On top of my current list of “things I suck at”, I have “keeping up with the poetry blogosphere”. I’ve still been writing every day – just turned in my one for Poetic Asides’ prompt today – but feeling seriously neglectful of my blog and the other blogs out there in my ecliptic. Right now, I’m sitting with friends in Brooklyn trying to get some of this stuff done, and I have fifty minutes before heading to another engagement. So… here we go; let’s see if I can get this Reverie done in time. (Title is shamelessly pilfered from the band Massive Attack; give “Radiation Ruling the Nation” a listen.)
This week: “translation ruling the nation”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I daylight as a translator/linguist type, and I have something of an unhealthy obsession with language. (This month, I’m trying to brush up on the Thai alphabet, but it’s rather difficult.) Didn’t really have time to think of a decently wiggly Reverie for this week, so this one is kind of a cop-out. We’re going to examine three (really four) possible options for the prompt.
First: straight-up other languages. I know some of y’all are speakers of languages other than English (whether native or not), and poetry can be a great way to develop some of your skills in those. Each language has its own set of aesthetics: sounds and words that are lovely, euphonic, or interesting in English may be totally warped and disgusting in French or German. There tend to be certain universals when it comes to phonology (the “l” sound tends to be regarded as beautiful), but those are usually stumbled upon by accident. If you are a linguistic dabbler, try just writing a short poem. You can suspend grammar a little bit, and stick to particularly useful words; you don’t have to do anything epic. Do some research and try to find world poetry in the language you choose.
The sub-option to this is to try and translate one poem into English, or (if you’re feeling daring) translate one into another language. I recommend using your own, but you can do a famous poem if you want (bearing in mind that it’s probably already been done). You can use mine if you wish, though I will turn my linguistic critic eyes on. Or, you could do something really goofy, like this lolcat version of The Wasteland which I hold dear. And check out different translations of Jabberwocky to see how variegated the process can get (especially for languages that are common, like French). I’ll give you one other sub-sub-option as well: if you don’t feel like doing a whole poem, take a language you’re familiar with and add an epigraph, untranslated, in that language (like T.S. Eliot was fond of doing), or use an untranslated word/phrase/proverb wholesale in your poem. It’s especially notable if it’s in Chinese or another language with different writing.
Second: this is the fun one. You can make up your own language on the spot. This is called idioglossia, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a pastime of mine. It comes up a lot more often in music: think Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance, Azam Ali from Vas/Niyaz, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, or Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. (Seriously, look them up on YouTube for an idea of how it sounds.) This invented language can vary from a fully developed system – at least, as developed as it needs to be to fit inside one poem – to something as simple as just a tumble of sounds that you think sound pretty together. But the difference between this and speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is that you need to think at least a little bit structurally. Divide the sounds into discrete words that seem to have a grammar; make particles, prepositions, and verb conjugation endings to surround the lyrical stems of nouns and verbs you create.
As an example, this is from one I wrote a couple years ago that I called “Cantando”:
Fal tayyara sim khepularrana, o sim faena
ja mayyaratba tiswe ga enna.
El tarheykba nim tesoldoriya, o nim gayyina
Mayyaratba sim ekhul fa udra,
Geyyasavra nim tamar ga enna
Ur tarheykba mar masulnavarra, o sim tiswea
ja fal signara turafte mesa.
Did I have a particular meaning for any of this in mind? Not really. But I had particular ideas about phonology (how syllables could begin or end, what sounds would or wouldn’t be present), morphology (how words would be put together, what could be a verb ending or noun declension), prosody (where stress would fall on syllables), and most importantly, the poetics (use of sound repetition and rhyme). I tried to give it a vaguely Persian/Middle Eastern sound, and tried to sing it as I wrote. Got three stanzas out of it, at least; it’s not as tough as it sounds.
If you want to get really into it, Mark Rosenfelder has an excellent “Language Construction Kit” of which you might avail yourself. I’ve been geeking out with it for years.
And third, an equally noble challenge I’m recycling from a prompt I wrote before one time: don’t think of inventing a language from a linguistic standpoint, but rather from a symbolic one. Think of sign language, the language of flowers, music as language, etc., nonverbal forms of communication that can be just as important as the spoken kind. But make it into a system of symbols, rather than just “a meaningful glance” or “a significant daisy” or whatever. Replace dialogue in your poem with actions and objects. It’s up to you how much you want to let us in on the secret of your system, or whether you want it to relate to just one other subject (versus the entire world or whatever). Try to make it truly unique: the way that corn husks are arranged in hexagrams on the counter sending a warning to the reader, or the playing of minor chords on the piano to ask someone to buy milk. Imagine that your capacity for actual words has been completely excised: what specific rituals and symbols would you come up with to replace it?
Run with any or all of these ideas, and let us know what you come up with. But do try to leave your comments in English; there’s only so much the rest of us will have the time and ability to figure out. :)