Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name"

Is Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name" racist? When I was writing my thesis on Chinese-American poetry and the American political imagination, a professor of mine, who shall remain nameless (not my advisor), asked this question. It stunned me. In retrospect, I imagine that it was exactly the kind of provocative question that a careful reader of the poetry and my paper should have asked, but at the time, I was really taken aback and not pleased.

For those not in the know, Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name" is one of the most important poems in Asian-American literature. (The poem is on the Academy of American Poets website if anyone is interested.) In the poem, Chin reflects upon being named after Marilyn Monroe and refers to Marilyn Monroe as "some tragic white woman/ swollen with gin and Nembutal." I took it as an offbeat, tongue-in-cheek reference in line with the tone of the rest of the poem. But this professor thought the line was racist, though interestingly, this professor did not question whether Chin's characterizations of her father as "a tomcat in Hong Kong trash --/ a gambler, a petty thug" was equally racist.

Actually, I think that I was "not pleased," not because of the question per se, but because this professor happened to have a particular distaste for Asian-American studies/politics and Asian-American poetry, at least IMHO. I won't drone on about it here -- there was a movement to establish an Asian-American studies program, but things didn't exactly pan out -- but as many of you know, the success of theses and papers depends greatly on the support of professors/scholars in your particular field of interest. (So you're lucky Barbara, to be living in SF and having the support there!)

Returning to my original question, I don't think that the poem was racist against Marilyn Monroe because of its context. If anything, the reference was self-deprecating, as is much of the rest of the poem. I think that it is more anti-men, particular anti-Chinese American men, but it is also a critique of partiarchy and the critique is personal, usually singling out specific men and not unreasonably demonizing an entire group.

By the way, if one speaks of poets who need more critical work done on them, one must include Marilyn Chin on the list. If I were to violate my principles of trying to focus on the poetry as opposed to the poet and trying not to overgeneralize, I would short-list Chin as one of the five best American poets of the second-half of the 20th century, not knowing exactly who the other four would be. By "best" here, I mean originality in subject matter, language, and tone -- the fusing of the three into a unique and provocative combination. The only mistake in Chin's rise in the poetry world is that it has not been accompanied by sufficient intellectual, analytical, and critical work on her poetry.


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Blogger blackbirdpritham said...

Great analysis of the poem dude!!

10:13 PM  

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