Cathy Song Song, Cathy - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Cathy Song 1955–

American poet.

Song is an award-winning poet whose work draws on not only her rich Korean and Chinese ancestry but her experiences as a woman in America. Song herself has maintained that the world she creates in her poetry transcends her ethnic and regional background and resists classification as "Asian American" or "Hawaiian" writing. Her verses, which have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, are collected in the three volumes, Picture Bride; Frameless Windows, Squares of Light; and School Figures.

Biographical Information

Song was born August 20, 1955, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her father, Andrew, was a second-generation Korean American; her mother, Ella, came to Hawaii from China as a "picture bride," her marriage to Song's father having been arranged through an exchange of photographs. During high school and college, Song became interested in writing, and during this time she was encouraged in her efforts by the noted poet and biographer John Unterecker. Song graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in English literature in 1977. She went on to earn a master's degree in creative writing from Boston University in 1981. Her first volume of poetry, Picture Bride, published in 1983, draws heavily on her family's experiences and earned Song the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award as well as a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. While living in Boston, Song married Douglas McHarg Davenport, a medical student. As he was completing his residency in Denver, Song completed her second book of poetry, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, which was published in 1988. In 1993 Song won the Hawaii Award for Literature and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. The following year she published her third collection of poetry, School Figures. Song now lives and teaches in Honolulu.

Major Works

Uniting Song's body of work is her abiding focus on family. The moral ties that bind women to children and parents, to their community, to tradition, and to the land are continuously interwoven throughout her poems. In the title

poem of Picture Bride, for example, Song recalls the story of her grandmother, who at age twenty-three had come from Korea to the United States in order to marry a many who knew her only from a photograph. Frameless Windows, Squares of Light continues the theme of family history and relationships. "The Tower of Pisa" concerns the poet's father, an airline pilot whose life she describes as "one of continual repair." "Humble Jar" is written in praise of her mother, a seamstress. Song again treats the theme of womanhood in "A Mehinaku Girl in Seclusion," in which a girl, her coming of age signaled by her first menstruation, is removed from her tribe for three years and "married to the earth." In School Figures Song again casts the stories of her family in verse. Both "A Conservative View" and "Journey" explore the challenges faced by her parents, while "Sunworshippers" recalls her mother's advice against self-gratification. The thoughts, feelings, and impressions couched in each of Song's poems—whether quietly coming to terms with the death of a father or sitting amid the clatter of dishes and the chatter of family members during dinner—are transformed into the poet into universal images, transcending labels of race, gender, or culture.

Critical Reception

Song's focus on familial images, evoking both the particular and the universal, has received much attention from critics. Gayle K. Fujita-Sato has argued that Picture Bride "describes both a personal history and a paradigm for analysing multicultural writing. In its portrayal of specific places and histories that is at the same time a portrayal of cultural synthesis and pluralism, Picture Bride defines a kind of 'third-world' writing." Richard Hugo has emphasized Song's quiet restraint, observing: "Song's poems are flowers—colorful, sensual and quiet—offered almost shyly as bouquets to those moments in life that seemed minor but in retrostpect count the most." Similarly, the reviewer for the Washington Post Book World stated that there is "a good deal of quiet music in [Song's] portraits of individuals who endure unlived lives." The restraint of many of Song's poems has led to some negative appraisals. Robert B. Shaw has detected a "meandering repetitiousness" in some of her works, and Jessica Greenbaum, writing of the poems in Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, charged that some pieces "lack the freshness of articulation we expect from good poetry." Other critics, including Fujita-Sato and Patricia Wallace, have explored the connections between Song's poetry and her Asian American heritage. The image of Song's grandmother looms large in these studies, for, as Lee Kyhan has stressed, Song "readily recognizes in the story of her grandmother a fortitude and a strength of character that she somehow hopes to make relevant to her own predicament as a modern Asian-American woman."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Picture Bride 1983

Frameless Windows, Squares of Light 1988

School Figures 1994

Other Major Works

"Beginnings (For Bok Pil)" (short story) 1976; published in the journal Hawaii Review

Sister Stew [editor; with Juliet Kono] (poetry and prose) 1991

Richard Hugo (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Foreword," in Picture Bride, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. ix-xiv.

[In 1982, acclaimed American poet Richard Hugo selected Song as the recipient of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, presented each year to an American poet under the age of 40 who has not previously published a collection. Below, Hugo praises Song's quiet strength, her sensuous language, and her efforts to incorporate and understand her heritage through her poetry.]

The final line of Cathy Song's book, Picture Bride, reads "Someone very quiet once lived here." This poem, "The Seamstress," is about someone Song knows, or has fictionalized (and knows), and now speaks for. Parts of the poem, including the final line, might be said to apply to Song herself, the poet who "lived here." In Cathy Song's quietude lies her strength. In her receptivity, passive as it seems, lies passion, a passion that is expressed in deceptive quiet and an even tone. She receives experiences vividly and without preset attitude. Her senses are lucky to have remained childlike and reception appears to be a complete act. It would not be complete, however, without the poems.

Each section of the book is named for a flower, and Song's poems are flowers—colorful, sensual and quiet—offered almost shyly as bouquets to those moments in life that seemed minor but in retrospect count the most.

Song finds artistic kinship with two visual artists: the modern American painter, Georgia O'Keeffe, and the nineteenth-century Japanese printmaker, Kitagawa Utamaro. In one poem she pays homage to Utamaro's work; in another she concentrates on a single print, the details of which she has absorbed with such affection that finally she does more than describe. She presents as decades ago Ezra Pound wisely advised poets to do.

While Song admires Utamaro and finds the women in his prints creatures that she can recreate, she identifies with O'Keeffe's work. "From the White Place" is dedicated to her, and a sequence of five poems, "Blue and White Lines after O'Keeffe," is based on five of her floral paintings. Song's personal relationship with O'Keeffe's work is as deep as her admiration of Utamaro's work.

Through empathy Song speaks for other women in some poems ("The Youngest Daughter," "Lost Sister," "The Seamstress"). She recreates these women just as she recreated the woman in Utamaro's print. On the other hand, Song's relation to O'Keeffe's paintings is allied to those poems in which Song speaks for and creates herself ("Waialua," "Blue Lantern," "For My Brother," "The White Porch").

Taste and touch are strong elements in the poems, although it is our sight that is most often engaged. And at times the sensuous and the sensual are inseparable.

But there is this slow arousal.
The small buttons
of my cotton blouse
are pulling away from my body.
I feel the strain of threads,
the swollen magnolias

heavy as a flock of birds
in the tree. Already,
the orange sponge cake
is rising in the oven.
I know you'll say it makes
your mouth dry
and I'll watch you
drench your slice of it
in canned peaches
and lick the plate clean.
"The White Porch"


(The entire section is 1437 words.)

Washington Post Book World (review date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Picture Bride, in Washington Post Book World, August 7, 1983, pp. 4-5.

[In the following, the critic offers a favorable review of Song's first collection, Picture Bride, praising the "quiet music" and "scrupulous craftsmanship" evident in her poems.]

Picture Bride is … a first book, not surprising given that Cathy Song is only 27; the work won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, open to any American under 40 who has not previously published a volume of poetry. The judge for this contest was the late Richard Hugo, a man whose own work is robust and earthy. It is clear that he was responsive to language different...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Richard Jackson (review date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Geography of Time," in American Book Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, January-February, 1986, pp. 19-20.

[The following review of Picture Bride focuses on Song's metaphor of flowers as it is used to produce "a poetry of description and recognition."]

Cathy Song's Picture Bride contains a poetry of adjectives: the frames of the past and present are delicately described, the major metaphor being flowers, in an attempt not to escape but to be reframed, or, in terms of the book's predominant metaphor, rerooted, repotted. Thus, a poem about her mother, "A Pale Arrangement of Hands" (note the flower reference), is spoken from the perspective, late in the...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Gayle K. Fujita-Sato (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Third World' as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song's Picture Bride," in MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 49-72.

[In the excerpt below, Fujita-Sato explores how Picture Bride "descibes both a personal history and a paradigm for analysing multicultural writing" through poems that draw on the cultural traditions of Song's ancestors as well as her own contemporary American upbringing to produce a unique blend representative of her heritage.]

Cathy Song's Picture Bride won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1982. Her second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, appeared in 1988. Song is Korean and Chinese-American....

(The entire section is 8329 words.)

Jessica Greenbaum (review date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Family Albums," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 1, October, 1988, p. 19.

[In this review of Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, Greenbaum criticizes Song's excessive use of metaphors and biographical information.]

Cathy Song is a first-generation Asian-American whose heritage is Korean; she has lived all of her 33 years in Hawaii. Her first book, Picture Bride, won the 1982 Yale Younger Poets Prize. Rooted in Korean culture, much of Picture Bride was about the author's family history and relationships, delivering even-tempered poems whose power came partly from the way their strong images floated up from dreamy narratives....

(The entire section is 825 words.)

Robert B. Shaw (review date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, in Poetry, Vol. CLIV, No. 5, August, 1989, pp. 289-90.

[In the review below, Shaw praises Song's treatment of family life, but echoes other critics in the opinion that Song's talent would better served by tighter composition and editing, curbing her tendency to "meander. "]

Family history has been a fertile source for poetry in America in recent years. It may be that in a society as heterogeneous as ours it is the only sort of history which seems real in a personal sense: in a melting pot there is no common national past, only many gradually blending stories. Cathy Song shows herself a resourceful...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Marilyn Kallet (review date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Illuminating Kinship," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1990, p. 31.

[Below, Kallet reviews Frameless Windows, Squares of Light in a mixed light, describing some poems as expansive and lyrical, and others as rambling and flat. Kallet also notes how this volume complements Picture Bride and, taken together, the two works narrate the writer's life and family history.]

Cathy Song's first book of poems, Picture Bride, was a family history and a lyrical, pared-down story of a woman writer's life. In it, Hawaiian-born Song creates a hospitable place in language where Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, and Asian-American cultures meet....

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Patricia Wallace (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove," in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 3-19.

[In the following excerpt, Wallace explores the balance between art and history in Song's poetry, recognizing the influence of the poet's multicultural background on her poetry.]

The poems of the Hawaiian-born Cathy Song transform what seems simple or ordinary—including words themselves—by lifting things out of their ordinary settings. A Song poem then moves between the beautiful strangeness such transformations reveal and a sharp sense of dailiness and practical necessity which resists that power. I...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

Lee Kyhan (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Korean-American Literature: The Next Generation," in Korea Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 20-35.

[In the following excerpt, Kyhan explores the evolution of Korean-American literature in the twentieth century, focusing on the impact of gender and family traditions on Song's poetry. Kyhan positions Song within the scheme of this literature, and discusses her unique characteristics.]

Quite a few second and third generation writers adamantly reject the hybrid or marginal implications of their identity, claiming allegiance to the American identity that they were born into, yet this too may likely be a defense mechanism against the tensions of identity...

(The entire section is 1946 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Nomaguchi, Debbie Murakami. "Cathy Song: I'm a Poet Who Happens to be Asian American." International Examiner (May 2, 1984): 9.

Much discussed interview with Song in which she deemphasizes the effect her ethinicity has on her poetry.

Additional coverage of Song's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: American Women Writers, Vol. 5 supplement; Notable Asian Americans; and EXPLORING Poetry.

(The entire section is 62 words.)