Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Meaning vs. Being in Poetry

I'm not sure why Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15222) is so oft-anthologized, because I think it is one of the outlandishly poorest works in his oeuvre, if one actually reads a poem for its content and logic. The poem is readable and has an easy rhythm to it, but it is quite confused in its position on the art of poetry.

In the first of three sections, the poet proclaims that a poem should be "mute," "dumb," "silent," and "wordless." In the second section, just in case we live on Neptune and haven't been clobbered with enough adjectives yet, the poem twice adds that "a poem should be motionless in time." The third section, providing what is (sadly) the phrase most often quoted from MacLeish's poetry, closes with the claim -- a claim that is wrong on multiple levels, as I will discuss below -- that "A poem should not mean/But be."

One of the primary problems with MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" is that the poem itself is not even consistent with its own proclamation that "A Poem should not mean/But be." For example, the poem opens with the couplet, "A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit," which is a claim that already necessitates interpretation and "meaning" -- it asks the reader to accept the conclusion that a globed fruit is, indeed, palpable and mute, not even getting to the question of what "globed," "palpable," and "mute" mean to different people. Very well, this problem is not a major one. We're still in the second inning, and the Dodgers haven't lost the ballgame yet with this one.

But in the third stanza, MacLeish comes up with the incredible couplet, "For all the history of grief/ An empty doorway and a maple leaf." Though the poem does not acknowledge it, that couplet is essentially an amazingly bold conclusory remark on "the history of grief" that requires a great stretch of the imagination both for comprehension and acceptance. Superficially, it is a rather lovely couplet. But, like the rest of the poem, it is a Venus fly-trap of sorts. Essentially, the poem is equating all the past and present personal and societal destructions and violences to "an empty doorway and a maple leaf"!?! Would you go up to a Chinese dissident writing a poem about massacres during the Cultural Revolution and say, "tsk, tsk, 'an empty doorway and a maple leaf'/ for your history of grief"? Maybe you could. If you could, then golly, it's easy to solve problems! Pretty soon, we'll have no grief at all in this world -- woo hoo!

I haven't even gotten to the issue presented by the previous couplet, which proclaims "A poem should equal to:/ Not true," then turns around and equates the history of grief to an empty doorway and a maple leaf and equates love with "the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea." The issue here again is that the poem itself is "equaling to"; the poem itself makes comparisons and analogies. But the poem denies that it is undertaking these acts that require interpretation and meaning.

Now I am at the point where I am disputing the primary argument that "A poem should not mean/ But be." I am disputing it in two ways: 1) A poem that is must "mean," and 2) a poem should "mean."

1) First, I do not think that a poem exists independently of everyone and everything. Poems always have readers, even if it is just the author him or herself. Maybe if you randomly scribble letters on a chalkboard in the dark, say the letters form "a poem," throw the chalkboard in a silver safe, and throw the safe in the ocean, you might have an argument that that is a poem that "is" but doesn't "mean." But that's just getting a bit theoretical there, folks. A poem that describes something typically has some emotional, linguisitic, philosopical, spiritual, and/or political meaning behind it. A poem that is "means."

2. Second, a poem should "mean." Part of the power of poetry is that it does mean something. Every poem means in many different ways -- to the poet, to the friends and family of the poet, to the reader(s), socially, culturally, emotionally, linguistically, philosophically, spiritually, and politically. It may be possible for us to find most of these different elements embedded in every single poem.

I am not a fan of people saying that poetry doesn't mean anything. Of course, most of those people are just saying that poetry is less important than pogo sticks or football or collecting pogs or whatever. But it's related -- if a poem "should not mean," why should anyone care about it? I mean, you might as well go and marvel at all the amazing pogs in your pog colllection. At least the cardboard "means" something to you.

MacLeish was an amazing person and poet (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/47) who led an amazing life. Nowadays, he is underappreciated, because, as evidenced by the sometimes unthinking popularization of "Ars Poetica," not a lot of people care to read his work thoughtfully. A poet like MacLeish deserves more than that.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

On Brian Kim Stefans' "The Applicant"

Although Brian Kim Stefans has penned longer and more complex works, I've chosen a rather simple, modest poem for this blog. The poem is modest and fun and suitable for children, which is not a commonplace combination. The poem is a vivid display of the poet's capacity to play nicely in a skillful way. It defies the equating of un-innocence with stupidity that is often not so much of a product of avant-garde sophistication than of laziness and apathy.

The poem has the feel of what I think is the best of transcribed, sput-of-the-moment poetry. It feels fresh and unpolluted. There is rhyme, but the rhyme feels unforced. The length of each line is short, often consisting of only one word, which pulls the reader through the poem. If one wants to make the case for "less is more" (which I actually think is an overused cliche), then this poem would be a sound example.

If I must find meaning in the poem, it appears to be about an applicant at a job interview, though it is capable of many different interpretations, and the primary feature of the poem is the language.

The language is the diva of the poem. The poem opens with the wonderful line, "Your promise is a lazy dog." There are several original turns of phrasing, such as "jury duty effects," "dirigible skill," "It's nothing the matter person," "free in bluster," and "all block-wide jeeps will issue." I realize that I'm quoting a fair percentage of the poem here, but many of the lines are entirely fascinating inventions. The final stanza ends on the same strong, refreshing note as the opening stanza.

What I also like very much about the poem is that Stefans does not appear to be writing solely for a particular school of poetry here. There has been talk about particular schools of poetry around the blogosphere. I don't mind them, of course -- Asian-American poetry can surely be interpreted as a "school of poetry." I think that they can make for good communities as well as be helpful to the development of poets and even the writing of poems.

But I also think that "schools of poetry" can become stultifying to the individual poets within the school if they aren't flexible and capable of change. And they can become annoying to everyone else outside the school, if they become instruments of exclusion, like a fraternity where everyone gets certain bawdy in-jokes that are meaningless and dull, if not offensive, to everyone outside it. So, I would argue that those within a school of poetry should remain open to an expansion of the form and the changing of boundaries over time as well as sensitive enough to allow others not inside the school to more fully participate in the conversation. And, of course, even though I read a lot of "Asian-American poetry," that is certainly not the only type of poetry that I read. But I'm drifting here...

I think that "The Applicant" is a good read that will entertain all poetry lovers of different stripes.

Brian Kim Stefans' "The Applicant"

To read Brian Kim Stefans' "The Applicant," go to http://www.theeastvillage.com/t5/stefans/p1.htm


For a biography of Brian Kim Stefans, go to http://www.mipoesias.com/Volume19Issue3Gudding/stefans.html


Other Brian Kim Stefans sites of interest include: http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/feature/ stefans/index.html

and http://www.arras.net/fscII/archives/2005/05/ what_does_it_ma.html

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The i and the &

There are two tropes of many modern poems that often thoroughly confuse me, though I have tried both myself. They confuse me, because I'm not getting what they're all about. I don't have a particular bias for or against any style, but I feel like there should at least be some point involved, some reason for the poet doing something and/or something that the poet wants to show. I'm not sure what the point is behind the i and the &:

1. the uncapitalized "i": The first one is the uncapitalized "i." Yeah, I get it -- the world is grand, you're insignificant vis-a-vis the world, you're way too modest, etc. But why do poets that use the uncapitalized "i" usually use it over and over again in the same poem? Doesn't that defeat the purpose? I mean, you're already talking about yourself and what you're thinking and feeling, so you might as well just capitalize the "i." I think that the "i" would only serve a purpose if it was in a poem that meant it -- that wanted to distinguish the "i" from the "I" in some meaningful way, for example.

2. and for "&": If the previous technique is used more often by poems that are more "personal" and "political," then the "&" is used more often in "language" poems. The "&" perplexes me even more. This one must be some inside joke that I'm not getting here. Using a symbol for a three-letter word seems rather pointless to me, which might merely mean that I'm ignorant if there really is a point that I've missed. I'd like to be invited to the party (the party where we bob for candy-appled "&'s," play pin the tail on the "&," swing at the giant "&" pinata, etc.) but I haven't yet.

I'm willing to venture that at least the first couple poets who used the i and the & actually had some important reasons behind this decision. There must have been some original justification that meant something.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Love Affair with Michiko Kakutani

I'm sorry, but I can no longer keep my crush hidden from the world: I am in love with Michiko Kakutani. Well, not Michiko Kakutani the person. I don't know her. I don't even have her poster over my bed. I'm talking about Michiko Kakutani the NY Times book reviewer, more specifically, the book reviews themselves, which are some of the most entertaining literary works being written today.

There is no equivalent to Michiko Kakutani in poetry criticism today. (If you think there is, let me know. Prove me wrong.) No one in poetry criticism writes that clearly and honestly. Too many poetry critics use big words and complicated sentences meaninglessly and off-handedly allude to obscure poets as if the reader would care that the critic is so smart. Most importantly, of course, too many poetry critics write reviews that are BORING. I don't care how many color photocopies you make of your shiny Ph.D. diploma from Fancy Feast University -- boring does not equal interesting!

In addition to being a marvelous writer, Kakutani also gives the reader different looks in terms of style and content. You never go into a Kakautani review quite knowing what she will say and how she will say it. That's a good thing, because if you could fully anticipate what you're going to read, you'd probably not read it in the first place. For example, Kakutani's most recent review is written entirely in the first person and makes self-referential remarks on the critic's own personal life -- http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/books/23kaku.html. It's a strange review, almost like a Tim Wakefield knuckleball, but it's nice to witness a critic innovate and attempt to challenge the conventions of the review form.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Hitler Question Revisited - Poets vs. Poetry

(Note: I have edited and added to a post on "The Hitler Question" that I made earlier, which I find interesting and worth revisiting.)

The Hitler Question: If a historical researcher discovered that Hitler was a poet and had written a book of fantastic poems, would you judge solely on the basis of the poetry or judge the poet along with poetry?

The descriptive answer, meaning the "is" answer, for me is that I honestly couldn't divorce the poetry from the poet. I don't think that I could go around proclaiming that Adolf Hitler is a great poet. If I knew Hitler wrote a volume of zesty sestinas, I don't think that I could go around praising his original use of end-words knowing he caused the death of six million Jews. The normative answer, meaning the answer to the question "am I wrong here? should I be divorcing the poetry from the poet?," is relatively more open to debate.

I think that this question potentially has widespread implications. I chose Hitler on purpose, precisely because he is a reviled figure. Lots of people sincerely think that they can separate the poetry from the poet. But the question is whether they can pass the Hitler test. And if they pass, should they be passing, that is, should they be openly praising Hitler's poetry and encouraging people to read Hitler's poetry despite the man himself? The normative question is, of course, also an ethical one.

You might argue, come on, no poet is as bad a person as Hitler. And that would be exactly my point. You would be looking at the poet; you would have to be looking at the person of the poet to make such a conclusory remark. It does matter to us who the poet is.

And if it matters to us who the poet is, we must ask ourselves, is it ethical for a poet who is not a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing to represent him or herself as such, as happened in the case of the Yasusada hoax? I do not find the idea of a non-Japanese or Japanese-American poet representing her or himself as such as troubling or interesting as the idea of any poet, in general, trying to pretend that his or her work of art is not his or her own creation and thus both disavowing any responsibility for it and decontextualizing it from its individual and societal source.

Of course, there have been many works of literature throughout history that are anyonmous or pseudononymous, but my radical claim is that our knowledge of these works is necessarily incomplete. In other words, I am saying that an anonymously penned or falsely accredited poem may reveal only a limited piece of the full picture of a poem. A poem has the capacity to show us who the poet is and what type of society, in history or in the present, helped shape the poet as an individual and artist, and this knowledge is lost through anonymity, pseudonyms, or misrepresentation. Perhaps that is what makes scholars so passionate in debates over the "true" identity of the authors of literary works. The identity of the poet can give us fuller insight into the grandeur and significance of the poem.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

On Srikanth Reddy's "Burial Practice"

There are some poems that one wants to avoid. Srikanth Reddy e-mailed me a copy of "Burial Practice," from Facts for Visitors (2004), about a couple months ago, and I must confess that I have been avoiding it. The poem invites avoidance, because it is a highly intellectual, poised, somber piece that meditates on death in an unsentimental way, meaning that it bears a much closer resemblance to an Ingmar Bergman film than "Garfield: The Movie." But maybe if you squint your eyes and pretend that "gravely wounded" Prince Theodore is really Nermal the World's Cutest Kitty Cat...

As the title and first stanza of "Burial Practice" suggest, the piece concerns death, and the rest of the poem takes place after what is at least an initial death. It is not the death of your pet goldfish but an impersonal death. There are no characters with whom we should empathize. There is purposefully no "I" or "you" in the poem, which is a relatively commonplace technique in avant-garde poetry that by itself does not make a poem effective.

I think that the effectiveness of the poem primarily lies in its intriguing phrases, as in the lines, "Then sadness without reason," "Then the removal of the ceiling by hand," "Then the page where the serfs reach the ocean," "Then the page with the curious helmet," and "Interpretation, then harvest," and "Then & only then the violet agenda." The unique use of language, coupled with the poet's strong use of anaphora, is what keeps you reading, and if you don't read a poem for its language, you likely will be turned off by the end of the second stanza. But if you do, then reading this poem can become a hypnotic, almost mystical passage through an odd, inspired, strikingly surreal yet familiar world.

The poem is also wildly ambitious, attempting to cover philosophical, literary, historical, and futuristic terrain with one grand swoop of the pen (or keyboard). To take one example, there are no particular wars mentioned, only "the same war by a different name."An American reader of today would probably, at least subsconsciously, be thinking of the war in Iraq, but that is not what the poet appears to be getting at here. The war in Iraq is too particular, intimate, and human, and the poet is instead aiming to say something profound about the general human condition.

In the sense of not having personal specificity, the poem ironically resembles the "I love you-you love me" poems that some junior high poets scribble in their diaries (and which they should be encouraged to keep on doing despite warnings that that kind of habit won't lead to steady paychecks), except that this poem is what one would call "high art." The abstractness is not an accident but a motif. How can I put this delicately? -- the poet did not write this poem for lemon-flavored dum-dums. You can deduce this fact by observing the references to Prince Theodore and Masha, the line, "Then the page scribbled in dactyls," and most importantly, the overall tone of the poem. This poem is intended for a coterie of relatively educated readers, many of whom might not get it but probably won't publicly admit to not getting it. This poem is not intended for well-oiled hunks and hotties who like to party on a Jamaican beach with Tara Reid. Sorry. I'm not sure who comes out ahead, but I'd rather not be keeping score.

And since this blog is entitled "Asian-American Poetry," I should note that this poem, as has been the case of at least the previous few poems on this blog, is not one that inherently lends itself to identification of the poet as Asian-American. Breaking away from race, ethnicity, and identity (along with breaking away from the "I" and the "you") is part of what makes this poem ambitious. And the poem's ambition manifests itself in a certain level of elegance, style, and grace.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Srikanth Reddy's "Burial Practice"

To read Srikanth Reddy's "Burial Practice," go to http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16760


Biography: Srikanth Reddy's first collection of poetry, "Facts for Visitors," was published by the University of California Press in Spring 2004. His work has appeared in various journals, including APR, Fence, Grand Street, jubilat, Ploughshares, and Verse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and doctoral candidate at Harvard University, Reddy currently teaches poetry and literature at the University of Chicago.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part III

Zulfikar Ghose: The very thing that works against us-- national origin-- is sometimes the reason for our success. I encountered this dilemma almost as soon as I began to publish poems in London, in 1959. Writers from the former British colonies were a new phenomenon. Dom Moraes and I from the Subcontinent, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and a few others were among the first poets from the recently independent countries to be published in England. Suddenly a new category was born: Commonwealth literature. Next thing, publishers began to produce anthologies of Commonwealth poetry with their own little nationalistic pigeon-holes and I found myself in demand for the simple reason that I was identified as having been born in Pakistan. It had nothing to do with the quality of one's work. Poetry readings, literary festivals, etc., followed: one was in demand because one could be labelled.

Being included under this label gave us more opportunities (sometimes the only opportunity) to be published but at the same time, by confining us within a category, guaranteed our status as untouchables. But here's the dilemma: those of us who have acquired a reputation by being included in anthologies of Commonwealth literature and university courses in ethnic studies have been given opportunities to be published and to be studied which, being a consequence not of the quality of our work but of our being identified with a group, are denied to writers from the 'mainstream': in other words, the very thing that creates opportunities for us, and places us in a privileged situation, is the thing we accuse of branding us as untouchable. But to the mainstream folks our complaint of being thrown into a ghetto must sound like having one's cake and whining, while one's mouth is still full eating a big chunk of it, that it tastes bitter.

This post constitutes my third and final commentary on Ghose's recent essay on hyphenated English-language literature. It'll probably make more sense if you scroll back and start with Part I. Trust me. :)

I find the arguments in this excerpt more convincing than the two previously quoted excerpts. In contrast to the other excerpts, Ghose uses the word "I" effectively here. We get a much better of where he is coming from. The glimpse into Ghose's inner self allows us to better sympathize with his primary contention that identifying one as a "Commonwealth poet," or as an "Asian-American poet," constitutes an undesirable pigeonholing. His narrative allows us to experience the author as an individual with past personal experiences from which he has derived his present views.

Ironically, the success of this passage lies at least partly in the fact that we, the reader, can view him as a very specific human being, of which ethnicity/race/nationality constitues a key part, along with geography and publishing history. And Ghose makes an interesting, if not entirely original, point that "identity politics" can be used to benefit a racial/ethnic minority author in publishing -- the strength of this excerpt here, however, is that Ghose personalizes this argument across decades of experience.

I do have a quibble, though, with Ghose's assumption here and elsewhere that publishers, editors, and others who have promoted "Commonwealth literature" simply did so on the basis of group identification. I don't think that Ghose is saying that he and his fellow Commonwealth poets were published solely on the basis of their names, because that would just be wrong and, at least in relation to most publishers and editors, sounds like a somewhat unfair caricature of the truth. More likely, Ghose means that publishers and editors have not taken the work of his fellow Commonwealth poets seriously enough, have not been reading the works critically and honestly, and have not been evaluating it on the basis of its literary quality.

But whether literary merit and the ethnic/racial content of the poem or poet may be separable is an open question. In another version of the Hitler question, one may ask, is it possible to write a racist poem, like a poem that favors slavery, that is of high literary quality? I don't think it is possible. So, I think that literary merit is at least partly contingent upon ethnic/racial content, and the race/ethnicity of both the reader and the poet are at play in the reading of many poems.

I guess I also don't have as bleak a worldview of "the ghetto" of Commonwealth literature, or Asian-American poetry, as Ghose and some others do. Even if one assumes that it is a ghetto, I don't think that it's necessarily a bad place to be, or as Ghose puts it, "a bitter cake." I mean, we all have individual scholarly interests in poetry. I wonder how Ghose would feel if it wasn't the "ghetto of Commonwealth poetry" but "the ghetto of the Beat poets" or "the ghetto of gay/lesbian poets" or "the ghetto of southern poets." Or how about "the ghetto of Shakespeare," if a scholar is only, or primarily, interested in Shakespeare?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part II

Zulfikar Ghose: Instead, in western countries, one would be lucky to find the names [of G.V. Desani and Raja Rao] in university courses other than the ones devoted to that hideous bureaucratic invention, Third World literature, courses that are usually taken by a handful of students from racial minorities or by foreign students pathetically looking for something with which they can identify. Such courses, which purport to provide a balanced view, only perpetuate the essential distortion: they confirm the generally accepted notion that English literature consists of regional blocks that have no connection with one another and are to be seen only as pictures of those regions. Without such nationalistic identification, even this little recognition would be denied Desani and Rao.

But isn't it sad that with such world-class writers as Desani and Rao one has to place them in a nationalistic category in order to win them some attention? It is a procedure by which one's neglect can almost be guaranteed. It is like a work of art which the museum curator, finding no niche for it in the permanent galleries, places in the storage room and brings it up on some rare occasion for a temporary exhibition in which it is included not for its beauty but to make some sociopolitical point.

Wow, Ghose has really got it going on with that first sentence, which is a doozy that manages to take a shot at university bureaucracies, faculty members, multiculturalists, racial minority students, and foreign students at the same time. Indeed, Ghose displays the amazing ability to totally comprehend the reasons behind many students' course selection habits with the line that "students from racial minorities and foreign students" take classes like "Third World Literature" (and by implication, Asian-American literature?) because they are "pathetically looking for something with which they can identify." Ouch! Hey, maybe they're just choosing classes, because they're not into morning classes or only want classes on Thursday and Friday. Is that any less "pathetic"?

I think that the primary problem with this claim is that it unfairly singles out "Third World Literature" or "Asian-American Poetry" or "African-American Novels" for harsh criticism by decontextualizing them from the rest of the classes offered in English. Look, we all know the types of courses offered in college. Beyond intro courses, courses often are quite specific. For example, some English classes that will be offered at Duke University in Fall 2005 include "Seamus Heaney," "Medieval Literature to 1500," "Sexualities Film/Video," "Renaissance Enviornmentalisms," "American Literature: 1915 to 1960," etc. Even a class that has a more general-sounding title like "Contemporary American Writers" must necessarily be relegated to a limited set of works due to the time constraints of the semester. So, I'm not quite understanding why "Third World Literature" must be isolated for particular criticism. And I'm not sure why taking a class with which you can identify is so pathetic. I alawys thought that it was cool to explore one's own interests and identity, but then again, I think that Aqua's "Barbie Girl" is a cool video, so maybe I have a warped sense of coolness.

To borrow Ghose's museum analogy, most college classes feature works of art that are singled out. They are all unique and specific. It's not such a bad thing to have diverse course offerings, just as it's not such a bad thing that there is a diverse array of exhibits at museums. I don't deny that the professor who offers "Asian-American Poetry" wants "to win [the poets] some attention," though I'd dispute that would be the only or main goal. Usually, it's about exploring a subject that is also a scholarly interest with students. Also, winning attention for the author(s) and their works would be the same objective for the professor offering the class on "Seamus Heaney" or "Medieval Literature to 1500" as the professor teaching "Asian-American Poetry." Furthermore, such classes like Asian-American Poetry" may concededly not be "permanent" offerings, but they can be, provided that there are professors or grad students willing to teach them.

More importantly, Ghose seems to desire a English lit curriculum that is unified and features a limited set of writers, while at the same time, he wants it to focus on Indian writers like Desani and Rao. Paradoxically, it's almost an "Indian-power" argument that wants Indian writers to be featured but does not want them to be singled out as"Indian" in the inclusion or the teaching. Indeed, Ghose acknowledges that courses like Third World Literature may be the only way that these authors get any recognition at all, and he clearly wants these authors to get recognition.

But Ghose does not deal with the problem of exclusion, which I've touched upon before in previous posts -- for an expansion of a unified curriculum in American poetry, for example, there must eventually be an exclusion of poets, since there is only a limited number of poets that may be read in a semester or year. I think that taking out some of the "lesser" English-language writers for "greater" English-language Indian writers is what Ghose wants, but he does not want the Indian writers to be acknowledged as "Indian" but simply "great," which is ironic, considering that Ghose himself points out that they are Indian. And, actually, a changing of the curriculum has already happened to a limited extent in many relatively generalist classes that offer an ethnically/racially diverse array of authors, though less so in poetry than in other fields in English literature.

Ghose does touch upon the valid point that classes like "Third World Literature" are often not as popular with students as a class like "Shakespeare," for example. Well, one important reason is that "Shakespeare" is often a requirement for the English major. Another reason is that high school graduates have generally all had much more exposure to Shakespeare's works (as opposed to probably zero exposure to any Asian-American poets), and so there's a better chance that they'd be interested in a class called "Shakespeare." And, in general, there are fewer tenured professors willing to devote the energy and attention to teach a class in "Third World Literature" or "Asian-American Poetry," which is important, since tenured professors generally get to decide the classes that they want to teach. But perhaps most importantly, students are often taught at a relatively early age, maybe junior high or high school, that novels are more important than poems, that Ernest Hemingway is more important than Garrett Hongo, and that Asian-American poetry is not a worthwhile scholarly field of study, if it is a field of study at all. It's a tough lesson to shake, because it's one that is gradually communicated through years and years of education.

Friday, August 12, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part I

In one of his recent essays, www.callreview.net/issueone.html, long excerpts of which I found via Pam's blog, http://openreader.blogspot.com/, Zulfikar Ghose implicitly challenges the very existence of this blog! It's a splendid piece, because Ghose doesn't mince words, so I won't feel bad for openly challenging and disputing his arguments here. (Plus agreeing with them when I think he's right, of course.)

And I'll be doing something I've never done before with this post and the following couple posts, which is create a paragraph by paragraph dialogue with an excerpt from the piece (or at least the parts on Pam's blog -- I don't have access to the whole piece, but Pam has helpfully quoted much of it on her blog). I've generally found this technique needless and distracting, often requiring the reader to read more than necessary and obscuring the blogger's own points, but I just had a nice supper and figure I should try it out at least once while I'm feeling like it. Also, as Pam insightfully points out, it might help if you substitute "identity" for "nationalism" while reading, because Ghose is clearly talking about what most American scholars popularly term "identity politics" except that he discusses it mainly from an "English" perspective. And when Ghose refers to "national identity," it's equally clear that he's thinking of "ethnicity."

Ghose: Of all the categories into which literature is divided, the worst is the nationalistic one, especially among writers in the English language. An implied hierarchy has become established among English-language writers: it is assumed that those from the United Kingdom and Ireland and from the U.S.A. are the primary English-language writers, the mainstream, followed by those from the former British colonies, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose population until recently was largely of white Britsh or European origin.

Whoa, slow down, big fella! First, let's take some responsibility for our points here: you think the worst way to divide literature is the nationalistic one, you think that there is an implied hierarchy, you think that (unnamed) others have separated an "UK-Ireland-U.S.A" triumverate from "the former British colonies." The "assumptions," though framed as assumptions, are actually assertions here.

Second, I doubt that the worst way to divide literature is the nationalistic one. There are many worse ways, in my opinion. For starters, there's the bastardization of poetry into a mere three or four bookshelves in bookstores while magazines, cookbooks, and computer self-help books get much more space and glory. Then, within the poetry section itself, we let in only "good" poets like Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, Whitman, and Frost, while we relegate contemporary poets to a fraction of this already small space. Finally, have you tried to find even a single Asian-American poetry book in a bookstores these days? You should try it out, just as a fun experiment. Oooh, for all you teachers out there, this is a smashing idea for an inexpensive field trip! If you're lucky, you'll find a book or two by Marilyn Chin or Li-Young Lee, but that's probably about it. There, I've just come up with three worse ways to divide literature. Three strikes, baby. And I haven't even gotten to how even the lower-middle class gets excluded these days with the shutting down of public libraries, decreasing funding for academic publishers so fewer works of poetry and poetry criticism get published, etc.

Third, and not a major point, I've never comes across the grouping of the U.K., Ireland, and U.S.A. as "primary English-language writers" apart from the "British colonies," such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Really, I guess I need to get out more. I've always thought of all six of those nations as having plenty of English-language writers. But I know that Ghose is implictly referring to the general degree of critical esteem that these writers have received, and I don't have much of a problem with this assertion, except for the oversight that the U.S.A. was once a British colony as well and that Ireland and the U.K. haven't exactly had the most amicable relationship either. Also, Ghose evidently has India in mind as a "British colony," and he should just come out and say it here instead of avoiding it to downplay the question of race.

Fourth, the contention that the population of British colonies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand "until recently was of British or European origin" is ahistorical. Indigenous peoples have long populated all these nations, before British and European immigrants migrated over the past several centuries. In addition, during the past several centuries, there has been plenty of migration from Asia and Africa as well.

Fifth and finally, I applaud Ghose for opening with a forceful and fascinating topic sentence and following it up with an interesting contention. Ghose clearly has something interesting to say here, and he's straightforward and upfront about it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

From Pamela Lu's "Ambient Parking Lot" - A Commentary

This prose poem is one of the few "postmodern," "language" poems that merits the language it employs. By that, I mean that its spare, mechinical, technocratic, unwieldy, and surreal universe matches the tone and word choice, which have an equally distancing effect. But this distancing effect is mitigated by a certain human solitude, because Pamela Lu comprehends that solitude can ironically bring us closer when we can identify with it.

I think that the use of the second person is key here. Completely original lines like "Ours was the first generation to realize the sentimentality of artificial repose," "Art shadowed us with all the fidelity of a non-negotiable accompaniment," and "We succumbed to moisture; we reorganized our sympathies around the civic drain," help us empathize with a world that seems so close to describing our own galaxies of picture frames and gumball machines and gas stations and other artificies that possess all the mechanics of appropriateness without quite embodying human essence. It's a very 21st century world.

This piece is very much about the evocation of mood. But I don't think it would have worked that well if it was only about mood. Mood and language can only carry you so far in a relatively long work. I don't enjoy boring but original combinations of words that go on for sentence after sentence, and I don't think I'm alone here. You may think you're chic and the latest craze in your black top hat with the live robin's nest glued to its shiny black surface, but by the fifth sentence, you've already lost your audience, who will be forced to give you generic praise like "Wow, this poem is so smart and sophisticated," meaning, of course, "I'm going to say something blandly nice, so you won't interrogate me on what this monstrosity really means." But I'm going off-topic here...

There is narrative and setting and character and meaning and politics here, and that elevates the poem. There is a sense of drive and adventure, as "we wept with a bitterness that enfolded the greater plots and vistas of our childhood," "we are humbled by literature," and "shunned by our peers, we lapsed into a general delinquency..." We are taken through many locales. "We" feel. Feeling humans confront a strange world of "titanium and clover," city planners, and "diesel sonatas," from which they are alienated. In this sense, the piece is not too far off from strong science-fiction.

This excerpt does have one glaring weakness throughout, and I'd be disappointed if Pam doesn't work on it in a future draft. What am I talking about here? It's the use of adjectives. There are way, way too many adjectives. The setting, language, characters, mood, and tone of the poem all aspire to a lean, efficient minimalism, and the adjectives are sometimes as out of place as chopsticks at a pizza restaurant.

Revision will admittedly be a little tricky, though. Some combos like "artificial repose," "diesel sonatas," and "civic drain" work, primarily because they are original. But others, like "bold and indolent tomorrow," "cold passion," "parched tongue," "blistered feet," and "desert drone of midnight traffic" are either not original enough or overdoing it, at least to me. And, more generally, I think it does become problematic that almost every single sentence has a bunch of adjectives, even if the combos are somewhat neat. I wonder whether "And yet out of this gridlocked tundra, there emerged a solitary figure, silent and unloved, who stood at the center of each of our lives, who canvassed the non-pedestrian terrain and found hospitality in the desert drone of midnight traffic," would work better as "And yet out of this tundra, there emerged a figure, who stood at the center of each of our lives, who canvassed the terrain and found hospitality in the drone of traffic." Or something like that, something to make a unique phrase like "commercial pity" stand out a little more from the crowd.

Overall, this excerpt makes me want to read more. I'd be interested whether Pam can sustain the linguistic/narrative energy and drive of the poem for a longer distance, because it works so far. It works, because we care where we, and the poem, are going.

Monday, August 08, 2005

from Pamela Lu's "Ambient Parking Lot"

from "Ambient Parking Lot"

We were born in the back of a moving vehicle, gliding softly past the fields of titanium and clover that marked the settlements of a bold and indolent tomorrow. The pleasure of this moment was transitory, yet persisted long enough to color the squawks and intonations of our first words. We surfaced from slumber, gurgling impressions of truck horns and carburetors, ham signals and telegraph buzz. Ours was the first generation to realize the sentimentality of artificial repose. When our favorite projection machine was declared obsolete, we wept with a bitterness that enfolded the greater plots and vistas of our childhood. Art shadowed us with all the fidelity of a non-negotiable accompaniment. We were humbled by literature, by the narrative eclipse of city planners who named boulevards after engineers, cul de sacs after planets. Sidewalks made a lake of silver to park our seismic unrest against. Could we possibly survive the vacancy and cold passion of a landscape novel that contained no people? Pylons became our chorus, the overpass our hero. The conflict between eucalyptus and smog would never be rightly resolved. And yet out of this gridlocked tundra, there emerged a solitary figure, silent and unloved, who stood at the center of each of our lives, who canvassed the non-pedestrian terrain and found hospitality in thedesert drone of midnight traffic. This was the soul of our early compositions, which wore the unsocialized absorption of parched tongue, blistered feet, shuffling gait--everything, in short, that stigmatized the walker as an enemy of progress. The official note was resignation, the official tune estrangement, as we distorted and mixed chromosomal harmonics to coax our avatar out of exile and back into the hum of human events.Mentored by his wrath and guided by his sorrow, we became bad subjects, perfectly ill-suited for day camp, standardized tests, or weekend play-dates. Shunned by our peers, we lapsed into a general delinquency characterized by consumption of Goethe studies and other controlled substances. In the end, preliminary foundations prevailed. El Nino reintroduced us to the warmth of concrete. What new emotion was this, and would we recognize ourselves in it? We succumbed to moisture; we reorganized our sympathies around the civic drain. By springtime, nature had raised a sound structure whose stroke and responsiveness far transcended that of our diesel sonatas. The walker had arrived. He entered a city steeped in gray and troubled tones, with nary a trace of commercial pity. Blazing a trail to the mezzanine garage that housed our sampling stations, he paused to clear his ears. He faltered. He fell against the upturned cone to listen.


Author's Note: "Over the past year, I've been working on and off on a mid-length prose piece called _Ambient Parking Lot_. I've just transitioned from the chiefly narrative part of it to a more lyrical interlude, composed of prose blocks which could function on some level as rambling prose poems. At least, this is what occurred to me when I took a few of these blocks out of context and readthem individually. So I am sending you one of the blocks to digest as you will."


Biography: Pamela Lu is a prose writer who grew up in Southern California and nowresides in Northern California. She is the author of _Pamela: A Novel_, whichcan be ordered through Amazon.com(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1891190040/qid=1120856459/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_ur_1/102-0638788-8535345?v=glance&s=books&n=507846). When not compulsively surfing and commenting on blogs, she tends domestic animals andwrites computer manuals for a living. Her blog is http://openreader.blogspot.com/.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

On Nick Carbo's "HER AHS AND OHS"

I feel like I've been getting too serious and drifting away from the topic of "Asian-American poetry" in my most recent posts, so I want to rectify that here. I mean, look at the subtitle to this blog, "My strange and outlandish takes..." That's what you're here for, isn't it?

And this poem is a good place to start. Nick Carbo's "HER AHS AND OHS" is like chocolate cheesecake. It's no good for you, but you eat it up anyway. You're not going to learn anything broccoli-ish by reading this poem. It's not the poem that your freshman rhetoric instructor (not a professor, but a PhD candidate) will tell you is "serious" or "profound" or "transcendent," while sweating away in his awkward little red-and-white striped bow tie, hoping that you won't question him "why?" because the answer is not in the lesson plans that he scribbled at 2am last night in pencil on an oversized yellow post-it while preparing an 8-page outline for chapter 3 of his book on Emily Dickinson's imaginary sister's Orphelian farmhouses, only three years away from getting his PhD and three and a half years from moving back into the old upstairs room in his parents' house while becoming a "freelance" writer for some software start-up in Silicon Valley as he searches for a publisher for his novella on a female Manhattanite who has to deal with the quirks and oddities of her Nebraskan fiance's family in the middle of farm-country in Lincoln during the late 1980s after being laid-off from her job as assistant to the bigwig of some Wall Street firm that went bust. Oh, no. That's not this poem.

This poem is appropriately titled, because it's about an orgasm. And orgasms are dirty! Let's say that the woman having the orgasm, and the man giving it to her, are Asian American. Do Asian Americans have orgasms? Asian Americans are a very clean people, so we have to wonder. It's probably more kosher in American pop culture for Asian American women to be portrayed as having orgasms than it is for Asian American men to be portrayed as such. So, in that sense, if we want to picture both the man and the woman as Asian American, the poem isn't all that radical. Of course, the story would change if one party was Asian American but the other was not.

If we want to carry my earlier "Hitler question" to its logical conclusion and say that it's impossible to separate the poet from the poem, we might ask, is the poet doing the pleasuring here? The poet is male. He obviously possesses carnal knowledge, which, if you can't tell from this poem, is pretty obvious from his other poems. But the perspective seems to mutually empathize with both the woman and the man, because the pleasuring is mutual -- both lovers are acting here. There are two people, both doing the pleasuring and being pleasured, in the poem.

And people, does it matter whether these "ahs and ohs" have happened in real life before? One might say that it's the question of the Yasusada hoax (discussed earlier on this blog -- where apparently a Caucasian American poet pretended to be Asian-American and got a bunch of poems published in "prestigious" magazines) all over again. But one wouldn't ordinarily question the authenticity here. Because this is not a "serious" poem in the sense that it doesn't deal with a "serious" issue like the bombing of Hiroshima. But why would one think that way? I mean, if authenticity matters in poetry, shouldn't it matter for any poem? If that's not the case, where are we drawing the line between a "serious" poem where authenticity matters and a "non-serious" poem where it doesn't?

Anyhow, getting to the language of the poem itself, I think that the poem completely overturns the steroetype that Asian Americans don't know how to pronounce consonants. Look at all those "s's" and "p's" and "t's" My goodness, Nick Carbo has done us proud! Seriously, though, I've never understood the racial stereotype of Asian Americans mixing up "l's" and "r's" That must be the most stupid stereotype on the face of the earth, because it's so factually wrong. I mean, I myself have witnessed a plethora of Asian Americans mix up so many English words in so many different ways but never those particular consonants before. Looks like the xenophobes didn't do their research. It's kind of like saying that there are too many Asian Americans in the NBA. You only get to count Yao Ming once, folks. Stop saying Asian Americans "have made it" simply by pointing up at Yao. It's rude to point.

So, I liked this poem. I feel like I can refer to the poet as "Nick" as opposed to "Carbo," because, really, how many people (excluding masochists) would refer to orgasm-givers by their last names? I tell you that Nick has come up with a poem that will last the length that it should last as long as you want it to last, which is the ultimate fantasy.

Nick Carbo's "HER AHS AND OHS"


The shifting pings of her eyes send his synapses on a shopping spree for pink puckering skin. Start with the top turquoise button, she says as she turns the spigot. He craves the opal spin of her minuscule ahs. Will the intaglio of his tongue bring out the fine lines of her vermilion mood? Can he predict the aureole's arrival? Her sibilant hues oscillate under the joules of his kisses. Her fingers increase the intensity. Beyond the lifting belly, her ohs come in staccato bursts and she squeezes his hand. Her red round cowl retreats exposing the tiny bell, which will be tintinabulating until dawn.


For Nick Carbo's biography, see http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1667164 and http://www.cherry-grove.com/carbo.html.