15 January 2010

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is central to any discussion of multilingual poetry. He consciously incorporated non-English words and cultural concepts to create what he thought was or should be American poetry. Betsy Erkkila says in Whitman the Political Poet (1996):

“Although he did not draw on the musical possibilities of black dialect in composing Leaves of Grass, Whitman did introduce several foreign terms – including Spanish, Italian, and French – as part of his effort to establish a native American idiom. These foreign borrowings are neither merely ignorant nor merely arrogant, as is commonly assumed; rather, they are part of Whitman’s effort to create a racially and ethnically mixed language to match America’s democratic pluralism. Whitman was particularly fond of borrowings from the French, which he used to reflect the French contribution to American nationality and to connect America’s experience to France’s enlightened, republican, and revolutionary heritage. The French language was a consistent feature of Whitman’s poems of international embrace and cosmopolitan philosophy, and through all editions of Leaves of Grass, his favorite French borrowings were words of unity, bonding, and affectionate address: rapport, ensemble, en masse, rondue, mélange, résumé, mon cher, mon enfant, ma femme, compagnon, and ami.

"Whitman also experimented with the sound and sense of native American terms. ‘What is the fitness – What the strange charm of aboriginal names? – Monongahela – it rolls with venison richness upon the palate.’ In his verse he introduced several native American words, including moccasin, squaw, quhaug, wigwam, powow, sachem, and titi; and in accordance with his desire to rename American places, Whitman commonly referred to New York and Long Island by their aboriginal names: Mannahatta and Paumanok.” (p. 86)

I applaud Erkkila's dismissal of the mainstream view of Whitman's use of many languages as "merely ignorant nor merely arrogant." Monolingual critics have done the literary world great harm by assuming that monolingualism is the norm and multilingualism is the aberration. On the contrary, as I have often tried to show in theory, any literary text is multilingual. The "languages" involved in any text, however, need not be the big-time languages, but idiolects or dialects. The text that is obviously multilingual because some of the words are either italicized or unfamiliar to "native speakers" assumes less intelligent readers than texts that use words from more than one language without any outward warning; these latter texts assume intelligent readers that know all (or at least most) of the languages being harnessed by the text.

No comments:

Post a Comment