31 August 2010

Jorie Graham

I had to share this.  It's the transcript of a 2008 interview of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham (the video is available):

"Question: Why is English better for poetry than the Romance languages? 
"Jorie Graham: The romance languages are languages that were far more infiltrated by Latin, and the further north you go and the further you go towards the reaches of the empire, the more the vocal language stayed alive in the midst of the Latin, so that if you get as far as England, which was a place that was never conquered entirely by Latin, you have both Anglo-Saxon and Latin present simultaneously, which makes, although the romance languages are very mellifluous and very beautiful, the complexity of the language as it exists in English is unique partly because at a certain point in the British Isles you would have needed both the Latin term and the Anglo-Saxon term for the same object. And Anglo-Saxon terms tend to be less generalizing and more precise so you would have a Latin word for something that would equally true anywhere in the Empire. In other words, the word for justice, and then you would have 14 names for different kinds of buckets used in the field, some are in the British Isles to milk endlessly different creatures and a specific bucket named for each use.
"So you have this already very rich pool, and then you bring that language across to the colonies, and you have a very absorptive greedy English language that begins to basically, unlike many romance cultures, happily steal words from Native American languages and Spanish and Dutch and Portuguese and French, a lot of Native American languages in particular and a lot of Spanish. So that, because it is a mercantile culture right from the start, it wants to be able to buy and sell, it needs every language that it can to do so.
"So you have an enormous vocabulary influx into the English language. So you have not only the tens of thousands of words invented by people like Shakespeare, but you also have all the fabulous riches of these stolen words that became absorbed into America. Then, unlike French, for example, that loves to keep its language quite pure, you have this language which is not only impure, and increasingly so, it probably absorbs new words every hour of every day, but it also makes it possible, because it is a language that evolved primarily in a society that was attempting and experimenting in the removal of a class system. And it is only an experiment, it still, you will notice in American English that you are allowed to use high and low diction in the same phrase and not feel like you are using an incorrect piece of language. If you were to begin speaking in Italian or French, a person would know within minutes or seconds, not only where in the country you come from, but also, really, what economic or social part of the culture you belong to.
"And, so, the American language is incredibly rich. One of the things that they say about America, that Americans have the largest vocabulary of any language that exists on the planet today, but they have the smallest speaking vocabulary.
"So when the French get very irritated and say why is English the universal language, there are so few words in it, it is because, on the average, Americans use a tiny percentage of the actual words that are at their disposal in the language. But it makes for an extraordinarily rich language if you are trying to write poetry."
English may indeed be a rich language for poetry, but even if it borrows liberally from other languages, it is still not the other languages.  A multilingual poet using more than English in an English poem clearly has an advantage over one using only words already incorporated into English.  One thinks of Chaucer, who deliberately included French words in Canterbury Tales, although these words were not in English at that time (and, of course, became English because of him).  It is the English language poet, not the general public, that enriches the English language by borrowing words not because they are convenient or needed but because they add to the literariness or poetic quality or aesthetic beauty of the work.  A poet that sticks only to what a dictionary currently includes is hampered by the limitations of the language; a poet that harnesses the resources of every language s/he has access to becomes a Chaucer.

29 August 2010

Gemino H. Abad on language

Poet, critic, and literary historian Gemino H. Abad, winner of Italy's Premio Feronia Citta di Fiano in 2009, gave a lecture on 28 August 2010 to the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas [Writers Union of the Philippines].  He said: "It is the sense for language that needs to be nurtured and cultivated, because the sense for language is the poetic sense.  It is the poetic sense that later in one's life, says the poet Yves Bonnefoy, 'opens to the intuition that all language refuses.'  One may be language-bound, culture-bound, but it is the poetic sense that liberates.  In that light, there is ultimately no English, no Filipino, no Cebuano -- there is only language itself, the supreme human achievement, the finest human technology.  Indeed, language is the hidden Muse, for it is one's imagination's agon or struggle with language that gives rise to the literary work as both work of imagination and work of art."

Yes, indeed, for a literary artist, individual languages such as English, Filipino, and Cebuano, are just manifestations of Language Itself, langage rather than mere langue or parole.  This theoretical insight brings in a new level to multilingual literary theory.  In addition to unlocking the cultural and linguistic meanings brought by another language or other languages into an apparently monolingual or a clearly mixed language text, the multilingual critic also has to dig deeper to get at the langage behind the langue/parole (or Language Itself behind the dictionary words).  Once a critic is able to do that, the critic no longer talks linguistics but literature.

27 August 2010

Not "pidgin"

In "Bridges of orality:  Nigerian pidgin poetry" (1995), Ezenwa-Ohaeto writes:

"The exploitation of oral traditions through a synthesized creative crucible enables the modern Nigerian writer to produce fresh, exciting, and artistic poetry. The Pidgin language provides an appropriate medium for this exploitation of oral traditions in poetry, for it acts as a bridge between the orality of verbal communication and the formality of the written word. Thus Nigerian Pidgin poetry is constructed as part of this utilization of oral resources, which has revitalized the literary scene and the poetic tradition. However, the development and utilization of Pidgin as a language medium in Nigerian poetry owes its manifestation to the reality of its profuse use along the coast and also in the hinterland, where the indigenous Nigerian languages predominate."

If multilingual poems faithfully reflect reality, would it necessarily logically follow that monolingual poems distort reality?  Is there really a community today that speaks and understands only one language?  With CNN being omnipresent, one would think that English would be a second language to everyone outside English-speaking nations.  With English itself having borrowed so many words from other languages, even those living in English-dominant communities cannot but be influenced by the "foreign" words.

I think the word pidgin unnecessarily puts a negative value on complex languages.  We should find a better word, such as advanced language?

25 August 2010

Book announcement

Edited by Francesca Orsini, Orient Blackswan, 2010, viii, 312 p, ISBN : 81-250-3829-0

Before the Divide : Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture/edited by Francesca OrsiniContents: Acknowledgements. 1. Introduction/Francesca Orsini. 2. Rekhta : poetry in mixed language: The emergence of Khari Boli literature in North India/Imre Bangha. 3. Riti and register: lexical variation in courtly Braj Bhasha texts/Allison Busch. 4. Dialogism in a medieval genre: the case of the Avadhi epics/Thomas De Bruijn. 5. Barahmasas in Hindi and Urdu/Francesca Orsini. 6. Sadarang, Adarang, Sabrang: Multi-coloured poetry in Hindustani music/Lalita Du Perron. 7. Looking beyond Gul-o-Bulbul: observations on Marsiyas by Fazli and Sauda/Christina Oesterheld. 8. Changing literary patterns in Eighteenth century North India: Quranic translations and the development of Urdu prose/Mehr Afshan Farooqi. 9. Networks, patrons, and genres for Late Braj Bhasha Poets: Ratnakar and Hariaudh/Valerie Ritter. Contributors. Bibliography. Index.

"Based on a workshop on 'Intermediary Genres in Hindi and Urdu', Before the Divide: Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture is an attempt to rethink aspects of the literary histories of these two languages.

"Today, Hindi and Urdu are considered two separate languages, each with its own script, history, literary canon and cultural orientation. Yet, precolonial India was a deeply multilingual society with multiple traditions of knowledge and of literary production. Historically the divisions between Hindi and Urdu were not as sharp as we imagine them today. The essays in this volume reassess the definition and identity of language in the light of this. Various literary traditions have been examined keeping the historical, political and cultural developments in mind. The authors look at familiar and not so familiar Hindi and Urdu literary works and narratives and address logics of exclusion and inclusion that have gone into the creation of two separate languages (Hindi and Urdu) and the making of the literary canons of each. Issues of script, religious identity, gender are also considered.

"This volume is different in that it provides a new body of evidence and new categories that are needed to envisage the literary landscape of North India before the construction of separate 'Hindu-Hindi' and 'Muslim-Urdu' literary traditions.

"This collection of essays looking into the rearticulation of language and its identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be useful for students of modern Indian history, language studies and cultural studies."

20 August 2010

Agha Shahid Ali

Here is a passage from Aamir R. Mufti’s “The After-Lives of Agha Shahid Ali” (21 March 2010), which shows how awareness of two languages enhances one reader's experience of reading poetry:

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
 Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

“And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee –
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight. 

“The second and third couplets I have quoted sound like they could originally have been written in Urdu, so faithful is their replication of rhythms and attitudes that are characteristic of its poetry. It is not uncommon for Shahid’s western readers to wonder if they are reading translations from some other language. And the ghazal ends by invoking perhaps the most famous opening line in American literature — from Moby Dick — but it is simultaneously, of course, an Islamic reference as well.

“This cultural crisscrossing is a typical feature of his poems, which often weave a complex passage across civilisations. No language, no civilisation, no cultural ethos is to be left alone in peace with its own internal values, symbols and presuppositions:

No language is old — or young — beyond English.
So what of a common tongue beyond English?
I know some words for war, all of them sharp,
but the sharpest one is jung — beyond English!

“Go all the way through jungle from aleph to zenith
to see English, like monkeys, swung beyond English.

If someone asks where Shahid has disappeared,
he’s waging a war (no, jung) beyond English.           

“This is not a set of multicultural clichés about the mutual coexistence of diverse cultures. Urdu — its rhythm, sounds and mood — is poured into English, so that we are left just a little bit uncertain about which language we are in. In the age of its global dominance, Anglophone writing, the poem suggests, has the ethical responsibility to look beyond itself. The mere repetition of the radif in each couplet produces an insistence, to be open to other worlds, to look ‘beyond English.’           

“In many of his ghazals, and in fact in quite a bit of his poetry, Shahid seems to have attempted the impossible: writing Urdu poetry in English. It is evidence of his remarkable talent that to a measurable extent he seems to have succeeded.            

“And of course this mixing of languages recalls the birth many centuries ago of Urdu itself, the quintessential mixed language, created when Persian and Arabic rhythms, sounds and moods were poured into Hindi, the vernacular of north India. An early name for Urdu is of course simply that — rekhta (poured, spilled or mixed).”

Mixed language poetry brings us back to the beginnings of poetry.  Innovation is nothing else but being faithful to tradition.

17 August 2010

Rūmī and Turkish

I’ve recently rediscovered Rūmī, especially since he has become quite a favorite on YouTube.  As a literary artist, of course, Rūmī has raised all sorts of questions about his choice of languages.  For example, here’s a passage from Lars Johanson's "Rūmī and the Birth of Turkish Poetry" (1993):

“The questions heap up:  Why did he not write more in Turkish?  Was he not interested in the emergence of a Turkish literature?  If he had been, would he have contented himself with a few simple verses and playful ‘macaroni’ mixtures of elements from two languages?  What was wrong with his attitude towards Turkish?  Did he regard it as a vulgar language; and did he even despise the common people speaking it?

“Such questions are, of course, wrongly posed.  It cannot be concluded from Rūmī’s choice of language for his poetry whether he looked down on Turkish or not, and whether he was, as it is sometimes formulated, ‘for’ or ‘against’ the people (halktan yana vs. halka karşi).  Even the question whether he was ‘interested’ in the emergence of a Turkish literature seems rather naïve.  It is certainly in the retrospective only that it may appear as if Jelāleddīn Rūmī had been confronted with such an option at all.”

Indeed, a poet's choice of language should not be viewed as a clue to his/her views about the importance of the language.  There are many writers that write in an international language to gain an audience outside their country, but who, when asked, will passionately defend the primacy of their mother tongue.  The 19th-century Philippine novelist Jose Rizal is a good example:  although he wrote his masterpieces in Spanish, he wanted to write in his mother tongue (Tagalog) because he believed that it was superior to Spanish (he says so in his novels); he tried towards the end of his life to write a novel in Tagalog, but failed because, by his own admission, he was not very good as a writer in Tagalog.  Spanish (sprinkled with Tagalog words) was the medium he needed to discuss political ideology; Tagalog is better when it comes to concrete images.  (An example often cited is Tagalog's having numerous words for rice, as opposed to the Indo-European languages.)

15 August 2010

Kristin Naca

Kristin Naca says "Speaking English Is Like":

"Brown and beige and blonde tiles set in panels of tile across the bathroom floor."

On the other hand, she says "Speaking Spanish Is Like":

"A bird in a tree sings to a parrot in a cage, next door."

A bilingual poet should write a similar pair of poems on "Writing English Is Like" and "Writing Spanish Is Like."  I bet that, for a poet whose mother tongue is Spanish, writing English is also like human-made products (like poems) trying desperately to appear beautiful, while writing Spanish is like creatures not made by human hands, but beautiful by nature (pun intended).  Sadly, though, writing Spanish, like speaking Spanish, is always associated with a cage, because the English language has become the language that liberates, whether Spanish speakers and writers like it or not.  But which is in the cage - Spanish or English?  For Naca, it seems that it is English that is the mere parrot.  Is it not strange that she should say that, since the two poems are basically in English with the Spanish trying to enter, even if Spanish is the more melodious and natural language?

13 August 2010

A new book by alurista


"Aztlan Libre Press, a new, independent publishing company based out of San Antonio, Texas that is dedicated to the promotion, publication, and free expression of Xican@Literature and Art, announces the publication of its first book, Tunaluna, by the renowned veteran Chicano poet, alurista. This is alurista’s first publication in ten years.

"alurista is one of the seminal and most influential voices in the history of Chicano Literature. A pioneering poet of the Chicano Movement in the late 60s and 70s, he broke down barriers in the publishing world with his use of bilingual and multilingual writings in Spanish, English, Nahuatl and Maya. A scholar, activist, editor, organizer and philosopher, he holds a Ph.D in Spanish and Latin American Literature from the University of California in San Diego and is the author of ten books including Floricanto en Aztlán (1971), Timespace Huracán (1976), Spik in Glyph? (1981) and Z Eros (1995). His book, Et Tú Raza?, won the Before Columbus Foundation National Book Award in Poetry in 1996. Author of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” he is a key figure in the reclaiming of the MeXicano cultural identity, history and
heritage through his integration of American Indian language, symbols and spirituality in his writings.

"Tunaluna is classic alurista: passionate, sensuous, and political. alurista’s tenth book of poetry is a collection of 52 poems that takes us on a time trip through the first decade of the 21st century where he bears witness to the 'Dubya' wars, terrorism, oil and $4 gallons of gas, slavery, and ultimately spiritual transformation and salvation. The 'Word Wizard of Aztlan' is at his razor-sharp best, playing with his palabras as well as with our senses and sensibilities.

"alurista is a Xicano poet for the ages and a chronicler of la Nueva Raza Cózmica. With Tunaluna he trumpets the return of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent of Aztec and Mayan prophecy, and helps to lead us out of war and into the dawn of a new consciousness and sun, el Sexto Sol, nahuicoatl, cuatro serpiente, the sun of justice."

Felicitaciones, alurista!

11 August 2010

Amir Khusrau

Here's something about early Indian mixed-language poetry:

"In Hindi, for instance even before the advent of the four recognized categories of Bhakti poetry Gyana-Kshri, Prem Margi Sufi, Ram Bhakti and Krishna Bhakti , the emergence of Amir Khusrau was noticeable . Though mainly a Persian poet, born in Patiali (Uttar Pradesh) or, according to some scholars, in Delhi Khusrau was a devout mystic and disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auslia of Delhi, and his bridal songs, riddles and stray couplets mark the beginning of poetry in a mixed language with an amalgam of Khari Boli grammatical syntax and a sprinkling of Turkish, Persian and Arabic words. He sings praises of his motherland and mixes with the common man of his times so as to give unhampered expression to his feelings with exuberance and spontaneity."

When poets write in the "real language of men" (and women), they have no choice but to mix languages, because real men and women, in most countries that are not isolated, use words from other languages to beef up their own.  No language is adequate to express everything that a human being feels; sensitive and articulate real men and women use words, ideas, and structures available from whatever language.  Poets that speak for and to real men and women (not just to literary critics or linguists or language teachers) similarly harness the resources of every language they can get a hold of.  If poetry indeed aspires to the condition of music (the universal language), then poetry has to use not just one language but as many as the poet can manage.

09 August 2010

Artificial mixture of languages?

Mixing languages does not mean merely using two languages as they actually exist.  It also means creating a mixture that does not exist.  This seems to be the case with a masterpiece of French literature, the Girart de Roussillon (1165-80?), which is “a poem of very high quality, composed in a mixed language exhibiting features of both French and Occitan.”  The poem is “written in an artificial mixture of Provenςal and French.”  Of course, especially with poems in the past, it is very difficult scientifically to determine for sure if a poet is using what William Wordsworth referred to as "the real language of men" (and women!), but for literary criticism, it may not be crucial to the understanding and appreciation of a text whether the poet is merely mirroring reality or constituting it.  What is important is the poet integrates the two languages (whether authentic or manipulated) into a new whole that transcends, while harnessing the resources of, the two.

07 August 2010

Not regarding oneself as "inferior"

In her article "Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s ‘Bilingual Blues’ and ‘Turning the Times Tables’:  Language Choice and Cultural Identity in Cuban-American Literature" (2007) Annabel Cox writes:  “When bilingual literature is produced by Cubano-American writers, in common with other Latino bilingual production, it calls into question US-anglophone assumptions concerning superior and inferior cultures clearly indicated in attitudes towards non-English languages in the United States.”  Although it cannot be denied that there is prejudice among mainstream American critics against American literature written in languages other than English, I often wonder if Ngugi wa thiongo's admonition that we must first decolonize our minds does not come into play here.  I have forced myself, for example, to think of Philippine literature first before I think of American literature.  I judge Ernest Hemingway's art on the basis of norms derived from the art of Bienvenido Santos and Nick Joaquin, rather than the other way around.  Perhaps Cubano-American writers can think of their mixed-language literature as the "mainstream" and monolingual American texts as aberrations.  The liberation of the mind through this simple but difficult technique is something only a creative writer can truly appreciate.

04 August 2010

English for spirituality?

One reason writers use multiple languages is that they correctly feel that something cannot be expressed only in one language.  Ordinary readers have known this for a long time, although professional linguists and literary critics are hesitant to admit it, perhaps because of fear that they will find their own mother tongue (particularly English, which has the most number of fanatics) inadequate.  Here is a post from an ordinary blogger whose mother tongue is Dutch:

My English is excellent (if I may say so myself) when it comes to complicated issues. I sometimes feel it's easier to talk about spirituality in English than my native Dutch.

Is spirituality really "easier to talk about" in English than in Dutch (or any other language)?  That's very interesting, because many English poems deal with spirituality.  (I am talking of real poems, not the Hallmark-type verse that abounds in "spiritual" inspirational books or websites.)  On the other hand, think of the Catholic saints:  how many of them had English as their mother tongue?  Surely, a minority (though I haven't actually counted).

01 August 2010

Teaching multilingual literature in the classroom

In a 1983 article in The Modern Language Journal, Judith A. Myskens wrote that “very little mention of methods of teaching literature is made in teacher preparation materials.”  Someone writing today, almost thirty years later, would probably still be able to say the same thing.  Teachers assume that teaching literature is exactly the same as teaching language, or worse, teaching science.  Attention is paid more to facts (names and biographies of authors, meanings of words, literary histories based on dates and events, structures of sentences, grammar, that sort of thing) rather than to literariness.  This lack of sophistication in the teaching of literature works against multilingual literature, because students need much more than literary tools when dealing with entire subcultures or even cultures brought into a work that uses more than one language.  Literary critics cannot stay only within the confines of academic discourse; they have to start thinking about the implication of multilingualism on actual classroom practice.