Asian American Poetry Summary

Overview of Asian American 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.

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Chinese American 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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Japanese American 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.)