Saturday, June 03, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys

Hoo boy. So I was in San Francisco last weekend (more on which soon) and heard some murmuring about a Michael Magee poem that had caused a stir at a recent reading by talking about "Asians." That poem, of course, was "Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay", and after some pointers from Barbara Jane Reyes and Brent Cunningham I found the discussions going on about the poem at Minor American, lime tree, Asian American Poetry, and other places. I'm coming very late to this, and I (like others) debated whether to get involved at all, having developed a certain level of fatigue about calling out examples of Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry.

But there did seem to be something a bit different about this case, in part because it involved a poem written by someone whose work I generally like and defended by someone else I agree with about 90% of the time. And in part it made me think about precisely how images of the "Asian" get used in contemporary poems, and whether one could usefully distinguish between those kinds of uses. I'm going to try to approach this by (empathetically and idealistically) imagining how the "general reader" might receive such issues, before going into how the position of an Asian American reader might differ.

As I've observed before, the most feared epithet in these kinds of discussion is not "Asian," or "Oriental," or "Chinaman." It's "racist." The arguments of those who critique stereotypes or racial imagery in a poem are often reduced to, "So-and-so says the poem is racist," and the charge of racism is seen as so toxic as to end all further discussion. More to the point: there's no such thing (today, at least) as a good, racist poem. The charge of racism is understood to place something outside of reasonable discourse and of aesthetic appreciation. This is not to say that there aren't poems written and published now that, upon closer reading, can be seen to have racist implications; it's simply that no acceptable poem can explicitly claim a racist position--one that openly seeks to caricature, demonize, and inspire hatred or fear of a particular racial group. One can certainly think of any number of historical examples of this kind of writing--for example, Bret Harte's poem on the "heathen Chinee"--but it's nearly impossible to imagine a "serious" poet today attempting such a thing.

So when we do encounter racial stereotypes in a contemporary poem, we tend to assume that "something else" must be going on. (For example, when I critiqued racial imagery in a poem on the Poetics list, the response came back, "Well, obviously we know no one on this list is a racist, so...") I'll attempt to describe two of those "something elses"--two ways in which racial images or stereotypes seem to get used in contemporary writing--before discussing the third "something else" that Magee's poem may or may not represent.

1. Ambivalent. This can best be described as a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion from racial imagery, an unease with the racial other that can manifest itself as mockery, ethnography, or fetish. The writer's intention and attitude toward the subject matter seem to be unstable. The examples that immediately come to mind are two pieces posted to the Poetics list, one titled "WHY DO THE TIAWANESE" and the other infamously referencing the "Filipino crack whore," that I discussed at some length here and here. In these cases, what the author allegedly intended as "realistic" or even "sympathetic" portrayals of Asians seemingly cannot help but partake of the most degraded stereotypes, not least because the author seems to lack any awareness of the destructive power of such stereotypes.

I think also of a story I read a few years ago in the New Yorker in which the protagonist is a young white woman who works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, describing the food as dirty and disgusting and the proprietress's communication as consisting of guttural "ngs" and "oks."

It might easily be protested that these writings are straight-up racist--no ambivalence about them. Without a doubt the worst writings in this category lean that way. But their dynamic of repulsion and attraction (the young woman in the New Yorker story describes her attraction to a young Asian man who works in the restaurant) and the apparently unconscious nature of their racism gives them a kind of bare cover that in some cases can allow them to get away with it (at least to some readers).

2. Ironic or parodic. The vast majority of contemporary racial stereotyping in poetry, and perhaps even in popular culture, falls into, or wants to fall into, this category: it's a self-conscious use of racial imagery that holds the stereotype at an ironic distance, ostensibly parodying or satirizing the very stereotype it deploys. (In popular culture, cf. South Park, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and so on.) In other words, using a racial stereotype is okay if you are aware that you are doing it, since then you couldn't possibly take it entirely seriously.

The simplest example of this is when the irony is provided by the position of the speaker, e.g. when Marilyn Chin refers to the "mega-Chinese-food tropes" of her poems or an African American comedian uses the "N-word." Since it's assumed that these speakers are not being racist toward their own racial groups, it follows that their words must be ironic or appropriative. As Pam Lu has pointed out, this strategy is by no means always, or even usually, successful; an Asian American writer who self-consciously portrays Asian Americans in stereotypical fashion can easily end up reinforcing those very stereotypes.

Another technique of ironic distancing is that of the dramatic monologue: you use racist words but put them in the mouth of a speaker clearly marked as a character, distinct from the author. Think, for example, of the opening scene of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, in which white male real estate agents invite each other to dine at "the Chink's" and inveigh against "Patels." The usual interpretation given is that Mamet is not himself a racist, but rather is realistically portraying the racism of his rather unattractive characters. (In the context of Magee's poem, this would be the "redneck reading"--that the poem's references to Asians should be attributed to an ignorant and racist speaker whom Magee intends to satirize.) Of course, a closer reading reveals that there is nothing remotely "realistic" about the racist language Mamet puts in his characters' mouths (one describes Indians as "A supercilious race"), which, depending on your view of Mamet, can lead in one of two directions: toward the idea that Mamet is adding another layering of irony in order to satirize us, who believe that we can comfortably distance ourselves from the racism of others; or back toward ambivalence, in which Mamet is not distancing himself from racism as much as we might initially think. (For a fictional take on this scene, see Bharati Mukherjee's story "A Wife's Story.")

For an instance of this strategy of ironic distancing, take a couple of poems that another Asian American poet recently pointed me to: two pieces called "Chinese Movies" by Bernard Henrie in the latest issue of SHAMPOO. (In order to insulate myself against the suspicion that I am anti-SHAMPOO, I should note that I and many of my, um, best friends publish our work there.) Henrie's title suggests the mass-culture source of Chinese stereotypes, and the poems' serial numbering suggests the mechanical reproducibility of such stereotypes. The poems are stocked with what Anglo-American readers have come to expect as the cliches of chinoiserie: silk garments, snow cherries, plum blossoms, bamboo, persimmons. The frame suggests that we are meant to receive these images with a wink and a nod, that they are cliches being used satirically.

But how ironic is it? There's a distinct speaker, but despite his language of cliches it's not at all clear how distanced we're supposed to be from him. When he describes a female artist, "Chen," the imagery is almost comically piled on:
A Mandarin when she works,
her oversize smock and sleeves
look like petals. I expect rice fans
to appear for shade, gifts from
her village in rural China.
And perhaps the "I expect" registers this as a product of the speaker's stereotypes.

But the poem never leaves this level, never actually gives us a position from which to critique the speaker. In fact, the poem's conclusion seems to do nothing so much as seek to reanimate the stereotypes, to reaestheticize them and restore their erotic charge:
Her painting dry and bamboo
brushes wrapped, she prepares
to bathe, pausing to peel
a fat persimmon, the juice drips
and forms a glistening drop
on her gold thigh:

"Look, another water color."
The final words, I assume, are Chen's own; she's actually shown to be participating in her own orientalized objectification. So this is a poem that seems to begin from an ironic position but fails to maintain it; instead, it slides toward ambivalence by seeing the stereotype as a source of attraction and pleasure.

Irony and parody can, however, be highly successful methods of critiquing and reworking racial stereotypes. The work of John Yau is probably the best example I can think of in the current context. Yau's series "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," like Henrie's poems (which actually seem derivative of Yau series like "Late Night Movies"), signals in its title its sources in mass culture, but the title itself mashes up seemingly incompatible stereotypes: that of the fearsome Asian warrior (Genghis Khan) and of the effeminate and deferential Asian (Charlie Chan); then it places these in a wholly unexpected American context (that of the film noir). The result is parodic but also unstable, not permitting any established stereotype to gain traction, seeking to create a new and hybrid speaking position.

The poems themselves often seem to function as junkyards--or recycling bins--for racially charged language, which is fragmented and reconstructed into something compelling yet monstrous:
shoo war
torn talk

ping towel
pong toy

salted sap
yellow credit

hubba doggo
bubba patootie

wig maw
mustard tongue
The result is less an attractive reanimation of orientalism but a pastiche of it whose primary emotion would seem to be a charged disgust.

So what does any of this have to do with Magee's "Their Guys"? My sense is that while most attempts to read the poem have fallen into one of the two above categories, the poem is tryihng to do some third thing; for what that might be, and how successful it is, stay tuned.

26 comments:

Arif said...

it's such crappy poetry that i would be reluctant to even give it the time of day.

thanks for this and other posts.

a

Arif said...

or perhaps i would use these poems as subtext for a poem, or a poem-essay. any way, i'm completely ignorant on the broader discussion, so i'll be quiet.

but, as for the expression of racist poems. to be honest, i'd rather deal with this than the subtle racism. this is so much more easier to untangle than a gaze - less complex. and perhaps one can do it most fruitfully on its own terms.

i mean in a poem.

Bill Luoma said...

Thanks Tim,

A good layout of the 'field.' Since I've moved back to the 'mainland' from honolulu, I have missed discussions like this.

So also thanks Pamela Lu and Chris Chen for speaking up about the glitterati. And everyone else.

Being a white male writer, my first impulse is merely to listen and learn. i remain confused about all of this.

maybe a story will help. my experience with literature in hawaii was and is peripheral & moving to a colonized land as the colonizer is not much fun, especially without ties to family or other local social structures, but was interesting nonetheless. [oops, you still live in a colonized land, dr bracket.]

some of the first readings i went to in hawaii were over the top, or so i thought. typically there would be at least one story or poem about an evil haole. initially i thought the work in that vein to be ironic. then i realized i was wrong and the writers or characters in the writing or personas of the poems' narrators really 'meant it'. wow, how bold. didn't any of these writers have haole friends and didn't it embarrass them to read such texts in the presence of haoles?

after attending more readings, i sort of changed my mind; they weren't so much bold, but merely in a tradition. sometimes that tradition would include homophobia (aids as the haole disease, or one particular poem 'naked man' by Joe Balaz, whose work i otherwise admire, about fear of mainland gay men coming to the beach, well, naked!)
but more often than not
the evil haole was posed
as a foil against the goodness of
local culture, which i came to identify
as against mainland values of driving fast,
honking horns, cutting ahead in lines,
excluding older relatives
from living with the immediate family,
not giving out leis,
not eating at rainbows drive in,
not eating malasadas,
not calling shaved ice shave ice,
not going barefoot in the house,
not drinking coffee made from beans shipped in from afar,
not constantly hearing various dialects of pidgin,
not having huge family gatherings on the beach,
not going to hear Auntie Genoa thursday nites in waikiki,
not watching the merrie monarch,
the list is well nigh infinite, but
in short, the alienation of capitalist individualism
so rampant here on the continent.

at some point i think i started to critique myself as a stupid fucking haole, and began to notice that it wasn't just whites that were being singled out in broad strokes by local writers. no racial group seemed to be safe (the comedian Frank Delima is good in this regard).

occasionally these unsafe moments would make headlines in the local paper. one particularly painful event concerned the stripping of the AAA book award given to Lois-Ann Yamanaka for Blue's Hanging.
see:
this interview
At the AAA event in waikiki, there was much emotion. People turned their backs on one another. I wasn't the only one to have been moved to tears at that event.

The 'upshot' was that it seemed to a lot of readers that Yamanaka had been insensitive to local Filipinos, reinforcing a stereotype of Filipino men as rapacious. Some readers had even pointed this out in her first book, Saturday Night at the Palala Theatre (a gem if there ever was one). The argument, in general, seemed to be that Yamanaka, being Japanese American, a privileged economic and social position on the islands when compared with local Filipino Americans, had overstepped her bounds.

Some readers disagreed. Even some local Filipino readers. If had to weigh in on this, I would probably say that she should have anticipated the reaction to her 'Uncle Paolo' character, given the previous mild critique of Saturday Nite, and changed his race, as it were. But I am no position to call her a racist. She remains one of my heroes.

Rather than debate Mr. Magoo and/or his poem, I wonder how people see a poem like Justin Chin's "Sarong Party Gay Boy", which I saw at a packed house at the hawaii theatre. I believe Pam has hinting at Chin's work in some of her initial comments on Maggie Z's blog. Anyway, Chin's performance was completely over the top. I recall laughing quite a bit. The primary subject matter concerned the sex industry and young men in Thailand with Justin Chin starring as lucky pierre. I haven't really kept up with his work and I'd be grateful if someone could point me to a published version of that text.

I suppose that I am hesitant to deal overtly with racial themes in 'my work', and were I ever to take on such a task, I would try to use various touchstones of 'success' to judge whether or not a piece I had written were ready for publication. Two such touchstones by white artists come to mind. Huck Finn and R crumb's 'nigger hearts' cartoon. I guess my reasoning is that if what I had written didn't somehow capture the troubling aspects of those pieces, I would judge my piece a failure and not send it out into the world.

My great sorrow in leaving Hawaii is the lack of discussion and acknowledgement of the constant negotiation of these troubling bounds. Most folks who call the islands home are acutely aware of this as a process that goes on 24 hours a day. Every minute, every second race is negotiated. They really are bold, it turns out.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Hi Tim, great post.

When you say that "no acceptable poem can explicitly claim a racist position--one that openly seeks to caricature, demonize, and inspire hatred or fear of a particular racial group," I take it you mean that mainly on political grounds. It could be argued, however, that a poem that claims an explicitly racist position today will necessarily also undermine itself as literature.

If that argument were made, I think another one follows, namely, that no acceptable poem can explicitly claim an anti-racist position--one that openly seeks to nuance, legitimate, and inspire love or understanding of a particular racial group. I.e, anti-racist poems are as unacceptable (as poetry) as racist ones.

Race prejudice may simply be a poor theme for poetry to articulate. Emotions wedded to race (whether favourable or unfavourable) may lack the requisite intensity for poetry.

This is why I prefer not to defend Mike's poem as satire. Even if it were anti-racist in intent and effect, that would not be enough to justify it as a poem.

Over at Limetree, I've been trying to argue that the poem does not articulate a racial sentiment at all, but that it uses such sentiment to articulate something altogether different. The appearance of global public spaces, and the people who mill through them.

Best,
Thomas

TagSmith said...

gold
juice drop
on her thigh

tongue
slides hubba
bubba petals toward

Brent Cunningham said...

Hi, Tim,

The lucidity of your thought & writing here makes for really good reading. Also shows how this topic really can be substantial and philosophically suggestive in many directions.

Something I thought of while reading it: a few months ago I saw the Sarah Silverman film Jesus is Magic. It tweaks things a bit like your Mamet example in that she "plays" a racist Jewish girl in many of her standup jokes. This is old hat in comedy, but she takes it further, which is marked in part by her not breaking character at the points that, generally, the comedian signals their irony (by at least, say, shaking their head in disbelief at what they've just dared to say or giving a look etc, where Silverman holds still and stares and waits). She signals her irony only by the extremity of what she expresses, which goes really really far at times, and which is uncomfortable because, you know, if someone didn't find it extreme they also wouldn't notice it was ironic (this in turn reminds me of how Coppala is said to be appalled that US military personnel watch Apocalypse Now non-ironically, in fact to get amped up for missions). Anyways, more than once I felt Silverman went far too far for me *even knowing it was ironic*, then other times I accepted it as probing at the culture's dark secret unsayables or what have you. So what is that line inside me that says x can be said ironically but y can't be said even ironically? Can that dynamic be talked about or articulated beyond some idea of random subjectivity, we all have our tipping points etc.? Comedy often justifies itself as letting out some id that is unsayable elsewhere, but in Silverman's case I kept wondering what she (we) was/were letting it out for? When does it reflect back on itself and become, I dunno, some reflection? Must it?

Well, like Bill I don't know where to go with such things exactly, they're endlessly complicated. I certainly look forward to your next installment. But I can say it was a strange moment when the lights came up--I saw it here in Oakland at the Parkway, and the crowd was diverse (tho I'd guess a majority were part of the cracker diaspora), and it struck me rather intensely that some in the audience had likely experienced something quite different from what I had...yet at the same time I couldn't guess what that difference was...the possible ways to read it all just seemed too varied to broadly guess, as opposed to a movie where you leave and hear people talking and think "well, most folks seemed to have basically thought that was a pretty good film" or something...

Juliette said...

Tim! Thanks for posting about the Henrie poems in detail. They'd been bugging me for a loooong time.

The ambivalence issue you bring up is a good one. Of *course* no decent poet could ever be racist, and if their *intentions* are good, even if they stray towards reinforcing negative racist sentiments, we can forgive them, right? wink wink. I think the main issue for me is the question of simple interest. My friend, another poet but not an AsAm, often says that things are "interesting" even when they are problematic. I often agree. However, I find that my interest in these problematically ambivalent pieces is waning. Ambivalence is great, I love ambivalence. On with the gray tide. However, I do think it turns into a protective veil for gestures that are half thought out or sentiments that aren't really examined. And I include myself as a guilty member in that party, too.

That leaves me in a tough spot, aesthetically, I suppose. I like things to be messy and ill-conceived a lot of the time. However, when I suddenly feel like I'm on the platter being served up as the field for play, my feelings bunch up. Oh feelings. Tsk tsk. Like the Henrie poems, for example. In the end, should I really care? What power do his poems have in the poetry universe? But then again, what power do my own poems have in that same or related space?

i want to agree with tom that the poems are simply deploying "racism" as a means towards something else, but then i find myself again thinking, why do asians have to stand in for somethng else? aren't we so often the dirty mirror for so many other complexes? isn't that the nature of just being considered an Other? i'm thinking of nikki lee's portraits and how there, even with an AsAm woman "committing" the acts, I have a similar response...that asian-ness becomes a tool, a canvas to write upon (I react less strongly, but still somewhat react even though i love the work). many thoughts on this that i'd love to talk to you about. hmm.

i do think the magee poem seeks to be in the third catagory you laid out, or something related to what tom mentioned in his response to your post...i need to think more about them.

loves
j

Graham said...

I'm not sure if this is true:

"The final words, I assume, are Chen's own; she's actually shown to be participating in her own orientalized objectification. So this is a poem that seems to begin from an ironic position but fails to maintain it; instead, it slides toward ambivalence by seeing the stereotype as a source of attraction and pleasure."

The "look another watercolor" line, for me, would seem to suggest or reflect a certain mechanical nature of Chen's work. That is, the stereotypes, which the poem is definitely working with, lead to just "another" painting and nothing special. In this way then, the ironic tone of the poem is not only continued but taken to a further degree.

Oh, this is Graham from Gloabalization and Nation...

Joseph said...

Brent,

I was waiting for someone to bring up Sarah Silverman in this debate. I think it highlights a point Standard Scahefer made (if I recall correctly) about the strategies employed by Magee's poem not really being that different than those used in mainstream pop culture. Here's a video by Silverman that I happened to come across while this debate was raging. I think it may be from her movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaOeVAVenlc&search=sarah%20silverman

Joseph said...

Huh, looks like that url doesn't fit in the comments. I'll break it into three lines and if anyone wants to watch it I guess they'll have to copy/paste.

http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=kaOeVAVenlc
&search=sarah%20silverman

pam said...

I shouldn't be allowed, probably, to comment any more on this topic, and I will most likely just watch and listen from now on, but just wanted to pop in briefly to say that this comment thread is going in a very, very interesting direction.

I think that Sarah Silverman video is fucking brilliant.

And I am fucking great at math.

Kirby Olson said...

Ezra Pound is very very racist, but most still think he is probably our best poet. I think that wrecks your thesis.

Bobby Fischer is very very racist, but most still think he is probably our best chess player.

The ability to make dazzling moves in poetry or in chess isn't hampered by racism. Being politically correct probably also doesn't automatically qualify one to make brilliant moves in either poetry or chess.

There are probably also very good car mechanics, good chefs, good tennis players, etc. who are racists. Probably racism is just some dark link to a genetic past that looked for differences to squash (the Painted Bird phenomenon).

drfranzkafka said...

Tim, I found this post very educational for me as a reader. Thank you for sharing.

Kirby, in general, you have an interesting way of finding "flaws" so to speak in people's arguments, as I've seen in a few discussions now. And I would never question that what you're seeing has some truth in it, especially since it's coming from your perspective as an individual and that is of value. However, from my point of view, nothing is perfect and looking to attain perfection in ourselves or others (in this case, in the form of someone else's argument) can be a fruitless endeavor. Therefore, keep pointing out what you do. However when you do, just know that I for one see things a bit differently. Instead of seeing what you're pointing out as flaws that wreck someone else's thesis as you put it, I simply see them as what is, eventualities that come forth from anything that we examine closely. The important thing to me isn't finding or achieving a bulletproof argument (which is unachievable), but deciding which side of the argument has more weight to it and moving forward.

Kirby Olson said...

DH, I try to stop consensus wherever I can because I'm afraid of it. I see people like Pound as odd cases -- extremely analytical and extremely paranoid at the same time. Fischer has almost the same personality. It didn't prevent them from succeeding at one very high level, but almost in a kind of idiot savant mode. Pound's bizarre thesis that usury is behind everything, is very similar to Fischer's recent outbursts concerning the Jews, and their banking monopoly. It's odd, isn't it? How can this be explained that two of our best minds are also two of our worst minds?

And how can it be explained that just having the right politics might not be enough to allow one to create interesting poetry or to play chess at anything above amateur level?

It's a mystery. I think we want everything to be neat, and to fall into place. Those with good politics should also be those with good poetry.

People are more paradoxical and puzzling than that, which is neat, because it keeps the world from being boring.

I didn't think Magee's poem was politically incorrect, but I also didn't think it was very good poetry. That is, it didn't take the top of my head off. I saw what he was doing, and was neither annoyed nor illuminated.

Flarf is a mistake. It's a way to get around the strictures of political correctness by claiming that you found the materials. I don't think that anyone can write poetry without dipping deep into some unconscious place where you completely lose control of the product. Singing, like breathing, is autonomic. It rarely yields anything that isn't at least partially demonic. Which is why Plato was against it.

And why the poets have been against Plato.

I'm with the poets, but we must allow them to be crazy and oracular and not force them to cohere with anyone's politics.

Bert Williams said...

“Right politics” does not good poetry make, but then again neither does “wrong” politics or the perennial fantasy of “no politics at all.” Magee’s poem invites an engagement with its politics that, I think, would be dangerous and silly to apply programmatically to poetry in general, avant or otherwise. But if we argue that didacticism is crippling to poetic imagination, then I’d have to add that the reflexive negation of didacticism is similarly limiting and wrongheaded.

I don’t think anyone who took part in the discussion over “Their Guys” ever made the claim that great poets can’t have troubling political orientations, or that great poems weren’t also often a mixed-bag, politically speaking. Too much is lost by reducing a poem like Yeats’ “Lapus Lazuli” to charges of orientalism (it’s there), but that hardly means that the poem’s orientalism contributes to its greatness as a poem. The poem’s politics are also not completely extrinsic to its aesthetic effects. Though cultural critiques can frequently reduce the complexity of the latter, so can idealist, recycled New Critical assumptions about total freedom, the “demonic,” the unchanging “unconscious” etc.

Pound can be a dazzling writer. One could argue that his concept of historical collage was authoritarian and monological, with Pound blaming, in David Ayer’s words, “the corruption of the meaning of words and the corruption of the value of money on Jews.” But as accurate as this observation might be I don’t think it quite captures how Pound’s mission was not only to “break the pentameter” but to assert that poets could and should engage seriously with economic theory—a stark contrast to much poetry written in the last several decades. Personally, I prefer Zukofsky’s “A,” and Objectivist poetics generally, whose engagement with aesthetics and economics was no less radical—and unmarred by Pound’s rampant anti-Semitism, facist allegiances, and screwball theories about usury. Many poets and readers have a powerfully ambivalent reaction to Pound’s work, a reaction that should at least trouble the smug assurance that linguistic operations are completely separable from politics. But for some of us more than others, it is all too easy to naturalize, repress, or simply not experience these realities.

Poetry and chess playing aren’t equivalent activities. Although I think few would disagree that artistic freedom is an important value, it seems ridiculous to place a ban on either celebrating or criticizing how poets and poems position themselves in relation to larger cultural phenomena. The notion that a white poet’s principled refusal to repeat racial slurs will prevent her / him from “engagement with culture-as-is” is absolutely ludicrous. Commenters’ engagement with Magee’s poem was far more subtle and generous, and far less facile, than this sort of Manichaean thinking. Many of the commenters argued precisely that “liberal tolerance,” and its coercive asymmetrical demand for “empathy,” prevented poets from engaging more deeply with both aesthetic and racial questions.

I take issue with Olson’s description of critics of the Magee poem as not only “PC” but intolerant, humorless political operators who can stomach nothing but sincerity—working diligently to reestablish an updated version of Plato’s “Republic.” This is a right-wing caricature that underscores how many of the knee-jerk defenses of the poem echo conservative ideology. None of the respondents have ever claimed that “only sincerity and a non-ironic tone must ever be used” in poetry, or anywhere else for that matter.

And isn’t this spectacularly ungenerous to works that are “sincere”? Neruda’s “Heights of Macchu Picchu” is terrifically sincere. So is the Bible. Sincerity, irony, evasion etc. are strategic literary devices (that derive their force from literary and political contexts), and one can question their strategic value in a poem whose affective register is not broadly speaking “comic” but primarily limited, according to the author, to disgust and repulsion. “Comedy,” broadly speaking, does not preclude political engagement. I hardly think that Ralph Ellison or Ishmael Reed, two great comedic writers, could be called paragons of “sincerity.”

Kirby Olson said...

Good response. I'll mull it.

Poetry and chess are different in the chess really is, like the New Criticism, about a self-enclosed space. Poetry opens out and provides a larger commentary, and can influence values.

The troubling line between Platonic didacticism in the arts (PC) and a more demonic view (also seen in Plato's dialogues) is still a problem.

I imagine that classical Japanese and Chinese and Korean writers tackled this problem in a different way. It would have been fun to read about that. I didn't read through the whole discussion. I can't read that much on-line. It hurts my eyes. And at certain points I was getting the sense that the discussion didn't rise very high.

But your post was quite excellent.

Kirby Olson said...

I was only really responding to this blog.

But I was trying to say: I think this was lost: that there is a certain kind of personality exemplified by Pound and Fischer, that is quite brilliant and quite paranoid at the same time. The Unabomber might be another example. They have far-reaching ideas, and yet are simply paranoid.

I find this personality type to be extremely curious. I wouldn't want Pound to have been edited down, or made anodyne for the PC crowd. I like to read him as he is.

I can't read Zukofsy much at all.

I do like Reznikoff.

But I really like the fact that Pound is so nuts. I like Fischer's nuttiness, too. I am amused by everything I can get about the Unabomber. Biographers, police reports, documentary films. I love these guys. I like to think about them.

I don't want bad things edited out of poetry, or out of documentaries or even out of intellectual life. I find it too funny.

Jesus has this great line when he's talking to some disciples and they say, should we get rid of all the chaff, and separate it from the wheat. And he says, no, you'll just kill it. Leave it to me. Somehow the bad parts of a person's mind and personality are inseparable from the good parts, and we can't separate them.

If we do, we will just kill the poetry in a person. The life.

There may be someone somewhere who in their heart of hearts is so pure that we could read their innermost dreams, and find that their is no will to power, no hatred for the weak, and no jealousy, no lust for improper objects, no nothing that they wouldn't mind aired all over the place. I doubt it. But let's say it exists.

Sounds boring to me.

And I don't think that poetry is boring.

Magee's poem is interesting. It has a bit of life in it. IT's not as interesting or as lively as a Pound poem, but it's interesting. Part of what makes Pound so intresting is that he has these grooves of near insanity which make him warped and incredibly interesting in a way that a communist blueprint for a PC poem isn't.

And that even an attack on a communist blueprint isn't. Magee's poem attempts to dig under the communist blueprint. A communist blueprint is one-dimensional. Magee's poem is two-dimensional. Pound's poetry is four-dimensional.

You have a nice brain, Bert Williams, and I am going to file your name.

drfranzkafka said...

Kirby, Thanks for sharing more about what's going on for you. It helps me understand where you're coming from when you approach a poem. It sounds like you not only look at a poem and its discussion for ways in which to upset consensus so that it can't be reached (even if you hold some beliefs that are part of the consensus), but that you also look at both in terms of what entertainment value they hold for you. From my point of view (just in case you see a comment pop up from me now and then in future discussions), I don't feel that I have the luxury to look at *certain* poems and their discussions in this way. If the content of the poem is one that attacks me or someone who I care about, I can't afford to ignore the attack, roll over, and play dumb, which is what I believe is being asked here on some level of Asian Americans.

(By the way, I do find myself laughing now and then when reading these discussions, even on this one which delves into serious topics. For me, it happens when people are incredibly frank about what they think about the poem. For example, I found myself laughing when arif said that this was "such crappy poetry." Sincerity in different forms has a way of being very funny to me. Think David Sedaris.)

Kirby Olson said...

I've met Mike Magee. I met him only briefly after a talk I gave at the University of Maine at Orono. The talk was on Marianne Moore.

He came up to me after and although we ourselves had had some fairly violent collisions on other matters in cyberspace I thought he came across as a gentle considerate person who is as about as evolved as anyone in the species can be expected to be.

I don't really think that anybody hates Asians. Really, I don't think any kind of animus exists against them at all. I just wouldn't believe that. If anything, they're liked way too much, especially within the arts on the west coast where I lived for a long time.

So I sometimes wonder if there is a need to concoct victimization in order to get federal handouts.

But not being Asian American what would I know? There are very few Asian Americans in prison, they suffer something like a 2% divorce rate (Japanese), and have a greater income per capita than any other demographic group (52 g per year for most of the sub-groups per family, while white families make about 36g and black about 27g, but then black families have an 86% divorce rate). But then there are people that fall through the statistics, and I don't trust statistics to any great extent, since there is usually an agenda behind them.

No one can really ever know anything, and if you did know it, you wouldn't be able to communicate it, as Gorgias said.

I'm trying to block a certain kind of consensus that would lead to some group (any group) being demonized and thus focused upon as a target. It's a somewhat serious goal for me to try to keep people from scapegoating anyone. I also don't want anyone (or any group) to be seen as a saint (s).

So I'm against idealization and demonization.

Probably some clod would think that Magee's poem is inciting violence. I know him, so I have more of a context I think. I don't really know him, because I don't think that anybody can ever really know anybody, or that you can ever even really know yourself, as in completely, but my sense of him was that he was decent, but not trying to present himself as a saint.

Therefore, acceptable, like me.

Kirby Olson said...

I think part of what makes Magee's poem comic in fact is that it's about Asian Americans. If it was about African Americans the poem would have been completely different in every way. I think that because there is no real animosity between European and Asian Americans, the poem was meant as comedy. But perhaps this animosity either does exist or is thought to exist. I haven't felt anything along those lines, and I don't think there is very much history that would show it, unless you're looking very carefully. I know about the internment camps, and the coolies, but I think it's not generally in my consciousness when I meet people from Asian groups.

Other groups have a much greater beef, but then maybe again there are parts of Asian America that either do feel that beef, or want to create more of a beef. Beats me.

92% of Asian Americans vote Republican or so I've read recently. If that is partially true, I don't think the consensus order is very troubling to that particular demographic, but again there might be parts of that demographic (the other 8%) who feel real differently.

Kirby Olson said...

And then I just looked up Asian American voting patterns and found at least three sites that claimed that the majority went for Gore in 2000 (54%).

So I guess, once more, I should say that I don't know much in this area. Maybe my understanding of this debate and the poem in question should be put on hold.

I'm still looking forward to the next installment of how to read the poem from this blog. Perhaps I'll get to learn something more.

drfranzkafka said...

Kirby, Just a quick note to say thanks for reconsidering some of the ways in which you're approaching this particular poem. As a Caucasian American, I'm definitely in a position of learning when it comes to Asian American issues, so I can echo you on that point. In some of what you shared, it sounds like you're also considering things from an economic standpoint, whether or not Asian Americans are thriving compared to other groups and so on. I believe that's important to look at, although I tend to view statistics from the standpoint that they leave out all the people who are exceptions to the rule (which when it comes down to it is all of us really). And then there's also the more imporant issue of whether economic privilege could ever justify racism. I couldn't agree there. When looking at things, I like to take more of a psychological approach. I think all of us people deserve empathy. It's hard though because many of us haven't gotten empathy in our own upbringings and, therefore, may not know exactly what it is or looks like. For any one of us in that position, it must be hard when asked to offer empathy to others. No matter what our different political positions are, I am enjoying this discussion and wish you well.

Kirby Olson said...

Oh thanks, I'm looking forward to continuing to see your thinking. Now I'm about to read the new and promised blog entry!

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