On “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” by Joy Harjo

Click here to read the poem.

“How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” is about a group of people in a war torn area. They have to deal with enemy soldiers in their hometown who cause massive destruction to their native land. The enemy soldiers rape innocent civilians, steal, and burn their homes. The area is so destroyed that it is not even fit for birds to live in the area, as Joy Harjo, the author says that, “There is no chance of trees or any place for birds to live (Harjo Line 14).” I believe that the message this poem is giving is to raise awareness about the Native American culture and the struggles they faced when the settlers took the land the Native Americans had lived on for thousands of years. Joy Harjo sends the message of empathy and selflessness in this poem because she wants the readers to realize how it was not fair when the settlers took the Native American’s home away from them and how the Native Americans must have felt.

This likely takes place deep in the wilderness because of the depiction Joy Harjo uses. She talks about her families clothes such as a hand sewn dress and a babies moccasin decorated with beads. This means that they have to help each other and build their own culture and civilization. Joy Harjo also talks about the nature surrounding the area such as rivers mountains and more. They are likely Native Americans because of the culture Joy Harjo portrays such as the baby’s bead decorated moccasins.

Another message is selflessness, because the Native Americans helped each other survive over the years by making clothes for each other, and caring for one another through hard times. The Native American children feel scared, but also feel safe because they are with their who they think that will protect them. He says, “Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather to his grandson / His granddaughter, as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children (Line 36–37).” In the Native American Culture, the Grandfather of a family is typically the leader because he is the oldest and wisest. The Grandfather takes a leadership role and makes the children serene by singing songs to them which lifts the children’s spirits. The Grandfather is selfless because he has many big problems such as losing his land, but he finds the time to care for the children too.

I think that “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” signifies white colonists overtaking Native Americans because Joy Harjo majored in writing about Native Americans, and that at the end of the poem she says “The ancestors in the winds, born in stones” this could potentially mean that they were there for a long time before the soldiers came. The Native American’s unity throughout the struggle to keep their land was commendable, and they are still surviving with each other in different places in North America.


In “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” I wanted to figure out the real meaning of the poem, or the what Joy Harjo, the author is depicting. To get my results, I attempted to translate the poem and find the real meaning by looking at the author’s language and doing some research on Joy Harjo. I found that the “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” is likely about the white colonists taking the Native American’s land. The white colonists taught the Native American children about their God, degrading the Native American’s culture, they stole from the Native Americans, murdered them, and burned their land. I also learned that the leader of the family, the Grandfather took a leadership role and soothed the children by singing to them when they were scared. This is an important part of the poem because it shows that they were all there for each other in hard times. It also meant that the Native Americans care about each other, and have to survive by sticking together.

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