I've never felt this much ambivalence for such unambiguous thematic poetry. Shin Yu Pai's Unnecessary Roughness combines artful visual poems and language poems to harshly expose the supposed horrors of mandatory high school physical education and sports programs. We are encouraged to believe that adolescent exposure to these can substantially affect sexual identity and promote violence in our culture. Focusing primarily on the more brutal extracurricular activities and their auxiliaries, we are shown a microcosm of society where band geeks are harassed and cheerleaders play both sides, in front of and underneath the bleachers; a society fueled by the outside world's interest in professional sports. Is this poetry exclusively for those who have suffered at the hands of jocks? Might this be niche victim poetry?
As a whole this book comes across with so much anger and sarcasm that my sympathy is nearly placed on injured reserve. The subject matter might provoke a necessary poetry, but these poems are an oddly hostile exercise for evoking compassion. Somehow I want to feel more than just pity and anger when I read it. Unnecessary Roughness seems more a justification for those who continue to feel victimized by the system, rather than a catharsis for those who are currently in its throes. Actually, it could be required reading as sensitivity training for physical educators, coaches, and parents who suffer from little-league mania. But readers who've had a different experience must wonder just how horrible are the lives of these victims. My crowd in high school played in the band, sang in the choir, and played sports. And although we were the cool kids with our own private agonies, during the sixties many of us were beginning to feel the insignificance of teen spirit and worried about bigger problems: civil rights, pollution, sexism, the draft and mutually assured destruction. It seems these still continue to create a greater anxiety.
Since many pieces in this book are visual poems, I ask myself to what degree their bias effects their form. Does anger inhibit spontaneity and self-discovery? I consider Charles Bernstein's comments on Robert Creeley:
Creeley's first principle is that you find out what you have to say in the process of saying it: poetry becomes a way of making not representing. This presents a stark challenge to an approach to poems that begins with ideas or sentiments or messages and then represents or approximates them in the poem. Composition (including editing and recomposing) becomes the active agency of the poem. Immediacy and immanence of expression precedes essence.
A couple of great one-liners underscore the concept. The first was picked up by Charles Olson in "Projective Verse," an essay which remains central to U.S. poetry mid-twentieth-century: "form is never more than an extension of content." But Creeley's corollary is the ringer: "content is never more than an extension of form."1
Pai comments in a recent interview:
"The content (and language) dictated the shapes of the poems and where no shape was evident, I went with the more conventional left justified poem."2
I do appreciate the wicked contrivance of these poems:
square it up with its authentic 4-square vocabulary and movements within a 4-square frame. Or, DODGEBALL shirts vs. skins, where outside the circle attackers in their various guises: ass, bully, jock, dickhead, victimizer, muscleman, jerk, and he-man, take aim on the victims in the bull's-eye: yellow-belly, geek, queer, pussy, fag, chicken, sissy, jellyfish, baby, scaredycat, and weakling.
and round and round it goes . . . is a drawing of a roller-derby track with groupings of words like roller-skaters which convey Pai's interpretation of "team": punishment for breaking from the pack -or- attempted lap and pass for white middle-class straight.
In five minute major individual words are placed in a word processing table, which when read vertically, are expressions like: no pain no gain for insubordination.
the wet area is oh so cleverly depicted as a pool with the lane ropes composed of punctuation marks. Here you'll find: laps and flips; in every heat latex rubber; caps unrolled over heads; clean shaven; and solo medley. All of these are separated within their own lanes in various positions during a race.
The sad, last one picked, appears as only these three words in the lower right corner of a blank page.
Many believe the nature of art is to disturb and provoke, so in this regard Unnecessary Roughness succeeds. My own quandary is this. Is it absurd and/or meaningful to criticize poetry for bias? We can hardly expect poetry not to express a subjective point of view. When reading poetry I genuinely do anticipate sensibilities laid bare from either the poet's perspective or for those they wish to represent.
The Internet's Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines bias as: (1) inclination or prejudice in favour of a particular person, thing, or viewpoint; (2) a slanting direction across the grain of a fabric; (3) the tendency of a ball in the game of bowls to swerve because of the way it is weighted. Revisiting now her poem Offensive Play:
We see some intentional ambiguity concerning Pai's use of the symbols for offense and defense. How can the offense be on the defense? How can the defense be more offensive? Are the x's and o's sarcasm for kisses and hugs, gender bent and perverted by prejudice and violence? Are the o's passive defenders? Pai's clever play with signs and the visual parody of the chalk or clipboard finally provoke me to reconsider what's acceptable and what's too aggressive. Like small children expressing affection and roughness while playing games, can we ever re-establish that dynamic? Or is it already at play? How about we try a quick slant, wherein a victim actually goes on the offense, exercises their option to deceive with a quick maneuver and catches the ball. Shouldn't we get on the ball, instead of just standing there waiting to get pulverized?
So now I can tackle, recover and turn over this poem, P.E.
there is something
for everyone and for
there is . . .
on a rainy day,
the school colors are drab
grey as any prefab notion of
a sense of team or
tribe, it's cannibals
and rats who delight
in eating their own
and suggest there really is something for every-body. Victims of cruel circumstance during their tender years of socialization often learn very early to seek and eventually find that something, their niche. Sensitive, responsible educators and parents know how to encourage this. How many wonderful poets do we know who began as non-conformist social outcasts? In the end, simply living a good life is the best form of revenge. The path to meaningful achievement is not always straight.
1 from the Brooklyn Rail essay, "Hero of the Local: Robert Creeley and the Persistence of American Poetry", May 2005. See http://www.thebrooklynrail.org/poetry/may05/creely.html
2 from an interview with Bryan Thao Worra for Voices from the Gaps. See http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/interviews/aap/pai_shin_yu.html