This Morning I Pray for My Enemies

Joy Harjo

‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ by Joy Harjo is a powerful poem that reveals the razor-thin line that separates who we consider a friend or enemy.

Joy Harjo

Nationality: American

Joy Harjo is a major American poet who was chosen as poet laureate of the United States.

She’s the first Native American to hold that position.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: There is a fine line that divides whom we consider an enemy or a friend

Speaker: A thoughtful person with enemies

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Empathy, Relief

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

Joy Harjo's poem is an incredibly poignant meditation on the criteria with which we determine our adversaries in life, one that movingly insists that our hearts have the power to transform our enemies into allies.

‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ is a dually beautiful and compelling poem by Joy Harjo. One that articulates the emotional complexity that comes with processing anger and outrage, especially when it is directed at a particular person.

As an indigenous writer and poet, she uncovers a radically alternative means of understanding how we should identify who is an enemy. While also illuminating the ways in which such an adversarial relationship is one founded on an uncanny intimacy that, one entangled with, can lead someone once believed to be a hostile foe to become an ally.


‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ by Joy Harjo contemplates both how one should decide who or what is an enemy and the subtle differences between friends and foes.

‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ begins with the speaker posing a question: “And whom do I call my enemy?” In answer, they state that a true enemy is someone “worthy” of being confronted

The speaker then turns to the sun and walks toward it. They remark that it was their heart that asked the poem’s opening question — not their “furious mind.” They describe the heart as being a younger relative of the sun’s because like the celestial body above it “sees and knows everything.”

Our heart’s omnipotence over us makes it privy to everything that grinds our teeth in anger or frustration, as well as moments of grace. It is also only through the heart that the “door to the mind” should ever be opened.

Consequently, any enemy that you choose to engage with will inevitably find their way into your heart or mind, thus risking an intimacy that will put them in “danger of becoming a friend.”

Structure and Form

‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ is written in free verse, as it does not contain a formal structure or rhyme scheme. All nine of its lines are comprised of just a single sentence and also end-stopped. Both lines four and nine contain examples of caesura.

Literary Devices

‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ utilizes the following literary devices:

  • Rhetorical Question: a question whose purpose is not related to its direct answer, as when the speaker inquires, “And whom do I call my enemy?” (1)
  • Visual Imagery: “I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking” (3) creates an image of the speaker and the sun.
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: imagery related to movement, as in the details “I turn” and “keep walking” (3).
  • Personification: the application of human characteristics on the inanimate, such as the ability to speak; “It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind” (4).
  • Extended Metaphor: a metaphor that extends through multiple lines of a poem, as when the speaker compares their heart to the sun; “The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. / It sees and knows everything. / It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing” (5-7).
  • Irony: specifically situational irony, as when the speaker reveals the ease with which an enemy can become a friend; “An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend” (9).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

And whom do I call my enemy?

In the first two lines of ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies, the speaker poses a rhetorical question around which the entire poem hinges. One that introspectively contemplates the identity and characteristics of someone they might perceive as their enemy. The speaker settles on a rather interesting definition: “An enemy must be worthy of engagement” (2).

Harjo’s diction here is crucial, as the word “worthy” carries an ironically positive connotation and underscores the speaker’s belief that an enemy should be deserving of the time and energy that will be required to face them. This quality of worth might be displayed in a variety of ways. Perhaps an enemy is worthy because they represent a sufficient challenge, or maybe there is some merit or value in confronting them.

Lines 3-7

I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.

The next series of lines from ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ introduces the extended metaphor Harjo uses to compare the heart to the sun. It opens with a piece of visual and kinesthetic imagery that envisions the speaker turning and walking “in the direction of the sun” (3).

As they stroll toward the brightest star in the sky they ruminate over the source of the poem’s opening question — identifying it as their personified heart. The speaker then makes an important distinction between their heart and their “furious mind” (4). Harjo’s diction implies that the speaker’s mind is already possessed by a resolute and consuming anger for their enemy.

The poet further strengthens this characterization by referring to the heart as the “smaller cousin of the sun” (5) because it “sees and knows everything” (6). A metaphor that emphasizes our heart’s relative sovereignty over both our senses and mind — just as the earth orbits the sun so too do our lives revolve around the whims and passions of our heart.

This omnipotence allows the heart to hear “the gnashing even as it hears the blessing” (7), a fragment of imagery that accentuates the heart’s ability to perceive both the good and the bad.

Lines 8-9

The door to the mind should only open from the heart.

The final lines of ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ offers a mercurial answer to the question of what makes someone an enemy. A new metaphor connects the personified regions of the mind and heart via a door. The only way to get to the former is by walking through the latter.

This makes sense in lieu of Harjo’s extended metaphor which clearly subordinates the “furious mind” with the all-seeing and hearing heart. Although a reason is not explicitly given, the implication is that the heart’s lucid perceptiveness makes it far wiser than the mind. Making it a better judge for determining an enemy worthy of engaging.

But the image of a doorway also reflects the fact that someone who enrages you enough to the point that your mind is obsessing over them furiously is also someone who has (albeit malignantly and woundingly) touched your heart.

This brings us to the poem’s final line, which reveals that one possible ironic consequence of engaging with an enemy is emerging with an unexpected friend. Harjo’s use of the word “danger” (9) doesn’t caution against such an outcome. Instead, it uses the language of conflict to illustrate this boldly iconoclastic image of reconciliation.


What is the theme of ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies?

Harjo’s poem explores the similarities between the way we define who is a friend and who is an enemy. The speaker makes the case that because both have the ability to enter one’s heart and mind, the lines between them can be blurred.

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies?

Like so many of Harjo’s poems, this one provides an antithesis to colonizer modes of thinking. One that approaches the idea of an enemy from a place of sincere introspection and radiant receptiveness.

What is the significance of the poem’s title?

The poem’s title mentions a prayer being said for one’s enemies. This mirrors the speaker’s rumination over the nature of whom they consider an enemy and the fact that it is the heart that asks/decides. Their prayer is indicative of their tendency toward the perceptive compassion of the heart as opposed to the fury of their mind.

What is the meaning of “gnashing…blessing” in the poem?

“Gnashing” alludes to the act of grinding one’s teeth in frustration or outrage, while the blessing might symbolize some obscured grace to be found in engaging an enemy. This foreshadows the poem’s ending line, which reveals the hidden friend within an enemy.

Similar Poems

Here are a few more poems by Joy Harjo that you might also enjoy:

Poetry+ Review Corner

This Morning I Pray for My Enemies

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem is a wonderful example of Joy Harjo's poetry and the themes it often encompasses. Here the poet wrestles with a question of conflict and the dangerous circumstances through which an enemy can be transformed into a friend. That tension is beautifully illustrated by her use of both imagery and figurative language.
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21st Century

Joy Harjo is an important 21st-century poet who gives voice to Indigenous experiences. Her poetry is indicative of the period as it focuses on both the subjectively personal but also attempts to find the universal threads that bind us all together. Here, that takes the form of a poem that tries to illuminate the ways in which differences can lead to introspection and empathy.
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Joy Harjo is an important Indigenous poet from America. She belongs to the Muscogee Nation and was the first Native Person to become the U.S. poet laureate. Poems like this one have helped uplift the voices of other Indigenous writers like herself while also giving voice to their experiences in America.
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One of the poem's minor themes centers on identity. The conflict the speaker faces inspires an introspection, one that leads them to contend with both their heart and mind, the two forces reacting to a perceived enemy. As a result, the poem implies the importance of being lucid about one's own feelings and thoughts.
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A theme found within Joy Harjo's poem is nature. This theme takes the form of the sun, which is referenced throughout the poem as being the older cousin of the heart. The poet uses this symbol from nature to both explain and emphasize the heart's dominance when it comes to how we experience other people.
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A major theme of Joy Harjo's poem is an attempt to understand how certain relationships are formed. The poem itself follows the heart and mind of a speaker who is contemplating the ways in which an enemy can become a friend. Not through some insidious deception but rather out of a curiously accidental entrance into the heart of the speaker.
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As this is a poem about enemies, it is perhaps not so surprising that anger plays a role in the emotions expressed and inspired by the speaker. There is their "furious mind" and the "gnashing" heard by the heart. Each image adds to the roiling anger that exists just beneath the surface of the speaker's musings of enemies.
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A sense of empathy is also implied within Joy Harjo's poem. This emotion is much less prominent and really only exists in the subtext of the metaphor the speaker uses to articulate their epiphany about enemies. The image of an enemy having to go through the heart to get to the mind illustrates the way such empathy might be fostered between two people.
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Relief is another emotion found in Joy Harjo's poem. However, it is kindled more in the reader than found inherently within the poem. This sense of relief stems from the poem's meditative tone regarding enemies. Instead of immediate conflict, the speaker draws inward and walks away to decide for themselves who is worthy of being engaged.
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One of the topics explored in Joy Harjo's poem is conflict. Yet despite being about enemies, the one conflict that the poem is most embroiled in is the inner contemplation of the speaker. This, in turn, revolves around the profound question of whom they should even consider an enemy, implying not everyone who makes you angry is worthy of being engaged.
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Depending on your interpretation of Joy Harjo's poem, forgiveness may or may not be a part of that understanding. Much of it depends on how you read the poem's final lines, which imply that some enemies risk becoming friends because of the proximity they have to each other's hearts. This might result in an empathetic relationship and even forgiveness for whatever slights might have occurred.
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Friendship is another topic that is touched on in Joy Harjo's poem. Here, friendship presents itself as the antithesis of an enemy. Yet it also reveals the exceptionally thin line between the two. This is a consequence of the heart's dominance over us as both friends and enemies find themselves residents of it.
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The sun is used by Joy Harjo as the centerpiece for the extended metaphor found within the poem. They compare the star to the heart, emphasizing the way our worlds revolve around its whims and fancies. As a result, the heart can harbor feelings for both friends and enemies. illuminating the likelihood of a transformation between the two.
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Free Verse

Joy Harjo uses free verse in many of her poems, whether they are structured as stanzas or in prose form. The result is always the cultivation of the poet's unique voice, both nurturing and enlightening, that guides the reader to the doorstep of an epiphany. The cadence of her poems is found not in formal rhyme schemes of meter but in a fluid rhythm of her own creation.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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