Friday, September 13, 2013

ModPo 2013 # 5 On The Dickinsonian, The Whitmanian, and Being Filipino

Stepping into experience

Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

Wow! First week done. Three Dickinson poems and one (very long) Whitman poem.

It's been an interesting week. I've been really busy and I would go home tired but still willing to read the assigned poem and watch the ensuing videos. I've never had this opportunity to go deeply into the works of particular poets and I love the experience.

I couldn't possibly conclude this week by pitting Whitman against Dickinson. I enjoyed the false binary between Dickinson and Whitman created in the video discussion but I ended up really appreciating the role of both poets in creating the path for future poets.

I have two things that I'm bringing up in this post. One: the enjoyment of poetry and two: writing poetry in English in the Philippines.

On The  Enjoyment of Poetry

I truly enjoyed Dickinson. I enjoyed her brevity and economy. I was annoyed by all the words that began with capital letters and all the confusing dashes. But I did remember writing a poem, way back, where I employed a capital letter for a noun. My teacher might have been just as annoyed. Was I influenced by Dickinson? I'm not sure. I'm an eclectic reader but I didn't really appreciate reading poetry books until after college.

I was particularly struck by "I dwell in Possibility." I realize that it is the kind of poem that I truly enjoy. And I liked the work of figuring out the puzzle of poetry = possibility and prose = the opposite of possibility. I also loved the powerful ending: For Occupation --this--/ The spreading wide my narrow hands/ To gather Paradise --. It reminds me that poetry is a worthwhile endeavor. It requires work,yes, but the work is rewarded with epiphany.

To my dismay, I realized I deplored Whitman. Maybe because his poem was soooo long. I wanted to sleep already. Yes, there was exuberance, yes, there was ecstasy. But at what cost? It was too tiring. As I wrote in another post somewhere: it was like reading a Facebook wall with random content.

But, there was a reward. The last section was priceless. On its own, it would probably the kind of poem that I would enjoy on a normal day. It starts beautifully, powerfully with that "barbaric yawp" and it ends tenderly, intimately with "I stop somewhere waiting for you." Absolutely beautiful.

All in all, I want the poetry I read to be succinct. Does that sound like I am going to be rooting for the imagists? I can't wait to get there.

Writing Poetry in English in The Philippines

Secondly, I am a Filipino writer who writes almost exclusively in English now taking up a course on American poetry. Well, UPenn can hardly be blamed. It's an American University. But on my end, I try to see how I can stretch the experience of this course into my own territory, into my own life. It's good to get into the history of the poetic form in America, after all, colonization did play a role in my own history. The generation of my grandparents were taught American poetry for sure and that affected the generations after. I am heavily influenced by the Western Canon. Some of my favorite poets are actually American: Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Gary Snyder.

I am a conflicted writer because I do long to write in my native language but that opportunity has passed. English is my primary language. I think in English but my experiences are Filipino. Being a writer, I know the power of language. It creates experience and possibility for me just as much as the physical world informs my experience as a human being. Elsewhere, in another poem, I write about appropriating the language to be the medium of my expression as a Filipino. I don't know if I'm only justifying my experience. But it's a reality that I live with.

I once had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine about the importance of being Filipino in my writing. I told him: "That's part of who I am. I cannot claim to come from elsewhere." And he answered that it was more important to be a human being, perhaps to be a citizen of the world. I took solace from that.

So, that's where I'm going to stand. As I go through this course, I understand that the poetry that I am reading is coming from a canon, coming from a pre-selection from an academic institution, coming from a tradition. But I will choose to look at it as a way to inform my being human, wherever I am and whatever my nationality or ethnicity. Poetry encompasses all of that. And I continue the challenge of writing...from wherever I am.

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