The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

“Kicking the Habit” is a poem of slightly fewer than one hundred lines written in free verse. Most of the lines are relatively short, averaging three to five words. The stanzas are irregular and break every few lines where the voice would normally pause or reach a full stop. Lawson Fusao Inada also indents several sections to indicate vocal emphasis in this poem, which, given its conversational language, was obviously intended to be read aloud. It is also obvious that the poem is meant to be read aloud specifically by the poet himself, who uses the first-person “I” to tell of his experience and frustration with the English language.

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The title of the poem suggests a resolution that a person makes to get rid of some annoying, obsessive, or destructive behavior. The phrase is commonly used in connection with smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol, the goal being to “kick” or overcome a bad habit. Surprisingly, Inada applies the phrase to his habit of speaking English, which readers are to assume has become a bad habit for him: “I was exhausted,/ burned out,/ by the habit./ And I decided to/ kick the habit,/ cold turkey.” One of the methods of any poet is to use surprising, even arresting verbal juxtapositions to shape new and memorable images in proving his point, and Inada does that here. He upsets his readers’ expectations because he is upset.

From the beginning, Inada brings his readers into the immediacy and frustration that he feels on the particular morning that his poem is set. He has made an urgent and irreversible promise to himself “Late last night” to give up on the English language. This resolve was reached, as a series of seven progressive verbs specifies, after the poet had immersed himself in English thoroughly by “talking,” “listening,” “thinking,” “reading,” “remembering,” “feeling,” and “even driving” in English. He therefore decides to go on an unusual, symbolic journey, pulling himself “off the main highway.” After arriving at a place that is completely new, he simply stops. The poet then digresses for several lines to reassure readers and himself that he does not mean to complain; after all, the language that he is intent on giving up is his own “native tongue,” and, until last night, he had been “addicted to it” all his life.

After kicking English out of his life, the poet “kicked/ open the door of a cage/ and stepped out from confinement/ into the greater world.” It is that greater, larger, and therefore better world that he spends the last half of the poem describing. It is a world of liberation in which nature and humanity of all races are in harmony, and real communication, awareness, and empathy are possible. Having happened onto such a new place, having experienced such an elevated realm of sharpened senses and appreciation, the poet is then able to retain some essence of that world and take it with him “on the road of life,/ in the code of life” back to his own place in the universe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

The central symbol in Inada’s poem is that of a profoundly important journey. This is a significant symbol for a Japanese American writer such as Inada to use. A journey can be undertaken in hope, in the belief that the place of arrival holds the promise of a better life than the life one leaves behind. This was the dream that many Asian immigrants held as they boarded boats bound to America, the Gold Mountain. Though Inada and his parents were born in California—he is thus not a first-generation immigrant but a Sansei, or third-generation resident—some of his writing concerns the history of Japanese people in general and of his grandparents in particular, people who crossed the Pacific Ocean in search of a new life in America. The “greater world” that the narrator perceives and the “ ‘Clackamas, Siskiyou’” that the pine trees utter resonate with the hope and beauty at the end of such a journey, specifically the beauty and peace that Inada found in the landscape of Oregon, where he has made his home since the mid-1960’s.

Inada’s journey motif is also significant in the sense that some journeys are not willingly undertaken but imposed, and these can be difficult and even harsh. Inada’s family undertook this type of relocation three times during the World War II internment of the Japanese living in the United States. “Each camp was different, and the same,” Inada says of the three camps in which his family was detained: Fresno Assembly Center (the county fairgrounds), Jerome Camp (an Arkansas swamp in the Mississippi Delta), and Amache Camp (in the Colorado desert). Inada’s second collection of poetry, Legends from Camp (1992), is loosely based on his childhood impressions of his years in the camps recollected in the adult perceptions of a poet who is also a lover of jazz. The collection in which “Kicking the Habit” appears is Inada’s third book of poetry, Drawing the Line, which continues the thread of those camp recollections. The title of the book refers to a group of Japanese men in the Heart Mountain internment camp who “drew the line” by resisting the government’s order to be drafted into the military and who were thus sent to federal prison. “Kicking the Habit,” along with the other poems in this collection, is Inada’s way of drawing a personal and ethnic line of his own. It is a statement about what he loves, what he remembers, what place and landscape mean to him, and what it is that has given him hope and has made him wise. Though a journey may be fraught with complexities and surprises, the poem suggests, both the traveling and the arrival significantly shape the poet’s identity.

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