Making Sense of Something Foreign

Upon first opening Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, all I really saw were double spaced lines and occasionally separated words in those lines. Lots of the word choice seemed random to me, though I know that most published poets have a reason for their decisions, even if those reasons yield illogic. I continued reading, not understanding most of what was going on (that’s contemporary poetry for you, at times, I guess) but still accepting what was to come. Despite the initial frustrations, I appreciated a lot of the rhythmic sounds. For example, on page 6, the last line just echoes to the beat of some drum playing quietly in the reader’s head: “Lop off the top where the milliner’s wooden box doesn’t reach”

This brought me back to the discussion of rhythm, meters and emphasis in words we had in class a few weeks back. Myung Mi Kim demonstrates emphasis within words and lines perfectly here, as when it is read aloud, it sounds like: LOP off the TOP where the milliner’s wooden BOX doesn’t reach”

The word “milliner’s” is spoken the fastest. It is also the word with the most syllables in the line. Looking at emphasis like this in a book of poetry leads me to thinking about the chapter I read for my Teaching English as a Foreign Language class called “Teaching Pronunciation”. In order to teach a foreign language speaking student how to emphasize the correct parts of a word or sentence, they must learn prominence. Prominence is the focus of the sentence, where the emphasis is placed most. For example: Did you hear that John moved to ChiCAGo? CAG in Chicago is emphasized because where John is moving is the main focus of the sentence. Word stress works the same way, but within a single word. Think of the word economic. We say it like ecoNOMic. There is stress on the NOM. Then there is connected speech, where two words sound like one when they are pronounced in conversation, such as Kim’s milliner’s wooden. Outside the context of her poem, these two words wouldn’t sound connected, but because they are bound together in a rhythmic line, they are spoken faster and sound like they are together.

I found it interesting that my Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language textbook related so much to my reading of Dura. But then I flipped back to the Preface by Juliana Spahr.

First of all, she defines dura for us: an enveloping membrane. But it can also mean “hard mother” in Arabic, “to last” in the French infinitive, “feminine stiffness” in Spanish, or an ancient city that once existed in Syria. The many meanings of one word, the title of the book, open up our language and reveals to us that the context is different, not so precisely defined, and she ultimately tells us that things are not always what they may seem. She discusses the cultural gap in her poetry. Suddenly, her use of white space made sense to me.

Kim confronts the language and cultural gap through poetry, and expresses the difficulty of translating Korean to English, and vice versa. Her poetry in this book is mostly comprised of fragments in order to reflect broken English and a foreigner’s communications.

Learning a new language is hard, especially English. And the entirely new, possibly conflicting cultural aspect makes it even more intimidating. I found Spahr’s words resonating with me when she concluded, “For to write in this ‘America’, is to write with the 38th parallel, the line that separates North and South Korea, the line that crosses the San Francisco bay” (x). According to my Teaching English professor, English is the most desired language in the world (to be spoken, written and used in general). American English demands its own cultural barriers and limits that may sweep foreigner’s values or traditions under the rug. How much of this English speaking continent allows all of that to go lost in translation?

2 Replies to “Making Sense of Something Foreign”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Dura and your own experience with language studies. Some of this post reminds me of Amy’s poem that was filled with German words and lacking translation. In that workshop we briefly discussed how languages have their own idiosyncrasies , making translation between them difficult if not impossible. Fortunately, people are able to circumlocute most foreign words to form a similar though imperfect definition. For example, the French word “ennui” can be roughly translated to the English “boredom” but the two words aren’t equivalent. Rather, in order to translate this word from French to English one must combine English words in a certain way to express the meaning of it. So “ennui” can be defined as something like: a feeling of apathy, dissatisfaction, and weariness due to a lack of interest or pleasure. And this is only my definition–several others are possible and accurate. And one only needs to look into a dictionary to see the many ways we circumlocute words in our own language, and so the process is endless–a constant circling around the purest meaning and form of something, but ultimately failing. It seems that our inability to perfectly expresses ideas and thoughts into words is the primary challenge of poetry, and a leading concern in Dura. This challenge also reflects our inability to enter anyone else’s head. We are all alone with our thoughts, so we write, speak, and act in order to come closer to one another.

  2. Lauren,
    I was really interested in what you had to say about intonation, and how that can impact not only the way we speak and comprehend language, but the way we read tone into poems. The classic example of English intonation (see link) can make you think about how you want the emphasis to fall in your poems, especially with shorter lines or carrying statements. Even though English isn’t technically a tonal language, all language is tonal in some way. This is definitely something I’ll be paying more attention to when I write my next poem!

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