Ron McFarland: General Criticism on Sherman Alexie

There is a combativeness that distinguishes Alexie's often polemical poems, for he is, in a way, at war. In most of his writing, sooner or later, Alexie is a "polemicist," which is to say, a "warrior," and there is nearly always controversy and argument, implied or direct, in his poems and stories. . . . "Do you ever worry about anger becoming a negative force?" the Bellante brothers asked [in a Bloomsbury Review interview]. Citing Gandhi, Alexie answered that anger could be a positive force: "Anger without hope, anger without love, or anger without compassion are allconsuming. That's not my kind of anger. Mine is very specific and directed." . . .

The Indians in Alexie's poems do not speak with raven spirits or go on vision quests. They are not haunted by spirit animals . . . and they are not visited by Kachina spirits. . . . In fact, it is more appropriate to think of them in psychological rather than spiritual terms. They have been uprooted from the animistic world. . . . The power of Alexie's poems comes from the world at hand. . . .

Alexie's other collections of poetry are even more problematic with respect to form (and he is a very conscious, though only rarely conventional, formalist). The forty-two items that make up The Business of Fancydancing (counting the four "Indian Boy Love Songs" as one poem, as it is listed in the contents) comprise twenty-eight poems and fourteen prose pieces, one of which is a nine-page story and eight of which run just a paragraph and could be considered prose poems, though I am inclined to regard them as sudden fiction. Old Shirts & New Skins consists of fifty items, as many as forty of which are obviously poems. But is "Snapping the Fringe" a prose piece consisting of about thirteen very short paragraphs, or a poem consisting of almost thirty lines (depending on the format) and using indentation in favor of stanza breaks? Although mixed genres like "prose poetry" always leave me feeling a bit uneasy, I am inclined to think it is his best effort in that mode. Old Shirts & New Skins, then, including such conventional forms as the sestina ("The Naming of Indian Boys") and the villanelle ("Poem"), is the closest Alexie has come so far [prior to 1996] to a book made up of poems alone. . . .

In "Split Decisions" . . . Alexie employs a sort of "round" form which he also uses in several stories, including "My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys." In this form a word or phrase in the last line of one section or stanza is repeated somewhere in the first line of the next, and at the end of the poem a key word or phrase is echoed from the first line so that the effect is circular. In "Split Decisions" Alexie blends the free verse line with prose sections . . . [so that] poetry and prose, line and sentence, appear to move toward each other. . . .

When he was asked by the interviewers for Bloomsbury Review if the transition from poet to writer of fiction was difficult for him, Alexie answered that it was not difficult, that "my poems are stories. There's a very strong narrative drive in all my poetry." . . . As the interviewers noted from the outset, Alexie is "a storyteller [with] an unmistakable poetic streak." His powers as a poet are primarily narrative, and after that rhetorical, and with that, perhaps as a sub-species, polemical. . . .

Alexie's is a rhetoric, whether in his poems or in his fiction, that reflects pain and anger, a rhetoric that could give way to bitterness. What keeps that from happening and makes the pain and anger bearable for the reader . . . is not so much the hope, love, and compassion to which he refers in the interview, but humor. Predictably, this humor is rarely gentle or playful (though it can be that at times), but most often satirical. . . .

Alexie's poems are filled with such moments of painful or poignant humor which may be described as "serious" or "dark." . . . The impact is not so much like the escape or release offered by comedy as the catharsis provided by tragedy.

From "'Another Kind of Violence': Sherman Alexie's Poems," American Indian Quarterly 21.2 (Spring 1997): 251–64.

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Criticism Overview
Title Ron McFarland: General Criticism on Sherman Alexie Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Ron McFarland Criticism Target Sherman Alexie
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication 'Another Kind of Violence': Sherman Alexie's Poems
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