Stranger At Home: Writing American Poetry in a Nonnative Language

Mutual influences of smaller and larger cultures of language and sensibilities serve as a source of energy as well as spiritual and mutual cultural enrichment. This also occurs in the process of the influx of foreign-born artists to a new cultural archipelago. This influence on the host culture happens because a great artist carries this flickering light of reflected truth despite some opaqueness in their new, nonnative language. This light shines through in the works of “poets with an accent,” such as Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Nina Cassian, Charles Simic, and others.

One of the great poets said, “A poet begins where a human being ends.” One of the important interpretations is that poetry uses a special, almost “nonhuman” language. Therefore, in poetry, the process of merging, overlapping, overshadowing, intermingling, and entwining is characteristic. Living one’s life in a strange metaphorical sphere of poetry implies a certain degree of detachment, derangement, and alienation. A native or nonnative poet, who lives and therefore creates in a certain cultural space and time, is always, to a certain degree, an outsider, or at least, an extramural observer. “All poets are Yids!” (Jews, Zhidy in Russian) as Marina Tsvetaeva, a great Russian poet who was raised in the very center of the Russian intellectual elite, once said. What she meant is that poets, by definition, are more or less misfits or, at times, even outcasts in the mainstream of cultural establishment.

Czeslaw Milosz once said about some contemporary American poets, “They wrote as if history had little to do with them.” A hermetic literary culture, he would say, is a cage in which one spends all of one’s time chasing one’s own tail. A foreign artist brings a new flow of artistic sensibility to a new culture and therefore becomes a stranger at home.

A foreign artist is not a poet of exile (as Joseph Brodsky was often called, I believe incorrectly), but rather a poet of alienation or, more exactly, of not belonging. The key question is whether the move to another culture was forced, or was it a voluntary transition to a different plane of the artist’s life? That difference may influence an artist’s ability to self-express in the new cultural and linguistic situation. Sometimes the ability to self-express is stifled by the inability to assimilate.

Alienation implies nostalgia for the past and for the future. And in poetry there is no “now.” By the time a poem is written, the moment is gone, but still lives in the poem in its own time (the “felt time” of a poem). “Oh, moment stop! You are not that magnificent, but inimitable!” (J. Brodsky, “Winter Evening in Yalta”). Nostalgia, anyway, is the main topic of lyrical poetry.

A poem is a personal communication in the language that is available in the space where the author is currently living. Language is germane to the circumstances, landscape, and to the poet’s sensibilities.

Martin Heidegger wrote in 1954, “Man acts as if he were the shaper and master of language, while it is language which remains the mistress of man. When this relation of dominance is inverted, man succumbs to strange contrivances. Language then becomes a means of expression.” And poetry is precisely the art of strange contrivances. The word “strange” here is not incidental. It reflects the position of a poet, who is always a “stranger at home,” especially if he is a nonnative artist.

Andrei Codrescu, one of the most influential poetic voices with an accent, says, “I walk the walk and talk the talk and the talk came to me from living Americans, not books, so that their hands and mugs and hips put the English on it.” This is what justifies and gives the right to a nonnative poet of a “smaller” culture or a foreign culture to become a stranger, but at home.

Another “stranger at home,” Filipino-American poet and writer Eric Gamalinda noted, “Therefore while poetry theoretically reaches more people than it previously could, it also creates a more severe division between the poet and the dominant society. It becomes more and more the condition of the poet to feel, as never before, a sense of alienation from the standards and the ideas of society and the relentless materialism society exalts in—of being alone in a spiritual vacuum, of being ‘out of key among the cosmic harmonies.’” And poetry is an act of defiance against the incommunicability of being.

Tess Gallagher once noted: “…hard to tell whether or not the translator has gotten in touch with the cultural ideas and concepts of the country, its times and customs. If he hasn’t, the translated poem may become a kind of awkward refugee in the new language, but only the culturally expert reader will know.” That is precisely what this book demonstrates: the poets who got in touch with their new land and acquired a new sensibility have become not “awkward refugees,” but original American poets with their own voices, with their own accents.

Who gives the right to a foreign poet to write in a nonnative language? Knowledge of language is, of course, necessary, but is not sufficient. This right is given by the artist’s destiny. “Do not compare, the living is incomparable!” (Osip Mandelstam). Arthur Schopenhauer formulated a double-aspect theory to the understanding of reality, that of the world existing simultaneously but separately as will and representation. Real poets exercise the will; the cultural bystander—representation. According to Nietzsche, someone who independently forms their own moral system or who composes a musical composition (or a poem!) pleasing to themselves would be exercising free will. People know and understand the world and reality by naming it, thus through language.

Therefore, a foreign artist feels the new world and gives new names to it, to its landscape, in his/her new language, colored with his/her accent, which bears an indelible mark of destiny. It appears that the ability to view the landscape from the side, sensing every valley and every grove of the locale, is a key factor for the author who creates on the plane of foreign language and culture.

A poem is a composition on a free theme. First of all, it is not culture; that is, the language is secondary (forgive me this sacrilege). Art exists first of all in the artist and only secondarily in society, not vice versa. You do not speak the words of a poem with the lines of the verse, no matter how professional they could be. You speak the words of a poem with your own direct speech, infused with your own cadence and tone.

Joseph Brodsky once wrote, “Literature is in the first place a translation of a metaphysical truth into any given vernacular.” One can continue that poetry is probably a translation of a metaphysical truth on almost a subconscious level, on the level of “universal grammar” (N. Chomsky). And that is why poetry is the city of Babylon, where no one can repeat or translate someone else’s words, but somehow everyone understands each other.

As I mentioned before, Brodsky was rather a poet of alienation or, more exactly, of not belonging. To a certain degree, his artistic position was similar to that of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan (two other great, displaced persons of the twentieth century), but not entirely. Celan, who wrote in German in France and before that in Romania, obviously was another displaced person, a poet in the intercultural space. For Celan the magic crystal was his enigmatic, inner, frozen crystal, a primordial language—a breath unit, which is an idea by itself, or rather in itself, a soul diluted in the body and revealing itself by breathing. For Brodsky, the idea of soul is more Donnelike—a metaphorical contemplative soul-idea, soaring above the world and choosing “any given vernacular” to express itself.

Nina Berberova writes in her book, The Italics Are Mine, “Nabokov is the only Russian author (both in Russia and in emigration) that belongs to the whole Russian world (or to the world in general), and not only to Russia. For an artist of his nature, the fact of belonging to one certain nationality or to one certain language no longer plays a significant role. For Kafka, Joyce, Ionesco, Beckett, Jorge Borges, and Nabokov, language ceased to be as it was in the narrow national sense 80 or 100 years ago.”

This is directly related to the issue of translation or self-translation of a poem. Tess Gallagher once noted that in a translated poem, an English-language reader would like to see a good poem written in English. This particular philosophy was shared by a great Russian poet and famous Shakespeare translator into Russian, Boris Pasternak. He believed that the main goal in translation is to create a new solid poem in a different language into which the original poem is translated.

Language is a willful creature. It inevitably pulls one to its own side and does not allow placing a poetic structure of a foreign language into the procrustean bed of the prosody of the original. In this regard, it is interesting to recall Joel Carmichael’s words from an article about the translation of Russian classical literature: “Poetry is almost untranslatable and the translation becomes more practically achievable as poetry vanishes.” That is why those foreign authors (authors of this anthology), who not only have mastered operational literary English, but adjusted their sensibility to a new culture, are blessed. They have the great pleasure and significant advantage of translating the story of their poetic souls into new, “nonnative” vernacular.

Poetry is a form of art that remains the most closed. A poet’s sensibilities respond to a new milieu or culture, to a cultural idiom; a poetic tension remains tightly linked with a poet’s native language. It seems to me that the most successful poems in two languages created on the same emotional wave (topic) are best written separately as two individual poems in two different languages. A poetic translation as creative process probably works best as the re-creation of the original poem, mainly in its spirit and sound, and the one that closely reflects an author’s sensibility and is expressed by the most adequate words, but in a different language.

In our era of globalization and frequent movements of people, perhaps the only way of direct communication between the poets from different cultures and countries is coexistence in one of the major languages that have become lingua franca of culture: English, French, or Spanish, and in large parts of the world, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. Poetry is a form of direct speech reflecting real (and virtual) inner life of movement, displacement, and inhabitation of the new territory. A poem actually represents that direct speech, a personal communication, although in a metaphorical form. Penetration into other cultures, finding a common language of poetry, which by definition is an indirect, metaphorical language, allows achieving this mutual understanding between artists who create in different geographic, social, and linguistic conditions.

An American poet is the same type of mercurial creature as a Russian, Italian, or Romanian poet. It depends on the special ability of a creative person to feel and hear the world, and this may not necessarily depend on that person’s native language. Poetry is an autonomous process and uses an obligatory emotional conflict of the poet with the surrounding world as a nutrient to crystallize that special “overheard” sound. The stimulus for the creation of a poetic text is preexistent sound (i.e. condensed emotion-thought) that is overheard by the author. This is why the sounds of real life outside the window, on a train, or on a street corner are the most important ones for a poet who overhears and metaphorically transforms life into his or her being and into pulsating verse. It is overheard only because the power field or sound field exists in the air, which is the breathing air for an artist. The sound “from above” coincides for some moment (this desirable fleeting moment) with an inner emotional readiness and maturity of the author for a new creation. This sound may be incidental, such as the clattering of a train, the voice of a hot dog man, the pause-silence that unexpectedly occurs in street noise.

How does one end up writing in a foreign language? What is the first impetus? It is probably different for each author. I wrote my first poem in English almost by accident, as a result of a discussion with a native speaker. I instantaneously sensed that the more natural way to express my emotion was in English, that is, in the language of our discussion, and that figure of speech would be in English. In other words, it needed to be in the language of real life without an attempt to place the real, actual emotion into the abstract landscape of the Russian language sensibility that is already occupied by images and my memories of Russia’s cavernous railroad stations, vast prospects, birch groves, and smoky kitchens at midnight.

For some “new settlers,” this new life becomes their own. That involves a complex adjustment to the power field of the new language of real life. In this case, the language becomes not simply a tool for survival, but also a second self (alter ego), amazingly different from the still-existing first self of a native language.

This creates a problem of losing inner self-image and creating a new one, which equals the creation of the new sensibility. One can use a metaphor of the broken mirror, a broken mirror of someone’s former reflection, in the native language and sensibility. This mirror was broken at Customs while crossing the cultural border. And now one looks for a new mirror to find his (never the same) reflection in the strange shops on the unfamiliar avenues and streets of new life.

The distant, powerful surf of the native-language poetry hums in a poet’s head from childhood. At the same time, in an American “Everytown,” one enters a dark house and picks a book from the shelf at random. It’s quiet, only the foliage rustles in the backyard, and sometimes there is a remote sound of a police siren across the boundless parking lot at the town mall.

Outside his native culture, a poet creates a new type of “hybrid sensibility.” Such authors are able to create their own cultural, spiritual, and even linguistic universe, which makes an imprint on the native and newly acquired culture alike. This pertains also to the fact that smaller “cultures” can make an imprint on a bigger culture when a major, great artist serves as a medium or a messenger of smaller culture. One can expand on the theme of a contemporary American culture being, if not a melting pot, a mosaic (in a metaphorical and biblical sense) of the variety of cultures. A “displaced person” from another culture begins to express his confused soul under the influence of the surrounding life in a different, newly acquired language, in this case, in English.

Sensibility travels in time and space following the body, after which a transition of the soul occurs with some delay. Displacement of soul and making it at home in the new habitat follows the displacement of a person. This movement goes more in the direction of intercultural space rather than to the confines of other cultural domain. It is in this space that we, as foreign artists, find ourselves connected. And in any language the main criterion of poetry is the live pulse of a poem that is felt even through the cover of a strong accent; the rest is secondary.

For many foreign artists nowadays emigration is not a temporary, forced situation. From the writings of the poets and writers of this formation, it is clear that the main longing, the nostalgic chord, is related to the nostalgia for childhood and for the bygone time, but not specifically for a life that could have gone the other way back home. Children grow up here and become assimilated into contemporary American culture. People inhabit the territory when they “plant” graves of their loved ones on a new land. That is the real “green card”—green hills and lawns of the orderly American memorial gardens. A certain cultural group achieves its critical mass in terms of population and creative activity. In about 25 years, it becomes not a marginal exile phenomenon, but a cultural group unique in its complex sensibilities with language derived from the land of origin, albeit reflecting a newly acquired “alien” sensibility.

Who can judge this most subjective form of the arts—poetry? The only measure is biblical. It happened in the Garden of Eden, and after this moment of sweet seduction, an artist, as a representative of humankind, intuitively knows the difference between a good poem, this sounding crystal, echo of the soul, and product of culture, which is only an imitation, as opposed to the unique pre-language phenomenon, a real poem.

In the situation of Stranger at Home (American poetry with an accent) we see two trends: a melting pot, a chorus of strong voices with many accents that gives new dimension to American culture and letters, and the process of the creation of a new home for every individual artist. Thus, we find for ourselves a new home in American poetry and, at the same time, open a new page of this wonderful book that is being continuously written.

Minnetonka Review, 10/01/08

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *