Friday, January 21, 2005

Kubla Khan and Orientalism

Usually, I like to say things that at least seem original to me, so it was kind of a bummer to find out that my comments on Kubla Khan being orientalist had already been "pre-empted," so to speak, by other, zestier "original" thinkers who have expounded upon romantic orientalism. Oh well.

I don't view Pound, Coleridge, et al.'s poetic orientalism, a poetic imagining of the East, as necessarily bad in and of itself. Ai is the first poet that comes to my mind in terms of imagining an "other," but I think that the imagining of "the other" is common if not ubiquitous in writing a poem with characters other than the author, though one can argue that "the author," even if a poem is written in the third-person and/or is totally fragmented, is an "other" in the sense of the poet as a writer-of-the-particular-poem being distinct from the poet as a person. And after all, anyone can point out that Asian-American poets often imagine "whites" and "the West" in their poetry.

Incidentally, you'll notice that I used the term "the East" to describe Asia. My usage reflects my "western" bias. It is not merely that the globe is circular, meaning that "East" may be "West" and "West" may be "East" depending on one's vantage point. But it is that if one looks at this issue from a majoritarian Asian-American perspective, the vast majority of Asian-Americans should think of Asia as "the West," because much of Asia is much closer geographically to America from the West than from the East. Definitely California and Hawaii, where demographically have some of the highest concentrations of Asian-Americans. Think about it. I know that if I'm flying from California to Malaysia or Hong Kong, for example, I wouldn't try to circumnavigate the globe to get there.

But I drifted with that long aside...I perceive the problem with orientalism, echoing one of the themes of this blog, as one of power. If the "orientialist" poems of Coleridge, Pound, etc., to the exclusion of , Asian-American poets' contemporary portrayals of Asia, then the student of poetry's perspective on Asia is skewed by views of Asia, and Asians and perhaps Asian-Americans, as simply mysterious, exotic, and unworthy of respect and humanity. I often feel that the power of stereotype doesn't necessarily lie in the stereotype itself but in the lack of other sources of imagination/knowledge to complexify a dehumanizing simplicity.

But I should also note that, in certain contexts, "exoticism" in poetry may be fun, interesting, and perhaps inevitable -- isn't part of what can make a poem "fun" the fact that it allows one to enter a different world? -- but when used to justify exclusion of other types of poetry, e.g. poems that deal with racism and sexism, it becomes far more problematic.

(Historical note: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 represented the first-ever act of Congress to exclude a particular immigrant group. The exclusion of Chinese, and then subsequent Asian groups in American history, culminating with the Immigration Act of 1924, is one reason that, historically, there has been less Asian-American poetry, however one chooses to define "Asian-American," and why "Asian" immigration to America is often perceived as a recent phenomenon, when in reality, the mid-19th century actually witnessed huge waves of Asian immigration to America.)


Post a Comment

<< Home