Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Morro Rock” is dedicated to the poet Mark Jarman. Hongo fashioned the poem in the Chinese tradition of poetic debate. He means to answer Jarman’s belief in the necessity of poetic narrative. Hongo’s poem reveals the impossibility of certainty in experience and in art. When narrative is attempted, it cannot escape the image and intrusion of the imagination. According to Hongo, “The world exceeds the word” and “Creation itself is the first language.” Poems, then, can only be language about a preexistent language, which is the world of experience.

Hongo began the poem while daydreaming about his father, who had recently died, and the particulars of what he enjoyed about the California shore: “how much he loved humble things like a breakfast out, a drive along the coast, a gesture of friendliness between strangers.” The memory of his father merged with a yearning for the pier (“the ocean, the gulls screeching, the salty air, the perfumed chill of a winter sea pitching under the pilings”) and the repressed memory of his own first sexual experience, a love affair that was deemed interracial and was violently punished. All this description, however, is after the fact. Hongo was not entirely conscious of the poem’s genesis as he created it:I wrote the poem not knowing I’d fabulize an erotic myth about social outrage and the persecution of sexual splendor. I got something in about violence and love and regret. I got California into it, my father and my mourning for him into it, and I disguised my own memory of a bad time with two big encounters with racism. I remembered the rhythms of those times and caught, for a moment, the scent of a girl’s skin under a bronze satin blouse.