Laureation Address: Joy Harjo

Graduation Office
Tuesday 11 June 2024

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation written by the Late Professor John Burnside
Read by Professor Rhiannon Purdie, School of English

Tuesday 11 June 2024 – morning ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Joy Harjo.

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of The Muscogee Nation. She is a multi-award-winning poet, musician, playwright and author, who served three terms as the twenty-third Poet Laureate of the United States between 2019 and 2022, the first Native American to hold that post.

Her many awards and honours include Yale’s Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Chair of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and is currently the inaugural artist-in-residence for the Bob Dylan Center, a museum in Tulsa that celebrates the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter.

With her 2022 selection, Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light, Joy Harjo marked half a century of work in poetry, going back to her beginnings as a writer in the 1970s. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of New Mexico in 1976, she went on to study for a Masters in Fine Arts with the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. In 1975, she published her debut collection, The Last Song, and over the last fifty years she has published ten collections of poetry, two memoirs and seven music albums, as well as plays and children’s books, many of which include themes of Native American oral history and social justice.

Joy Harjo in academic dress holding her honorary degree in a navy scroll tube
Joy Harjo

The unique standing of her work might best be summed up by Maya Phillips, writing in The New Yorker, where she says:

“Harjo, though very much a poet of America, extracts from her own personal and cultural touchstones a more galactal understanding of the world, and her poems become richer for it.

“Here, she says, is a living, breathing earth to which we’re all connected. Here is unbridled potential for the poetic – in everything, even in ourselves.”

Yet, while we take note of these, and other facts of Joy Harjo’s biography, and while facts are important in establishing a sense of an artist’s achievements and the esteem in which she is held, we must read and listen to the work itself to appreciate that “galactal understanding of the world”.

Poetry, music, remembrance, story, all are centred in the act of “deep listening” that allows Joy Harjo to hear:

“voices buried in the Mississippi mud…
ancestors and future children
buried beneath the currents stirred up by
pleasure boats”

And, as we listen to Joy Harjo’s oeuvre, in so many different forms and genres, we find a rare warmth and generosity of spirit, coupled with an incisive critical understanding of what we must remember in ourselves to become human, and what we must honour, in the world we share with all other lives, to sustain that humanity.

To do this, we are required to remember a time…

“when there was no urge
to cut the land or each other into pieces”

A time…

“when we knew how to think
in beautiful”

The beautiful that is invoked here is not only an aesthetic, however, it is a state of grace, a sense that:

We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.

We pray that it will be done
In beauty.

In beauty.

Joy Harjo’s work offers much to us, but it also asks much; indeed, it asks that we learn how to emerge fully as human beings and so to:

“locate the point of dawning
and awaken
with the longest day in the world”

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contributions to literature, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Joy Harjo.

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