Monday, January 31, 2005

Individualism and Society in Poetry

There is the myth that poets, including Asian-American poets, are generally liberal and not conservative, broadly using the terms "liberal" as in left-wing, blue-state people and "conservative" as in right-wing, red-state people. But I'm not so sure.

GK's fascinating point about "Asian-Americanness" not being salient in the reading of poetry, and Alberto's and Barbara's most welcome comments supporting this view, are conservative in the classical conservative, libertarian, Goldwater sense. It is a traditionalist, individualist, Republican position, which is a powerfully compelling one that has a great hold on the American imagination and on poets/poetry as well.

I'm wrestling with this position without either accepting or rejecting it. I have to agree with Barbara and Alberto that there is something appealing about the idea that the reader of poetry exists independently from his/her race, ethnicity, gender, etc. and that the poet him or herself does as well. But I have been presenting the counter-argument that race and ethnicity do affect the reading and writing of poems, books of poetry, and poetry reviews. With "Asian-American," "Filipino-Amreican," "Chinese-American" poetry anthologies and the like, I think that my counter-argument is often an unstated assumption.

I think that the issue here is that part of us still clings to the idea of the individual poet, and her or his poetry, as independent from groups in society. Grouping a poet into a category or school has always been a problematic proposition, because presenting the interconnectedness of individual poets and their poetry to one another poses a challenge to the idea of originality stemming from individual artistic talent and ambition.

I think that, at its core, the individualist skepticism towards racial categorization of poetry into Asian-American anthologies, for example, is an Antonin Scalia-Clarence Thomas-like skepticism that has immense, though often unacknowledged, pull among poets and in poetry circles for this very reason. The dual ideas of the individual as the originator of a poem and the individual-as-a-member-of-society as the originator of a poem are in constant tension.


Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

I guess I should elaborate. Apologies in advance for this long comment.

I am not saying that a reader's ethnicity, race, nationality etc will never influence the way he responds to a poem. The main factor is the poem itself.

There are many poems to which the reader's reaction would not depend on his race or ethnicity. I'll use one of my own poems to illustrate:


Every time you try to change me,
We run the risk I might.
Two questions darkly cross my mind,
So let them cross yours too –
Could you really love another me,
And would he, you?

You may like this poem. You may not. But I have a lot of difficulty imagining how or why your response would be dependent on whether you are white, or Korean, or Indian, or Chinese.

Also, in appreciating (or not appreciating) this poem, you really don't need to know the colour of MY skin. I could have been white, black, brown or green - it's simply not relevant to your reading of the poem.

Now, of course, there are also poems where the reader's response may depend a lot on his race, ethnicity, culture etc. Another of my poems to illustrate:


to bright hill temple she has gone
carrying joss and money
bringing food and drink
for her mother-in-law’s soul.

lychees oranges and one apple
two bowls of white rice
three vegetarian dishes
ang ku kueh and bean paste buns

joss sticks chopsticks
a vase to hold the flowers
two chinese cuplets
to hold the chinese tea.

with a heavy heart
she kneels before the urn
to apologise and explain why
the others are not here.

ah seng cannot come
he is too busy at the office
tua gor cannot come because
she is in poor health

ah leong will not come
now that he is baptised
ji gor is not coming
but i do not know why.

so today i come alone, mother
i bring your favourite dishes
this money i burn for your
use in the other world

i will stay a little longer to
keep you company as you eat
today you shall not be forgotten
in this season of the dead.

If you did not know anything about Chinese beliefs and customs in relation to ancestral worship, you cannot "get" the poem fully. The title, "Ching Ming", is already an unknown term, and a stumbling block. Thus, in a poem like this, yes, your race, ethnicity etc does matter, to the extent that if you were not Chinese, you would probably miss out on many things which the poem attempts to convey.

Then again, I emphasise that there are many, many, MANY poems out there in the world whose accessibility does not depend, or depends only to a miniscule degree, on the reader's race, ethnicity, culture etc.

And I would imagine that there must be a lot of Asian-American poetry out there which is accessible to both Asian-Americans and non-Asian Americans. Or for that matter, Asian non-Americans and non-Asian non-Americans.

That's why I said earlier that I think you shouldn't get too hung up about drawing the finer and finer distinctions. Your own phrase to describe that, if I remember correctly, was something about marking territory like a raging bull in a toilet paper commercial. How .... apt!

As for your attempts to define Asian-American poetry, well, why go through all that pain & agony of attempting to achieve such precision? As an alternative, you could start by focusing on the poetry that sits right in the middle of the circle you're trying to define .... instead of worrying about the poetry that lurks on the perimeter and which you can't quite decide whether is in or out of the circle.

What I mean is - don't you have enough people like Li-Young Lee or Bao Phi, to begin with? They are definitely Asian, definitely American, definitely poets. You haven't started examining them (on this blog anyway), in any real depth, why not start with them, or others like them?

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts and suggestions ... Two cents' worth & all that.

6:15 PM  
Blogger A.R.B. said...

Another great post from you, Roger.

I do think as GK has pointed out that it seems we are confusing accessibility with ethnicity. The examples that GK presents are helpful, though not entirely conclusive. Both poems are poems and they both speak in the same language: poetics. The fact that one appears “simpler” than the other, and even that may be arguable, does not mean that Ching Ming is inaccessible to me here, reading as I am in Spain as a Spaniard. If I am to be a “true” reader of poetry then I must be preoccupied to understand what the poet wants to convey. However, I must do the same with Lorca every time I re-read him and he speaks in my ethnic tongue. And this is and must always be true because poetic language relies on its own symbols, cadences, nuances as part of its discourse. All poetry needs interpretation, lest we want to be spoon-fed and be told only what we want to hear. That is hardly compelling poetry.

Manifesto writing is an entirely different matter and poetry can also be used quite effectively for those purposes. And I mean that respectfully. But poetry Poetry must be an entirely different matter. It must be, as it seems to me that it is in its greatest achievements, a product of the thinking heart. Therefore, I can read Ching Ming on many levels and, yes, I may have to look some things up and educate myself while I’m at it, but that’s my responsibility as reader. The poet should have no concern for my ability. This isn’t torts and I’m no eggshell plaintiff!  A recent example was my reading of a draft of Barbara Jane’s Diwata poems in her blog . I did not have to understand the many different uses she made of her native tongue to understand at a deeper level what her characters were conveying. Her poetic language relied on symbols and imagery to paint a sufficiently clear picture of what she wanted to say. Therefore, her poem was not hermetic in that sense. True it would be more accessible to others who understand Barb’s language, or perhaps not. Understanding the direct meaning of words is only one of the requirements of understanding poetry, obviously, but the greater ability is having the openness—sometimes of heart and mind—to read in that universal language where all people understand and meet one another.


8:34 AM  
Blogger barbara jane said...

hi roger, is response to this: "The dual ideas of the individual as the originator of a poem and the individual-as-a-member-of-society as the originator of a poem are in constant tension."

why can't the poem and the poet be all of the above? why must there be a tension? as a writer, i'll say i do not write with a need to communicate theory and paradigm. i write to write. if these paradigms find their way into my work, as they do, then fine. if someone like alberto all the way on another continent can appreciate my diwata poems, which *originated* in a culturally specific place, then i have done my job as a writer with words, imagery, my persona's voice, etc and let the poem BE. then there's alberto's point that perhaps someone who comes from a culturally similar place may "get more" out of it, but that isn't always the case, and there's no way of predicting this.

i do not see a tension there - "diwata" as a pilipino poem, as barbara's poem, etc. "diwata" is all of the above. peace, barbara

5:02 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey GK, you gave me a nice chuckle with your raging bull in a toilet paper commercial reference. :) I think that it's a reference that only people living in America will get. It's actually a grizzly bear in a fairly popular toilet paper commercial -- a pretty cute, animated commercial where a bear uses toilet paper.

And now I've spent most of my own comment addressing only a minor point in your post. Oops, I'll address further in the next post. I'll just add quickly that I've addressed the defining Asian-American poetry/dealing with Asian-American poets at several different points in my blog before. Don't worry, it's tough to keep track, because I've been posting fairly often, but you can find my response there in archives. Thanks.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Alberto, thanks for the nice comment, and thanks to GK before as well for the illustration with his poems.

I think that I'm sympathetic to your views and GK's views on the "thinking heart" as well, as I note in my post -- and I was being sincere.

I think we may be talking about something different here in terms of part of the overall project of this blog, and this is addressed to GK as well. Part of the overall project, which is ever-changing and as it stands correctly, is to address "why" we hold the views we do about Asian American poetry, specifically, and poetry, in general.

So two questions related to your post, Alberto, which fascinate me, would be, What are the origins of the thinking heart? And how is poetry a product of the thinking heart? Interesting though difficult questions, IMHO.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, thanks a lot for the posts! Side note: There seems to have developed an interesting pattern in posts and response of posts that is facillitated, in no small part, by my busier schedule and slightly slower response time. :)

Yes, you're right that the two ideas don't have to be in tension! Part of me is hoping they won't be, though tension can also be productive and fruitful at times.

I think that I was just making the point that grouping a poet into a particular group or under a paradigm "can" be in conflict with the proposition that poets are original thinkers with individual "thinking hearts," as Alberto might put it. Because if poems are the byproduct of and read by "society," or group memes, then that suggests a devaluing of the individual's originality/uniqueness. (And we know that originality/uniqueness are important values for many, if not all, poets.)

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