Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On Asian American Poetry

Lo Pan says: You were not put upon this earth 'to get it!'

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.'

That's Sith logic!

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.

Big Brother is Watching You.

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:

Bamboo Among the Oaks, the first anthology of Hmong writers by Hmong writers. And as a bit of trivia, that's one of my photos used for the cover.

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.

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.


Does Lo Pan really have that much to do with poetry? Can 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.

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.

Human beings.

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.

Under different circumstances, this Carp might have been a great poet like Li-Young Lee. With respect to

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.


Jae Ran said...

Bryan, this was really an inspiring post. It made me think a lot and I was nodding my head in agreement through the whole thing.

butterflybutterfly said...

I feel like running into the other room (and probably will) to tell Y that I made an impact on you, after all, even though I thought I killed that post the other day.

An impact - and a good one, I think - on a good friend, wow.

Whether it's quite accurate, thank you for listening and considering (which you always do, I know, one of your best points, my friend).

Another thing, my response, before I forget the words it came in:

Poetry, to me, is letting what's inside, out - in language.

Which point funnily enough is just what I said, since the words came bursting out (whole and at once), and that's when my writing's best, no matter what the media may be.


Anonymous said...

I understand your point about the need to "break the mold" and resist mindlessness in literature and other forms of creative expression. But it's somewhat elitest to say the best poems are those that are unaccessible to the average person and difficult to understand. A poem is not "bad" just because everyday people can understand it.

Two of the writers I hated the most when studying English literature were Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. If they really had something that important to say, why not express it in a way that's accessible to as many people as possible?

Anyway, that's my two cents.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Anonymous, I'm not arguing against the existence nor the value of poems written within everyday existence or everyday experience.

Among the problems I see, however is both poets and readers who stop short of pushing their experience with a poem to another level, when it's possible.

Poetry should have more effect on a person than what could be as easily accomplished by reading a soup can label.

A simple surface reading can be done for most poems, but in many cases, that's like watching a DVD without seeing the extras.

You can certainly get a lot out of it as it is, but if there's more, how can you resist?

What's elitist is to suggest 'average' people can't try to challenge themselves, and better themselves by grappling with poetry and asking and expecting more from it, and from our languages, which I vehemently reject.

A poem like 'Roses Are Red,' for example, has inserted itself into language that most people only need to see the first few lines to know the rest, or at least, to think you know the rest.

We've become so numbed by the language that we often forget to contemplate the finer qualities of the poem and how the poem works.

The third line of 'Roses Are Red,' for example, is remarkably versatile- almost anything can be inserted within it and the poem still remains largely effective as primarily a courting poem (or in some cases an insult poem).

There's less latitude within the second line- oh, sure, you could replace violets with just about anything else that is blue, or some object that rhymes with you, creating a poem like:

Roses are red
Horses make glue
All life is amazing
And so are you

One of the things that makes me happiest about the present state of Hmong and Lao poetry I've run into is that so many people are taking it on with or without academic training.

It's so refreshing to see our community coming at it from so many angles.

Much like Neruda and others envisioned, poetry once more is of the people, by the people, for the people, and they grow from it.

While it verged on hyperbole, one of the most illuminating and gratifying comments I ever heard was from an older Laotian gentleman who appreciated our poetry that we're writing because its content brought him closer to the ideas he felt otherwise denied to him because he wasn't able to attend college.

And that theme has recurred frequently, especially among those who weren't able to finish their academic education for one reason or another.

They were still interested in learning and growing, in encountering new ideas and new ways to look at the world.

And they're doing it through poetry, which I see reflecting more of their lives and the fuller diversity of their experiences than what we typically see in other genres.

I find that wonderful!

But this is the point at which I should be clear too- I'm not an advocate of creating confusing, unreadable work just for the sake of confusion, seeing what happens when you randomly dump text on a page like a bag of moldy pretzels.

Today's spam does that all too well, surprisingly. There've been some rather amazing pieces that the spam-robots have been cooking, to be honest, that put some poets I know to shame. But that's a whole different post.

There are some poets I dislike because they're creating work that is just a big put-on like a James Joyce novel.

Overly accessible poets and overly inaccessible poets both have their place within poetry, and both have their detractors for good reason.

But far more poets are producing interesting work that falls between these two extremes.

And whatever you prefer of these multitudinous options, I hope that you're able to get something truly engaging and stirring out of it.

The larger point of this whole post in the first place was to posit that no one needs to be afraid of reading poetry for fear of 'not getting it'.

Even poets you would think are supposed to 'get it' don't, necessarily.

Five minutes with a truly good poem can do more wonders for the soul than a two-hour viewing of 'The Hot Chick' in my estimation, and I hope more people would seek that out.

And I hope they don't see it like eating broccoli and brussel sprouts because it's good for you, but to discover why humans have been reading and writing poetry for over 4,000 years even when so many other forms of expression are available.

From the humblest farmers in the fields of Vietnam with their Ca Dao to diplomats, business people and rocket scientists, poetry speaks to humanity in great ways if we're willing to listen.