In an interview, Hongo once said of himself as a poet that “I live on the earth and in the sky.” Many issues inform the style and content of his rich writing. Some of his Hawaiian ancestors worked on plantations, cutting sugar cane and stoking vats in the mills; others were professionals. Hongo’s own educational background includes a year of study in Japan and graduate school work as a student of Japanese language and literature. He translated his early poems into Japanese, and he has remarked that he sometimes still thinks in Japanese. On the other hand, his experiences growing up in a U.S. West Coast multiethnic community and performing poetry with a jazz trio have equally influenced his writing. His returns to Hawaii have deepened his appreciation of his familial roots there.
Connecting with ancestry is an important venture for Hongo, who uses as one central image in his poetry an old man who eventually turns out to be the poet. The wizened Asian man is mythical and elemental; he seems to hang over Hongo’s consciousness as a shadow or an alter ego. He has suffered and is wise, and he is the essence that impels Hongo to live sympathetically and to write well. Some of Hongo’s poems contain only vague resonances of the old man; poems such as “What For” seem to speak with the old man’s voice, expressing a longing to become “a doctor of pure magic” and heal his father’s pain. Another poem, “Roots,” identifies more directly the old man, who “hangs over my sleep.” Still another, “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi,” is a narrative monologue in the persona of the old man that reveals poignant events in his life.
Male relatives are important subjects for Hongo. He shows his father working the swing shift and betting on horses; he recalls his brother playing guitar in the garage when they were younger, “practicing/ for the priesthood, preaching the blues.” Several poems and an essay focus on Kubota, Hongo’s maternal grandfather, for whom Hongo, the eldest grandchild, has particular affection. The name Kubota, Hongo reveals, can mean either “wayside field” or “broken dreams.” When Kubota died, a Buddhist priest gave him a name that meant “shining wisdom of the law.” A Japanese American born in Hawaii, Kubota ran a general store on the north shore of Oahu before moving with Hongo’s family to California. Through Kubota’s “talking story,” Hongo learned of such events as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and received with the stories Kubota’s directive to tell them to others. For Hongo, the obligation to speak is a ritual payment that the young owe their elders. In his poetry, he fulfills that injunction by witnessing and revealing the experiences of Japanese Americans.
Personal memory thus combines in Hongo’s poetry with cultural history. Further, Hongo’s early experience in the theater is evident in many of his narrative poems that take the form of dramatic monologues. In “Pinoy at the Coming World,” an anonymous plantation worker who loses everything that matters to him is as sympathetically rendered as if he had been a close relative. “Jingoku: On the Glamour of Self-Hate” tells the story of an evacuated soldier in Japan who succeeds for a time at gambling and then is reduced to squalor.
Hongo expresses outrage at the racist treatment he sees Asians experiencing in America. Such expression can be lyrical and sad, as in “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi,” which focuses on one lonely man, or searingly painful, as in the depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath in “Stepchild.” Though “Stepchild” has been faulted for didacticism and excess, it convincingly exposes the horror that human beings can wreak on other human beings, suggests the biting ways of the dragon and the shark to retaliate, and finally shows outrage being partially assuaged by healing and hope.
Hongo believes that the impetus of poetry is communion and communication. One poet should not necessarily be compared to others to determine who is superior, he thinks, because such an approach would lead to the institutionalization of poetry, forcing everyone to see the world in the same way. Despite his extensive experience teaching in universities, Hongo describes himself as being basically “anti-institution.” He prefers to imagine himself as Matsuo Bash, the ancient Japanese traveling poet, with a cluster of faithful followers, and adheres to the nontraditional style of learning offered in Eugène Ionesco’s play La Leçon (pr. 1951, pb. 1954; The Lesson, 1955). Hongo counts as important literary influences on his writing Philip Levine, William Wordsworth, William Styron, and James Agee. He has a great affinity for the sounds of words, for the beauty of language, and for the individuality of different dialects. Hongo’s attention to portraying in writing the way people talk is evident in such poems as“Cruising 99,” in which three friends converse while driving down a stretch of highway.
In his introduction to The Open Boat, Hongo explains not only the evolution of Asian American literature but also the motivation behind his own writing. This motivation is partly to fight the stereotypes of Asians in America, he says, and partly to widen the field of what has previously been considered mainstream literature, all the while encouraging “intellectual passion” and “an appreciation of verbal beauty.”
During his four years as director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Hongo brought a strong multicultural presence to the program. His choices for lecturers and suggestions for syllabi stressed that the American literary canon and styles of American writing encompassed more than had been traditionally considered. In the same vein, his three edited texts seek to foreground the Asian American experience and support their expression in poetry and prose. Hongo has worked ceaselessly to create a public forum for Asian American writers and has provided substantial support. His memoir Volcano powerfully interweaves his personal expression of returning to his lush tropical place of birth with his bittersweet recollection of the joys and the ordeals of his family of pioneering ancestors.
By teaching poetry to a wide range of students, Hongo is training a new generation of American and international writers. His poems continue to move a wide audience who can connect to their own family’s histories and their place in twenty-first century America.
First published: 1982 (collected in Yellow Light, 1982)
Type of work: Poem
An anonymous woman, carrying a parcel of food for supper, gets off a city bus after a day of work and walks to her apartment.
“Yellow Light,” the title poem from Hongo’s first volume of poetry, uses description to convey personal sympathy and collective resignation. It uses many of the techniques that mark Hongo’s best poems and sets the mood for the works that follow in the collection. These are poems of striking images, full of close details about family members and neighbors, in which the poet examines the roots of his biological and ancestral identity and hones his personal, creative impulses. “Yellow Light” couples exploration with reconciliation, joy, and even playfulness with bitterness and...
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