In the introduction to Thinking Its Presence, Dorothy Wang discusses the role of Asian Americans in the US literary canon. She critiques the divisions some literary critics make between racialized poets who bring in more evidently their cultural or identitarian experience and (white) poets who write “purely” (read: post-racial) literary work: “I do not at all see why we must make an either-or choice between… calling out and into question “cultural desires, drives, anxieties, or prejudices”—the supposed realm of the cultural, the social, and the political, cordoned off from the pure realm of the literary” (9). Wang is concerned with this “cordoning off” because it holds within in an implicit argument that racialized or non-white poets do not and could never belong in the American literary canon.
For Wang, this argument is often coded in literary critique in a number of ways, including the dichotomy between “form” and “content.” Particularly in the realm of avant-garde poetry, a movement defined by its formal innovation, “pure” form is privileged over a poetry with “content” that reveals the racialization of the author: “Form, whether that of traditional lyric or avant-garde poems, is assumed to be the provenance of a literary acumen and culture that is unmarked but assumed to be white” (20). This position ironically precludes form as a site of political work or analysis and suggests that racialized poets must inherently fail to produce work of high literary merit.
Wang also explores how the exclusion of Asian Americans from the legitimized literary canon in the US is underpinned by Asian Americans’ historical relationship with the English language in the US imaginary. According to Wang, the “nonnative speaking” of English is “constitutive” and “foundational” to Asian American identity whether or not it is factually true (26). Asian Americans can “thus can never overcome, no matter how hard they try, this deficit to the English language” (26). Asian Americans’ apparent inability to “natively” write poetry in English excludes them from the English canon. This is “the link between the perception that Asian Americans are not ‘real’ Americans and are nonnative speakers of English, and the belief, largely unconscious, that Asian American poets are not ‘real’ poets” (26).
Finally, Wang argues that Asian Americans exclusion from the canon is so profoundly linked to the way Asian identity was constructed in America that it is the very poets that explore these issues through their poetry that are writing deeply “American” poetry. This work is “…not only not marginal to thinking about American poetry and poetics but is especially resonant for thinking about such literary and literary historical concerns” (27). Reading her analysis, I am left wondering: What could be a more “American” poetry? A “realer” poetry? What might those two kinds of poetry look like?