Since I’ve been offering commentaries about multilingualism for several months now and haven’t yet devoted any time to addressing poetries that use nonstandard varieties of English, I want to turn my attention to that particular elephant in the room. The question of what type of language poetry should use is, to employ another familiar expression, as old as the hills. Debates over what Wordsworth called “the real language of men” and its place in, or relation to poetry are at once passé and radically contemporary — a source of perennial debate.
This past summer, the publication of Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Cheap Signaling” drew renewed and welcome attention to the question of poetic diction and how it ought to relate to “real” language. Tiffany explores a wide array of contemporary poems that use a “fabricated language of the ‘underneath’” to queer “the diction of poetry,” mixing “a nice tranche of idiomatic talk” with the “glam-tags of theory.”
After taking a bit of a hiatus from this column over the holidays, my encounter with this essay by Daniel Borzutsky, a Chicago-based poet and translator, has coaxed me back to work. Before reading the essay (I’m embarrassed to admit), I didn’t know Borzutsky’s work well, although I had read some excerpts and his statement of poetics in the wonderful new Counterpath anthology Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.
I was first attracted to Borzutzky’s essay because it opens with an incredible quote by Don Mee Choi, a friend of mine who is herself a poet and translator.
Following up on my last post about Janet Neigh’s wonderful article on multilingual poetry and feminist pedagogy, I wanted to spend a bit more time reflecting on multilingual writing in the classroom, and more specifically in the creative writing workshop. I know this might sound daunting — what if the teacher doesn’t speak the same languages as the students? How will she know if their writing is any good?
Luckily for me (and also for my students), when I teach creative writing I’m not interested in diagnosing what’s good and what’s bad. Instead, I want to see what the students can make language do. To that end, I try to take an expanded and expansive approach to language: I want the students to think about the different languages and different kinds of language that they use every day, and to think about how any of these might take on a new life in writing.
Let me try to spin this out as a quick draft syllabus: in my upcoming 300-level poetry workshop, “Languages of Poetry,” we’ll begin by reading Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, which is about how a poem should be between two people, without any paper mediation. Then, we’ll try this exercise devised by Kara Walker, in which we’ll write a story together through text messages.
Those of us who teach know that the various cultural debates around multilingualism worm their ways into our classrooms. At the K-12 level especially, bi- and multilingual education have specific consequences for funding: the fear is that English Language Learners (ELLs) will lower schools’ test scores, resulting in a punitive drop in already meager funding. In higher ed, many universities are getting rid of foreign language requirements (although they’re still promoting study abroad as a great resumé-booster and as the ticket to success in an increasingly globalized economy). At all levels of education, of course, there are many students who are second-language (or third- or fourth-language) speakers, and students speak varieties of English other than the ones that are privileged in traditional education. Many of these students want to improve their use of Standard English, but that doesn't mean they should be made to feel as though there is an "English Only" sign on the classroom door.
It may seem a bit beside the point to bring these educational and cultural debates into a conversation about poetry, but I think that the relative openness to multilingualism that is readily visible in so many poems can serve as a helpful corrective to the transparent and univocal conception of language that reigns supreme in most educational settings.
Multilingualism has long been a key characteristic, even a central tenet of literary experimentation. So maybe it seems a bit weird that after all these commentaries I still haven’t found anything to say about the various streams of modernist literature that drew upon other languages. Why haven’t I addressed T. S. Eliot's attempted reconstitution of the “mind of Europe”? What about Ezra Pound's (also attempted) translation of Chinese written characters? Or what about the less well known but no less multilingual Zurich Dada “nonsense” poems that drew upon anthropological works, using fragments and phrases from world Indigenous languages to inform their experiments in non-meaning?
Analyses of avant-garde or experimental poetry typically understand multilingualism as a part of the modernist dream of breaking with the past in order to prefigure an unforeseen but possible future.