02 July 2009

Language of poetry

Giulio C. Lepschy ends his lecture on "Mother Tongues and Literary Languages" with a brief discussion about what he calls "the language of poetry": "I am not convinced that an Italian native speaker is better qualified than an English Dantist to understand The Divine Comedy or that a native speaker of English is better suited than an Italian Shakespeare scholar to understand Hamlet. The real difficulty seems to lie not in the native language nor in the control we have of the idiom we use for everyday communication (be it a first or a second language) but rather in the nature of poetry. Here, we are touching something that concerns an essential quality of language, but in a sense that escapes the technical tools we employ as linguists. From this viewpoint no one is a native speaker of the language of poetry." (p. 27)

Here is the point where literary critics can start where linguists stop. First of all, there is no question that one does not have to be a native speaker of the natural language/s of a poem in order to read or analyze it, because that would lead to a situation were only Italians can read Dante or the British (or other native English speakers) can read Shakespeare. (Professional literary critics do not read Dante or Shakespeare in translation.)

What is a problem here is the question of the existence of a language of poetry. Those that believe in literary competence clearly also believe in the existence of such a language: the whole point of a literary education is to learn the language of literature. There are those that say, however, that poetry is for everyone, educated or not, literarily competent or not: poetry, after all, antedated literary criticism or even literary education. Nobody today wants to return to the days of Literature (with the capital L) and literature (not capitalized); nobody wants to talk about High Culture and Low Culture. There is an undeniable difference, however, between Dante or Shakespeare and the writers of poems printed on greeting cards or included in blogs. Are we talking about two different languages of poetry, or are these dialects or varieties of the same language? Intriguing question.


  1. Speculations on where linguistics stops and literary criticism begins remind me of a true story of a missionary who went to the rain forest in South America. He started proselytizing a tribe that had such an unusual language that he had difficulty explaining basic Christian concepts, e.g., sin and redemption. The missionary gave up his calling and got a PhD in Linguistics.

    Linguistics and literary criticism deal with the result of a mysterious process that starts with a cry and need to let out something from one's being. The educated writes a poem or piece of music, the unlettered sings, dances. or drinks. Creativity is pre-verbal and cannot fully be explained.

    Robert Browning was once asked about the meaning of a line of his poetry. His reply, paraphrse, at the time I wrote it God and I knew what it meant. Now, only God knows.

  2. Lepschy in the above quotation is right: the nature of poetry demands tools essentially beyond the technical tools of linguists. Therefore, a literarily competent reader of poetry must at least be educated to appreciate these tools and their use in the expression of experience calculated to engender an aesthetic response in the reader as appreciator and in the poet as appreciator and creator.

    Although poetry is literature for all appreciators, “educated or not”, an understanding of the language of poetry and its function (viz., social, phenomenological, epistemological, aesthetic, or “charged” medium for ritualistic celebration), will also mean the degree of use and enjoyment of this literary art. The depth and breadth of appreciation depend, a fortiori, upon this “understanding.”

    Is there a particular “language of poetry”? Just as there exists a language of literature and “literariness” in literature, poetry utilizes language beyond the essentials of linguistic conventions. The language of poetry depends on its ability to “subjectify an objective experience” so that it appeals universally in whatever language or dialect it is written. Verily, poetry must be for all who derive any and all aesthetic experiences from the art’s presentation. Indeed, literary education’s (pedestrian and academic) goal is to learn and use the language of literature.

    Certainly, one does not need to be a mater lingua speaker or reader of a language to understand poetry written in a second language. The literary language of the poem provides the linguistic and literary access to the work of art.

    The following Guide Questions in the appreciation of a Poem, its analysis, criticism, and evaluation, illustrate the existence of the “language of poetry”. An ancillary concept is that these processes revolve around the existence of the elements appreciated in the poem to arrive at a gestalt of appreciation. At one time or another, competent literature teachers have posed the following guides to students; these have become practical canons of appreciation. (See explications in http://ambitsgambit.blogspot.com/ --- ALBERT B. CASUGA