Asian American Poetry Summary

Overview of Asian American Poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The term “Asian American” encompasses diverse groups of people whose ethnicity cannot be pinned down by a single label. Because they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from various regions of Asia and at different junctures in the history of the United States, Asian American poets bring with them heterogeneous cultural values, practices, and expressions that interact with the mainstream white culture in various ways. Asian American poetry, the product of such interactions for more than a century, is therefore inherently pluralistic and polyphonic.

Asian American Poetry Chinese American poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Chinese American poetry can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the isolated cultures of Chinatowns, Chinese immigrants began to compose poetry in Chinese. The earliest volumes in English that can be tracked down are Hsi Tseng Tsiang’s Poems of the Chinese Revolution (1929) and Moon Kwan’s A Chinese Mirror: Poems and Plays (1932), both of which have an ostensibly Chinese component. A preliminary breakthrough came when two Chinese-born poets, Stephen Shu Ning Liu (born 1930) and David Raphael Wang (born 1931), began publishing in English and continued to do so for several decades. Both Wang and Liu naturalize Chinese formats, sensibilities, and stylistics into idiomatic English, demonstrating that Chinese Americans fluent in both languages can be versatile poets capable of imbuing their work with either an American or a Chinese flavor.

Wang and Liu also epitomize the inevitable movement between two cultures that would become characteristic of the younger generation of Chinese American poets, especially those who have been directly exposed to the cultures of both China and the United States. Diana Chang (born 1934), for example, was American-born but was reared in China until 1945; she had authored half a dozen novels before turning out two volumes of poetry. Chang is constantly reminded of her cultural duality: “To me, it occurs that Cézanne/ Is not a Sung painter.” Like many people of multicultural upbringing, she enjoys an immense personal freedom (“I shuttle passportless within myself,/ My eyes slant around both hemispheres”) yet acknowledges a deep longing to be “accustomed,/ At home here.” Embedded in the poetry of Liu, Wang, and Chang there is an acute awareness of global tensions between East and West, First World and Third World, tradition and modernity.

Most Chinese American poetry collected in book form is an outgrowth of the immigration experience, which is not only a collective memory but also a collective reality of the struggle for survival in an uncongenial environment. Authors intent on delineating inexhaustible vignettes of the immigration experience include Nellie Wong, Fay Chiang, Alan Chong Lau, Kitty Tsui, Amy Ling, Marilyn Chin, and Genny Lim. In their books, the poems are...

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Asian American Poetry Japanese American poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Writing in the early twentieth century, the first generation of Japanese American poets, Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944), and Jun Fujita (1888-1963), employed Japanese forms such as tanka and haiku in their often nostalgic works. Later generations of Japanese American poets continued to explore Japanese poetic forms. After the great divide of World War II, however, Japanese American poetry began to be marked by a decisive sense of identity and coherence.

The trauma of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II served as the rallying point for their literary expression. Lawson Fusao Inada produced a seminal collection of poems revolving around the relocation experience, Before the War (1971). Similarly conceived collections include James Masao Mitsui’s Journal of the Sun (1974), Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes, and Other Poems (1976), and Lonny Kaneko’s Return from the Camp (1986). Although not all have drawn their inspiration explicitly from the internment experience, Japanese American poets have used it to consolidate a collective memory and established an ethnic identity for themselves. However, rather than simply musing upon the wrongs they suffered in their incarceration, they have moved on to explore its various ramifications.

The result of such explorations is epitomized by the phrase “breaking silence.” In Shedding Silence (1987), Janice Mirikitani develops the idea that “the strongest prisons are built/ with walls of silence” (“Prisons of Silence”). In the widely anthologized poem “Breaking Silence,” she articulates the mission for an entire generation of younger...

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Asian American Poetry Korean American poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Korean American poetry is a very young literature, coming to the fore mainly in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1970’s, when memories of the Korean War were still fresh and were in fact heightened by the ongoing Vietnam War, there emerged a distinct voice centering on the historical and psychological issue of Koreans as a “lost” people whose destiny has been unfulfilled. This voice was often a questioning one, singing of the inexplicable predicament of a strong-spirited but disempowered people under oppression or in exile. In Gail Whang Desmond’s “Korean Declaration of Independence” (appended to her “Memories of My Grandfather: Rev. Whang Sa Sun”), she describes her attempt to understand her grandfather:

Korean Declaration of Independenceyellow from agebrittle from usage. . . . . . .How many times has he read it?Why does he read it?. . . . . . .Who are Koreans?

She explains how her grandfather arrived in the United States in 1913, full of dreams for a “good life,” for an “education,” but he has endured “nothing but pain, struggle.” She wonders about the tiny lapel pin of a flying goose that he never takes off: “Why?” Her poem is plaintive: “It’s the end of our first generation./ Will anyone ever understand?”

The questioning voice at times becomes an indictment, as in Kim Tong Il’s poems, which sing of dreams about an independent, unified “Morning Calm” (literal translation of Korea) turned into nightmares of “the land of oppressed calm”:

Tell me the silent hills,Isn’t it time...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Asian American Poetry Filipino American poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Filipino American literature is a direct offshoot of a continuous modern Filipino literature, which features a number of mature writers already versatile in Spanish and English and familiar with the Western tradition. José García Villa (1914-1997), who came to the United States in 1930, was a prolific poet. Steeped in the Western tradition and making little reference to his ethnic background, his poetry won the acclaim of American and European critics. He was a favorite of Edith Sitwell and other British critics, who found his poetry dealing with the mysterious beauty of God to be Blakean (“Be Beautiful, Noble, Like the Antique Ant”; “Imagine God a Peacock”). In contrast to Villa, Carlos Bulosan, arriving in America in...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Asian American Poetry Southeast Asian American poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the 1990’s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, what many Asian American poets of various ethnic backgrounds shared was an ability to blend their work and their ethnicities with other groups and methods of communication, capitalizing on the interest in multiculturalism in the United States. Such a tendency is evident among many young poets of the turn of the century, including Chinese Americans Lim and Sia, and Filipino American Gonzaga.

Le Thi Diem Thuy (born 1972), a Vietnamese American, shares this interest in blending her work with other forms of presentation. She grew up in South Vietnam during fierce fighting. She left the country in 1979 and settled in the United States. As a performance artist,...

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Asian American Poetry Bibliography

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Carbo, Nick, ed. Returning a Borrowed Tongue: Poems by Filipino and Filipino American Writers. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffeehouse Press, 1995. Contains translations of established writers such as Gemino Abad, Eugene Gloria, Catalina Cariaga, and Jessica Hagedorn. Newer poets such as Jaime Jacinto are also represented.

Chang, Juliana, ed. Quiet Fire: Asian American Poetry. New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1996. This first book published by the workshop has become a landmark because it is the first historical survey of Asian American poetry. It contains early works of Joy Kogawa, Jessica Hagedorn, Lawson Fusao Inada, and...

(The entire section is 815 words.)