Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1391
A fourth-generation Japanese American, Garrett Kaoru Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawaii, in 1951. His parents are Albert Kazuyoshi Hongo, who died in 1984, and Louise Tomiko Kubota Hongo. Until he was six years old, he and his family lived in Kahuku and then Hauula on the island of Oahu. Hongo learned at this time to speak Pidgin English and Japanese. From the ages of six to eighteen, Hongo lived with his family in and around Los Angeles, where he began to experience the harshness of city life (in contrast to the easy rhythms of life on the island) and the prejudices and injustices of a multicultural society. He attended an inner-city high school, which was an integration pilot combining whites, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in the same classes. Some of his poems, “Morro Rock” in particular, evoke conflicts experienced for the first time in his teenage years.
Hongo’s beginnings as a poet came when he was eighteen and started writing love poems to a European American girl, celebrating a relationship that they felt pressured to keep secret. She awakened in him an intellectual camaraderie with “books about adolescent yearning and rebellion, about ’the system’ not understanding you,” notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1951), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes, 1954-1955), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). His first serious poetry came when he was twenty and a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California. There, as a freshman, he read the early fiction of James Joyce, who made him aware of links between language and culture and the literary divisions of loyalty that an artist might feel. As a sophomore, he progressed to the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats, whom he began to revere as sages who had reinvented English according to their own inner voices. He immersed himself in listening to the language of poets by attending actual readings by Philip Levine (who was to become a mentor), Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, and Galway Kinnell. He studied Japanese and Chinese formally, and, as Hongo himself relates, “practiced calligraphy every night, and, afterwards, my mind tight and cluttered with bristling ideograms, read the great translations of Tang Dynasty Chinese poetry by Pound, Arthur Waley, Witter Bynner, and Kenneth Rexroth.” Through this process, he began to have confidence in his own authentic voice, what he calls his “inner speech,” later encouraged by poet-teachers Bert Meyers, Charles Wright, C. K. Williams, and Philip Levine.
At the age of twenty, Hongo returned to Hawaii and began to try to reclaim that portion of his own past, his heritage. Here he discovered in a garage his father’s library, consisting primarily of works of realistic fiction, and he established a connection with his uncle, Robert Hongo, who was a novelist. The first “real” poem Hongo wrote was called “Issei: First-Generation Japanese American.” The poem relates an ancestral explanation of how he received his own middle name and thus reveals the close link between name and identity, between name and heritage. Writing the poem was a turning point for him, a moment that confirmed his calling. Hongo describes this experience in terms that represent the matter and spirit of much of his poetry:It was a childhood recollection of my grandfather reading a Japanese book—a sort of bound scroll of folded paper stitched together in a way that reminded me of the lacing on a fishing pole. It was about descent, heritage, and his injunction to me to remember it. I wrote the lines quickly after practicing ideograms all night once, in cadences I imitated from translations of Chinese poetry. After I was done, I felt my life had changed—that I had said a true thing, that I was a poet. I remembered the feeling, the new conviction, and tried for it every time I wrote thereafter. It was a standard I used to test authenticity and depth of feeling.
Working to combine the early literary influence of “the fiction of John Steinbeck, the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Robinson Jeffers, the lyrics of Hawaiian songs, and Motown,” Hongo entered the Watts Writers’ Workshop. There he was primarily an observer while more experienced writers debated many of the same questions that plagued the young Hongo: voice, authenticity, ethnic fidelity and literary sophistication, legitimacy, and genuineness. He began to connect the forms and methods of music and poetry, striving for the avant-garde mastery of jazz pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor in his own writing, and finding a fascination with the representative possibilities of theater—Macbeth with an all-black cast, for example.
After being graduated cum laude in 1973 from Pomona College, Hongo journeyed to Japan on a quest for an understanding of where he might belong; he spent a year there, traveling and writing poetry. He then commenced graduate study of Japanese language and literature at the University of Michigan. Returning to the West Coast, Hongo lived in Seattle from 1976 to 1979, where he worked as a professor and a poet. Ultimately he returned to California to study and receive, in 1980, an M.F.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine, where he continued in doctoral study in critical theory for two more years.
Although he finds himself more attuned to dialogue with poets than with professors, more at home in the artistic world than in the academy, Hongo negotiates the common ground with grace and intelligence. His critical training is apparent in his experimentation with various poetic forms, as well as in the metapoetic nature of some of his writings. Hongo is aware of the myriad poetic influences that have helped to define him. He pays homage to his predecessors by emulating their forms and by injecting himself into their situations or embedding their poems within his, as in “To Matsuo Basho and Kawai Sora in Nirvana,” where the persona of the poem visits the pond of the famous frog haiku and invites the ghosts of the masters to return to him and speak, “before the fog rolls in.” In his later poems, Hongo often includes a dedication to other poets in a kind of ongoing literary conversation. His connection to other working poets helps to sustain his own writing; those who have figured in this dialogue include Mark Jarman (“Morro Rock”), Gerald Stern (“Nostalgic Catalogue”), Edward Hirsch (“Ancestral Graves, Kahuku”), and Charles Wright (“Volcano House”).
Even though Hongo enjoys thinking critically about his own and others’ poetry, he found deconstructionist theory to be debilitating rather than enabling and thus left his doctoral program in 1984, taking a position as an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, where he was also poetry editor of Missouri Review. Meanwhile, Hongo had married Cynthia Thiessen, a violinist, and his first son, Alexander, was born (a second son is named Hudson). In Missouri, Hongo began daydreaming about Hawaii, about California, about his own and his family’s past. Instead of producing a doctoral dissertation, he wrote The River of Heaven—a decision that salvaged his spirit in an alien landscape and confirmed his allegiance to creativity rather than to scholarship. After a year’s sojourn at the University of Houston, Hongo accepted a position at the University of Oregon and directed the creative writing program there from 1989 to 1993. He divides his time between Eugene and Volcano, a place for which his spirit hankers and where the ghost of his grandfather is evident. Hongo has become an active literary presence in his hometown and is the leader of a theater group. He speaks of his connection with place, of how the volcano itself informs his poetry:My poems speak now of the fragility of all things—culture, inheritances, loyalties—and the great vulnerability of love of them. I look out the window here and see myrtle trees with their red-crest blossomso’hia lehua in Hawaiian—and feel sad to think that there might only be sixty years left for this forest, for the apapane and i’iwi honeycreepers which live among these trees. Mostly, though, I still write from an ancient human sadness for existence and for eternity, a feeling Japanese aesthetics defined as sabi—a kind of serene worry or melancholy about the universe.