Sunday, February 26, 2006

Haiku from the Internment Camps: Violet Kazue de Christoforo

Vilet Kazue de Christoforo is one of many Japanese-American poets who wrote haiku in Japanese while interned in camps during World War II. She was born Kazue Yamane in Hawaii, educated from 8-13 in Japan, and then went to high school in Fresno, California. During World War II, she and her husband, Shigeru Matsuda, and their three children were interned in Jerome, Arkansas, and then she and the children were interned at Tule Lake camp in California.

Starting in 1915 two Tokyo poets Ippekiro Nakatsuka and Kawahigashi Hekigodo had developed a modernist haiku called "kaiko." Japanese-Americans in California had formed haiku-writing clubs to write these moderist haiku in Japanese. De Christoforo is a historian of these pre-World War II haiku clubs: One of the haiku clubs was in Fresno while the other one was in Stockton. The modernist haiku were not restricted to the vocabulary of the seasons and the strict 5-7-5 syllables of traditional haiku. The haiku poets worked hard on their writing, putting it up to serious critcism in the clubs, and they also collected Japanese literature. De Cristoforo says that right before the internment the Japaense-American poets in Stockton and Fresno destroyed their collections of haiku and much Japanese literature--a tragedy for Japanese-American literature. Yet the internment these Japaense-American poets kept writing haiku in Japanese which they published in camp newspapers

De Christoforo's is the best known of the haiku poets of the Japanese-American internment camps. Her Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Internment Camp, 1944, was published after 1984. She also collected and translated the concentration campu haiku in her book There is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Campu Kaiko Haiku (1996). Only 15 of Kristoro's haiku from the camps survived.

Christoforo's haiku don't follow the 5-7-5 pattern but do use naturalistic imagery. In this haiku:

"Like-minded people gather
new shoots sprout from the pine tree
early summer sky."'

she likens the people gathering. to "new shoots" from a pine trees, giving an image of hope during the desperate times.

In "Tenth Wedding Anniversary (July 3, 1944)

"Misty moon
as it was
on my wedding day"

the moon brings back poignant memories of her own wedding.

In this haiku

"Myriad insects
in the evening
my children are growing"

she matter of factly tells about endurance: the insects endure while her children grow up.

Cary Nelson's wonderful anthology Modern American Poetry has 29 more haiku from eighteen poets from the internment camps as well as a good, short introduction. The 29 haiku are incredibly moving. Like de Christoforo, the other haiku poets adapted the naturalistic vocabulary of the haiku to capture the sadness, courage, and stamina of those in the camps in amazing poems.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

George Oppen Struggles for the Truth

George Oppen was poet, Communist and soldier. He came from a wealthy Jewish-American family who had settled in San Francisco. He came into an inheritance young, which allowed him and his wife to go to France, where Oppen wrote and he and his wife started a small poetry press, and published in the early 1930s some of the best American young modernist poets--W.C. Williams, Ezra Pound, etc. At first Oppen was an imagist following Pound.

With the increasing Depression, Oppen returned to the U.S., joined the Communist Party, started organizing the unemployed, and quit writing poetry for over two decades. He also volunteered for service in the U.S. army, fought more than any other American poet in difficult battles, and was in a group of U.S. soldiers than liberated a concentration camp. When he returned to the United States after the war, the FBI investigated him repeatedly, so he and his wife went into exile to Mexico. He returned to live in San FRancisco in the late 1950s, returned to writing.

When he returned to poetry he criticized his mentor Pound who had become a fascist and who had made broadcasts for Mussolini during World War II. Oppen's of the late 1950s and 1960s is committed to creativing a democratic culture, and Oppen was now calling himself a "populist." His book The Materials ends with the poem "Leviathan" that 'truth also is the pursuit of it,' that 'we must talk now." Oppen's work is often difficult to understand but I think the struggle is worth it. In his poems he struggled to make imagism deal with moral truth. Obviously Pound was such a failure when it comes to connecting imagism to moral ideas, often writing a dogmatic polemic, but Oppen of the 1960s was committed to connecting the poetry of modernist tradition to moral truths necessary for democratic culture. Since Pound's imagism is so influential in 20th century American poetry, I think that Oppen was strugging with central questions for modern American poetry.

In the "Bicyles and the Apex," written in the 1960s, captures the mood that all the gadgets and machines that fascinated in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s are now taken for granted. Oppen seems to be showing how we longer are in love with all the gagets and machines that we once were. He starts with saying "How we loved the/Once, these mechanisms/" but now the poet no longer loves bicycles but sees them as part of "the platitude/the gadgets" as if too many gadgets were producing "our discontent." He compares hungry Van Gogh with shoe salesmen who envy him now.

He argues that neither slums nor tract homes are "the apex/Of the culture/They are the barracks." He does see basic elements--barracks, food, garbage,. tires--as needed but still producing disconent, particular with gangs in the slums and John Birch Societies, right wing groups, in the suburbs. He returns in the last stanza to saying "But we loved them once/" adding the "once," as if to emphasize we no longer love these gadgets. The poem captures an important intellectual mood in the 1960s.

In "The Building of the Skyscraper" Oppen compares a steel worker building a skyscraper who is trained not to look down with a writer who knows not to look for certain words that are empty and meaningless. If we look at these words we like the steel worker "are on the verge/Of vertigo." He says that, although certain words "mean nothing/But there is something to mean." The poet must find that meaning, what he calls "the thing/Which is. It is the business of the poet/To suffer the things of the world/and to speak them and himself out." The poet must find kernels of moral truth out of his difficult experiences. That's what Oppen tried to do in his poetry.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Robinson Jeffers: Poet for Now

I'm reading the current issue of the New Yorker the article "Watermark: Can Southern Louisiana be Saved" that discusses how much of Southern Louisiana is sinking into the sea--an appaling thought. At the same time I'm reading Robbinson Jeffers' nature poet, and thinking that Jeffers is the only environmentalist poet who got it right for 2006. He captures the ferocity of nature better than any other poet I know.

In poems like "November Surf" and "Hands" Jeffers speaks of how nature wipes out human habitation just like the hurricanes wiped out acres of land in Southern Louisiana. Jeffers' "November Surf" speaks of the "great waves awake ... come and cover the cliffs with a violent cleaness ...." he could be easily speaking of Hurricane Katrina but, of course, he isn't since he wrote these poems over 60 years ago. He describes all the summer trash--"orange peel, eggshells, paper, pieces of clothing"--on on these cliffs that the great waves wipes clean off, but the waves in "November Surf" do more than just clean off junk in the poem--they also wipe out cities.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we respect more Jeffer's description of the waves ability to take out a city and have less pride in our ability to control the waves. Jeffers in these poems tries to teach us that humility toward nature. Also, the poet teaches us to accept what hapens when "the river mouth to source pure." He calls us "the two-footed mammal" who, after the waves cleansing of the land, have "The dignity of room, the value of rareness." He believes that less people might even have some parts of the land.

In the poem "Hands" he speaks of hands on a cave in a canyon near Tassajara. "A brown shy quiet people" made these many hands and then vanished, but the poet says the people speak through their hands, warning those who now inhabit the land: "enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down/And be supplanted; for you are also human." Again, Jeffers tells us that we may not be able to remain on the land, to save all that we want. Years after Jeffers wrote these poems we most likely have to accept losing part of Southern Louisiana to the sea. Jeffers is asking us to accept something very difficult.

In "Rock and Hawk" Jeffers tells us to learn from these most inhuman elements--stones and predatory birds--for values to help us humans live. In the poem he rejects the cross and the hive--Christiantiy and the cities--instead giving us a "new emblem." He first looks at the rock which has withstood earthquakes and sea storms. No trees grow there but a falcon sits there. The new emblem is this falcon/stone: "Fierce consciousness joined with final/Disinterestedness."
He admires both the falcon's "realist eye" and massive "mysticism of stone." He wants us to live well but also accept death. Yes, Jeffers nature poetry has much to teach us. After decades of thinking we can dominate nature, ignoring global warming, ignoring warrnings about dangers to the Gulf Coast--rejecting Jeffers--perhaps we're now ready to listen to the Big Sur's poet's hard lessons.

Ambrose Bierce and Edwin Markham: Two Poets

Most 19th century California poets-- Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Ina Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, George Sterling, and Nora May French--seem to be most influenced by early 19th century British romantic poets; they attempted to use this romantic poetics to describe the new California landscape and their own emotions. Their poems lack originality and are largely derivative romanticism though they do give much insight into the emotional lives of late 19th century Anglo Californians.

But by the end of 19th century a few California poets--Ambrose Bierce, Edwin Markham, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Yone Nogouchi--have finally broken with this derivative romanticism to sound a more modern note. Bierce, a Civil War soldier who fought in some horrendous battles such as Chickamauga and Shiloh, wrote some brilliant short stories giving a more realistic, non-romantic even grim view of war: "Chickamauga," about a boy discovering war in the midst of the horror of the battle; and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," about the hanging of a Southern spy. He's also known for the bitter satire of his The Devil's Dictionary. At the end of his life he went to Mexico, joined Pancho Villa's army in Mexico in 1913 and then disappearing. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel about Bierce titled The Old Gringo which was made into a movie.

Instead of Romatic poet's emphasis on emtion and feeling, Bierce emphasized wit, particulary satire and parody in his many poems. His "A Rational Anthem" is a parody of that patriotic song "My county, 'tis of thee." While the original song praises the U.S. as a "sweet land of liberty" and "pilgrim's pride" in 5-line stanzas, Bierce uses the same 5-line stanzas to praise "sweet land of felony" where "my fathers fried/young witches and applied/Whips to the Quaker's hide/." He uses the same verse structure and rhymes in his parody.

When the original song celebrates the "noble free" and the rocks, hills, woods, etc., Bierce instead celebrates the country "where the thief is free" and the "thieving bills." In the third stanza while the original song extols the romantic sound of music and natural beauty, Bierce the realist instead extols government employees who rob. Bierce is writing a poetry for the corruption of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. He was famous for his savage satires of the Robber Baron politicans and corrupt politicians of that era.

The Southern Pacific Railroad dominated California politics throughout the 2nd half of the 19th century: its director Leland Stanford was elected governor while the railorad men routinely bribed the state legislators. Bierce wrote 4-line "Two Epigrams" about this corrupt politcs. In the 1st epigram those who elected Stanford to the Upper House of the legisalator, though " dead, they were elected to the lower." In the 2nd epigram Stanford looks down on God, expected "God to hasten to meet him."

Very different from Bierce is Edwin Markham, a late 19th century schoolteacher who believed in Christian socialism popular at the end of the century. Markham befriended naturalistic writers in San Francisco--Jack London, Amrbrose Bierce, and Frank Norris. After seeing Millet's painting "The Man with the Hoe," he wrote a poem also titled "The Man with the Hoe," which was published in 1899 in the San Francisco newspaper and reprinted 10,000 times, making Markham internationally famous. His poetry is dominated by naturalism, that late 19th century literary idea that a brutal environment determines human existence.

In Markham's "Man with the Hoe" the first stanza describes the poor farmworker crushed by "the weight of centuries" of a harsh work environment. The farmer is called "brother to the ox," and is described as "bowed" with an empty face "dead to rapture and despair" and a "brutal jaw."

The 2nd stanza refers back to the epigraph quoting Genesis how God made man in his own image and refers to God giving Man "dominion" over the whole natural universe as well as the power to have grand dreams. In both the 2nd and 3rd stanzas Markham undercuts the romantic dreams and pretensions with the reality of the farmworker's life:Obviously, the beaten down worker in stanza one is far from the grand dreamer of stanza two. In the 3rd stanza Markham develops this gulf between a man too brutalized and beaten by his life to understand Plato or meditate on the Pleiades. Markham calls this a "tragedy in that aching stoop"--the brutal enviornment has betrayed humanity itself. Markham like Bierce continually undercuts romantic dreams by comparing them to the brutal reality.

In the last two stanzas the poet addresses "masters, lords and rulers of all lands" asking again and again how they can heal this beaten down soul. If they don't, he warns in the last stanza of "whirlwinds of rebellion" as if predicting the peasant rebellions of the 20th century.

Both Bierce and Markham broke with the rosy romanticism of earlier Anglo California poets. The two late 19th centruy writers weren't interest in charming physical landscape descriptions but of the brutal political, social, and encomic landscape, and found new poetic ways to describe the material ugliness in their world. '

Both used the poem as argument, not lyric; their poetic arguments cut to the bone of important issues in the 1890s. They both wrote an intellectually musucular poetry. Modernists like Pound, Elliot or Williams focused so much on lyric, they wrote a poetry that often lacked Bierce's and Markham's tough intellectual poetics. Both late 1890s writers paved the way for 20th century writers: Bierce influenced Borges and horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft while Markham was one of many California poets and novelists who describe hardship in the fields leading to Steinbeck and Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesio (Farmworkers Theater).

Monday, February 20, 2006

19th century Native California poet: John Rollin Ridge

I wish to talk about some early California poets. What can they tell us about the early years of poets in the state of California?

First, John Rollin Ridge, was part-Cherokee and member of the renowned wealthy Ridge family who argued that Cherokees assimilate into Anglo-America. Members of the Ridge family signed the New Echota Treaty of 1835 that gave Cherokee lands to the state of Georgia and accepted removal of the Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma. For the next 15 years the Ridges and their enemies the Ross faction fought resulting in the murders in 1839 of three Ridge family members and John Rollin Ridge killing a Ross supporter in 1849.

Thus in 1850 John Rollin Ridge left for the gold fields of California in part to avoid prosecution for the killing. After two months gold mining, Ridge left it for journalism and published in 1853 Anglo California's 1st novel Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about the Mexican Robin Hood outlaw killed in 1853. Many scholars such as Eric Sundquist of the Cambridge History of American Literature interpret Ridge's novella has an outcry against the oppression of Native Americans and Mexicans, but critic/USC professor John Carlos Rowe disagrees.

I wish to talk here not about Ridge's novel but about his poetry. He published a book of poetry in 1868, one of the earliest books put out in the state. His poem "California," celebrates the pioneers of 1850: "those brave men, those hardy Pioneers,/Who led the way for Science, Art and Law," braving many dangers. Ridge celebrates the hardy Pioneers' deeds: "of young empire sowed the seeds?" He surely seems to be praising the conquest of California as creation of a "young empire."

Further, Ridge in the next few lines compares the hardy Pioneers as a group to "some reverend head, majestic as a seer's" arising from the mass of people like the "snow-crowned peak" of some majestic mountain rising up above the flatland. In Ridge's "Mount Shasta," a poem imitating Shelley's "Mount Blanc," Ridge had praised Shasta as the incarnation of the eternal masculine genius. John Carlos Rowe says, "The personification of genius as a divine power, predictably masculine, is typical of romantic idealizations of human rationality as 'divine mind' and it is the utopian goal of realizing such genius that justifies Manifest Destiny .... " (Rowe 108).

In "Mt. Shasta" after praising the lofty male genius of the mountains, Ridge argues California will only survive "if, /Its own Mt. Shasta, Sovereign Law, shall lift/Itself in purer atmosphere ...." He's arguing that instead of "human passions," California should be ruled by this absolute, eternal law that treats all Men equally including those socalled "foreigners" like Joaquin Murieta that the Anglos were driving out of the gold fields. The attacks on non-Anglo miners--Chinese, Mexican, Chilean--were brutal and ugly in the 1850s.

But back in the poem "California" the Pioneers for years "did fight the wild beast back/To plant their homes ..." One wonders who Ridge means by the "wild beast"--a real beast or a metaphorical beast? He likens the Pioneers dieing to pines that brave "the howling winter strong," so surely he means they survived the harsh winters and physical hardships of making a home in Northern California. But he also gives the meaning of "wild beast" as wild, unruly humans as he describes the pioneers greatest achievement as planting "Science, Art and Law" in California--making the domestic arts bloom in the wilderness.

Ridge says a "woman's hand" will save the memories of these hardy Pioneers when the female hand transmits the names to "History's Scroll." In this gender division women pioneers don't exist but a metaphorical woman acts to preserve male greatness. Unlike Whitman or Frederick Douglas, Ridge isn't an early feminist but only concerned with male fame. One example Ridge gives is the name of "Lassen" attached to that peak in Northern California is a "fit memorial of the grandest fame;" well, the fame of the hardy male empire-building Pioneers will last after all. To be fair to Ridge, he argues against racial discrimination and for laws that treat all men fairly in California. I think that Ridge's demands in his poems for equality before the law for Men was progressive in the 1850s and 1860s.

Rowe also analyzes Ridge's novel Joaquin Murieta, the beginning of a California myth, as portraying Murieta, born in Sonora, Mexico, as a heroic romantic male individual not a Robin Hood. In Ridge's novel Anglo barbaric violence against Murieta as an indivudal force him to seek to revenge himself by leading a gang of outlaws.

Rowe mentions that Latin American writers have revised the Joaquin Murietta myth many times. For instance, Pablo Neruda wrote Fulgar y Muerta de Joaquin Murieta (Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta, 1967). Neruda's 5-act musical drama makes Murieta a Chilean (many Chileans came to the California Gold Fields but were driven out by the Anglos) who fights for a collective "working class against Yankee imperialism .... "

Also Chicano playwright Luis Valdez wrote in 1964 his first play The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," whose hero is Joaquin, a Robin Hood who steals from the rich to give to the poor; in the play Valdez holds out hope that the community will unite and take action to fight Anglo injustices against its communal self. Well, the issues that Ridge raise still reverberate in California literature.

Update on NYU graduate students' strike

Update on NYU graduate students strike:

A month ago Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, announced that the Executive Council
of the MLA had sent a letter to NYU president John Sexton reaffirm the resolution of the MLA Delegates
Assembly in 2000 that "endorses the right of all academic employees—'full- and part-time faculty members, graduate employees, and support staff'—to engage in collective bargaining if they choose to do so." The letter also says the NYU has an obligation to reocognize the graduate students' union and encourages "encourages all parties to proceed in good faith, to negotiate a mutually acceptable contract, and it asks that the NYU administration not rescind stipends, withdraw teaching eligibility, or take any other action to discourage graduate employees from engaging in union activity."

Meanwhile NYU adminstration has ignored the resolutions of MLA, AAUP, and many letters it has received, and has started retaliatory action against graduate student strikers--taking away a semester or two semesters' work.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dealing with TV

My friend asked me if I wanted her TV/DVD player which she was giving away. Since I had a 18 year old TV (no DVD player), I said, "Yes." That meant giving away my old TV which was given to me by a friend Thersia, who tragically died not long after she gave me her TV. I was very attached to my old very old TV, but someone once said I shouldn't get sentimental about a set. Finally, I was ready to let go of my old set. A few months ago I'd walked into my local video store, but they didn't have videos--only DVDs. So I thought maybe I should get a new TV?

I've never bought a TV in my life. Actually, when I was 12, my dad threw out our family TV, telling me to study, so throughout my teens and and most of my twenties I didn't have television in my house. I read a lot, started a record collection, saw great films, and made videos--wrote, directed, and produced feminist news which was broadcast. Since I was making TV, I was given my grandmother's old set. I was of the generation which fell in love with movies as ART and wanted to be video freaks, making our own video.

Makng one's own short newsbroadcast and then showing it on the air was such a rush--incredibly exciting. I even helped a colleague write a grant for a people's video editing studio. In comparison to making one's own television in the 1970s and 1980s, broadcast TV was ridiculous, a stereotypic waste of time. As TVs in the last few years grew larger & larger I thought it quite bizarre. Why on earth anyone would want such a big piece of dud in their living room?

Once the new TV was in my apartment (the same size as the old TV or about 24" wide), I looked at the manual and the remote control, and then I went to Radio Shack to get a rabbit ear antennae and some cables to hook it up. Back in the apartment, I followed the manual in hooking up my VCR to the new TV as well as the stereo receiver to the TV and also hooked on the new antennae as well as plugged it in. I turned on the TV but all it said was "no usable signal" and the remote control didn't work. After replugging and plugging the TV on , I got the DVD player to work but still no broadcast TV.

Next day I called my local TV shop in West Hollywood and asked them to make a house call to set up my TV. Well, the technician came. He immediately got the on-screen menu to work (I had been warned that the menu was very difficult to operate), and by god he got a TV signal. The picture was fuzzy but it was a real signal! Also, after he put a tape in the VCR he got the video to play. He also put one of my jazz CDs in the DVD and it played out of my two stereo speakers! He turned by rabbit ear antennae this way and that--each way some TV stations would come in but others wouldn't. He said that now TVs cost less to build than they used to but are sold for much more money. Also, he said I should get cable TV because the broadcast signals are lousy where I live.

I had cable TV once in my life but hated it. I've seen a lot of great movies in theaters, but there were few good movies on the cable movie channels--a major disappointment. No Fellini No Bergman. No Kurosawa. No Ray. No Eisenstein. What a drag this cable TV was. The biographies were 2nd rate. The documentaries weren't that good. I've seen some great documentaries from Nanook of the North to Ken Burns The Civil Wars and Jazz, but on cable they weren't showing top documentaries the 6 months I had it in the mid-1990s. For 2nd rate programming I paid $24/month plus had to watch insipid ads.

I did start watching Law & Order, the cop/attorney show on cable NBC, but it was also on the regular channel of NBC, so I stopped the cable. For years I've had this guilty pleasure of watching Law & Order on NBS. Even Noam Chomsky watches Law & Order. When I heard that, I felt pleased with my attachment to this show. On Law & Order pop culture theorizes about latest current eventssuch as gun control, radio talk show hosts, undocumented immigrants, ect.

The technician said I could get analog cable which was cheaper than the digital from my local cable company who doesn't even advertise they still have analog since they make so much more money from digital. After he left I could get the PBS station which I watch a lot; CBS which I also watch a bit; and the Warner Brothers station which I never watch. But I couldn't get or NBC or the local station KCAL in Los Angeles. So I thought, do I want just to watch CBS and PBS and forget about NBC? Can I live without NBC?

If I don't get NBC I'll never get to see Law & Order, but after years of watching Law & Order, it isn't that original but repetitive and a bit of a bore. Last year I read my way through 50 novels about Los Angeles to make up a list of the top 40 novels of L.A--the novels were incredibly exciting; in contrast, TV seemed even more stereotypic and dull. I think it a shame that after more than 60 years of television in this country it still stinks to the extent it does. I'm still my father's daughter, thinking that books, music, good movies, making ones own video are much more exciting and entertaining than canned commercial TV.

Right now I'll stick with CBS and PBS, forget about cable, save the money, and skip Law & Order. Oh, I did rent my first DVD--rapidly entering the modern era. I saw Delores Claiborne starring Kathy Bates who was excellent in this adaption of a Stephen King book. The new technology is great--yes, DVD's are an improvement over videotape; yes, it's good to hear TV concerts over stereo speakers (the rare time there's a good concert on broadcast TV). So it was worthwhile to get the new set after all in order to play DVDs.