It's important to de-mystify poetry from time to time. And to humanize our poets and recognize them as human beings as ordinary as you and I.
And that's what brings up Lo Pan from Big Trouble In Little China today.
At one point Jack Burton is listening to Lo Pan and admits he doesn't get it. Lo Pan retorts: "You were not put upon this earth to get it!"
Which is snippy, but captures a common plight we all experience when reading some poets.
It's disingenuous of me to say I get everything every poet is writing, whether Asian American or not, because I don't. And I've come to terms with that.
While some might think 'not getting it' is a problem, in fact, that's part of the fun.
Puzzling it out, the way others might try to solve a video game, a mystery or a crossword puzzle.
To be honest, some of the poets I hate most are those who can be 'gotten' in a single reading.
There's a quote from Franz Kafka I like that explains much of what's happening in modern poetry today, and why we try to write it:
"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."
I run into people who feel terrible when they don't 'get it,' after reading a poem.
The secret is: I'm not certain all the authors themselves 'get it' either, nor are they necessarily trying to, nor is it certain that some poetry can ever be 'gotten.'
Yeah, I know. It's a real pain. :)
Poetry to me is a 'game' of language, of pushing words to do new things and to make us re-evaluate familiar words and appreciate what we've got. And what we need.
And it's a resistance to authorities who try to turn language into a dumb wooden block, a club that beats out all nuance in our everyday lives.
That "you're with us or against us" brutality trying to reduce the world to strictly "either/or." 'You love us or you hate us.'
But we have many different words precisely to explain things at more complex levels.
One of my old teachers pointed out that the Greeks had many different words for 'love' not because they were bored, but because they wanted to be able to make that distinction within their lives- between love for a state, for the gods, for a wife or a friend, or an object.
When we drive language to be too pat, too everyday, too routine, we make it easier for our leaders to use simpler terms to push and sway us this way or that.
To limit our worlds.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said famously, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," which caused no end of controversy, but it's a good starting point for considering what language means for any people, any society.
A limited language makes a limited people, and leads to the rise of dystopias.
It takes less and less language to lead us into wars. Sadly, the process to create peace is neither as simple or similar a matter.
All too often, we have things coming to us pre-packaged. That's good for candy bars, but it's lousy for opinions.
The purpose of language is to communicate.
A purpose of poetry is to communicate what can't be communicated by words, and perhaps those things that are under-communicated.
Watch it carefully. An entire meaning can hinge on a single word.
Except among sloppy poets. Ick.
But back to my point:
Hmong and Lao writers, among others, are faced with their history and their experiences being omitted from the textbooks like something out of an Orwellian future, and so they must turn to writing their own accounts:
Even if it isn't as 'authentic' as a history written by some academic scholar, it's what they've got, something they can leave as a clue to future generations.
Why? Because we've been given so little reason thus far to trust that anything but the majority version of history will make it into tomorrow's textbooks.
Big Trouble In Little China really be read as a metaphor for our engagement with higher literature and the fulfillment of human desire, the quest for immortality and shaking the heavens? Who knows.
So, after all this, what is good poetry to me?
Well, like the old quote about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Good poetry lingers with you. You want to quote it as easily as some might quote "The Simpsons" or Shakespeare. I know people who love certain poems so much that they keep copies of it in their wallets or even get it tattooed on their bodies.
But even as Roger Pao over at Asian American Poetry is bringing up a great discussion on poetry and Li-Young Lee's work adressed in the new book Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee by Boa Editions, featuring 20 years of Li-Young Lee being interviewed by different people, I have to say this, too:
The Li-Young Lee I know likes science fiction movies. :)
In fact, most of the poets I know watch things ranging from Star Wars and Star Trek to Blade Runner and The Matrix. They've read comic books and Tolkein right along with their Yevgeny Yevtushenko, their Pablo Neruda and T.S. Elliot. They watch anime, read manga, and groan at the latest Jim Carey movie.
People who eat and sleep and breathe, who poop and love and fight. People who are as ordinary as you and I, but we all live in a world where everything is also far more than ordinary.
What you're seeing written down was written by a human, someone who is the product of thousands of years of all life fighting and scrabbling on the earth, surviving wars, famine, disease, plots and random acts of chance.
All people today among us are a result of that process: amazing, sacred things.
That they are human beings at all and not a chicken or a fish, it's something. And someone.
One that you might not always understand, much less agree with, but when you stop to think of the finite nature of all things, and how many lines of life have already ended, and will never be regenerated, surely, we can approach what they create with some interest.
We can wonder why, with the brief lives we all lead, they've chosen to use theirs to create whatever it is they have created.
Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. But what matters is what speaks to your soul, those spaces in your body beyond just your eyes, your ears, what is solid, and what is not.