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The Paradox of Values

Stephen Owen

I can only agree with Marjorie Perloff's essay on the Araki Yasusada episode and be puzzled at how such a relatively transparent hoax became so successfully opaque. The Foucauldian construct of "subject positions" is potentially a beautifully nuanced mode of interpretation, in which the sheer multiplication of receding historical determinations is as persuasive as it is purely utopian. We can no more find the shape of the "subject" in its metonymies than we can as an essence. What we are left with instead is the notion of a "subject position," drawn in crude strokes that invite anachronism and obliterate cultural difference. And the troubling lesson is that some form of "genuineness" has remained the guarantor of value over centuries, whether we find it in the subject or in the truth claim that the subject makes about his or her position. Perloff's comparison of Araki Yasusada to Ossian is right on target; but far more people know about Ossian than have actually ready any Ossian. Whether we like it or not, the exposure of hoax devalues the work of art.

There remain, however, some interesting paradoxes of value--for Perloff offers a critique of contemporary values that are largely, if not entirely, defined by crudely drawn "subject positions," which are supposed to guarantee a poetry that matters. It is an obvious fact that when reading poetry from another culture, if we are seeking only that which confirms our own prior interests and anticipations, then a hoax will always satisfy us far more perfectly than the real thing--at least until we learn that it is a hoax. This is an allegory of Orientalism's self-reflexivity. Let us say then that we should adopt a self-conscious and critical stance towards the values we hold and an openness to learn new values; this would be a "multiculturalism" that is something more than a consumerism that seeks easy variations on the familiar, a "multiculturalism" that forces the reader to a new position as well as the text. To achieve this we must posit a work of art or text that has value in a truly unfamiliar system; through such a work we can extend our sense of what is good. Values are, however, based on exclusions; and how does the newly "opened" reader decide on which works offer such lessons on new ways of understanding poetic value?

The cases in point are the modern tanka that Perloff cites, after which she comments: "These tanka are obviously more notable for their subject matter than for their poetic quality." The other recent Japanese poems that Perloff comments on with great acumen are, in Japanese terms, "modern poetry," as a genre rather than as a period designation. This Japanese "modern poetry" is essentially internationalist, and it invites the kind of reading that Perloff gives. What constitutes a good 20th-century tanka may be another question altogether.

Tanka (or waka) is, in its inception, a medieval form; and the values of the traditional genre cannot easily be derived from even the finest instincts for reading modern poetry. It is one of those kinds of poetry for which the reader has to learn new values, has to learn to pay attention in a different way. These values are not impossibly strange; but they do require that the reader discover what the form has to offer, rather than demanding that it be Petrarch or Ashbery. Twentieth-century tanka is something else again--a turbulent reconciliation between the aesthetics of the old form and the disruptive vocabulary and facts of 20th-century life. I have read some 20th-century tanka that I believe are wonderful poetry; but the "poetry" in them comes precisely in the discordant conjunction of different poetic systems and is only dimly apparent if we try to read them from a background in 20th-century poetry alone.

This is not meant as a defense of the three tanka that Perloff cites (though the Hatsuko Miyamae piece has a traditional pattern of place name and quality that gives it a dark irony which is lost without the tanka tradition); rather it is meant to press harder on the questions that Perloff raises. What we seek in other cultures is too often indistinguishable from a hoax. We want very much to believe that our contemporary culture is open to all things; we are a postmodern supermarket in which all historical and cultural goods are ranged indiscriminately. But now and then we have a troubling glimpse of the provinciality of contemporary culture--that what we crave, after all, is only the simulacrum of our own fantasies.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review



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