Monday, September 18, 2006

One of those posts I really shouldn't write.

Putting on the lit hat for the moment, I'm having an internal debate about what we call poetry at an intercultural level.

A long standing assumption has been that every culture has, or is capable of and should desire, a poetic tradition. And that poetry is universal (and if you don't like it as a culture, you're Philistines.)

What if that's wrong?

The history of Hmong writing (or relative lack thereof, until recently) provides an interesting and relevant hook upon which to frame this discussion.

We know it's possible for cultures, even those in remote tribal areas, to have what might be called "poetry" but conversely, it seems there are few large cultures without poetry, or something that passes for it.

But does a culture need poetry, or can it even set its version of poetry aside like, say, the art of scrimshaw (which, while not extinct, is certainly not at the forefront of people's artistic consciousness.)

Some cultures don't have a tradition in sculpture, batik or shadow puppetry, and broadly speaking, they get along perfectly well in the world. Why should they have to have a tradition of 'poetry'?

And even with what we've said IS 'poetry' in Asia- are we sure it's really poetry, or is it a thing in itself?

When we talk of Haiku, for example, or Kanshi, or Kwv Txhiaj, we're talking about stylized language, but as Confucius points out, "wisdom begins when we call things by their proper names."

I've constantly argued that the zaj and naga aren't dragons, although they're often erroneously thought to be interchangeable terms. And there's a serious degradation of meaning and a loss of understanding when that erroneous interchange takes place.

That being said, I'm now beginning to think we should have an earnest interest in what the literary or oral forms truly are that we're using. Maybe it's not a poem after all. Maybe it is just a Kwv Txhiaj, nothing more, nothing less.

That Kwv Txhiaj is not less for being a Kwv Txhiaj any more than an Opera is not less for being an Opera (even though it is not strictly a play, a concert, a musical, or even a musical play depending on how exacting a definition you want to get into.)

We often default to saying that it's all a form of poetry, but aren't we just being lazy?

I wonder if we're not exploring these words and their organization to see what they really are. And importantly, how they interconnect to the culture, and the other cultures they encounter.

In Japan, a haiku is really much more than 5-7-5, bad grammar and incomplete thoughts.

The Ramayana is certainly organized in something that looks like poetry, but that's really short-changing it, isn't it?

What if in fact, we have new literary or cultural forms of expression that we're not recognizing because we're trying too hard to pigeonhole them into Western terminology for which there isn't yet an exisiting analog?

Some time ago, Yoel Hoffman wrote a book about the tradition of Jisei, or Japanese death poetry- and I find myself thinking that while it can be read by people from other cultures, it's a perfect example of poetry with a far more profound EXPERIENCE involved that also requires explicit engagement with the culture that cannot be commodified or bought like some tsotchke from the mega-bookstore. The Jisei seem far more than just 'poems' or what passes for poetry among today's contemporary letters.

Taking this down to real-world application, the question is, why do Hmong, Lao and Tai Dam writers have to write poetry that fits Western standards?

We should be writing in whatever way or form is necessary to capture the true cultural heart and soul.

This isn't to say that I'm advocating a free-for-all, anything-goes approach- let there be craft and interest in the matter, or else it's all just random gibberish.

But at the same time, do we have the nerve to do whatever it takes to express the collective and private hearts of our people and our selves, even if it means going outside the boundaries of 'established forms'?

If that means of cultural and personal self-expression looks like a Western-style poem, or a rap, or spoken word or an ear-splitting performance art piece that Yoko Ono would cringe at, so be it. And if it doesn't look like any of these, so be it. And even if it doesn't look like an Asian-style 'poem', so be it.

Ultimately, whatever emerges, I think it's important to start becoming aware that we have the liberty to make our own rules, and we can and should throw off arbitrary shackles.

I'm sure people were freaked out when they first ran into the Tale of Genji, but so what.

Look now: The world is filled with novels today. Perhaps tomorrow they'll be filled with Ca Dao, Kwv Txhiaj or some other magnificent new literary and cultural form we haven't even come up with words for yet.

Let's get writing and see what comes up.


barbara jane said...

hear hear.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Thanks, B!

Actually, it's a lot of what you've been working on lately that's gotten me to re-thinking the whole matter.

I start asking why I'm defaulting to English terminology for what I do.

Why do we say the Ramayana is a great 'epic poem,' but we'd never think of saying Howl is a long American version of a Kwv Txhiaj?

(Well, actually if we did, we'd have to say Howl is a pretty lousy version of a Kwv Txhiaj, at least by traditional standards, but you get the point.)

In the US, we never seriously interpret Sandburg's Fog as a great example of a haiku.

And I'm not saying we always have to, or that the world of art and letters would be so much better for it, but it's intriguing to me that we don't seriously consider the notion at all.

We default to the idea that Western academia and the Euromerican Body Poetic authenticates and arbitrates what is of literary merit and value in form, when, with rare exception, it's lately been churning out only the unreadable, the soulless, the dreck-What some point out as 'not so much books as merely book-shaped objects.'

When you or others write more experimental literary works, should you really have to be forced to call it poetry when it's such a whole different creature, banging at the edges of that confine?

Obviously I've pieces that look like poetry, but they're not quite. They're definitely not prose, or a short story or a novel, but does that mean they're supposed to be pigeon-holed into poetry because we can't be bothered to come up with a proper term to encapsulate it all?

I'm interested in seeing what some of the other responses will be.

butterflybutterfly said...


One thing: of course you default to English terminology in how you refer to things - it's your training!

Language defines our worlds. Indeed, whatever language we grow up in defines our worldview in a very literal way. Practically speaking, language is the "code" used to pidgeon-hole all the items we ever come across, be they conceptual or physical, they all get put into their little cubby-holes and defined from that moment onward.

Each type of language defines a frame - of mind - which is why the concepts of "framing" as re-discovered of late in the socio-political world of activism have made such powerful, stirring impact.

"Don't think of an elephant!" Okay, can you not think of an elephant right now?? Of course not - framing is the language of how our brains have been hard-wired.

And that's why it's so very, very important to introduce our youngest of younglings to as many cultures, languages and world-frames as possible: without that, their worldviews would be ever-so-narrow, and nothing of positive change would really happen, would it?

I was lucky to be involved in a family which I tend to consider "impoverished intelligencia" because my folks were so very literate and educated. And I grew up with a wide range of cultural, historical, anthropological, archaeological and SF&F (and NO, "SF" does NOT = "Sci Fi" in my book - only movies like "attack of the killer tomatoes" do! ). And with science fiction and history and multi-cultural awareness, come many, many worldviews - so I think out of the box, yea, I don't even think a box is necessary, anachronistic though I may otherwise be.

And for the record, stop the damn dissing of all things "western" for goodness sake!!

It becomes a broken record, hearing all the things actually western mushed up into this skinny, hole-filled umbrella of middle-European stuff. And I'm not the only one tired of hearing it.

Poetry, too, is supposed to be the umbrella under which middle-European and some Mediterranean cultures view the rhythmic word forms. Note: "forms" not "form."

So if you follow that mindset, then use the scientific method and follow it through: Use genus and family, et cetera, to define where in the rhythmic word forms family tree each particular form fits - no matter what culture it originated in, or what nation.

And why not cross-compare?! I would love to hear the old Nordic chants, which could tell a family's ancestral tree traced back through the women's line back as far as the bard could hold breath, and then some. Yes, I'd go "grrrr" if some compared some Swede's styles with my of-course-it's-better Norwegian, but then, I've been trained to react that way, just as no other Scandahoovian nationality is as good as a Norwegian's.

Kind of like watching Southeast Asians compare the values of their nationalities, eh?

But I digress.

Why dis both Asian and non-Asian in the same breath, for that matter?

It sounds like the Asian stuff is not good enough for any of the Asians - constantly having to defend it against one's self-confidence issues about all things Asian - and at the same time, like all things non-Asian are not good enough, either.

To quote a former orchestral conductor here in the Twin Cities: "don't worry - be happy." I think you are worrying too much, and "be-ing" too little.

Let yourself be, for a while, and just enjoy it - no tearing at your Self, no turning the world upside down.

What language comes out of you then, when you've reached that point?

When you've let go of "us versus them" and realized we're all of us just humans, on a little round ball in space, with none but the other Earthling species beside us?

What will you write then, in your re-definition of self??

I'm not my ancestry, I am my self - my ancestry simply tells me where I've been, and the roadways of the future are choices I've yet to make. I'll only be destined to repeat my past, or the path of my ancestries, if I know nothing of them.

When you find your path, will you stop possibly-destructively self-questioning?

I know you will still be able to write, at that point. Even if you don't yet.



P.S. - new blog, all general: