Murat Nemet-Nejat: From 'Questions of Accent' ('What Is Then Accented Writing?')

[NOTE. The following was originally published in The Exquisite Corpse in 1993 & again in Thus Spake The Corpse (An Exquisite Corpse Reader, 1988-1999). Brought into the present context its central argument – as presented here – has much to say about the nature of language & identity beyond more orthodox ideas of nativism & foreignness. The emphasis on American & Jewish writings rhymes as well with matters of concern to the present editor & touched on from different perspectives in previous postings on Poems and Poetics. It is also an acknowledgement of the role played by major figures in our recent poetry & literature who have come into English writing as a second or even a third language, but in the extract cited here goes well beyond that. A complete version of Nemet-Nejat’s once controversial essay can be found elsewhere on the web. (J.R.)]

 I speak no language like a native. Though I have lived in the States since 1959, my accent still sounds foreign. I was born in Turkey, but I am not Turkish. I am Jewish. In the fifties most Jews in Turkey were Sephardim and spoke Ladino Spanish. But I am not a Sephardi; I am a Persian Jew. My parents had moved to Istanbul on business, and I was born there in a Jewish neighborhood. But I learnt no Ladino, barely understood it. Jewish kids in the neighborhood thought I was Moslem, an outsider. At home, my parents spoke Persian with each other, which also I barely understood. Brothers among ourselves spoke Turkish. My mother spoke in an immigrant's broken Turkish to me (my father barely spoke to me at all). Turkish became my mother tongue. I spoke Turkish in the street. I was, linguistically, most comfortable with other Turks, who mostly despised Jews. My speech became almost Turkish. Loving a language not completely my own was my first act as a Jew. And, despite my almost accentless speech, my first act of rebellion was to tell my Turkish friends I was not one of them. I was a Jew.


 What is, then, writing which has an accent? It is a writing which does not completely identify with the power, authority of the language it uses; but confronts, without glossing over, the gap between the user and the language. Such writing reveals an ambiguity towards power: the writer chooses to embrace a language (because of its pervasive centrality) which he/she knows is not quite his/her own, is insufficient for his/her inner purposes. Accent in writing has little to do with explicit theme or semantic context; it rather has to do with texture, structure, the scratches, distortions, painful gaps (in rhythms, syntax, diction, etc.) caused by the alien relationship between the writer and his/her adopted language. Accent is cracks (many unconscious, the way a speaker is unaware of his or her accent when speaking, does not have to create it ) on the transparent surface.

 Accented Jewish writing embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power. By doing that it creates its accent. Kafka, to me, is the first modern, European writer who reveals the Jew's ambiguity towards power in terms of an accent in the texture of his language. His language of choice as a writer is not Yiddish or Czech but legal German (that of an intricate legal brief), a double embrace of power: first of the cultural mainstream, second, that section of it which codifies its power. But Kafka's accent subverts that legal code, divests it of its meaning, turns the language of the powerful into a language of the victim, of alienation. To me, Kafka's subject is a stylistic dialogue about the ambiguity of power, between the powerful and the victim, a sadomasochistic elaboration of the Book of Job, the chosen man of God also chosen as a victim. Interestingly, Kafka's fiction (as opposed to his diaries) has very few direct references to Jews, almost no semantic, but only stylistic, Jewish content.


 Why did Kafka write Amerika, why was he attracted to the subject of the United States? German also accents Am-erika. What did he hear in the word Oklahoma? A wild, alien, distant sound in German, Oklahoma! At the same time, an intimate sound, one of the rare words in English with vowel harmony, which is also, I imagine, in Czech. Kafka hears in Oklahoma the alien ground in which his private soul can nest itself, the synthesis between the powerful and the victim. That is why he associates his open-ended, endless nirvana of liberation in the Theater (Noah's Ark) of Oklahoma. What is the word Oklahoma after all, but the imprint of the Native American, the victim, the invaded in the language of the master. American English: the language which embodies that peculiar combination, victim and victor possessing the same language, yoked together by fate.

 Using American English as a poet is the outsider, the victim, embracing, emulating the language of the master, being constantly beset by the ambiguities of power.


 What makes this poetry different from others, from French, from English? Here lies its radical ambiguity: American English, as a poetic language, is not a mother tongue in the usual sense but a pseudo-mother, step-mother tongue. It can have no tradition, its vocabulary no public or mythical, only personal, private resonances. It is the language of pervasive power, without resonance, of authority in which the immigrant, the victim must speak. Writing poetry in American English is a continuous act of translating from a radical inside or from a radical beyond. Its well of inspiration is always outside, never in the mining or contributing to the flowerings of a tradition. The reading and the writing of American poetry must always be discontinuous. Accepting a central, authoritative tradition undercuts its balance of power and victimhood.

 Even to the powerful, American English is unstable, its power ambiguous. When the Puritan, for example, spoke English, the Puritan saw himself/herself threatened by the geographic and moral wilderness around, which even destabilized the inner certitudes. His/her language is defensive, doubting its ability to embrace, cope with the darkness beyond the ring of light, the ring of reason.

 That alienation, instability between writer and language, a radical skepticism about its ability to reveal inner truth constitute its essential nature. The relation of the poet to the language is inescapably confrontational. American English is the quintessential unnatural, insufficient, weak language which the writer has to bend, distort, to translate into, to interject his or her vision. To me, three nineteenth century writers, none of them Jewish but white protestant, embody this accented writing: Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson. Hawthorne's Puritan English prose is tortured, twisted to assimilate both the wilderness beyond on the continent and the wilderness within. (Read the first pages of House Of The Seven Gables; it is Henry James at his purest. All of Henry James and more is in it.) Melville's compulsive, encyclopedic lists of whaling lore crack up, can not contain the nihilism at the core and must spill into splintered moments of black vision which masquerade as narrative. Dickinson invents a language which only pretends to be English and must be read over and over again to be stripped into its message, a violent sadomasochism. Words are private emblems, the syntax unstable, constantly shifting, not quite an "English" syntax, the smooth "hymnal" surface hiding, shafted with a sadomasochistic violence. All these works are written by writers, though white Christians, for whom the given language is not really their own, not really their "natural," mother tongue.

 Contemporary Jewish writing, embodying the ambiguous relationship to power, is therefore a specific example of American writing. Emily Dickinson, the Protestant spinster completely at home at Amherst but completely out of it, is to me the American poet, the Jew, the sister/neighbor in exile, whose enigmatic, excessive, possessive, distant, recalcitrant company I can take only a few poems at a time.


 American poetics is asocial, therefore, uncanonizable. I am not talking about changing the canon, therefore creating a new structure of power; discontinuous means uncanonizable. I must apply the principle of quantum mechanics here. The moment a style or a poet is canonized, therefore gaining a privileged mainstream position, the language written in that style loses the tension between power and victimhood and stops being American. Writing poetry in American English is not a trade or guild activity to be taught at special schools or communities (while making movies or TV shows is), but an act of personal survival.

 Reading American poets is essentially following a series of distinct, discontinuous personal strategies in language. Tradition in the European sense is an illusion in American poetry. Even the "newest" French or English writer writes with a hope of one day becoming a "classic." Thinking of the future, or even in the traditional sense of the past, thinking of a continuity, are ruinous for an American poet or critic. Therefore, Jabès and Derrida, masters of academic style, tools to create a new canon, have no relevance to an American poet unless as abject objects to be attacked.

 Harold Bloom's paradigm of anxiety of influence, the poet struggling with his linguistic father-predecessor, is wrong. With the possible exception of Allen Ginsberg and Whitman, I know no American poet who has created truly original work as a "flowering" of a previous poet. In a radical sense, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Stein, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Creeley, Ashbery have no American beginnings or ends. The contemporary attempt to create a new canon around, for example, the figures of Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, Dickinson and Stein is to misunderstand their work. The accents (in Susan Howe's word, "hesitations,") in Dickinson's, or any other poet's writing, are unreproduceable, completely idiosyncratic. To think that Stein's repetitions or Ashbery's mellifluously expansive meditations are linguistic tools bequeathed to later poets in terms of a "flowering poetic tradition" is wrong-headed. In American poets these are outside trappings of idiosyncratic, personal solutions, accents, that can be completely ignored by and are only marginally useful to another poet. What unifies the poets is their unchanging, confrontational, aggressive relationship to their language. None of them is writing in his or her mother tongue and must therefore distort, accent it to make it his/her own.


 Creeley calls Zukofsky "the teacher of all of us," but Creeley does not imitate or expand on Zukofsky's poetic style. He undercuts it by creating hesitations, weaknesses (accents) in its architecture. Creeley mishears Zukofsky's reading of his own poems by "hearing" stops at his line breaks. To do that to a Zukofsky poem (to a lyric like "Songs Of Degrees"), in essence, is to demolish (to add excessive stops to) its sound architecture. But vocal hesitations at line ends (independent of syntax) is the core of Creeley's poetic sound, the power of its vulnerable intimacy. In essence, Creeley's relation to Zukofsky is confrontational, accented. What he learns from Zukofsky is, I think, to turn the language he is born to, English, into an alien, slightly abstract structure of sound he can crack, poke into. What he learns from Zukofsky, is American English.

 Zukofsky, a foreigner, teaches Creeley, the Puritan, English as a foreign language, a structure of power Creeley does not completely own. At his most original Creeley subverts Zukofsky's powerful architecture of sound to interject his weaknesses, hesitations. For Creeley Zukofsky is the alien, the outside which softens the smug nastiness, the male chauvinism of the early poems in For Love. It brings them ambiguity, restraint, by turning their power driven misogyny inward, into a language of vulnerability and pathos.


 In American poetry the father (tradition) and the mother tongue (the language of intimate and evocative words) are split. This confrontation makes the American poem an attack into the unsayable (socially and spiritually). To evoke what is unnamed is, always, to evoke what is not in the physical body of the language, in its material music. The language of weakness, of the unnamed, must have a Puritanical bias, "Thou shalt not worship graven words." The poet's instinctive love for words, their physicality, is suspect, must be restrained.

 The music of words (of their plasticity) is tradition. The music between words is the language of the outside, the unnamable. That's why Zukofsky, whom Creeley calls the poet with the perfect ear, can be, maybe must be, tone deaf. That's why Dickinson, the supreme American poet, has so few quotable, physically luscious lines. American poem is anti-musical, can not preen its physical achievement like a peacock. Once again, Whitman sticks out against my theories like a sore thumb.

 The American poem (and poet) is always trapped in the space between words, in the crack between his/her vision and the language he/she is using, in the discontinuity (as opposed to cultural unity) between the self and his/her language. His/her soul belongs to somewhere else. That is why if he/she is influenced by another poet, that poet is almost always from another language, French, Indian, Turkish, German, Spanish, Japanese, etc. Or, more often, the mother lode of influence is another medium, cubism or abstractionism in painting, Jazz, photography, movies, TV, etc. American poems are continuous acts of translations from another language or medium or both. In this process, the languages of origin (Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, etc.) or aesthetic philosophies are not hierarchical, canonical, but coexist on the same level. No language is superior over another language. Surrealism is no more relevant than Sufism, deconstructionism or anthropology than Zen, glyphs than photographs, the poets Yunus Emre, Zbigniew Herbert, Xavier Villaurrutia than Arthur Rimbaud.

 As I said, American English is neutral with no personal, cultural associations. No more is this more clear than in Emily Dickinson. What do sun, father, Hunter, He, God, etc. (all images of authority) mean in her work? Nothing. They are essentially blank emblems, a chain of Moby Dicks, completely stripped of their traditional associations, around which the poet weaves her barely decipherable soul. Under the deceptive music of a hymn, of a little embroidering lady, the blankness of these crucial images liberates/unhinges the syntax in the poems, completely privatizes it. What is Moby Dick after all? An attack on whiteness, an asocial, self-destructive pursuit of the unnamable, which all the lists, all the encyclopedias, all the charts, all the lore of the country can not name. Call me Ishmael, the poet, who (I) must a tale unfold/ Whose lightest word... I am thy father. ... Seems, madam? No it's. I have that within me which passeth show. ... Others trappings and suits of woe …”

 The unnamable, ineffable, the radically inner implicate, require, fate, a confrontation with the father tongue. The music is in the ensuing unhinging.