I don’t think you’re doing it right: Garrett Hongo & the Late Style of Humanity

by Jeffrey Schultz

Here’s one of my favorite stories from Garrett’s workshop. A classmate of mine had written the line “the glorious solipsism of fucking,” and another classmate of mine was praising this line and at the end of this exchange Garrett looked suspiciously up over his glasses and, with that particular tone of his that both implies a sort of questioning when there’s really no question present and at the same time also implies that this questioning tone wouldn’t be at all necessary if we weren’t all such complete simpletons—he looked up over his glasses and said, “I don’t think you’re doing it right.”

Dante’s Virgil is full of rebukes for the wayward pilgrim. The Poet spares neither the pilgrim’s sense of judgment nor his habits of character. Dante is repeatedly berated for his misdirected sympathies—what we might today place in the category of sentimentality—; he is berated further for the insufficiency of his knowledge—which the Poet tends to characterize as childish—, and, most importantly, the insufficiency of Dante’s self-knowledge becomes an object of Virgil’s critique: in the circle of the hypocrites, for instance, Virgil demands that Dante walk among them, and at their torturously slow pace, weighed down as they are by their deceptions. Virgil does this so that Dante may come to face the truth of his life, the truth of his own failures, for without this, he will never really be able to learn anything at all; he will certainly never achieve the greatness for which he is destined. Those who believe that self-understanding is some sort of given, those who believe the self is some sort of given, the Poet teaches us, have not yet even started on the path that leads in the direction of these things.

The Poet—and of course I’m talking about Garrett now—sings of this, in some sense, in every line of his work. The work of the song, as Garrett sings it, is to unfold the true name of the thing. To sing at all in this way—at least if one wants to do more than endlessly reword the stock of idiot clichés that tend to pass these days for insight and even image—, one must first learn not to take for granted the given names of things; one must question, and radically so. And because to sing at all is to sing of the self, the self, even the poetic self, must be subjected to this questioning; stripped of the appearance of its sufficiency, the complex, dependent essence of the self is revealed. Among the most important things I learned in Garrett’s workshop is that the true ear and the true eye are what remains when the naïve ear and the naïve eye are stripped away, or rather, they are what might begin to be discovered when these are stripped away. Coming to hear with the true ear, to see with the true eye, and to sing in one’s own clear voice is a career’s work. After decades of refinement in this direction, Garrett’s work is, today more than ever, precise, demanding of sensitive attention, and fine-grained in its evocations. Here’s the opening of “Elegy, Kahuku,” from Coral Road:

A jut of sand and grass, the northern tip of O’ahu,
The family graves of two generations,
Is where I go on pilgrimage—
Scores of unmarked plots under temple grass,
Stakes of rotting 2x4s silvering through the processionals of rain,
Slanting like monks in gray robes
Bending to kneel in homage to the brutal earth…

Here we see how the self in Garrett’s work is forged within an intricate constellation of socio-cultural, ecological-geographical, and historical coordinates, the names of which, as they come together to form the poem’s image, as each aspect of the image mediates and is mediated within each of the others, conjures an immediacy so striking that the sudden transfiguration of some weathered lumber into a witnessing of supremely mournful reverence seems to speak not just of a but of the truth of matters. The complex interconnection of the poem’s elements carries within it the metaphysical gravitas of image as it exists not in the tradition of the snapshot, but rather in the tradition of Dante, Milton, Donne, and most of all the great 20th century modernists.

This urge toward a full and uncompromising truthfulness of vision informs the whole physiognomy of Garrett’s work, which casts a gaze both penetrating and transparent: it lays bare its vision as a matter of its generosity, just as Dante’s Virgil taught it must. Garrett’s music is complexly textured, measured, and personal beyond mere personality: it sings with a voice in which a whole tradition resonates. It is not that there is any lack of personality, it is that there is far more than only this. Among the greatest testaments to Garrett’s mastery of the music of poetry is that, despite the demands and the complexity of his music, any competent reader of poetry can pick up one of his books, open to a poem at random, and enter immediately into the music of the work. The music is sensitive and rigorous in its articulation and focused in its development, even as at the same time it never ceases to be precisely what must pour forth from the mouth of some kid from Volcano, some asshole from Gardena. I sometimes ask my own students to think of the poem on the page as a sort of score for the lyric imagination, and it was Garrett, and Garrett’s own poetry most of all, that taught me to understand the system of poetic notation that might allow for this sort of deep engagement at the level of the music.

It is of course not only Garrett’s music that is informed by and keeps in conversation with tradition. The key importance of maintaining an active link with the tradition is nowhere more apparent than in the fabulous Kubota poems. Though the project of these poems, which imagine Garrett’s grandfather, during his wartime internment by the US government, in correspondence with the great poets of the middle 20th century, is, of course, a deeply personal project, it is also a literary-historical project in the widest and strongest sense. In the midst of a landscape in which the canon is generally agreed to have been exploded, these poems clarify and recrystallize out of the chaos of that explosion, the 20th century’s true poetic tradition, a tradition that leads through Hikmet, Neruda, Miguel Hernández, and, by way of Tadeusz Różewicz, directly back to Dante himself.

For me, the first year of the MFA at Oregon was an Inferno. Though I was no Dante, I had, within a few weeks of the first term, abandoned all hope. In Garrett’s workshop I was convicted of my poetic crimes, and the long process of my purgation was begun.

At the summit of Mount Purgatory, Virgil crowns Dante as sovereign of himself: he has become ready for the experience of a vision of his own. Virgil never tells Dante anything about this next vision; he knows that it is not his to know. The Poet tells the pilgrim he will learn about that when he gets there. In just this sense, Garrett never once told me how to write my own poems, but he did—repeatingly—tell me how not to write them, not, at any rate, if I wanted them to begin to be able to approach poetry. Moreover, his enormously generous seminars showed me in great detail how other poets had managed to bring their work to the altar of poetry. Had I not benefitted from such generous critique, I could not write the poems I write today at all.

Tradition is acquired through the negation of the delusion of self-sufficiency. Tradition has a bad name today, and not without good reason. But as much as tradition drags the terror of the past along with it, it is also, I think we must recall, what implies that there might be any future in the first place.

There is a human poetry that I sometimes—truthfully, more often than ever—fear will become extinct: given the state of the world as we find it today, no human future seems at all certain. But a future becomes possible when we come to recognize and come to know tradition; it is only this recognition and knowledge that can ever allow us to take the reins of the thing for once into our own hands. Before this work, we cannot distinguish it from what we assume must, after all, simply be our selves. Before this we cannot ever hope to change anything. In inhuman times, the truly human voice must necessarily take on the tone of the sharpest rebuke. Love requires this, and I believe, finally, that Garrett’s work cannot be understood except in this light. In Purgatory, talking with Virgil and Statius, Dante defines the tradition in which he and his great models stand; he says, “I am one who, when Love / inspires me, takes note, and what he dictates / deep within me, I then go and express.” His is the tradition of the great poetry of human love, and it is from this same tradition—even at this late and uncertain date in the history of us—that the poetry of Garrett Hongo surges forth. Poet: I am infinitely grateful that—after a period of necessary housebreaking—you saw fit to open the way for me and welcome me in.

Jeffrey Schultz is the author of Civil Twilight (Ecco, 2017), selected by David St. John for the National Poetry Series, and What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other (University of Georgia Press, 2014).  He teaches at Pepperdine University and lives in Los Angeles, California.