Thursday, February 18, 2010

[Poetry] A Lao American perspective on language

Jack Lynch recently published The Lexicographer’s Dilemma which presents a number of interesting discussions on the evolution and history of the idea of 'proper' English grammar and its use. As a poet, one of the things we recognize is that all languages are malleable and dynamic. It's hard for many of us to read Old English or the English of Shakespeare or the vernacular of jive or cockney, but in there time they each allowed communication between people. Lynch breaks down lexicographers for following two general tracks:

Language experts outline the laws of  speaking and writing.

Language experts describe, not dictate, how language is used.

As a poet I observe both of these tracks with great interest. My current book BARROW explored this challenge for poets.

I enjoy writing poetry for many reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to push language and to try to speak of those things for which there are no words.

In some cases words can be developed for these concepts and inventions. In other cases, there are no words because they are the phenomenally unspeakable, such as the concepts of the Tao, where they write 'the way that can be spoken of is not the true way,' which can only be discovered by understanding the many amazing and mundane things it is not. Maybe.

As a poet, in addition to working with larger concepts, we are going 'granular' too, examining every word and its place in a poem. If it gets our 'point' or at least 'a' point across, has that word done its job or should we expect more from it, or less? And if less, why?

In poetry do we choose to add words to the language we write in, validate and reinforce that word's presence in our lives, invent, modify, or are there cases where we must advocate for that word's removal from human memory?

A case in point: We have many ways to say hello. Aloha, bonjour, guten tag, hey, hola, and so on. As a writer within a particular Lao American context, I'm given the option of writing sabaidee, sabaydi, and any number of romanized forms of the word. Even emerging shortcuts like SBD that others use. And I have often been deliberate in trying many different variations of the Lao word for hello. We will probably always use hello in English, but I liken the issue to a toolbox. Maybe there are situations where a sabaidee is a handier word to have around, and I see no reason to discard it, and no reason not to push it to its limits to see where it could take us in the ongoing journey to express and communicate to others.

The Lexicographer's Dilemma also takes note that for  native English speakers 300 years ago, to say they were using their own language improperly would be absurd. There are many who try to impose arbitrary and nonsensical rules on usage, but there is also reason to consider the importance of having certain standards as well, and the public can benefit from this.

To speak and write in a language 'properly' is a route to 'power' for many. In job interviews, news reports, and so many other aspects of life, one will be overtly or covertly discriminated against and find their opportunities truncated and their authority undermined if they can't navigate a language formally. But much like Picasso and other artists demonstrate: once you know the rules, an artist is also obliged to explore and transgress those rules. Sometimes we make a case more effectively than others. Sometimes we flop, and not even magnificently. It is merely mundane and pedestrian.

For poets, language is like a laboratory.  Some of us will practice responsibly and uphold the great body that has preceded them and train others to appreciate that language. Others well seek to innovate and explore. I think there's room for both.

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