Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Language of Poetry


At an intercultural poetry reading, a man from the audience challenged me: “Aren’t you frustrated at having to write your poetry in English?” he asked. “Such a harsh, irregular language. Spanish, on the other hand is lyrical, sensual, musical, and more logical than English. And the sounds match the letters.”

He had a point, but he had missed several others. I sensed his question was more than rhetorical so I responded as kindly yet as honestly as I could:

“I’ve listened to you and others for whom English is a second language, and you’re right. The language is unsuited to poetry. The English taught in countries around the world focuses on business, industry, academics, or medicine. Most of those studying want to migrate to the US or England for further education. Or to make money. That English, however, doesn’t make poems.

“You’re also right about the irregularities of English, a great frustration to many learners. Coming from so many cultural roots, borrowing from such a multitude of languages, it does seem like a mongrel tongue.

“That’s one of the reasons I love it. Those who live the English language at a deep level, experience its twists, contradictions, impossible puzzles, and incredible variety as a delight, a playground of words with possible poems filling the silences between the words.

“Poetry in Spanish, Arabic, or Japanese is often beautiful, lyrical, following the logic of its language. It’s like walking in a sunlit garden. The splendor of the flowers, laid out in orderly beds, overwhelms. The paths curve and meander in expected, or unexpected, ways. If one gets lost, it’s likely because of the beauty, not the lack of order. The paths eventually lead home. There are poems for the picking.

“Writing poems in English is taking a hike in the wilderness. I may begin on a trail, but it soon peters out among the scrub brush and high altitude keswara trees. The upward climb challenges my strength and energy. Deep chasms surprise the unwary. Danger lurks. But condors and eagles soar overhead, and tiny alpine flowers peak out in more varieties than I knew existed. As I approach the glacier, poems are hiding everywhere.” 

Which language is better for poetry? is probably the wrong question. Each mother tongue carries its own music. For a full-blown symphony of poetry, we need them all.

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