09 January 2010

Teaching a multilingual poem

In its teaching guide to John Agard's poem "Half-Caste," BBC offers the following helpful tips to the student:

"The poet has decided not to use standard English in this poem.

"He doesn't use the standard form of punctuation. This is partly because it's a poem that is written to be performed aloud. Agard said: 'Sometimes I think no punctuation can be effective because if the words are floating in space it gives the reader a chance to punctuate with their own breath...'

"He uses the lower case where standard English would use capital letters. Even proper names - like 'picasso', or 'tchaikovsky' - are written in this way. What effect does this create?

"He writes in a Caribbean dialect -'yu' instead of 'you', for example, or 'dem' for 'them'. Why do you think Agard chose to write 'Half-Caste' in 'non-standard' form?"

Getting multilingual poetry into the classrooms (even virtual ones) is a giant step towards moving it into the mainstream. One of the barriers towards understanding multilingual or even simple immigrant poetry is the traditional tendency of literature teachers to use grammar as a standard for good writing. If we were to require conformity with grammatical rules as a criterion for good creative writing, we would dismiss Emily Dickinson as a silly poet (she wrote, "I wish I were a hay," and used dashes instead of commas and periods), e. e. cummings as plain stupid (no capital letters?), and most free-verse poets nowadays as just off the mark. (In Tagalog, Filipino literature teachers conveniently forget that Lope K. Santos, who wrote the Tagalog grammar book still used in many schools, did not follow in his fiction his own grammatical rules.)

By the way, I do not think that the poem uses a "non-standard" form nor even a "dialect." I find that, if we were to think of the Caribbeans as equal in stature to the US, these lines from the poem would be "standard":

explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather

1 comment:

  1. Just want to comment on the egaltarian tendency of the blog, e.g. Carribeans equal in status to the US. I see that a multi-lingual poem layers more experiences in the line than the monolingual. Does this make the former "better" at being expressive than the latter?