci Tapahonso, Zoey Benally, Bennie Klain, Tacey Atsitty, the late Larry Emerson, Ellavina Perkins, the late Alyse Neundorf, Starrla Tompkins, Karen Halona, and Martha Austin-Garrison.

I thank again, Bill Riddle, Sonja Horoshko, and Michael Thompson for all their support as well. I thank Ron Maldonado for guiding me through the permit process at the Historic Preservation Office of the Navajo Nation. Research on the Navajo Nation was done under permits granted by the Historic Preservation Office. I thank again Blackhorse Mitchell for his generosity. The debt this work owes to Rex Lee Jim is immense. I thank him. I thank him as well for teasing me ← ix | x → over the years—reminding me of the things that I do not yet know, and that he thinks I might yet learn them.

The ideas in this book have also benefited a great deal from conversations with a number of other people. Whether or not they were aware of the help they were providing is an open question. I’d like to thank Joyce McDonough, Leighton Peterson, Courtney Handman, James Slotta, Elizabeth Keating, John Leavitt, Sean O’Neill, Kim Marshall, Jeff Berglund, Connie Jacobs, David Samuels, Maureen Schwarz, Kristina Jacobsen, Jason Baird Jackson, Alan Rumsey, Wesley Leonard, Bernie Perley, Dan Suslak, Jillian Cavanaugh, Paja Faudree, Nick Harkness, Michael Silverstein, Dick Bauman, Oswald Werner, Charlotte Frisbie, the late David P. McAllester, the late Paul Friedrich, Rusty Barrett, Paul Zolbrod, Andy Wiget, Barbra Meek, Eleanor Nevins, Margaret Field, Erin Debenport, Mark Sicoli, Polly Strong, Dina Omar, Paul Kockelman, Joseph Errington, Paul Kroskrity, Laura Graham, Lisa King, Thorsten Huth, Gwen Saul, Myrdene Anderson, Scott Rushforth, Luis Cárcamo-Huechante, Dustin Tahmahkera, Juan Luis Rodríguez, the late Brian Stross, Luke Fleming, Danny Law, Jonathan Hill, David Sutton, Charles Hofling, Janet Fuller, Roberto Barrios, Hilaria Cruz, Natalia Bermúdez, Janis Nuckolls, Mark Dingemanse, Solveiga Armoskaite and Päivi Koskinen. I especially thank Joel Sherzer, who many years ago, when I came to him with the idea to do a dissertation on Navajo poetry, enthusiastically encouraged me. I want to thank as well Pattie Epps and Tony Woodbury for the many conversations that led to our co-authored piece and to helping me think through a number of issues taken up in this book. If I have forgotten anyone, I am sorry.

I have presented portions of this book at so many places and gotten such wonderful feedback. I thank the audiences for their kindness. An earlier version of Chapter One appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature. An earlier version of Chapter Two—co-authored with Blackhorse Mitchell—appeared in Anthropological Linguistics. The earlier version of both Chapters One and Two were published by the University of Nebraska Press. Mitchell kindly agreed to the use of Chapter Two here. A version of Chapter Three first appeared in Anthropology & Humanism. A different version of Chapter Four appears in Canadian Journal of Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique. An earlier version of Chapter Five is found in Journal de la Société des Américanistes. All the Chapters have been revised from their earlier forms. I thank the editors and reviewers for all their help in crafting those earlier versions.

Funding for this project has been provided at various times by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Phillips Fund of the American Philosophical Society, the Jacobs Fund of the Whatcom Museum, the Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral ← x | xi → Fellowship at Wesleyan University, and a faculty seed grant from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. This book was begun in the cabin I lived in outside Lukachukai, AZ in 2000–2001. Adjusted and formulated in Carbondale, IL. It was completed at the cottage on my family’s farm in Indiana. Pleasant places. Humane places.

I want to thank Meagan Simpson, at Peter Lang, for being so understanding and so patient.

My mother, Ann Webster, fostered in me at an early age a love of poetry. I cannot thank her enough. Though she didn’t live to see me go to graduate school, her influence has always been there. My father, Frank Webster, fostered in me at an early age a love of wandering, of meandering. I continue to meander through this world. I thank as well my brothers for their continued humoring of my interests. To young Ella, be kind—it’s the only rule I know. To the rest of my family, thank you for everything.

Finally, I thank Aimee Hosemann for everything that she has done over the years to support my interests. She has patiently stopped the car as I satisfied my endolphin needs. She has been a dedicated hiking and kayaking companion. She has read all that is here. She has provided insightful commentary. I could not do the things I do without her.

| 1 →

My longtime friend Blackhorse Mitchell once explained to me that “the validity of Navajo is in its sounds, not in the neat things it does.” We were sitting in his home on the Navajo Nation talking about languages and poetry. The comment came about as he was critiquing the way some linguists and anthropologists approached the Navajo language. He was, I think likely, encouraging me not to approach the Navajo language in such a manner. His comment has influenced much of my thinking about Navajo and about poetry of late. His statement suggests, as well, that a phonic view of Navajo should take precedence over a Western inspired semantico-referentialist (words for things) view of language. Rex Lee Jim’s poetry, which is often intimately concerned with the sounds of Navajo and the ways such sounds echo, reverberate, and evoke affinities, stands as a testament to the validity of Navajo being in its sounds. Navajo, in this view, is a language of sound—of vibration—and it is this acoustemology (Feld 1996, 2015) that makes real—validates—the language as a language that does—creates, animates, and enacts—something (see Frisbie 1980; McAllester 1980; Reichard 1950; Schwarz 1997). That something we may call, loosely, the world. This is the “sound power” ← 1 | 2 → of Navajo that was first described by Gladys Reichard (1944: 51). “Language,” as Jim told me repeatedly, “is alive.” In being alive, it has the ability to move and change the world. Language—as a sounded phenomenon—is a creative force in the world. Sound—as vibration—also animates all life (Schwarz 1997: 36–37).1 Sound, as Jim told me more than once, is very important.

The goal of this book is to suggest how the sounds of Navajo ramify in the poetry of Rex Lee Jim. How, that is, do the sounds matter in the work of Jim’s poetry. What follows are five chapters that look at five poems by Rex Lee Jim. Four of those poems are from Jim’s (1995) all-Navajo collection saad and the fifth, and final poem, was told to me in 2000 and then later published by Jim in 2010. The poems range in length from three lines to six lines. Each line ranges from one word to two words. The poems are short. Their shortness does not make them either easy to understand or to translate. They are deeply—I would say beautifully—ambiguous. By beautiful, I should add, I don’t just mean aesthetically pleasing, but rather, as David McAllester (1954) long ago noted, beauty, for many Navajos, entails the doing of something. Beauty does something. What these poems do, or at least my hunch—in consultation with Navajos—at what they do, is the focus of this book.

Humanities of Speaking

I have subtitled the book “a humanities of speaking” and I guess I should say something about that sooner rather than later. The term was coined, as far as I can remember, by Tony Woodbury in conversations that he and I and Pattie Epps were having about an article we were writing together (see Epps et al. 2017). I liked the phrase and the perspective it suggested very much—wedding as it did a reference to the “ethnography of speaking” and, also, acknowledging the importance of aesthetic sensibilities to a broadly conceived concern with verbal art.2 A humanities of speaking attends to speech play and verbal art from both anthropological and linguistic perspectives; understanding the ways that speech activities are salient and appreciated on local terms. Such a perspective seeks to reunite anthropology and linguistics by way of their shared philological origins—“the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself” (Turner 2014: ix). It’s a perspective that takes seriously Charles Hockett’s (1973: 674) position that, “linguistics without anthropology is sterile; anthropology without linguistics is blind.” There will be both linguistics and anthropology in this book. The goal they serve is in the pursuit of a humanities of speaking of some poems by Rex Lee ← 2 | 3 → Jim in Navajo. A humanities of speaking is also informed by Anselmo Urrutia and Joel Sherzer’s (1997: 367) point that, “too much anthropology describes people who don’t speak; too much linguistics describes languages without speakers.” There will be people who speak languages in this book.

In many ways, a humanities of speaking is an outgrowth of the ethnography of speaking (see Basso 1979; Bauman and Sherzer 1974; Hymes 1973, 1974; Sherzer 1983; Valentine 1995), ethnopoetics (Bahr 1986; Bahr et al. 1997; Basso 1985, 1987; Bright 1984; Cruikshank 1998; Friedrich 2006; Hymes 1981, 2003; Kroskrity 1985; Kroskrity and Webster 2015; Sherzer and Woodbury 1987; Tedlock 1983; Toelken and Scott 1981; Woodbury 1985), and a discourse-centered approach to language and culture (Basso 1995; Graham 1995; Hill 1993; Sherzer 1987, 1990; Urban 1991). Discourse—of which poetry is a kind of discourse—was not just about culture, it was the very stuff of culture (Sherzer 1987; Urban 1991, 1996). In all of the above, careful attention to linguistic detail was meant to be coupled with a concern with both language in use and with its broader sociocultural contexts. Special attention was often placed on forms of speech play and verbal art (see, for example, Basso 1979, 1990, 1996; Rumsey 2006; Sherzer 1987, 1990). In theory, those approaches were meant to attend to local and relevant concerns with aesthetics. In practice, aesthetic considerations were not always at the forefront of such research. A humanities of speaking places such concerns at the center of such research. In a quote that could stand as a precursor to a humanities of speaking, Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury (1987) write:

That seems a worthy goal. This book is inspired by such a goal.

Punning, Poetry, Sound and Linguistic Relativity


XII, 168
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XII, 168 pp., 1 tbl.

Biographical notes

Anthony Webster (Author)

Anthony K. Webster is a linguistic anthropologist and the author of Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics and Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry.


Title: The Sounds of Navajo Poetry
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