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Title:Asian American poetry, American poetry, and the critique of identity: Asian American poetry in comparative context, 1887-2005
Author(s):Lee, Merton
Director of Research:Nelson, Cary
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Nelson, Cary
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Chai, Leon; Cacho, Lisa M.; Hart, Matthew
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Asian American Poetry
American Poetry
Abstract:In this dissertation I attempt a critical evaluation of identity. While I see identity, in the sense of the social categorization of individuals, as a discourse that perpetuates the kind of reduction that impoverishes conceptions of those labeled as “others,” ultimately, identity can’t simply be dismissed. My analysis begins with Asian American poets who I see as challenging the different forms that racism takes across more than a century of Asian American writing. But I go on to suggest that the form these critiques take connect them to the work of American poets who outside of race, seek to contest the reduction of a sense of the full multiplicity of personhood, that is, they defend a certain democratic understand of self. The first half of my dissertation consists of two chapters that critique identity by appealing to selfhood. My first chapter reads the work of Walt Whitman and Sadakichi Hartmann in the context of Chinese Exclusion. I argue that Chinese Exclusion results in a social death, in that “Oriental” immigrants were defined as not possessing the full social existence conferred by legal rights. Thus I read Hartmann’s early work as a kind of late work; he draws on late Whitman, who he knew. Both poets focus on the fragmentary and personal to object to a presumption that individuals can be known or totalized, which therefore also rejects race and identity. Similarly, my second chapter shows that Marianne Moore and José Garcia Villa’s poetry, directed toward creating what I call the “didactic subject,” is meant to challenge the kind of assumptions that subsume individuals under categories of identity. The didactic subject is a form of self understood to be self-critical and in process, and thus ethical. But in the context of US colonization of the Philippines, which took a tutelary form, conceiving the self as unfinished risks repeating notions of racial atavism and makes the didactic subject an ambivalent, possibly compromised form of critique. The two chapters comprising the second half of my dissertation reflect a shift away from challenging identity to appropriating it. My third chapter argues that the poetry of David Rafael Wang and Amiri Baraka attempts to naturalize identity to personality by invoking intensely subjective experiences, pain and sex, as proof for the reality of racial identity. But since race must be constructed to define selfhood, alternative notions of the self have to be disavowed. My final chapter proposes an understanding of identity as multiple, through a critique not just of identity but also the self. In it, I suggest that what Whitman undertakes in 1955, a grounding of identity in the multiplicity of simultaneous experience is affirmed in the postmodern poetry of Linh Dinh. Dinh’s work suggests that the multiplicity of identity can’t be affirmed, except asymptotically, as a horizon. That model of identity, multiple and never attainable describes identity’s continued significance in understanding not only the social, but the personal.
Issue Date:2012-09-18
Rights Information:Copyright 2012 Merton Lee
Date Available in IDEALS:2012-09-18
Date Deposited:2012-08

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