In the last few months, I went to many poetry readings, more than usual. In March, two friend-poets had their readings. April, as every Brooklyn child knows (especially those who go to school), is the month of poetry—everywhere poets read their poems and sell their books. In May, the 70th birthday of Joseph Brodsky was a reason for one evening of poetry tribute. Most of poetry readings I went to, I realized later, were of foreign born poets. Some readings were only in their native languages, but to these I did not go (in my local public library—Brooklyn Central—there is no insistence on translation). Yet in that nation of emigrants a poet wants to be understood not only by his native readers. Many poets read in their native language and in English.
I went to some Polish poetry readings, but also to Ukrainian, Russian, and Romanian ones. And I was struck by the change that comes upon the poets when they switch from their native to English language. It is as if a musician, who mastered his first instrument, moved to a second one in which his touch is less certain, slightly off key. In his native language, the tone, the gesture, the emotion is fully controlled; in English, it is the effort of sounding the words that predominates. The face is slightly contracted; the lips are bent on pronouncing; the hand is rigidly holding the page with the text. The difference in self assurance is striking.
Listening to the poems of Carmen Firan, Vasyl Makhno, Ewa Chruściel, Marina Temkina, I wondered what is best transmitted in the new language: images? feelings? words? ideas? What pushes émigré poets to write or/and to read in the language of their new place of residence? Is it the love of the new language? Or do the émigrés, like adolescents, have to prove to themselves and the world who they are, what they can do? I am a poet, they seem to be saying, I really am, listen to my words.
And yet, I love to listen to that kind of reading. I think I can truly understand the poet, I can feel the essence of the world presented in the poet’s voice, its distilled core. A well-known and loved foreign language is like a filter removing everything that is not essential. That new language precludes any automatisms, any reflective filling of empty spaces. The poet stands with that new language face to face, unprotected, like a child. What happens next is an adventure.
I say adventure and not a calamity, because English is a generous language, an imperial language open to various accents and idiosyncrasies. Unlike centralized imperial French, it does not have a master dictionary and one prescribed pronunciation. Neither does it have one way of seeing poetry. It develops democratically from bottom up, mutating into exotic branches: Australian, Caribbean, American. Yes, American, because it is a relatively new version of English, long ridiculed as a deviation from the British original. A lively, expanding language, it does not bar access to anyone. Not even to foreign born poets, though they are supposed to be the most qualified artisans of words. The citizenship of the English language is open to all who dare to apply.