John Yau Essay - Critical Essays

Yau, John


John Yau 1950-

American poet, critic, and short story writer.

Yau is considered to be a major Chinese American poet. Critics praise the complexity and originality of his poetic style as well as his bold exploration of identity politics, racial stereotypes, and the process of ethnic identification. A prolific and influential author, his work has been perceived as providing a new direction for Chinese American poetry.

Biographical Information

Yau was born on June 5, 1950, in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father, Arthur Lau, was a half-Chinese American who had lived in China for several years; it was there he met John's mother, Jane Chang, who descended from a prestigious Shanghai family and never fully adjusted to life in the United States. Although his parents spoke Chinese to each other, they refused to teach it to their children. Therefore, Yau felt alienated from his Chinese heritage, and was often a victim of discrimination in the world around him. This sense of cultural dislocation has influenced Yau's poetry throughout his career. After two years at Boston University, Yau transferred to Bard College and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1972. During his junior year, he was involved in a serious car accident and was hospitalized with severe injuries for eight months. In 1975 he began studying for his master of fine arts degree with the renowned poet John Ashbery at Brooklyn College. Ashbery proved to be a profound influence on Yau's life and career, encouraging his student to pursue an interest in art criticism. In 1976 Yau published his first collection of verse, Crossing Canal Street. In 1977 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and has been the recipient of two Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowships (1979-80, 1985-86). In 1988 he received a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a Lavan award, and a General Electric Foundation award. He has been the curator of several important art exhibitions, and has written numerous essays and books of art criticism. He has also been a visiting critic at the Pratt Institute and the Maryland Institute as well as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in New York City.

Major Poetic Works

Critics identify Yau's explorations of racial and cultural identification as the central theme of his poetry. They contend that he not only explores such thematic concerns as cultural dislocation and assimilation, racial stereotypes, exile, and discrimination, but he also strives to incorporate Chinese history, mythology, culture, and literary traditions into his work, creating an innovative blend of Asian and American styles. For example, in his first collection Crossing Canal Street, Yau features allusions to Chinese poetic form and imagistic verse to capture everyday experiences in New York's Chinatown. In “An Old Chinese Gentleman Drops in to See His Cronies in a Coffeeshop (Mott Street),” five old men sitting a coffee shop in Chinatown are transported to a mystical countryside in ancient China where poets are gathered before their exile by the government. Yau's use of Chinese American imagery and experience has developed within the context of racial identification in modern American culture. His poetry has also become more autobiographical in nature, although critics have pointed out that it differs from the confessional mode of poetry that has become popular in the late twentieth century. Instead, Yau experiments with syntax, sound, and the structure of language to explore issues that are significant to Asian Americans and transform the ways in which language has been used to oppress and exclude minorities. Perhaps his best-known poetry, the “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” series, blends his distinctive use of language with his concern about identity construction to subvert Asian American stereotypes in popular culture. In these poems, Yau creates the character of Genghis Chan—an amalgamation of the fierce warrior Genghis Khan and Charlie Chan, the Hollywood stereotype of a Chinese detective—to disrupt the process of Asian American identification by eschewing conventional racial markers which would allow readers to decode the speaker's racial identity. Moreover, critics contend that by experimenting with the identity of “I” in his poems as well as by his word choices in the poetic series, Yau reflects the pervasive racism experienced by Asian American immigrants.

Critical Reception

Yau's work has garnered critical attention for its innovative poetics as well as its focus on cultural and racial identity. Reviewers have found his explorations of the relationship between language and subjectivity, as well as between representation and identity construction, to be compelling and thought provoking. Others have taken issue with his representation of Chinese American culture and have questioned his racial authenticity. Critics have commended his use of parody, cinematic techniques such as film noir, and his experimentation with language. Yau's stylistic innovations have led to many of his verses being categorized as prose poems, in that they eschew traditional poetic form and blur the lines between poetry and prose. As a prose poet, he has been placed within the context of other American poets who have explored the relationship between prose and poetry, such as John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Creeley. His interest in art and art criticism has also been viewed as an influence on his verse. Commentators contend that Yau's poetry is not easily categorized, and his verse has been discussed within the poetic traditions of modernist, postmodernist, multiculturalist, and language poetry, as well as the New York School. The influence of Ezra Pound's translations of T'ang Dynasty poems in Cathay has also been a frequent topic of critical discussion. Because of his transgressive approach to Asian American poetic traditions, Yau is regarded as a distinctive voice in contemporary American poetry.

Principal Works

Crossing Canal Street 1976

The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale 1977

Sometimes 1979

The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix 1980

Broken Off by the Music 1981

Notarikon 1981

Corpse and Mirror 1983

Dragon's Blood 1989

Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Work, 1974-1988 1989

Big City Primer: Reading New York at the End of the Twentieth Century [with Bill Barrette] 1991

Edificio Sayonara 1992

Postcards from Trakl 1994

Forbidden Entries 1996

I Was a Poet in the House of Frankenstein 1999

My Heart is That Eternal Rose Tatoo 2001

Borrowed Love Poems 2002

A. R. Penck (criticism) 1993

In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (criticism) 1993

Hawaiian Cowboys (short stories) 1994

Ed Moses: A Retrospective of the Paintings and Drawings, 1951-1996 (criticism) 1996

My Symptoms (short stories) 1998

James Castle: The Common Place (criticism) 2002


Peter Sihjeldahl (review date spring-summer 1981)

SOURCE: Sihjeldahl, Peter. “Cabin Fever.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 1 (spring-summer 1981): 294-95.

[In the following excerpt, Sihjeldahl offers a favorable assessment of The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix.]

John Yau's intense, high-strung prose-poetry [in The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix] makes use of the Borgesian conceit that pastness equals ancientness. This conceit is a remarkable survival of the pre-Romantic European “picturesque”—all those late-eighteenth-century pictures of overgrown ruins—given a second life in nineteenth-century popular literature and a third in the poetics of modernist lostness and irony. It has...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Clayton Eshleman (review date 7 August 1983)

SOURCE: Eshleman, Clayton. “A Poetry of Omens and Memories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 3, 9.

[In the following favorable review of Corpse and Mirror, Eshleman contends that Yau's poetic abilities establish him “as one of the most genuinely gifted poets of his reticently emerging generation.”]

Corpse and Mirror, selected by John Ashbery as one of the five “National Poetry Series” books this year, is John Yau's seventh collection. It is clearly the most experimental, and probably the strongest, book to appear in the series publishing five books each year, now in its fifth year.

One might begin to think...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

B. H. Friedman (review date October-November 1992)

SOURCE: Friedman, B. H. “Always Street-Smart.” American Book Review 14, no. 4 (October-November 1992): 20.

[In the following favorable assessment of Big City Primer, Friedman describes the collaboration between Yau and photographer Bill Barrette.]

In these pages, in 1982, I reviewed the first six books of John Yau's poetry. I liked his work then, and I like it now, seven books later. His most recent volume, Big City Primer, is a collaboration between him and Bill Barrette, photographer and sculptor. Barrette's shifting vision—sometimes frontal, sometimes angular, always street-smart—and his technical ability to present the intense blacks and...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Edward Halsey Foster (essay date March 1994)

SOURCE: Foster, Edward Halsey. “John Yau and the Seductions of Everything That Used to Be.” Multicultural Review 3, no. 1 (March 1994): 36-9.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses Yau as a Chinese American poet, contending that “his work has much wider implications than such labels may imply.”]

You ask. What words will return us to the words we were using yesterday? …

Instead of answering, I tell you that I have decided to return my hands to their owners, and begin packing for the journey to the bus station.

John YauBig Island...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (review date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. Boston Review 22, no. 3 (summer 1997): 39-41.

[In the following review, Perloff surveys the broad stylistic and emotional range of verse in Forbidden Entries.]

John Yau has always cultivated the image of Angry Young Man. The picture of him on the back cover of one of his early books, Sometimes (Sheep Meadow Press, 1979) presents the poet, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, slouching on a bench in old army fatigues, his long black unkempt hair, moustache, cigarette dangling from his unsmiling mouth, and matchbook open ready for the strike giving him the appearance of streetwise tough guy,...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)

Juliana Chang (review date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Chang, Juliana. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. MELUS 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 226-28.

[In the following evaluation, Chang examines the ways in which Yau utilizes racial identity and stereotyping in Forbidden Entries.]

The poetic and critical writings of John Yau present an intriguing site of investigation into questions of racial authenticity. Because Yau's writings in general do not address racialized identity in a straightforward, explicit manner, it is difficult for critics of multicultural literature to read his work as “representative” of ethnic/racial experience. What is remarkable, however, is that Yau's ethnic and racial authenticity...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Tom Devaney (review date fall 2002)

SOURCE: Devaney, Tom. Review of Borrowed Love Poems, by John Yau. Rain Taxi Online 7, no. 3 (fall 2002)

[In the following review, Devaney asserts that “spilling over with formal mastery, Borrowed Love Poems is an utterly pleasurable collection.”]

John Yau's recent Borrowed Love Poems is a dazzling exploration of deft and unforgiving openness. The poems engage the reader with a wide and wild array of characters, disembodied and otherwise, with an imaginative and capacious use of the lyric “I.” It is a collection fed on a steady...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Daniel Morris (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Morris, Daniel. “‘Death and Disaster’: John Yau's Painterly Poems.” In Remarkable Modernisms, pp. 41-60. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Morris analyzes the relationship of Yau's art criticism and his poems “Electric Drills” and “The Telephone Call.”]

John Yau's art writings illustrate the new modernism in that he revises the narrative history of painting in the United States since about 1940. Like Creeley and Frank O'Hara before him, Yau is also able to write ground-breaking poems because he is what Marjorie Perloff called “a poet among the painters,” an author who adapts nonliterary means into his...

(The entire section is 8137 words.)

Zhou Xiaojing (essay date winter 2004)

SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “Postmodernism and Subversive Parody: John Yau's ‘Genghis Chan: Private Eye’ Series.” College Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 2004): 73-102.

[In the following essay, Xiaojing argues that Yau's “Genghis Chan” series “connects postmodernism in poetry to debates about postmodernism and Asian American identity in ways that engage larger issues concerning the relationship between postmodern discourses and minority American literatures.”]

Alluding to critical reception of his poetry, John Yau refers to himself as “the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists” (1994, 40). Yau's poems evoke...

(The entire section is 11791 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Frank. Review of Edificio Sayonara, by John Yau. Library Journal 118, no. 3 (15 February 1993): 168.

Describes the poems in Edificio Sayonara as a “meditation on contemporary urban realities.”

Elman, Richard. “Three American Poets.” New York Times Book Review (18 September 1983): 36.

Offers a negative review of Corpse and Mirror.

Finkle, Jori. “Having His Fling.” San Francisco Bay Guardian (29 January 1997): n.p.

Considers Yau's use of language in Forbidden Entries.

McDowell, Robert. “Recombinative...

(The entire section is 308 words.)