Engagement, race, and public poetry in America
Has American poetry become more engaged with public events, more politically relevant, in the opening years of the twenty-first century? That is the claim made by The New American Poetry of Engagement, an anthology edited by Ann Keniston and Jeffrey Gray and published in 2012. In their introduction, Keniston and Gray argue that American poets, particularly in the wake of September 11, 2001, have displayed a “turn toward a more engaged poetry” in response to a historical context that “disrupted and threw into question the ‘personal’ concern of much poetry.” The anthology collects poems that “incorporate, chronicle, or allude to public events,” from the Iraq war to climate change. Although Keniston and Gray see the chronicling of such events as the main aim of an engaged poetry — taking their cue from Robert Lowell’s query, “Yet why not say what happened?” — they also suggest that twenty-first-century poets of engagement grapple openly with the problems of representation, dwelling on “the gap between the need to tell and the limitations of the language they use.”
The claim for a “new” American poetry of engagement would seem to imply an earlier American poetry that lacked such engagement. And indeed, Keniston and Gray arguethat nearly the entirety of twentieth-century American poetry can be characterized by its “relative apoliticism.” “The engagement evident in the poems of The New American Poetry of Engagement is remarkable,” Keniston and Gray write, “partly because it was not always so: most twentieth-century poetry in American went in quite the other direction.” Keniston and Gray assert that modernism’s focus on “depicting subjectivity in new ways” and on “fractured and traumatized consciousness” led to a turn “away from the political” and toward the personal — a trend extended into the second half of the century by the confessional poets. This antipolitical tendency was abetted, they argue, by modernism’s scholarly handmaiden, the New Criticism, with its “avoidance of the political” and rejection of context in favor of an “emphasis on the ‘poem itself.’”
That modernism was apolitical is certainly a debatable claim. Ezra Pound’s Cantos consigns Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson to hell, espouses the monetary doctrines of Social Credit, and elegizes Mussolini; the early sections of Louis Zukofsky’s long poem “A” signal their leftist orientation with quotations from Marx and meditations on labor and war. Nor did modernism shy away from responding to historical events. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is frequently read as a depiction of the “ruins” of European society in the wake of the First World War, and Pound added his own bitter coda to the war in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Later, H.D.’s Trilogy unfolds in the shadow of the London Blitz, with “An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square.”
In the later twentieth century, poets and critics would add to this assessment of modernism the assertion that modernist form itself constitutes a politics — that the non-narrative, fragmented, disruptive aesthetic of modernism presents a challenge to dominant linguistic and political ideologies. Since the 1970s, Language writing and its descendants have been the most visible contemporary partisans of a politics of poetic form, explicitly linking poetic experimentation with radical politics. One can certainly argue about the validity of such claims, but there can be little doubt that Language writing and its related tendencies proceed from a political intention. Why, then, does Language writing not feature in Keniston and Gray’s account of political poetry?
The answer, it would seem, is that the desire for a newly “engaged” poetry is not simply a desire for “political” poetry of just any kind. Instead, it would seem to be a desire for a very particular kind of political poetry, one that privileges “facticity and content,” that explicitly alludes to “public events,” that seeks to narrate, bear witness to, or represent such major events — that follows, as Keniston and Gray have it, Lowell’s imperative to simply “say what happened.” The 9/11 attacks are the paradigmatic “public event” of the era Keniston and Gray describe, and perhaps nothing captured this new moment of poetic engagement as well as the sudden vogue for a sixty-year-old poem: W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s poem was widely quoted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, its resonant phrases seeming to anticipate the events of 9/11 (“The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night”) and their possible causes (“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”), culminating in the poem’s anguished tagline: “We must love one another or die.” Yet the very fact that Americans would turn at this moment to a half-century-old poem by an English-born poet might be seen as signaling a certain lack of comparable voices in contemporary American poetry. As Brendan Bernhard would write in a reflection on Auden’s poem a decade after the attacks, “Poets who spoke with that measure of confidence and ambition no longer existed — at least not in America.”
If we take this event as paradigmatic of the desire for an engaged poetry that Keniston and Gray articulate, we can see that it is not exactly a desire for a “political” poetry, broadly understood. Rather, it is a far more specific desire for a poetry that can reach a wide audience, that speaks directly to and about major historical events, that prizes “saying what happened” over formal or aesthetic concerns. In short, the desire for an engaged poetry may be better understood as a desire for a public poetry, one that rejects what Keniston and Gray characterize as modernist “hermeticism” or the overly personal perspective of confessionalism in favor of a broader and more collective idiom that is “responsive to and responsible for the world outside the self.” Little surprise, then, that the prototypes for this mode of public poetry are not primarily Americans, but figures such as Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova, poets who were also activists or dissidents, writing in societies where poetry was far more culturally central than in the US, and whose work reached large audiences. It is this kind of public poetry that Keniston and Gray argue is largely absent from twentieth-century American poetry, and this kind of public poetry that they see as newly emergent in the post-9/11 era.
But was such a public poetry in fact absent from twentieth-century US literature? Perhaps, if one focuses solely on a narrow slice of work from certain canonical figures. But how would the role of engagement look different if we broadened our view? What about a poetic landscape that included poems like June Jordan’s “A Song for Soweto”?
At the throat of Soweto
a devil language falls
claw syllables to shred and leave
the tongue of the young
learning to sing
her own name
Or Audre Lorde’s “Afterimages”?
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
What of the most controversial 9/11 poem of all, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” with its blistering questions of responsibility and blame for the attacks (and which some have read as anti-Semitic)? What if we included spoken-word performers like Beau Sia or Ishle Yi Park, or poets like Maya Angelou or Richard Blanco, who have read their work at presidential inaugurations?
In short, including the work of US poets of color provides a very different image of engaged poetry over the past century, one in which politics and history are often foregrounded and passionately investigated. Such engagement is not a new phenomenon; poets of the Harlem Renaissance, from Claude McKay to Langston Hughes, grappled directly with issues of racism, injustice, and American identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Arts movement, along with Asian American and Chicana/o literary movements, explicitly linked poetic expression with racial and ethnic identity, presenting poetry as an integral part of a larger political movement. Poets of color write in a context in which the very categories under which they write are politically conditioned; for better or worse, writers of color may find their work read for political claims or sociological insights, whether intended or not. Some poets of color may chafe under such expectations, while others may find their work nourished by such direct political and social connections. The larger point, however, is that it becomes difficult to make the case that twentieth-century American poetry has been disengaged and apolitical if we are attentive to race and to the work of nonwhite writers. That this “other” tradition is not visible in Keniston and Gray’s anthology is not surprising, given that of the fifty poets included in the anthology, forty-five are white. The “problem” of engagement in twentieth-century American poetry starts to look increasingly like a white poets’ problem.
Yet poets of color confront their own set of challenges in pursuing a public poetry. Many poets of color, particularly those connected with the activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s and with the more recent spoken-word scene, are comfortable with a broadly public rhetoric that draws on collective experiences and offers explicit political statements. But even such directly political writers cannot always presume to speak to or for a broad national community, as they give voice to marginalized experiences and histories and address audiences that have traditionally been neglected in mainstream poetry. For others, the very act of “speaking to” or “speaking for” is rendered problematic by experiences of colonization, linguistic suppression, and historical erasure; the writer of color may well have a very different relationship to “saying what happened,” and to the authority necessary for such public acts of representation and remembrance, than a white writer does. Public poetry, in short, has been problematized in American poetry not simply because of the aesthetic choices of individual poets, but because of an increasingly complex understanding of “the public” and of poetic audiences. Locating engaged poetry in work that seeks the broadest and most abstract audience may well overlook some of the most vital political work that American poetry is now doing.
In the remainder of this essay, I will explore how these problems of engagement, public poetry, and poetic form have unfolded in the work of one particular subset of poets: Asian American writers. The trajectory of Asian American poetry since the 1970s diverges sharply from the narrative Keniston and Gray offer in their account of twentieth-century American poetry. Asian American poets have frequently sought to depict historical traumas and to speak in a broader public idiom. From 1970 to the present, they have engaged politics with many of the same techniques that Keniston and Gray attribute to the new poetry of engagement, from citation of historical documents to experiments with different speaking positions. Yet they have also grappled with the fact that the historical experiences they seek to engage — the colonization of Korea, the internment of Japanese Americans, the often painful history of Asian immigration to the US — are relatively unknown to many American readers. This sharp awareness of the multiplicity of histories that make up the American experience, and the different audiences the Asian American writer (and all writers) must negotiate, provides a complex and nuanced sense of the challenges — and the potential — of American political poetry today. Since my discussion seeks to establish the divergent trajectory of Asian American poetry over the past several decades, I establish a context by examining Asian American poems from the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s, before turning to an exploration of how a twenty-first-century writer extends this tradition.
Although her work is rarely discussed today by mainstream critics, Janice Mirikitani was a hugely influential figure in the Asian American movement of the 1970s. As a student at San Francisco State during the strike of 1969–70, Mirikitani was present at the birth of Asian American studies, and contributed to the emergence of Asian American literature through her editing of the first Asian American literary journal, Aion. She became widely known as an activist writer, particularly through her work with Glide Foundation in San Francisco, and was honored as poet laureate of San Francisco in 2000.
Mirikitani’s poetry is a deeply engaged one, addressing events from Japanese American internment to the Vietnam War, and directly confronting racism, sexism, and imperialism. It is also unapologetically a poetry of witness, as Mirikitani frequently writes in the first person (whether singular or plural) about experiences of oppression and trauma. Her poem “Looking for America,” in her collection We, the Dangerous, speaks in the voice of an Asian American looking for images of Asians in American media and finding only stereotypes:
I found myself
in a bar, dancing for a tip,
cheong sam slit to my hip,
or in a brothel, compliant and uncomplicated,
high-heeled in bed, wiping some imperialist’s lips
with hot scented towels.
The collection’s title poem, “We, the Dangerous,” offers a collective voice that speaks from the experiences of Japanese Americans interned during World War II: “And they commanded we dwell in the desert / Our children be spawn of barbed wire and barracks.”
Like many American political poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Mirikitani articulates a clear sense of the centrality of poetry to politics, as well as of poetry’s limits when confronting politics. In a 1976 interview, Mirikitani proposes poetry as a means by which people of color can speak for themselves, rather than being spoken about:
Others are constantly trying to study, talk, write about us, resulting in distortions, myths, and lies about Third World people. … Even the well-meaning outside of the Third World cannot express the soul of it because they have not “lived in the house,” and do not speak the depth of the language.
At first glance, it would seem that this leads Mirikitani to a poetry that emphasizes content over form; she asserts that poets of color “don’t have the luxury at this time” of focusing on aesthetics, and dismisses poems that are merely “about bees, or birds, or nature.” If the “return” of content and the real is what marks contemporary engaged poetry, we can certainly see it already in Mirikitani’s pronouncement, “I don’t read poetry to escape. I want reality. That’s what poetry should be,” as well as in the work of other political poets of the 1970s.
We should, of course, resist the urge to assign to the Asian American poet a kind of authenticity and transparency of speech that automatically invests her pronouncements with a political value unavailable to the white writer. Instead, we can examine how Mirikitani reveals both the necessity and difficulty of speaking in a rather different framework. Take, for instance, this three-line stanza from “We, the Dangerous”:
We would expect nearly all American readers to recognize the first two references — the site of the first atomic bombing and the location of the most recent US war. But how many readers will recognize the final reference? For Japanese Americans, of course, the name resonates as the location of one of the camps in which Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, were imprisoned during World War II. Today, many Asian Americans of other ethnicities would also recognize the reference; indeed, fundamental to the forging of the pan-ethnic category “Asian American” was the acknowledgement of a shared history that could include, say, both Japanese American internment and Chinese American exclusion. But it is still reasonably likely that most non–Asian American readers would not immediately recognize the reference to Tule Lake, as the details of internment remain absent from most Americans’ historical knowledge.
The signifier “Tule Lake,” then, has a rather different function than the references to Baghdad, Fallujah, or Guantanamo scattered through The New American Poetry of Engagement, or the names “Abu Ghraib,” “Darfur,” and “Afghanistan” in Robert Hass’s “Some of David’s Story.” These are distant places known to Americans through the news and experienced not directly, but through the media — as, for instance, Hugh Seidman’s “Thinking of Baghdad” views the Iraqi war: “The warplane graphic rotates slowly on the vengeful news channel.” Few, if any, of these poems claim the perspective of in-person witness, such as that of a US soldier or an Afghan civilian. Indeed, adopting the position of witness is rendered particularly difficult by the fact that most of these locations are sites of violence or injustice perpetrated by the US itself (at least from the political perspective that most of these poets share); the poets’ location is necessarily one of self-critical complicity rather than outraged victimhood.
The greatest exception to this, of course, is the 9/11 attacks, an atrocity directed at Americans on US soil. It’s little wonder that Keniston and Gray see 9/11 as the central event of the new engagement, since it is one of the few events of recent years that gives many American poets access to writing a personal poetry of witness. Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell” begins with a statement of collective witness (“From our high window we saw them”) and moves toward more personal reflection (“At the high window where I’ve often stood / to think”). Yet it is also, perhaps primarily, a reflection on 9/11 as mass event, one experienced both personally and through the media; Kinnell’s final stanza takes the endlessly repeated television loop of the World Trade Center’s collapse and internalizes it: “In our minds the glassy blocks succumb over and over.” Speaking as a “we” — speaking for, or to, a collective — is utterly necessary to grapple with this event, yet also deeply problematic. The poet’s witnessing of these events is always already mediated, and as Keniston and Gray note, Kinnell and other similarly situated poets are as likely to critique and ironize the position of witness as to embrace it.
Mirikitani’s invocation of Tule Lake, in contrast, has no such ambivalence about it, and she embraces speaking as “we” with a confidence difficult to imagine in Kinnell:
We, the dangerous,
Dwelling in the ocean.
Akin to the jungle.
Close to the earth.
Yet this confidence is, paradoxically, a product of the more delimited scope of the collectivity. Mirikitani’s “we” is pointedly not an abstract, universal “we”; it is not the “we” of Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” It is a “we” defined in opposition to a more powerful “they”: “they commanded we dwell in the desert … they would have us make the garden … they would have us skin their fish.” Indeed, the “we” begins not as a plural but as a singular: “I swore / it would not devour me.” Initially, the “we” seems to speak for Japanese Americans, “commanded” to “dwell in the desert” in internment. But the growing power of the poem lies in the gradual expansion of the “we” to include Asian Americans more broadly, from sexualized stereotypes about Asian women (“And they would have us strange scented women … to loosen their backs massaged in myth”) to the exploitation of Asian labor (“We, who fill the secret bed, / the sweat shops / the laundries”). The culminating triangulation of “Hiroshima / Vietnam / Tule Lake” expands this Asian American voice into a global Asian voice, one that claims solidarity between Asian Americans and Asians in Asia by seeing all three events as examples of US military violence against Asians. Indeed, the archetypal qualities taken on by the “we” — “Dwelling in the ocean. / Akin to the jungle. / Closer to the earth” — while beginning as terms by which the “they” renders the “we” foreign and other, concludes as an assertion of what Mirikitani would likely characterize as a “Third World” voice, one that unites colonized and nonwhite peoples around the world.
The power of Mirikitani’s poem, then, is that it does not seem subject to the binds that Keniston and Gray view as characteristic of the new engaged poem. In the latter, the poet must negotiate between the position of individual witness (often not directly available to the author) and of abstract collectivity (which can often be engaged only ironically or self-critically). Mirikitani, in contrast, speaks for a delimited collectivity to which she claims a direct connection (sliding directly from “I” to “we”), one that has clearly been the victim of a specific historical injustice, but whose reach can also be expanded to make much broader political claims. The politics of identification available to Mirikitani and other writers of color would appear to be much more elusive for the white American poets who dominate Keniston and Gray’s anthology. The cost of that identification, of course, is that Mirikitani cannot presume to speak for all Americans — indeed, her gesture of solidarity is primarily with those outside of the boundaries of the nation, rather than within it, and relies upon opposition to a “they” identified with majority US politics and culture. Rather than seeking to address a broad, general audience, Mirikitani’s poem speaks primarily, and unapologetically, to the other members of the “we” of which she counts herself a part.
Ansel Adams, “Roy Takeno reading in front of office,” Manzanar Relocation Center (courtesy the Library of Congress).
Other Asian American poets adopt a more ambiguous attitude toward the question of audience, but still retain an awareness of the different kinds of audiences they may be addressing. Such is the case with the work of Lawson Fusao Inada, who, like Miriktani, is a major figure of the Asian American movement era. His first collection, Before the War: Poems as They Happened, published in 1971, was the first collection of poems by a Japanese American published by a New York trade publisher. Inada’s 1993 collection Legends from Camp, like Mirikitani’s poem, takes the Japanese American internment experience as its starting point. The poem “Concentration Constellation” creates an imagined map of internment camp sites, invoking the names Manzanar, Jerome, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake. In contrast to Mirikitani, however, Inada’s emphasis is not on the first person, but the second; much of the poem is spent addressing an unnamed “you,” who seems somewhat reluctant to visit the scenes of internment: “It’s all right there on the map. / It’s all right there in the mind. / Find it. If you care to look.” The “you” may be a Japanese American who is resistant to revisiting the historical memories of internment, or perhaps a non–Japanese American who is uninterested in the history of internment. The latter interpretation is strengthened by a subsequent stanza in which the “you” seemingly signals impatience with the history lesson: “By now, you weary of the way. / It’s a big country, you say.” The speaker’s response is gently humorous, but also pointed: “It’s a big history, hardly / halfway through.” The apparent modesty of the speaker’s cajoling voice is what enables the poem’s forceful conclusion, in which the conversation with the “you” turns into a (gently delivered) command:
Now regard what sort of shape
this constellation takes.
It sits there like a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like the rusted wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.
The imperative to “regard” is less an expression of witness than a demand for the reader to witness, as the “you” is compelled to look at the “twisted and remembered” history of internment. Inada’s poem grapples openly with the continued neglect of Asian American history in the American consciousness, moving toward a broader engagement with the general American reader, but acknowledging the continuing gaps in historical awareness that separate different audiences.
Bringing neglected histories to wider attention may lead poets to include historical documents and testimonies in their work. Keniston and Gray cite the use of “appropriated language” as a distinctive strategy of the new engaged poetry, but we can already see Asian American poets of the 1980s and 1990s using such citations of official language in a charged political context. Inada’s “Instructions to All Persons” provides a particularly striking example. The poem is preceded by a facsimile of the most notorious document of the Japanese American internment: the military evacuation orders posted all along the West Coast in 1942, instructing “all persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to assembly centers for transport to the camps. The large-type, boldface word “JAPANESE” dominates the document, emphasizing the racism underlying internment; it is a document that will be immediately familiar to most Japanese Americans, as well as to many Asian Americans. Less certain is whether non-Asian American readers will recognize the document or be familiar with the history it references; for many of these readers, the document may well be something they are seeing for the first time.
What Inada does with this familiar, yet unfamiliar, document speaks directly to this possible divide in his audience. Inada titles his own poem “Instructions to All Persons,” pointedly dropping the “of Japanese ancestry” that signals the document’s racist aims. This can be read, at some level, as a universalizing gesture; by directing his poem at “all persons,” Inada rejects the racial limitations of the original document, seeking a broader audience and broader message. But the poem is far from being an attempt to transcend Japanese American experience in favor of a more abstract collective. Inada selects individual words and phrases from the document — “ancestry,” “family,” “responsible,” “civil” — and makes a new arrangement from them, declaring: “Let us take / what we can / for the occasion.” History and aesthetics are linked in this simple phrase: “taking what we can” refers to the technique of appropriation and collage Inada uses in his poem, but it of course also echoes the plight of the internees, who must “take what they can” as they are forced from their homes. For Inada, the evacuation order is not simply official language to be critiqued, nor is it a transparent window into lived reality; instead, it is a linguistic source from which various lessons, values, and poetics can be drawn. The doubling effect of including the original document keeps this linguistic play historically grounded, teaching — or reminding — readers about the racist history from which the poem emerges.
Any discussion of recent engaged poetry would be incomplete without a consideration of spoken word, which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a new — and newly popular — mode of public poetry. Beginning with the rise of the poetry slam in the 1980s, at sites like the Green Mill in Chicago and New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café, and growing to encompass a wide range of poetic performance, spoken word began to reach national audiences in the 1990s and early 2000s, most notably through the HBO program (and later Broadway show) Def Poetry Jam. Poets of color have played an especially prominent role in spoken word, including Asian American poets such as Beau Sia, Staceyann Chin, Bao Phi, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and Ishle Yi Park; much of their work is explicitly political, engaging issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and confronting cultural stereotypes and differences. Direct engagement of current and historical events is a common theme; for instance, Kelly Tsai’s “Black, White, Whatever” addressed the role of Asian Americans in the discourse around race that accompanied Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. An even more striking example is Ishle Yi Park’s “Sa-I-Gu,” a reflection on the unrest that followed the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the officers’ subsequent acquittal. In the media, these events are most often referred to as the “LA riots” of 1992; others refer to these events as an “uprising.” However, Park’s poem — whose text was first published in 2002, ten years after the unrest — uses the Korean phrase “sa-i-gu,” meaning “4/29,” or the first day of the unrest, following the Korean practice of referring to historical events by their dates. As Park puts it in the first lines of her poem, “koreans mark disaster / with numbers — 4-29 — Sa-I-Gu. / no police. no help.” In the focus on black-white conflict after the Rodney King beating, what was often overlooked was the role of Asian Americans in the violence — particularly Korean Americans, whose businesses bore the brunt of looting in the aftermath of the verdict. Park’s naming of the event as “Sa-I-Gu” is a pointed intervention into the public discourse about the riots, claiming a Korean American perspective on the events that has been relatively absent from the mainstream conversation.
Park’s poem powerfully blends the personal and public, juxtaposing media images (“mile high cameras hover, / zoom in, dub it: / war of blacks & koreans”) with a conversation between a mother and daughter:
here I rub my own tender
wrists, ask unanswerable questions —
why are the cops doing this?
my mother will answer simply,
wisely, because they are bad.
Park’s is a public poetry that engages and critiques public knowledge, offering a different, and racially marked, mode of witness to public events. Rather than seeking to grapple with the issues raised by the unrest in abstract terms — guilt and innocence, black and white — Park places herself and her own ethnic identity at the poem’s center. This move sharpens rather than weakens the poem’s political critique, as Park testifies to a Los Angeles in which people of color are abandoned by the police: “l.a.p.d. ring beverly hills like a moat, / won’t answer rings from south central / furious and consistent as rain.”
Yet Park’s poem is also acutely conscious of its own political limits — or, more precisely, the limits of Asian American voices in American public discourse. In one of the poem’s most striking passages, Park contrasts the strong voices of African American leaders to the unheard voices of Asian Americans:
we have no jesse
no martin no malcolm
no al, no eloquent, rapid tongue
just fathers, thick-tongued
and children, too young to carry more
than straw broomstick and hefty bag.
Public speech, advocacy, and poetry are, Park suggests, racially conditioned in complex ways — not just in the white majority’s ignorance of Asian American voices, but even in the relative prominence and power of the voices of different nonwhite groups. Park’s provocative comparison leaves open the question of what Asian Americans themselves can or should do in gaining a more prominent public and political role — a challenge to which poetry itself appears as one possible answer.
I conclude with a consideration of the distinctively twenty-first-century work of Cathy Park Hong, whose 2007 collection Dance Dance Revolution engages historical traumas through present and even future settings, while playfully and critically exploring the question of a public poetry through its use of invented language. The major historical event evoked in Hong’s book — the 1980 Kwangju uprising against the South Korean government and the subsequent massacre of protesters — is a central event in modern Korean history, and one in which US neocolonialism is deeply implicated. Yet it is also an event of which most non-Korean Americans remain unaware, raising the question of how to engage this topic poetically.
Hong acknowledges this possible divide in audience through a doubling of poetic voice. One character, the Historian, is a young Korean American woman researching the history of the Kwangju uprising; the other character, the Guide, is a woman who took part in the Kwangju uprising and subsequently fled into exile. The Historian provides narrative context that helps frame the Kwangju uprising for readers who lack knowledge of the events, acting as a mediator or interpreter. This is necessary because the Guide, who is the actual witness to these events, does not narrate her experiences directly — does not simply “say what happened” — but instead is distanced from us through the Guide’s use of a pidgin language invented by Hong: “I speak sum Han-guk y Finnish, good bit o Latin / y Spanish … sum toto Desert Creole en evachanging dipdong / ’pendable on mine mood … ibid …” According to the Historian’s foreword, this language is “an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects … a rapidly evolving lingua franca” that “while borrowing the inner structures of English grammar, also borrows from existing and extinct English dialects.”
This language is the local language of the Desert, a “planned city of renewed wonders” that resembles a science-fictional Las Vegas, featuring “state-of-the-art hotels modeled after the world’s greatest cities.” The fictionalized setting of the Desert allows Hong to bring the history of Kwangju into contact with twenty-first-century America, while still preserving the possibility of parallels to other times and places. The Desert is a landscape marked by recognizably contemporary upheavals: it is heavily populated by migrants, but it has also been built through the displacement of an aboriginal population who sometimes resort to “canny acts of sabotage” in order to undermine the occupation.
Yet the reader is forced to access these events, as well as the history of Kwangju, by navigating the Guide’s language, tantalizingly familiar yet at times difficult to decipher. We may ask why Hong asks us to view the events of Korean history through language like this: “I’s born en first day o unrest … / Huzza de students who fightim plisboi patos! / En gangrene smoke, youngins t’rew butane Colas, / chanted por ole cantanka Rhee to step down … he did!” At some level, this is certainly a poetry of witness; yet accessing that witness requires an act of heavy decoding, of navigating a language that is both foreign and not. We may see this is part as Hong’s deeply contemporary acknowledgment that our access to past (or present) traumas is always highly mediated, never transparent. But I would go further and argue that Hong’s engagement with the problem of representing trauma is a highly located, even distinctively Asian American, one. Like Mirikitani, Inada, and Park, Hong acknowledges that she addresses not a general, abstract audience, but one that is divided, at least in part along ethnic lines. Rather than seeking to negotiate or bridge that divide, Hong takes it as central to her project, forcing all readers to confront the “foreignness” of the histories she describes. The reader who is a native speaker of English is led through the migrant’s complex navigation of language, and the reader who may already have knowledge of these events is forced to experience them anew in interpreting the Guide’s words. Hong’s invented language may seem to be the very opposite of a broad, public poetic language, but it may in fact gain its political power from its universalizing of an experience of exile and linguistic alienation, using the creativity of poetic language as a tool for the exploration of history.
As this brief survey of Asian American poets suggests, the landscape of contemporary engaged American poetry looks very different if we view it through the work of US poets of color. Instead of a history of apolitical poetry from which poets have recently departed, we see a lengthy history of public, politically engaged poetry that speaks to major public events and bears witness to historical traumas. But the work of poets of color also shows us that the era of an unproblematically public poetry — one in which the poet can simply speak for an abstract or national “we” — is over. Instead, the Asian American poets I have discussed grapple consciously with the different publics their work negotiates — at times speaking to and for specific communities, at other times confronting the exclusion of Asian American stories from a wider American public discourse. In this work, the idea of poetry as public speech is not merely deconstructed or discarded; indeed, the public role of poetry is highly valued. But the public itself has changed, and the work of Asian American poets and other poets of color acknowledges this openly. The question of political poetry is not simply a question of the aesthetics or the political orientation of the individual poet; instead, it is in large part a product of the changing terms of American politics itself, shaped by the same political and cultural contexts — particularly of race, gender, and sexuality — that have redefined American life over the past fifty years.
1. This essay was originally written in response to an invitation from Keniston and Gray to contribute to a collection of essays on engaged poetry that would serve as a followup to the anthology. The editors ultimately declined to include this essay in their collection.
9. Language writing receives only a brief mention as an example of an “experimental poetics,” one side of an opposition between experimental and confessional verse that has “become uninteresting, if not obsolete, to poets and readers alike.” Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 5.
11. Brendan Bernhard, “Between September 1 and 9/11; W. H. Auden, East Villager,” The Local East Village (September 1, 2011), accessed June 29, 2014. For further discussion of the poem’s post-9/11 impact, see Eric McHenry, “Auden on Bin Laden,” in Slate; Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs; After Sept. 11, a 62-Year-Old Poem by Auden Drew New Attention,” in the New York Times; and Nicholas Jenkins, “‘September 1, 1939’ after September 11, 2001,” W. H. Auden Society Newsletter 22 (2001): 5–8.
13. The controversy over Baraka’s poem focuses on the poem’s unfounded claim that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers … [stayed] home” on 9/11, implying that they had advance knowledge of the attacks. The ensuing controversy led to calls for Baraka’s ouster as poet laureate of New Jersey. (For more, see Suzy Hansen, “Amiri Baraka Stands By His Words,” in Salon [October 17, 2002].) Keniston and Gray include a poem by Robert Pinsky that includes a reference to when “the guy read his poem about how the Jews / Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers,” but do not include Baraka’s poem itself (Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting,” in Poetry of Engagement, 157).
14. It’s worth noting that the central events highlighted in The New American Poetry of Engagement — 9/11, the Iraq war, the policies of the Bush administration — are not events of which the poets can claim direct personal experience, but rather highly mediated, often distant, mass events to which the poet can have only an ambivalently impersonal relationship. While we should avoid the romanticized idea that writers of color have “authentic” access to experiences of historical trauma — an idea that many writers of color themselves critique in their work — it does seem to be the case that a central problematic of the mode of engaged poetry Keniston and Gray describe is the “domestic ‘I’” who confronts a “distant, calamitous place that the speaker learns of through the news” — a sharp contrast to the strategies of identification (however problematic) pursued by many poets of color (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 8).
29. While Keniston and Gray acknowledge that the use of appropriated language is also seen in modernist and postmodernist collage, they assert that the new engaged poetry differs in presenting such materials “without intervention or comment … sometimes to mount a critique of them but just as often to achieve a sense of lived reality through them” (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 11–12).