On the Sidewalk: Towards an Ethopoetics of the Streets

By | 1 November 2016

Etymologically, ethopoetics comes from Greek for character (ethos) and making (poiein) and was a rhetorical strategy, one much favoured by Aristotle, whereby the orator evokes a character through language. A poetics of ethos can be understood as the way a text projects the imaginary presence of its author, and embodies his ethos in the rendering of a dramatic situation or event. Ethopoetics therefore lends itself readily to the understanding of how textual ethos operates in a poem, and how the ethos of a poetic text and the ethical disposition of its persona / poet is established through the handling of the self-Other relationship. Like Rothenberg, Michel Foucault also discovers ethopoiesis in Plutarch and uses it to elucidate the ethos of the text; for him writing has an ‘ethopoietic function; it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos’ (‘Self-Writing’ 209). He elucidates: ‘Ēthopoiein means making ēthos, the individual’s way of being, his mode of existence.’ He adds: ‘Ēthopoios is something that possesses the quality of transforming an individual’s mode of being’ (Hermeneutics of the Subject 237). The shaping and transformative potential of ethopoiesis thus translates in practice as a poetics of ethics. Foucault’s emphasis on practice, on making and production is useful in understanding how the materiality of a poetic text creates and shapes the ethos of its subject and how in street poetry the human encounter and the urban location are sites where acts of ethopoiesis take place.

James Wright’s ‘Hook’ is a good example of ethopoetics in action. The persona or lyric ‘I’ finds itself located in a liminal urban space and caught in a moment of ethical encounter. The poem is cast as a memory, with the speaker reflecting on an incident that happened when he was a young man standing ‘on the street corner / In Minneapolis, lashed / This way and that’ by the icy gusts, waiting for the ‘bus to Saint Paul’ (315). The use of past tense reinforces the temporal distance, allowing for a retrospective ethical evaluation of the experience. As in Baudelaire’s poem the street location dramatises the liminal space in which a transformative and ethos-making event occurs. The bus stop and the street convey a sense of outsideness, the sensory details of the wintry weather underscoring the subject’s exposure and vulnerability; the ‘dead snow’ especially delivers a palpable chill and stasis. A dramatic ethical encounter occurs:

Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.

Ain’t got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?

What did they do 
To your hand? I answered.
He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed his wind.

Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it
In your freezing hand?

I took it.
It wasn’t the money I needed.
But I took it. (315-6)

The sense of frozen alienation evoked by the silent wintry cityscape is disrupted by the appearance of an Other whose alterity is reinforced by his ethnic identification. Briefly, a moment of danger and uncertainty ensues, its proximity brokered by the word ‘loomed.’ But if the liminal space of the poem is a site where the self becomes vulnerable, it also becomes a space for connection, Foucauldian transformation and possibly redemption. By dramatising the Sioux’ compassionate act to the white persona, the poem subverts any racial construct and stereotyping that casts Native American Indians as impoverished outcasts; the vivid moment of contact and empathy is ethopoiesis in action, transcending social and cultural differences. It gives the Other a voice and agency, and underwrites the poem’s ethical moment, when the self is opened to the Other’s vulnerability and humanity. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas states that the ‘subjectivity of a subject is vulnerability, exposure to affection, sensibility, a passivity more passive still than any passivity … an exposedness always to be exposed the more’ (50). The repetition of the verb ‘took,’ and its rhyme with ‘hook,’ as well as the alliteration in ‘hand’ and ‘hook’ and ‘hold’ enact a profound ethical moment of human touch and exchange, underscored by the ironic highlighting of the hook glinting in the starlight.

‘Hook’ inscribes a fleeting moment of human connection within a liminal urban space. Its snapshot clarity captures the polarities of the alienation / connection, woundedness / wholeness, self and Other, but it also dramatises the moment of openness and transformation, when the lyric self is placed in an ethical relationship with the Other, in an encounter which transcends social, racial and class boundaries, but which does not erase the alterity of the Other. What informs the poem is an ethopoetics that is also a kind of ethnopoetics, a negotiation of ethical and ethnic boundaries in the urban grid of the poem. Garrett Hongo’s ‘The Legend’ also frames an ethical moment in an urban space mapped with ethnic markers:

In Chicago, it is snowing softly 
and a man has just done his wash for the week.   
He steps into the twilight of early evening,   
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag   
full of neatly folded clothes, 
and, for a moment, enjoys 
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper, 
flannellike against his gloveless hands.   
There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face, 
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek   
as a last flash of sunset 
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street. 

He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese, 
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor   
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,   
dingy and too large. 
He negotiates the slick of ice 
on the sidewalk by his car, 
opens the Fairlane’s back door, 
leans to place the laundry in, 
and turns, for an instant, 
toward the flurry of footsteps 
and cries of pedestrians 
as a boy—that’s all he was— 
backs from the corner package store 
shooting a pistol, firing it, 
once, at the dumbfounded man 
who falls forward, 
grabbing at his chest. 

A few sounds escape from his mouth,   
a babbling no one understands 
as people surround him 
bewildered at his speech. 
The noises he makes are nothing to them.   
The boy has gone, lost 
in the light array of foot traffic 
dappling the snow with fresh prints. 
Tonight, I read about Descartes’ 
grand courage to doubt everything 
except his own miraculous existence 
and I feel so distinct 
from the wounded man lying on the concrete   
I am ashamed. 

Let the night sky cover him as he dies. 
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven   
and take up his cold hands. (66-7)

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Hongo reveals that the poem was written during an unhappy sojourn in Chicago, when he was searching for a direction to his life (Moyers 201). In a motel room he watched a documentary on street violence, which included the accidental shooting of an Asian man. It triggered off a poem the day after, which proved a turning point in his life; it confirmed his vocation as a poet, making him turn from graduate studies to writing poetry. Very likely it also helped him discover the key theme in his work – his identity as a fourth-generation Japanese American born in Hawaii, and the complex ancestral and cultural history that comes with it.

What bothered Hongo about the documentary was not just its theme but also the fact that the Asian man was unnamed and unidentified; he was just a faceless victim of violence. It is a fact reiterated in the poem; the anonymity points to the widespread alienation and marginalisation of Asians and other ethnic minorities, the silencing of the Other in white America. David Eng observes that Asian Americans are ‘alternately seen as the most foreign, racialised, and unassimilable in the era of exclusion (the myth of the yellow peril) and the most invisible, colorless, and compliant in the post-1965 era (the model minority myth)’ (24). Hongo’s poem comments on this effacement and the marginalisation of the Asian American from the mainstream or dominant culture. By refusing to determine the ethnicity of the man the poem also foregrounds the irreducibility of the Other and the complexity of the term ‘Asian American.’

In the poem the man is recreated as if the poet were a close witness or ethnographic observer of street-life, training his lens on the man’s mundane activity and details of his appearance, which suggest poverty and struggle. By choosing the perspective of an observer-witness rather than recast it as a memory of watching the news through the more distant and alienating medium of television, the poet is planting his own body in the scene, even if assumes an invisible, voyeuristic, camera-like position. The use of the present continuous tense in the first line and the present tense in the body of the poem reflects an ongoing effort to apprehend the event, thus underscoring the textual ethos of the poem; it further implicates the poet, betraying his desire to be there with the Asian man, to be open to the vulnerability of the Other. This empathy, further enhanced by the intimate details of the man’s face and body, belies the admission, towards the close of the poem, of a sense of distance and alienation from the victim. Descartes is invoked ironically, as the idea of a distinct autonomous Cartesian subjectivity and ethics rooted in human knowledge and truth becomes undermined by the movement of the self towards the Other, a movement that is performed almost sacramentally in the last three lines, with the use of ritualistic imperatives and mythic references conveying the transformative passage. The murdered Asian man, otherwise unknown and forgotten, finds a place, body, and even voice in the poem.

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