Sunday, April 10, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?

All week I kept seeing stories and comments online about a "racist and hurtful" poem by Calvin Trillin that appeared in the latest New Yorker magazine. Now the New Yorker is not generally known, I think, as a racist and hurtful rag, so the stories seemed very strange to me. I determined to judge for myself. I went to the New Yorker website and read the poem for myself.

Then I read it again.

And again. And I thought to myself, "What is all the fuss about?"

I'm not a big Calvin Trillin fan. I've seen his poems described as "sing-songy doggerel" and that seemed a pretty apt description of his latest controversial work. But "racist and hurtful"? Perhaps I'm revealing my own obtuseness, but I just didn't read it that way.

I thought his verse was an ironic skewering of foodies who chase after the latest trend, always looking for the next new thing that will mark them as more hip and sophisticated than everybody else. But racist? I didn't see it.

And hurtful? Well, to lovers of good poetry maybe, or to the sensitive feelings of those foodies aspiring to trendiness, but I don't really see it hurting anyone else. 

What do you think?  
Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?
by Calvin Trillin
Have they run out of provinces yet?If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.Long ago, there was just Cantonese.(Long ago, we were easy to please.)But then food from Szechuan came our way,Making Cantonese strictly passé.Szechuanese was the song that we sung,Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.Then when Shanghainese got in the loopWe slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,Came along with its own style of chow.So we thought we were finished, and thenA new province arrived: Fukien.Then respect was a fraction of meagreFor those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame,Plus some others—too many to name.
   Now, as each brand-new province appears,   It brings tension, increasing our fears:   Could a place we extolled as a find   Be revealed as one province behind?   So we sometimes do miss, I confess,   Simple days of chow mein but no stress,   When we never were faced with the threat   Of more provinces we hadn’t met.   Is there one tucked away near Tibet?   Have they run out of provinces yet?
~~~
Trillin was not completely without his defenders. One of them was Joyce Carol Oates who posted her own bit of doggerel on Twitter in sympathy with the beleaguered poet.

Misunderstood
for writing funnily of food 
Dear Calvin Trillin 
has been grill-ed.

And who am I to try to improve on the great Oates?


4 comments:

  1. Hmmm...Seems to me that each province has a new way of cooking/eating. Nothing more. I liked the poem, though.

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    1. That's the way I read it, too. There are a lot of provinces in China, just like there are a lot of counties in Texas, and each area may have slightly different cuisine. I don't see how pointing that out - celebrating it even - can be considered racist or hurtful.

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  2. poem was a nice touch. thank you for sharing

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