Thursday, June 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 44: Gregory Djanikian, Immigrant Picnic (#79)

Gregory Djanikian, "Immigrant Picnic" (1999) from Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing:

Usually I start off a description of poetry with lots of disclaimers--I don't really read that much poetry, I don't write poetry, I don't scan very well, oh that's shiny look over there--but the truth is, I've always liked poetry; I've always read poetry; and I've always written and critiqued poetry. But, here's some more truth for you, in my experience, poetry is most often used by the average person (and by a fair deal of poets) as a sort of base-line of expression. If you're upset, you can write a poem about how upset you are. What's the point of critiquing that? It would be like critiquing someone's mood. Maybe someone out there shares that mood and would enjoy that poem.

(Also, I really don't scan well when reading, and I also dislike the bog-standard ostentatious poetry reading voice taught accidentally by college poetry courses.)

Djanikian's "Immigrant Picnic" doesn't really fall into that category. There is some feeling here, the slight amusement and bemusement (and C-musement?) of a son in one culture trying to communicate unimportant material with family in another culture. Change this to "a son talks about being gay to homophobic parents" and you have a much more serious culture clash. Here the culture clash is about language itself: Djanikian's immigrant oldsters don't get American idioms. The fact that they don't get this on the Fourth of July adds extra relish to that question of belonging.

Now, we could make an argument that the sort of playful misunderstandings of language are a type of poetry--a balance between sense and nonsense. I think Djanikian is interested in making that argument elsewhere, but here, the slippage is so unimportant, and the ultimate move, from parents not fitting in (in this minor way) to the son remembering the land of his birth, is rather predictable. In a poem about language flying away, I want what the Fourth of July should give me: fireworks. Not leftover potato salad.

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