Writing Poems in English as a Second Language
How does one get to write poems in a language that is not one’s mother tongue?
These days lots of people tend to travel and live overseas, in places where their mother tongue may not be spoken at all. Consequently we can see creative writing produced quite extensively in a second language now, considerably more so than earlier in modern culture. While Joseph Conrad, a Pole, earned praise for his style in English (besides his greatness otherwise, of course), that still looked like a rather singular case in his time. The American Jonathan Littell, highly successful as a writer in French, is just one of many recent examples that one can think of. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, writing in a different language than that of one’s birth has become more habitual: the English language seems to be the biggest host for such foreign creative voices nowadays.
Poetry, though, is arguably the most complex expression in any language, therefore a poet ought to use a tool that he or she is in perfect control of: that is, use the language as a native speaker. Languages are vast and alive and some of their hues and connotations remain beyond the reach even of people who have been long since naturalized in a country. That is why in principle I do not favor the idea of writing poetry in a second language.
But in spite of my own principle, I have written lyrics in English over the past years and I am going to refer to this experience. That this kind of writing has happened to me at all was not a deliberate choice, it has been merely due to circumstances. As I love to translate (especially poetry and drama), I have translated English poetry into Romanian for many years. I have also translated Romanian poetry into English, some of my own too – almost all of that together with Adam J.Sorkin. Working with him has always been very rewarding; thus I did not need to write in English, to see my texts in that language. But then, I had the occasion to work in the United States in the 1990s for several years, and I have been back there many times. I have traveled elsewhere as well, mostly in places and professional circumstances in which English serves as a lingua franca: the Latin of our time. And I have close friends abroad, who are speakers of English.
Now, a poem will always be a form of communication, however remotely and in however solipsistic a mode. Writing poetry implies a thou, and that thou may be not an abstract, elusive, metaphysical entity, or a projection of the self (a thou that is I). Of course that thou can be one particular individual, or a certain group. It is not my point here to elaborate on the nature of this other in poetry. I only wish to note the fact that the lyrics that I have written in English were inspired by some happening or conversation in an English speaking environment. Or by some English reading. Essentially, by the urge to address (through the very process of writing) people with whom my usual communication is in English. Whoever can speak a foreign language will remember the point where they find themselves able to use it without the mental crutches or stilts of translation bouncing off their mother tongue. It is very much like learning how to ride a bicycle. That kind of freedom in appealing to a language is likely to be a basic condition in seeing a poem – just happen – as poems tend to, in their “natural” linguistic habitat.
After such a poem has emerged, doubtlessly there will be the other stages poets know about: the finishing touches, the fine tuning, as the case may be. Whenever I have written lyrics in English, I have done my best to have them read by some poets who are native speakers of English. I have never shared them in a public way without doing that. I consider such collegial reading of new writing to be a good thing even within one’s own language. But when stealing into a second language, I consider such reading – editing if necessary – a must.
Poetry can express it all.
I have always had a sense that poetry is able to contain everything that I may ever wish to express. After my first collection of lyrics, my writing has variously covered some quite objective ground. One direction, which I called Project for a Mythology, mainly comprises contemporary portraits (in the 1980s). Another one, electronic poetry, meant to absorb some abstract and technological notions, to genuinely understand them, and assume them in their human dimension. I have written a book, Eclogue, which may be considered a particular form of novel in verse, and still another volume of narrative poetry, Triumph of the Waterwitch. Poetry for me tends to be an instrument of knowledge, much more than of self-expression. From the beginning I found myself interested in things outside of myself rather than expressing my personal feelings, as poets are usually supposed to. Why? I do not think I really know all the reasons why, but some I guess I do. One of them may be the impact that the Transylvanian German Weltanschauung had on me (a Romanian) early in my life; the Protestant (Lutheran) pattern was still underlying that world for a while, in spite of all post-war destruction and of the communist takeover. Then, moving down to Bucharest with my family, at twelve, I felt inclined to keep a distance from what I found to be the whimsical, arbitrary, at times flamboyant spirit of that more southern city. My student years – at the English department of the Bucharest University – in the later 1960s happened at a time that was the most relaxed during our totalitarian era. A young generation of poets was emerging, who re-established the right of subjectivity and lyricism against what had been imposed as flat ideological socialist realism in the previous years (under Stalinist repression). I liked the confident, daring and inspired writing of the new poets of that time, but not so much the pose of poeta vates that seemed to come with it. Thus I was a late comer to the generation of the 1970s, in the more objective style I noted above. There must have been the influence of my reading British and American poetry (e.g. Robert Browning was quite important for me in my cycle of portraits). There was an undeniable anti-lyrical air du temps, which also suited my own lack of confidence in my subjectivity.
Then there was another significant fact: Ceauşescu’s regime gradually, quickly and dramatically worsened: it became quite a challenge to live/survive in that world. It had been a world ruled by official lies and deception, imposed on the whole of society all along. Things were systematically called the contrary of what they were: that used to be an insidious phenomenon of totalitarianism, with a deep poisoning effect on language and expression. Trying to candidly, dispassionately put on paper the things I could grasp, so as to find some meaning in them beyond all deception – trying to be a witness and keep memory alive, while my world seemed to be getting irreparably, irresponsibly, irrationally lost; yet still honor the mystery of the surfaces, of life as is, with the gift of its deeper flashes – all of that entailed for me a suspension of subjectivity. The harsher conditions became, the less room for games of the mind I thought had been left – in spite of the post-modern trend spread in the Romanian literature of the1980s (in the beginning the radical sense of relativity in post-modernism was a kind of implicit form of dissent from the Manichean grip of totalitarian ideology). All of which, thank God, belongs to the past.
“Look in thy heart and write”
But there is a time for things. And after having mostly used field glasses or windshields to see what the world is like and trying to make myself invisible, if possible, even to myself (another type of illusion, of course), a time came to look inward. A time to accept and simply express emotion. Without ironic distance necessarily, and in spite of what is the done thing today. And, again, with a wish to understand. I am a believer in humanity having some stable underlying features that will be faithfully there: a legitimate terrain for poetry and the arts, in spite of any aesthetic denial and aloofness of the day. It has been much more important to me to try and decipher my personal motion of heart-and-mind – and let words capture that resonance – than to let myself be worried with any anxiety of influence or fear of banality. On the contrary, I would say: I used whatever expressive means I found available to pin down bits of that – subjective reality. The result has been this recent cycle of lyrics that I called Tempo rubato, stolen time, the time of poetry, of subjectivity, of sentiment. Strangely enough, this call of “look in thy heart and write”, as Philip Sidney famously put it, happened for me in the English language. Beyond what I have already said to be the need for and fact of communication in poetry, I ought to confess that expressing myself in a foreign tongue gave me a sense of liberty which I may not have had in Romanian. It may be something like the reckless kind of liberty taken by those who pushed West – and felt their way into uncharted ground. In my own language, I suspect, it is more difficult to suspend skepticism and accept the risk of elation and naivete – and easier to grow self-conscious and to sense the old ground under the new ground …
From Tempo Rubato, Vinea Press, 2009:
The Trail of Parchment
Pacing the long trail of parchment
with freshly written rows
coming toward one another
along written lines
that show the way
until we are here
under the horns of the moon
and words of several languages
and our bare blind hands
may feel the edge of things
unnamed at the time when we
were torn asunder.
One day we may be able to write
some of these names
of things forgotten
or hardly known
that could not be heard in the beginning
or have not been uttered
Which would be the right time
which would it have been ?
everything is stolen
all we do is steal: in and out
of all that has been given
and taken back
we write, thus we sin against life
then we just live
which may be wasting time from a mission
that’s the kind of gift which can be withdrawn
in the Carpathian countryside
pregnant women will ritually steal something
a little thing, an apple maybe
– for the good luck of the unborn child
is there indeed a time
that has not been stolen?
is there a right time
The Cistern in Istanbul
we have been passing one another
with lights growing shyly
in caves below
that cistern in Istanbul
where Medusa’s head stays
– but not quite
and supports the world
from its watery depths
I cannot help inventing you
when the wind makes these waves in the green field
I cannot help seeing you bigger than life
through the lens of silence
I cannot help feeling you wrap me in this very air
in the wheat field at twilight
it’s late May
whose very shadows and shades are green
I cannot help gazing at this mystery
[what we gaze upon is ours, it is ourselves] the sun at dawn touching the petals of poppies
shining through their translucent capillaries
lighting their passionate, delicate, ephemeral invitation
that had been there unseen through the night
I cannot help seeing you in this boy of ten
in the other one of twenty
as you must have been walking your
dreamy imponderable elated gait
up this street
there is somebody something
in the wheat field and the poppies
season after season
somebody out there
who cannot help
is it a swarm of butterflies is it
an animal with fur and claws
that stirs deep inside
its soft waves
across the day
is it a stone that has rolled
down the mountain
with the memory of primordial fire
within its every cell
and stopped mute and vibrant
under my foot
what is it that calls
with cause and origins forgotten,
where is it –
sending me pictures from your land
torn off their stems
what is this, that can find me
in the day’s rush and jumble
what language does it have for me
in my sleep
when I had lost it while awake ?
Ioana Ieronim is a poet, translator, and playwright. She’s the author of Triumph of the Waterwitch (narrative poetry), translation Adam J. Sorkin, Bloodaxe Books, UK: short-listed for the Sir Weidenfeld Prize, Oxford. The German version of the same volume is Heilbronn 2009. Her collections in English include Omnivorous Syllables, preface Fiona Sampson, and The Lens of a Flame.She’s given multimedia performances in the USA, Romania and Greece, had poems and essays published in Romania and the USA, England, Austria, and been included in anthologies from the USA, Greece, Poland, Argentina, Turkey, Catalonia. Her current interests include writing for the stage and in drama translation (Shakespeare and modern plays). She’s an editor and cultural journalist and was Romania’s cultural counselor in Washington DC (1992-96), and Fulbright program director in Bucharest. Member of the Writers’ Union, Romania and of the Romanian PEN-Club (former secretary).