Bringing Foreign Language into the Poem

by Eric Steineger

As poets, I believe we should take advantage of our available resources. Doing so can make poems interesting, nuanced, authentic, and contribute to the poem’s/poet’s voice. Using our resources might mean studying poets’ work or schools of poetry so that later, we can pull from our mental Rolodex of styles, rhetorical strategies, rhymes, and more; it might mean researching a topic to write about it; it might mean bringing in a foreign language.

I remember the thrill of learning about the New York School Poets in graduate school at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Before then, I had no idea I could include pop culture references in my work or use different personas. Poems had to be serious, I thought, to be good. I think of Richard Hugo, a poet of whom I am still fond, and his line “I want a home of grim permission,” which makes me think of the sobering air encircling some of the greatest poems.

I remember seeing my mentor, Richard Garcia, take off his shoe during one of our workshops. A student had asked him for feedback on what could be added to his/her poem to make it better. Garcia suggested that almost anything can be fodder for a poem. He mentioned other strategies besides his shoe, of course, and did not mean for his literal shoe to end up in the third stanza, but the point was made.

This permission to include the random—and the real—was crucial to my development as a poet.My Antioch mentors also encouraged me, albeit indirectly, to explore my heritage through a poetic lens. What is it about myself that should be chronicled in a poem? What do I believe, where do I come from, and what kind of language expresses my sensibility?

I am not sure where I come from—really. To elaborate: I know my wonderful family and where I was born (New York City), and have heard I am of Spanish, German, (and the list goes on) descent, but I do not feel a definitive tie to a culture. I have been drawn to the French language for a while and majored in French in college. I fell in love with Portugal on my honeymoon in 2014 and last year, had a Fernando Pessoa-themed chapbook published by Plan B Press.

It should not matter whether I have consulted These languages are part of my makeup and can be tapped, on occasion, for poems. I have seen writers use their native tongue and a preferred tongue effectively in poetry and prose.

When I first started teaching, I leaned on an anthology called Subject and Strategy: A Writer’s Reader by Paul Eschholtz and Alfred Rosa. The book is divided in sections of rhetorical strategies that writers can use to write better essays: narration, description, comparison and contrast, division and classification—and the list goes on. I still reference the book on occasion. In it there is an essay in the description section, “The Barrio” by Robert Ramirez. The author takes the reader on a tour of the barrio, which is described as a “paradoxical community, isolated from the rest of the town by concrete columned monuments of progress, yet stranded in the past”; at the same time, he writes that “there is no frantic wish to flee… The barrio is closeness.” Ramirez uses vivid language to describe the barrio, the colorful houses and culture therein, but he is not sentimental in his depiction of what is likely a neighborhood he has known. He also uses Spanish at times—here to describe where citizens’ food needs get met.

The tortillería fires up its machinery three times a day producing steaming, round flat slices of barrio bread. In the winter, the warmth of the tortilla factory is a warm sarape in the chilly morning hours, but in the summer, it unbearably toasts every noontime customer.

The panadería sends its sweet messenger aroma down the dimly lit street, announcing the arrival of fresh, hot sugary pan dulce (136).

Using the Spanish to name these familiar haunts and offerings of the barrio makes sense. That’s how people refer to the “tortilla factory” in and outside the barrio. Just because Ramirez has written his essay in English does not mean he need translate each word to its English equivalent. Consider a reworking of this sentence: The bakery sends its sweet messenger aroma down the dimly lit street, announcing the arrival of fresh, hot sugary sweet bread. The poetic prose of the revision still resonates, but it feels less true than the original.

Macaronic verse can be defined as poetry that uses a mix of foreign languages. In the previous excerpt, Spanish was used to be precise and to contribute to the atmosphere of the essay. In many places on the earth, several languages are spoken in proximity; daily life for those inhabitants involves switching tongues to communicate effectively.

Poet Holt Mettee traveled to Senegal and wrote a poem, “Jam Tun” (to my little brother), which was written in English, but also includes French, the official language of Senegal, and Pulaar, one of many languages spoken in the country. Here are the first three stanzas along with her translations.

Minan an,

J’espere I could turn toutes les feuilles into mbudi
Mangue collecting low light
so you wouldn’t even have to peel away the skin
to see how much mido yeeduma.

J’espere the Atlantic was as small as the one
mido winduan so I could bike across it as easy as
the rainy season’s almost over
but I left you my velo and I still don’t have a helmet.

J’espere I could see you,
hands on handlebars above head, leg pumping the pedal
finally swung over to the other side to find
something sweeter than goose gerte
and when you catch Bebe make sure she follows.

Minan an - little sibling
J’espere - I wish
Toutes les feuilles - all the leaves
Mbudi - bread
Mangue - mango (like)

Mido yeeduma - I love you
Mido winduan - I drew you
Velo - bike
Goose gerte - Senegalese dish: rice and peanut powder

“Jam Tun” continues with the anaphora of “J’espere…” in subsequent stanzas, which grounds the poem while the narrative continues, letting us into this time in her life, her adopted family. The mellifluous quality of this poem is aided by the intersection of language. I almost prefer not having access to the translations as to remember this poem the first time I heard Mettee read it at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in downtown Asheville.

This was a choice, using the French and Pulaar. Not only does it increase the authenticity of the poem, but also contributes to the poem’s style, which never compromises substance, and the “leaving out business” of poetry, which lets the reader fill in those gaps of foreign language with his/her imagination.

It is one thing to bring foreign language into a poem for any of the reasons described above; it is another to account for differences in meaning and syntax between languages. Indeed, there are words in every language that have no equivalent. Something is lost (or gained) in the act of translation.

For example, regarding differences in meaning, in Portuguese, the verb to be has two denotations. There is ser, which means to be in a permanent sense, and there is estar which means to be in a temporary sense. These various forms of the verb to be give Portuguese options in describing a noun’s characteristics (Catsmur). One might say someone is pretty all the time—is naturally pretty—conversely, that someone may have acted beautifully in the moment, in which case estar is appropriate. In English, we rely on context to differentiate between permanent and temporary “to be-ness.” Why this matters: Being aware of these differences gives us more options in poems. I could write a declarative line of poetry using to be that really celebrates the temporary nature of things (estar). By embracing the double entendre, I am adding subtext to the poem.

Regarding syntax, the placement of adjectives and other parts of speech differs between languages. In French, one often places the adjective after the noun (les pays européens vs. the European countries). Here, the proper adjective follows the noun in the French and precedes it in English. As poets or people who appreciate poetry, we can appreciate the impact of landing on one word vs. another. Manipulating syntax can lead to surprising, arresting moments, though we should avoid doing so at the cost of impeding the clarity of the line. The word play should help amplify the line/make it more vivid.

For example, if I refer to the “entire poem,” we understand the totality of a poem is to be considered; however, if I refer to the “poem entire,” the understanding is basically the same, but now there is a mysterious, almost spiritual element that has been added to that phrase. The English language is predicated on a subject-verb-object delivery at the sentence level. “Sam read the entire poem.” We should remember that not every language operates the same way. “Sam read the poem entire” feels different than the preceding example.

In poetry, we deliberate on word choice in poetry as a compression. I think one of the joys of writing poetry is finding the best word to sync a line, image, or other particle of the mosaic we call a poem/poetry. Some poets reach for simple words; some consult dictionaries and thesauruses for alternatives. I argue that few consider the foreign language equivalent of a desired word. It is a poet’s prerogative to consider whether that addition would improve the poem or cause it to be taken out of context.

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner John Ashbery, one of the most celebrated American poets of the last half century, knew a thing or two about using all of his available resources in a poem. Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poetry Prize in 1956 for his book Some Trees, which was judged the winner by W.H. Auden. Rather than rest on his fame, he went to France for a decade and started writing art criticism while continuing with his poetry. The French language and/or culture makes an appearance in his poems at times, which seems logical given his connection to the country and documented interest in France.

In “The Skaters,” a long poem that concludes his book Rivers and Mountains, Ashbery occasionally uses French words to color the narrative, which in an Ashbery poem, may not align with a customary, accessible “I” persona. At times, a speaker we presume to be Ashbery holds court: “None of this makes any difference to professional exiles like me” (217); in other moments, the “I” is indeterminate and the larger question of what-does-this-all-mean is raised.

The following paragraph is my attempt to provide a modicum of context on Ashbery’s poem, which is capacious and brilliant, as is much of the late poet’s work.

If we can imagine skating on the surface of a lake, it is possible to get to know the ice and the lake, but it is not a given. A skater can be gliding, carving 8s in the ice, but is never still enough to truly take stock of his/her surroundings—unable—in motion—to examine ice crystals in hand and record observations… but even if the skater could pause to examine a composite of the surface, would doing so really increase understanding of the ice and the lake? Would a sign by the edge of the frozen lake that functions as a list of ingredients (199) help that person better appreciate this outdoor scene? The closed circle of the lake: better to escape its perimeter to gain perspective on the momentary act of skating?

In “The Skaters,” Ashbery employs many tools to assemble this narrative, these observations. At one point, he uses “que-sais-je encore!” to conclude a list of disparate objects immediately following this passage:

For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This, after all, may / be
happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, / violins, limpets,
grace-notes… clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, (195).

Que sais-je encore can be translated as what do I know yet! (Cambridge) which probably says something about the speaker and mood of the piece as much as the aforementioned surrealist depiction of happiness.

Later, he uses bigarrure in this line: “At once the perspective of the horse / Disappeared in a bigarrure of squiggly lines” (197). Bigarrure translates as “multicolored effect” (Cambridge) which is hard to translate in succinct English.

Later, he begins a stanza like this:

We are nearing the Moorish coast, I think, in a bateau.
I wonder if I will have any friends there
Whether the future will be kinder to me than the past, for example,
And am all set to be put out, finding it to be not (203).

Here, we have three different applications of a foreign language in a handful of pages. One function of the phrase que je sais-encore is that it contributes to the poem’s mood. Bigarrure is a more imaginative way to write “multi-colored effect,” and bateau, which is bolded in the poem, is a familiar translation of boat, but one that provides a flourish to the line. When I read the word boat, I understand the denotation of the word in English, but it is simply a noun, nothing more. Bateau gives me the same denotation, but there is also a connotation of travel and distance (at least for me).

In revision, we think of different strategies to improve a poem. In my experience, many of those strategies involve creative word choice or concision. The idea: Let’s speed up the poem and/or look for apt phrases or creative metaphors, which is good, but it is not the only way to revise. Too often, foreign language—in poetry—is viewed as something that has to be there from start to finish, meaning the poem is a translation from a notable poet. In a poem, the choice to include words, phrases, or blocks of meaning from a different language does not have to be just a stylistic choice; it can be a rational one as well.

Eric Steineger teaches English at Mars Hill University as well as poetry classes in the Great Smokies Writing Program. He is the Managing Editor and Senior Poetry Editor of The Citron Review, while his work has been featured in Waxwing, The Los Angeles Review, Tinderbox, Rattle: The Poets Respond, Asheville Poetry Review, and other journals. In 2018, his chapbook From A Lisbon Rooftop was published by Plan B Press. Occasionally, he curates poetry events for Black Mountain College + Arts Center. He lives in Asheville with his wife and daughter.

Author’s Note

*The “list of ingredients” I reference is in part based on Ashbery’s discussion of “the meaning of all this” and “Labels on bottles / And all kinds of discarded objects that ought to be described” on page 199. My sampling of a few small sections of “The Skaters” is purely for the purpose of literary critique.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. “The Skaters.” The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry.
The Ecco Press, 1997, pp. 195, 197, 199, 203, 217.

Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, 2019. Accessed 22 Aug. 2019.

Catsmur, Virginia. Michel Thomas Method: Speak Portuguese for Beginners, 8-CD Program
(Michel Thomas Series) Audio CD, 2009.

Mettee, Holt. “Language Article/Poem.” Email. 7 May 2019.

Ramirez, Robert. “The Barrio.” Subject & Strategy: A Writer’s Reader (Eleventh Edition), edited
by Paul Eschholz and Alfred Rosa, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2008. pp. 135-140.