11 November 2010

Mother tongue as second language

One mark of a true poet, if we were to believe William Logan, is how the poet uses the mother tongue as though it were a second language.  This is the other face of multilingual literary criticism.  In addition to thinking of the effect of the mother tongue on a text written in a non-mother tongue, we should also think of how a monolingual poet can actually treat a mother tongue as a learned language.  Here is Logan's observation about John Ashbery:
Ashbery is our Nabokovian genius (at times he seems invented by Nabokov): he’s the great lepidopterist of language and life in our late century. He delights in English as if it were his second language, or not his language at all.
Poets that deliberately distance themselves from their mother tongue are able to do what second-language poets do instinctively, namely, to stop treating language as transparent or directly related to reality, to think of language as an unnatural - rather than a natural - way of expressing what is inside, to return to what the Chinese critics said four thousand years ago that poetry is expressing what is in the heart, the heart being language-less.

1 comment:

  1. I think you might enjoy reading the following blog entry on living in one language and writing in another. The discussion and comments are very good also.