A version of this paper appeared in Romania Literara. This is the first part, the second tomorrow, then I'll talk football.
Exile as Listening: the poet in a second language
Poetry is a matter of intense listening. The intensity needn’t be planned or conscious: it might be likened to the idea of overhearing, something we might do by accident, as we pass a door and find ourselves being talked about in a room by people who don’t realise we are there. Suddenly the language we use so casually every day gains an extra weight and density. Every slight shadow of meaning takes on significance, a significance we cannot quite define, but which addresses us in an almost embarrassingly naked way.
Poetry is like overhearing language, like eavesdropping on it as it addresses us without our physical and immediate presence. It is as if we were not there, or had become something else, a trace in the universe sustained by language.
There is no utilitarian purpose in the overhearing. The Stasi spy in the film, The Lives of Others, overhears everything and is supposed to put his listening to use, but it is in emerging from the cocoon of utility, of function, of consequence, that the spy becomes human, a recognisable and tragic human being.
The voices we overhear in poetry are not those of other people, or rather they are far more than the voices of other people. Being humans and therefore ambitious we might even think the voices are those of the universe talking to itself. And so we listen with bated breath when we, who are mere traces in the universe, become the human beings we are.
The language we listen to is the language we hear every day, or read, or hear sung, In poetry it is a mixture of speech and song without music, as if the speech were the song.
In her classic book on exile from language, Lost in Translation, the Polish born writer Eva Hoffman tells how in shifting from her Cracow home to Vancouver, the words she knew which were dense and filled with meaning and song, were replaced by new words that had no history, no depth, no song.
‘‘River’ in Polish was a vital sound,’ she writes, ‘energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, or being immersed in rivers. ‘River’ in English is cold – a word without an aura’.
Even more disturbingly, she finds that language affects her sense of people too:
The verbal blur covers these people’s faces, their gestures with a sort of fog. I can’t translate them into my mind’s eye.
These are the difficulties of transition: the cold and the blurring affect both mind and body. But then this is Eva Hoffman writing in English, in excellent, supple, literary English. Later of course, but it is the same person, or at least sufficiently the same person as the thirteen year old girl she is remembering.
Naturally she speaks of Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, but she could just as easily have spoken of Nabokov’s English work in general: his luxuriant prose, his delight in the exotica of the language in which he made himself so voluptuously at home.
Because once you are in the water and have got used to the cold and the blurring, there are compensations....