Women and multiethnic poets

Women's literature, like minority literature and surrealism, first became aware of itself as a driving force in American life during the late 1960s. It flourished in the feminist movement initiated in that era.

Literature in the United States, as in most other countries, was long based on male standards that often overlooked women's contributions. Yet there are many women poets of distinction in American writing. Not all are feminists, nor do their subjects invariably voice women's concerns. More often than not, they are humanists. Also, regional, political, and racial differences have shaped their work and given them food for thought. Distinguished women poets include Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, May Swenson, and Mona Van Duyn.

The second half of the 20th century has witnessed a renaissance in multiethnic literature. Beginning with the 1960s, following the lead of African-Americans, ethnic writers in the United States began to command public attention. During the 1970s, ethnic studies programs were begun. In the 1980s, a number of academic journals, professional organizations, and literary magazines devoted to ethnic groups were initiated. By the 1990s, conferences devoted to the study of specific ethnic literatures had begun, and the canon of "classics" had been expanded to include ethnic writers in anthologies and course lists. Important issues included race versus ethnicity, ethnocentrism versus polycentrism, monolingualism versus bilingualism, and coaptation versus marginalization. Deconstruction, applied to political as well as literary texts, called the status quo into constant question.

Minority poetry shares the variety and occasionally the anger of women's writing. It has flowered recently in Hispanic- Americans such as Gary Soto, Alberto Rios, and Lorna Dee Cervantes; in Native Americans such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, and Louise Erdrich; in African-American writers such as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Michael Harper, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni; and in Asian-American poets such as Cathy Song, Lawson Inada, and Janice Mirikitani.

Chicano/Hispanic/Latino Poetry
Spanish-influenced poetry encompasses works by many diverse groups. Among these are Mexican-Americans, known since the 1950s as Chicanos, who have lived for many generations in the southwestern U.S. states won from Mexico in the Mexican-American War ending in 1848. Among Spanish Caribbean populations, Cuban- Americans and Puerto Ricans maintain vital and distinctive literary traditions. For example, the Cuban-American genius for comedy sets it apart from the elegiac lyricism of Chicano writers such as Rudolfo Anaya. Recent immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and Spain constantly replenish and enlarge this literary realm.

Chicano, or Mexican-American, poetry has a rich oral tradition in the corrido, or ballad, form. Recent works stress traditional strengths of the Mexican community and the discrimination it has sometimes met with among whites. Sometimes the poets blend Spanish and English words in a poetic fusion, as in the poetry of Alurista and Gloria Anzaldúa. Their poetry is much influenced by oral tradition and is very powerful when read aloud.

Some poets write largely in Spanish, in a tradition going back to the earliest epic written in the present-day United States -- Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva México, commemorating the 1598 battle between invading Spaniards and the Pueblo Indians at Acoma, New Mexico. A central text in recent Chicano poetry, Rodolfo Gonzales's (1928- ) I Am Joaquin (1972), laments the plight of Chicanos:

Lost in a world of confusion
Caught up in a whirl of a gringo society,
Confused by the rules,
Scorned by attitudes,
Suppressed by manipulations,
And destroyed by modern society.

Nonetheless, many Chicano writers find sustenance in their ancient Mexican roots. Thinking of the grandeur of ancient Mexico, Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954- ) writes that "an epic corrido" chants through her veins, while Luis Omar Salinas (1937- ) feels himself to be "an Aztec angel." Much Chicano poetry is highly personal, dealing with feelings and family or members of the community. Gary Soto (1952- ) writes out of the ancient tradition of honoring departed ancestors, but these words, written in 1981, describe the multicultural situation of all Americans today:

A candle is lit for the dead
Two worlds ahead of us all

In recent years, Chicano poetry has achieved a new prominence, and works by Cervantes, Soto, and Alberto Rios have been widely anthologized.

Native American Poetry
Native Americans have written fine poetry, most likely because a tradition of shamanistic song plays a vital role in their cultural heritage. Their work excels in vivid, living evocations of the natural world, which become almost mystical at times. Indian poets also voice a tragic sense of irrevocable loss of their rich heritage.

Simon Ortiz (1941- ), an Acoma Pueblo, bases many of his hard-hitting poems on history, exploring the contradictions of being an indigenous American in the United States today. His poetry challenges Anglo readers because it often reminds them of the injustice and violence at one time done to Native Americans. His poems envision racial harmony based on a deepened understanding.

In "Star Quilt," Roberta Hill Whiteman (1947 - ), a member of the Oneida tribe, imagines a multicultural future like a "star quilt, sewn from dawn light," while Leslie Marmon Silko (1948 - ), who is part Laguna Pueblo, uses colloquial language and traditional stories to fashion haunting, lyrical poems. In "In Cold Storm Light" (1981), Silko achieves a haiku-like resonance:

out of the thick ice sky
running swiftly
swirling above the treetops
The snow elk come,
Moving, moving
white song
storm wind in the branches.

Louise Erdrich (1954- ), like Silko also a novelist, creates powerful dramatic monologues that work like compressed dramas. They unsparingly depict families coping with alcoholism, unemployment, and poverty on the Chippewa reservation.

In "Family Reunion" (1984), a drunken, abusive uncle returns from years in the city. As he suffers from a heart disease, the abused niece, who is the speaker, remembers how this uncle had killed a large turtle years before by stuffing it with a firecracker. The end of the poen links Uncle Ray with the turtle he has victimized:

Somehow we find our way back, Uncle Ray
sings an old song to the body that pulls him
toward home. The gray fins that his hands have become
screw their bones in the dashboard. His face
has the odd, calm patience of a child who has always
let bad wounds alone, or a creature that has lived
for a long time underwater. And the angels come
lowering their slings and litters.

African-American Poetry
Contemporary black Americans have produced many poems of great beauty and considerable range of themes and tones. It is the most developed ethnic writing in America and is extremely diverse. Amiri Baraka (1934- ), the best known African-American poet, has also written plays and taken an active role in politics. Maya Angelou's (1928- ) writings have taken various literary forms, including drama and her well-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), in addition to her collection of verse, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971). Angelou was selected to write a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Another recently honored African-American poet is Rita Dove (1952- ), who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1993. Dove, a writer of fiction and drama as well, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, in which she celebrates her grandparents through a series of lyric poems. She has said that she wrote the work to reveal the rich inner lives of poor people.

Michael Harper (1938- ) has similarly written poems revealing the complex lives of African-Americans faced with discrimination and violence. His dense, allusive poems often deal with crowded, dramatic scenes of war or urban life. They make use of surgical images in an attempt to heal. His "Clan Meeting: Births and Nations: A Blood Song" (1971), which likens cooking to surgery ("splicing the meats with fluids"), begins "we reconstruct lives in the intensive / care unit, pieced together in a buffet...." The poem ends by splicing together images of the hospital, racism in the early American film Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, film editing, and X-ray technology:

We reload our brains as the cameras,
the film overexposed
in the x-ray light,
locked with our double door
light meters: race and sex
spooled and rung in a hobby;
we take our bundle and go home.

History, jazz, and popular culture inspire many African- Americans, from Harper (a college professor) to West Coast publisher and poet Ishmael Reed (1938- ), known for spearheading multicultural writing through the Before Columbus Foundation and a series of magazines such as Yardbird, Quilt, and Konch. Many African-American poets, such as Audre Lorde (1934-1992), have found nourishment in Afrocentrism, which sees Africa as a center of civilization since ancient times. In sensuous poems such as "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They Were Warriors," she speaks as a woman warrior of ancient Dahomey, "warming whatever I touch" and "consuming" only "What is already dead."

Asian-American Poetry Like poetry by Chicano and Hispanic writers, Asian-American poetry is exceedingly varied. Americans of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino descent may have lived in the United States for seven generations, while Americans of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese heritage are likely to be fairly recent immigrants. Each group grows out of a distinctive linguistic, historical, and cultural tradition. Recent developments in Asian-American literature have included an emphasis on the Pacific Rim studies and women's writing. Asian-Americans generally are resisting the orientalizing racial stereotype as the "exotic" and "good" minority. Aestheticians are beginning to compare Asian and Western literary traditions -- for example comparing the concepts of tao and logos.

Asian-American poets have drawn on many sources, from Chinese opera to zen, and Asian literary traditions, particularly zen, have inspired numerous non-Asian poets, as can be seen in the 1991 anthology Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Asian-American poets span a spectrum, from the iconoclastic posture taken by Frank Chin, co- editor of Aiiieeeee! (an early anthology of Asian-American literature), to the generous use of tradition by writers such as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston (1940- ). Janice Mirikitani, a sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) evokes Japanese- American history and has edited several anthologies such as Third World Women, Time to Greez, and Ayumi: Four Generations of Japanese in America.

Chinese-American Cathy Song's (1955- ) lyrical Picture Bride (1983) also dramatizes history through the lives of her family. Many Asian-American poets explore cultural diversity. In Song's "The Vegetable Air" (1988), a shabby town with cows in the plaza, a Chinese restaurant, and a Coca-Cola sign hung askew become an emblem of rootless multicultural contemporary life made bearable by art, in this case an opera on cassette:

then the familiar aria,
rising like the moon,
lifts you out of yourself,
transporting you to another country
where, for a moment, you travel light.