Contemporary Poetry's Influence on Cross-Cultural Perceptions

By Kristina S. Ten
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Despite the fact that human nature has evolved little since the dawn of humankind, our most basal emotions remaining largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years, one of history’s constants has been our general inability to truly understand one another. While humans have changed in both appearance and ability – from walking upright to developing the technology to walk on the moon – we still feel the same primal things we felt so long ago: happiness, sadness, pleasure, pain, pride, guilt.

However, our inability to establish human connections has, to an extent, remained just as constant. This much is evident in the various wars humans have engaged in, whether between nations (World Wars I and II, for example) or between different sides of the same country (America’s Civil War). It seems people have overlooked our overwhelming similarities with one another, allowing comparatively small differences – cultural distinctions, religious differences, variations in skin color and sexual orientation – to dictate human relationships or the lack thereof.

Over time, as people have populated different areas of the world and simultaneously encountered others who are not exactly the same, stereotypes have developed and, whether as a consequence or cause of these judgments, discrimination has emerged as a growing problem worldwide. This issue takes place on a large scale and is all-inclusive and encompassing: no one is safe from some sort of misperception or misunderstanding by someone else from a different background. America, long proudly called “the Melting Pot,” is certainly not exempt from the mistreatment – emotionally if not physically – of immigrants and other foreign visitors. We have labeled the Irish angry, the Jewish cheap, the French pompous, the Spanish overemotional, the Russian entirely unfeeling, Mexicans incompetent, and the list goes on and on.

Though perhaps these specific one-word stereotypes do not exist outside of America, virtually all other nations have agreed upon a similar portrayal of the quintessential American: rude, ignorant, stupid, privileged and undeserving, yet self-important and falsely entitled. Generally speaking, humans have stopped – or did they ever even start? – examining one another on an individual basis in order to learn more about the human conditions. We rely instead on preset cultural distinctions that are, though occasionally accurate to a certain extent, more than likely to result in an initial and immediate misperception of the individual and his or her background and then, on a larger scale, negativity, confusion, and war.

In relatively recent times, humans have begun to examine the above-mentioned cross- cultural prejudices through the lens of literature. Surprisingly enough, though each country’s collection of literature is largely limited to its own language, it is in the area of literature – with the reading and subsequent analysis of these works – that we are most able to understand the human condition and thus better able to relate to one another. In novels, poetry, social commentary, and the like, where language plays such an important role, we are able to briefly overlook the implication of cultural dissonance.

Luckily, there are translators to keep readers from getting lost in translation – but the style and content of each story or poem often remains specific to the culture associated with the piece (particularly if the author or poet has chosen to emphasize the cultural aspect and allow it to play a large role in their work/s). Nevertheless, people seem more likely to overlook the negative associations of cultural differences in writing than in face-to-face interactions, where anyone can be the “other,” the foreigner, and will certainly treated as such. Immigrants to America may find themselves subject to Americanization, while the majority of visitors or migrants to any country will feel some sort of alienation from locals.

It is through the fine arts, particularly literature and perhaps even more specifically poetry, that people can find the human connections they are often unable to establish in their everyday lives. In fact, this is often a goal of writers worldwide, and writing professors constantly stress the importance of addressing the human element or any number of universal issues in one’s work. When it comes to addressing the misperceptions of any given culture, sometimes all it takes for readers to understand that a cultural misperception exists is for the author or poet to take the narrative perspective of either the “self” (the local, the citizen, the familiar) or the “other” (the foreign, the unknown, the misrepresented or misunderstood).

Two 20th century poets that examine the treatment of the “foreign” are Michael Palmer (in his 1994 “I Do Not”) and Howard Moss (in his 1976 “Tourists”). Although Palmer employs a much more serious, severe tone in “I Do Not” than Moss does in his lofty, lighthearted narration throughout “Tourists,” both poets effectively depict the way the citizens of a particular nation view and treat outsiders – a message that can hardly be taken lightly, regardless of tone. While Palmer makes use of irony, refrain, myriad allusions, and other literary devices to make his point, Moss relies heavily on rhyme, enjambment, and geographical allusions to evoke a similar response from (or recognition within) readers.

These poets, as well as virtually all contemporary writers in general, are asking of readers and viewers: Is the human connection lost to us, or can we regain it through art and language? Does poetry, then, truly translate the human condition in a way that humans themselves, on a daily basis, cannot?

In “I Do Not,” Michael Palmer addresses the stereotype denoted to immigrants in America, particularly those from non-English speaking nations. In his free verse poem, where each “stanza” is made up of a single, complete sentence, he adopts the narrative voice of one of these “others”. He opens with the sentiment “I do not know English” – here, readers will notice that Palmer intentionally omits any sort of closing punctuation that would make this sentence grammatically correct (a period, most likely, or if perhaps if portraying more fervor, an exclamation point). Here, form fits content and the narrator is, to a certain extent, consistent in his “foreign” aspect.

However, for the remainder of the poem, readers must suspend their disbelief, as the words themselves are written in English. Despite the nod towards George Hugnet’s French translation of the refrain that prefaces “I Do Not,” the use of the English language sharply contradicts the poem’s refrain and forces readers to question the Palmer’s intentions.

Of course, irony is present throughout the poem and is developed more and more as the lines progress: the narrator initially shocks readers by using English to convey the message that he does not, in fact, know English and, later, he proves to be quite fluent and perhaps more well-read than the average American. Through the use of allusions to important global events and issues, as well the employment of a relatively formal tone, Palmer establishes the narrator as the “exception to the rule” that many Americans have thrown on immigrants. This forces readers to then wonder why such a rule or stereotype exists in the first place, and whether or not it should apply to the group as a whole.

“I Do Not” is particularly thought-provoking because it is so straight-forward, relying little if at all on metaphor and convoluted imagery, which would only dilute Palmer’s language.

As covered in Timothy Yu’s article on “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” Palmer himself is categorized within the postmodern movement of Language Poets, who reject the flowery, overwritten examination of identity in favor of a clear-cut, less lyrical writing style (Yu 423).

This allows readers to interpret the Language poem as he or she will, without over-dramatization or forced sentimentality, making for a more credible message. This is especially important in Palmer’s “I Do Not,” since it initially establishes a narrator that is not altogether credible, from his very first assertion (in English) that he does not speak the language he is speaking in.

In “I Do Not,” Palmer’s narrator “does not know English” and, in each stanza, he addresses each aspect of the stereotypical foreigner. The first assumption is that he is poorly educated on current events and thus cannot keep up with Americans when it comes to conversations concerning such topics – “I can have nothing to say about this latest war” (2). However, he then goes on to describe this war as “flowering through a night scope in the evening sky,” proving that he does in fact have valid opinions and contributions worth listening to, thus fighting the preconceived notion that immigrants and foreigners should simply be ignored. As the narrator goes on, he begins to practically assault these misconceptions, adopting a near- sarcastic tone and shedding light on how ridiculous these stereotypes really are.

To imply that immigrants are so inept that they cannot even take care of their most basic needs – he “does not know English and therefore, when hungry, can do no more than point repeatedly to [his] mouth” – also implies that foreigners can be compared to infants, incapable of feeding themselves, or, worse, animals (3). Although many philosophers are of the opinion that it is language that separates man from all other species, some Americans may think that it is in fact the English language that defines humanity. Palmer’s narrator battles these expectations by subsequently showing self-awareness and cross-cultural knowledge not traditionally associated with foreigners: “Yet such a gesture might be taken to mean any number of things” (4).

Palmer’s combination of what the narrator says in the poem and what the narrator actually is (or what he is capable of) builds and expands as the poem progresses. Between lines 5 and 10, the narrator explores his alleged inability to communicate with other people. In lines 6 and 7, he is unable to establish a romantic connection with a woman (something that seems like a universal action and non-specific to any particular cultural group, since all cultures procreate). In line 8, the narrator cannot convey any sort of interest in the fine arts – which in itself would establish a well-read, cultured, sophisticated being; in line 9, he cannot communicate his wishes, hopes, or most basal desires; in line 10, he cannot relate to those around him through the device of laughter, anecdote, or joke.

However, these are all things he simply says he cannot do, although he goes on to display knowledge in each of these fields through long descriptions. For example, in line 9, he alludes to Rotterdam, a Dutch city bombed by Allies during World War II, and to Eros and Psyche, figures from Greek mythology. This shows that if one looks past the preconceived notions about foreigners and their surface differences – a heavy accent, for example – one may find that immigrants are, on a human level, quite similar to locals. Furthermore, we all may be closer to the ideal we, as human beings, set for ourselves, regardless of – or perhaps in part due to – our various experiences with color, creed, and culture.

In line 14, Palmer begins to play around with the English language in a whimsical way, showing that the narrator is not only capable of fluent English but also of speaking in tongue- twisters: “Nor can I utter the words science, silence, language, and languish”. By this point, readers have realized that the narrator is not entirely credible in his statements about himself, and we begin to reverse everything he says into the opposite: he does know English or at least he does have the ability to communicate, through poetry, the universal language. He continues to poke fun at cultural assumptions ever-aggressively: in line 15, he uses words like “arboreal” and “hibernal declination” – words that most people with English as a first and primary language probably are not acquainted with.

From line 15 onward, Palmer’s allusions grow more intricate and are spaced closer together. He references both an Italian novelist in line 19’s “Cannot ask the name of this rose” and then the Christian doctrine in line 20’s “Recording Angel”. Also in line 20, he once again plays with the English language, mentioning both the Recording Angel and the “Angle of Erasure”. Here, the narrator’s voice is not only that of a foreigner and of a foreigner who challenges American assumptions by proving competent and educated, but also of someone with great skill and dexterity when it comes to language – perhaps, then, a poet. As the allusions grow more specific, readers may begin to feel a bit out-of-touch – the same alienation and lack of societal acceptance felt by immigrants or visitors when in foreign territory.

Palmer creates tension throughout the poem, varying sentence length and allowing the stakes to build and build as the lines progress, up until they begin to reach a pinnacle in line 25. Here, the narrator reveals that he has been “variously called Mr. Twisted, The One Undone, The Nonrespondent, The Truly Lost Boy, and Laughed-At-By-Horses,” names very closely associated with various cultures and their stigmas. For examine, “The Truly Lost Boy” brings to mine the Lost Boys of Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees, most young and all displaced and far from home, wandering in small groups through Northern Africa hoping to escape the civil war.

“Laughed-At-By-Horses” seems to be a reference to Native Americans, perhaps those who were removed from their homes by the first American settlers or, more recently, those forced to relocate to culture-specific reservations. Despite all the progress human beings claim to have made over time, Palmer’s readers are drawn to see the similarities between Native American reservations and plantations where African-Americans were once enslaved (although slavery no longer exists, cultural segregation and discrimination still does).

Both references (to the Lost Boys and to Native Americans) take place in the historical context of civil wars; that is to say, often misunderstandings and disagreements can occur within the same nation between people of different wants or ideals.

When the narrator lists his alternate names in line 25 of “I Do Not,” he identifies himself as a member of every culture, a citizen of every nation, a student of every religion and practice: a compilation of all cultures, traditions, and technological advancements to make up a personification of the human species in its past, present, and future form. Having regained credibility with this reveal, the all-representative, all-inclusive narrator is using poetry as a “language” to surpass English and all others, and to get across the larger message of the importance of establishing cross-cultural human connections.

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