Monday, March 15, 2010

The poetics of language

¿Habéis notado la fuerza especial, el ambiente casi creador que rodea a las poesías escritas en una lengua que comenzáis a balbucear? Encontráis maravaillosos poemas que un año después os harán sonreír...

[Have you noticed the special power, the almost divine atmosphere that surrounds poetry written in a language in which you are only just beginning to stammer? You come across marvellous poems that, only a year later, will make you smile...]

- Vicente Huidobro, 'El Creacionismo' (1925)

The way in which readers approach poetry in a language not their own is (unsurprisingly) a source of great interest to me, given my field of research. Huidobro in the quoted passage above sums up very well, I feel, the way in which those who approach a language as outsiders are often able to find a poetic beauty in certain words that is not so apparent to native speakers habituated to their everyday usage.

Just recently I came across an excellent work which explores this subject in somewhat greater depth and attempts to explain the phenomenon of heightened sensitivity to certain types of poetic language among non-native speakers. In an MA thesis entitled Let There Be Revolution: The Destructive Creacionismo of Vicente Huidobro and Gertrude Stein, Lisa Senneff notes that
"...when one is surrounded foreign language for the first time, the bonds between word and object are fragile; the connection between signifier and the signified is shaky and unclear."

Senneff goes on to argue that this awareness of the arbitrary relationship between language and meaning was a major factor pushing both Huidobro and Stein towards a poetic model that deliberately sought to undermine and de-familiarise these relationships in the mind of the reader, thus freeing artistic creation entirely from any relationship with 'objective reality'. Read the whole thesis here.


  1. Thanks for the tip. The thesis sounds very interesting.

    The nice thing about this process too is that eventually it can feed back into an enriched sense of the music and meaning of your native language too.

    I once made a fool of myself gushing over the poetic nature of the German word for earthquake - Erdbeben - and how evocative it was. It took a while for the penny to drop that the English word was doing much the same work: it was so familiar to me I'd never stopped to wonder at it in the way I did a new find.

    [Hello, by the way! It's been a few years....]

  2. Hi Dougal,

    yes I think undoubtedly learning a second language certainly does force you to think about your own 'native tongue' in a whole new way, which is I think the same idea that Senneff puts forward in her thesis (i.e. that when Huidobro and Stein went back to writing in their own respective languages they could no longer take words simply at their face-value).

    As for me, as far as my Spanish goes I'm still very much at the 'stammering' phase so likely to carry on making a fool of myself for a while longer yet :)