Using French as an Anglophone

Some of the poems we read in Lyric Postmodernisms used languages other than English; we’ve encountered other languages in workshop; and the use of multiple languages in poetry is really a pretty common practice, with a lot of different intents and reasons behind it. I am not a bilingual or multilingual person, so it is very easy for me to express myself only in English, as those are the only words I’ve ever needed to use to express myself, with the exception of my French studies. As a French major, I’ve had to struggle through strict “French only” teachers and professors at several levels, and through this struggling, I’ve developed a love for the language and the concept of language in general. I’m obsessed with multilingualism and the way it can be used in poetry. However, I always hesitate to use French in my poems for a couple of reasons. One: I’m not a native French speaker, and the last thing I want to do is sound cheap or fake. French in my poem will never be authentic. Two: The French language is so often romanticized, and can become so cliché, particularly in poetry. Are these hesitations legitimate, or am I just projecting exaggerated insecurities onto poetry as a whole and limiting myself? Is this something, as a lover of language, an admirer and studier of the French language and French/ francophone culture, and someone who hopes to eventually become bilingual that I should say “screw it” and just try? I know this blog isn’t meant to be an advice column, but I’m curious to hear what others think about this. Ultimately, I know it’s a decision that I will make on my own for the sake of my own poetry.

2 Replies to “Using French as an Anglophone”

  1. We should also talk translation, which can be done as a “pure” pursuit – bringing a poem into English for those who don’t have French – or as a generative pursuit (using or translating French phrases to give you new ideas, new vocabulary, and new forms that help develop the range of your work). That’s in addition to what you’re suggesting about Anglophone poems that incorporate French, of which there’s a long history; the British modernists (in which group I’ll briefly and controversially include Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who were then writing in England) were particularly influenced by French symbolists like Baudelaire, and brought French terms into their Anglophone work.

  2. French! I took French in high school and a bit in college (up to 301), but I didn’t want to make the commitment to the major or the minor–I just loved the language. It has been a while since I’ve used the French I learned, but I went to Montréal this weekend and I realized just how beautiful the language is. Even the street signs were more beautiful in French!

    As an anglophone, sometimes other languages can help explore concepts that our language doesn’t have, or can help explore concepts from a different perspective, at least. French has a lot of words that approach concepts from different angles than they do in English.

    The concept of the grape, for instance. “The grape” in English is a single grape, the little round thing that comes off of the larger bunch; in French, the word for a bunch of grapes is “raisin,” and there is no word for a single grape, only “le grain de raisin”–the concept of the grape in French is reducible only to the bunch of grapes, whereas the concept of the grape in English starts at the single grape.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with trying French in your poems, especially if it helps you play with the way you approach language and interact with the way meanings are constructed in English. There are tons of French words (more than just raisin) that don’t translate well to English, and contain ideas that are ripe for thinking through, especially for non-francophones.

    Screw it and just try!

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