- Literary Criticism
We are unanimous in our admiration of Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2014). Dorothy Wang writes in an engaging, even riveting, style, and as a result her exploration into the subjectivities of Asian American poets and their poetry flows easily between its points. The book reads effortlessly. At times, it can be difficult to put this book down, which is not something we find ourselves saying about a lot of works of literary criticism. This does not mean that the argument Wang presents is easy. Far from it. The book asks urgent, relevant, and timely field- and discipline-related questions about ideological issues and aesthetic concerns. These questions get at the heart of the knotted relationship between form and content that we believe the best of literary criticism is engaged in.
Wang makes a powerful interjection into the explicit and implicit discourses that surround poetry as a discipline and the fraught relationship between ethnic and racialized identities and Poetry (with a capital “P” to indicate its signification as “high culture”). Wang is fierce and fearless in taking on the literary establishment in her searing defense of Asian American poetry. She excises layers of academic jargon to expose the underlying assumptions that marginalize and limit readings of Asian American poetry, and then provides a disciplined and rigorous methodology to reread such poetry. The latter component of her critical approach does not position these poets as tokenized and exotic pieces that act as ornaments for the field of American poetry but rather reveals them as what they are (and have always been): vital components of the field in terms of poetic practice. In so doing, Wang demonstrates the ongoing investment that literary studies has in hierarchical understandings of writing and art that are deeply embedded in the racists roots of America. [End Page 423]
Wang takes the chance that she will be accused of creating a “hysterical” or “emotional” defense of Asian American writing. Fortunately, her scholarship is so disciplined, so lucid, so exacting, that it must be recognized for what it is, literary scholarship at its best. Her knowledge of the theoretical terrain is deep and insightful. There is no shallow dipping into the conceptual and analytical debates surrounding poetry, whether from Asian American literary studies or the study of poetry more generally. This book has already played a large role in fierce debates about contemporary poetry and race, having been cited in several important critiques that have been read widely in the poetry world. It’s not difficult to see why. It’s fierce and courageous and speaks directly to the ways in which race has been elided, or simply defamed, as a topic worthy of poetic investigation. Although it’s organized around close readings of a handful of poets and their works, the intervention it makes is much more capacious and field encompassing. In the preface, she writes, “a poem’s use of form is inseparable from the larger social, historical, and political contexts that produced the poet’s subjectivity” (xxii). We could substitute “literature” for “poem” and “writer” for “poet,” and this passage would hold true for the general body of ethnic American literature and the work of the critic in understanding the relationship of the social/historical to the aesthetic/structural/formal and of course how that is also entwined with the biography of the writer. Despite the fact that Wang is focused on poetry, in other words, her argument has implications outside the genre. She provides a methodology and a language for reading works by racialized artists and authors across a variety of fields.
That being said, a major part of the significance of Wang’s book is that it is about poetry—an area of literary studies that is often marginalized and where the work of Asian American poets is even more marginalized. One of the things it does best is makes poetry matter to Asian American literary studies in a way that it hasn’t for a while. After reading it, all three of us judges have resolved...