On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.


p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.