After one collaboration, two volumes of poetry, and a memoir, Garrett Hongo is an established voice in Asian American literature. His postmodern style variously utilizes different techniques, voices, sources, and forms. Hongo is more concerned with exploring and voicing his personal experience and the collective experience of Japanese Americans than he is with adhering closely to a regimented style of writing. He is especially concerned with the experience of non-first-generation Japanese Americans, like himself. He is Yonsei, which is fourth generation, and thus his identity is different from that of his grandparents. To Hongo and others in his situation, the issue of identity is not simple. Through Hongo’s poetry, he works through the nuances of this—and many other—aspects of his experience. In ‘‘What For,’’ a poem that appeared in his first volume of poetry, the 1982 Yellow Light, the speaker goes back into his childhood memories to recall what was most important and exciting to him when he was six years old. It is a moving and sensitive piece that goes much deeper than nostalgia. Based on the rest of Hongo’s canon of work and his vision as a poet, it is likely that this poem reveals what is really important to Hongo himself in terms of his Japanese and Hawaiian roots.
Over the course of the poem’s nine stanzas, the speaker brings up magic, religion, language, nature, grandparents, and his father. In the first and last stanzas, he tells that he lived for magic. He says that a few Hawaiian words could bring rain or make music in a nautilus. He says that a priest’s Buddhist liturgy has the power to ‘‘conjure’’ money from the poor but still leave them satisfied by his words. In the last stanza, the speaker returns to this idea of magic, which he interweaves with religious elements. He wants to use pure magic to heal his father and then chant a sutra to bless him. A sutra is a saying or discourse attributed to Buddha. Hongo chooses to begin and end the poem with the idea of magic and religion, and it is clear that what this represents to the child is simply power. Being a child can be a powerless feeling, so the child in the poem wants to draw some power and a sense of control (over the rain, or over his father’s health) by mastering magic. That he includes Buddhism in this demonstrates that the child has not internalized his faith, but regards it as an external thing. His grandmother weaves calligraphy about Kannon, a bodhisattva, into her work. A bodhisattva is a being who has so much love and compassion that he or she strives for enlightenment that will benefit others. This tells the reader that Buddhism is part of this family’s identity, and the child is probably being educated in it. Perhaps because of the child’s young age, however, he has categorized it in a different way.
It is important to remember that this poem is the recollection of a grown man. He necessarily sees things through the lenses of his memory and his experiences since the time of that memory. There is nothing in his words or tone that suggest he still believes in magic, and the tenderness he brings to other parts of the poem are absent in his passing references to religion. He understands that to others, faith is important and comforting. The desires of the poor he mentions in the first stanza are healed, and his grandmother clearly has a personal connection to her beliefs. But the speaker does not reveal any similar feelings. This suggests that, of all the things about his Japanese heritage that are meaningful to him, Buddhist devotion is not one of them.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker recalls how he lived for the unique elements of his natural surroundings. He loved the red volcanic dirt that stained his skin, and he loved the salt from the sea that stuck to his hair. From the way he describes these things, it is clear that he loved having the place physically become part of him. They were not annoyances in the least. He loved being physically changed by being out in nature. This indicates the importance of place and homeland to Hongo, and the ways he interacts with it. The boy in the poem literally wants his homeland all over him.
The speaker remembers fondly what he loved about his grandparents. The details demonstrate that he watched them closely and appreciated their quirks. He remembers how he lived for the war stories his grandfather told them while playing Japanese cards. He remembers that his grandfather played with gusto, slapping the cards down with a martial arts-style yell. His grandmother sang, and he lived for her songs. He remembers her cooking curried stew and weaving grass into mats and sandals. These details enable the reader to connect with the speaker’s love for his family. In the descriptions of his grandparents, he includes a Japanese card game and ethnic food, but these elements are only meant to give depth to the portrayals of his grandparents. Like the religious references, these are not things that seem particularly close to his own heart, even though they are aspects of his heritage.
The real thrust of this poem is the young son’s love for his father. He lives for his father coming home, dirty and tired from a long, hard day of work. The son loves the brief time he spends with his father, and he wishes he could heal the aches and the pain that are the result of the harshness of his life. These are not passing wishes, but a dream with a lot of emotion and detail. They are the heart of the poem and reveal much about the son’s character at such a young age. The detail with which he describes the pain can only be coming from the adult speaker, remembering anew his father’s aches and pains. A child would not possess that level of sensitivity and insight, although the child knew enough to know he wanted to make it better. And the son knew enough to know he really wanted his father to be able to play catch with him like any typical father and son. But the son—as a six-year-old or as an adult—is not resentful toward his father or the hard life that made him the way he was. The same love seems to have been consistent throughout the speaker’s life.
In the discussion of the grandparents and of the father, the speaker makes it very clear that family is the single most important thing to him. Given the scope of Hongo’s work beyond this poem, it is fair to extrapolate that Hongo felt the same way about his family. His interest in his family encompasses the generations before him, his own identity as a Japanese American born in Hawaii, and the generation after him that includes his two sons. This is an important element in Japanese culture, and that sense of family loyalty seems to be embraced by Hongo, even if it is Westernized by the addition of deep, heartfelt emotion.
One other aspect of the poem speaks very loudly as being important to the speaker and certainly to Hongo, and that is the presence and power of language. In his comments about magic and religion, the speaker locates the power in the words. A few Hawaiian words (not dances or music or ceremonies) create rain, and a Buddhist ballad spoken to the poor heals the desires of their hearts. The speaker loves his grandfather’ stories, and his grandmother’s songs—all words. The interaction with the father is almost silent, save for the son’s sharing a made-up name from school, and the silence is a haunting reminder that the father’s deafness is a cruel irony to a son who places so much importance on words. But as the poem gains momentum toward its close, the speaker describes wanting to make the father a necklace of what? Of ‘‘sweet words.’’ And the words capture the other senses because they have scent, which the father can experience. In the final line of the poem, the son remembers wanting to speak a blessing to his father. No longer wanting to invoke magic to make something exciting happen, he merely wants to express love to his father in a spoken blessing.
‘‘What For’’ is a poem with emotion, longing, and remembrance, but like most of Hongo’s poetry, it works toward focusing the poet’s identity. He visits Hawaiian and Japanese cultures in this poem, picking up certain elements as important and setting others aside. Although the speaker refers to Buddhism, Japanese games, and ethnic food, these are background to what really matters to Hongo’s speaker. And what really matters is generational ties, immediate family, and words.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘What For,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.