Language is not Neutral

TwERK, LaTasha N Nevada Diggs


Following on from our conversations about access/familiarity/language yesterday, it’s worth quoting poet and critic Joyelle McSweeney’s thoughts on Diggs’s poetry, from the Poetry Foundation website:


Diggs’s work is truly hybrid: languages and modes are grafted together and furl out insistently from each bound splice. In a review of TwERK for the online literary site Montevidayo, poet Joyelle McSweeney writes, “Language is not a neutral tool, and the history of the peoples who belong to these language[s] and the hegemonic forces that would distress, suppress or obliterate both the languages and their peoples is what makes these poems so fierce, fraught, bladey and mobile. The showiness and flaunt of these poems are like the fierceness of the drag balls Diggs salutes in one poem: a visible weapon, a tactic simultaneously offensive and defensive, a wargame for the whole body. Diggs’s poems truly work the whole body of the poem, the whole body of sound, the whole body of history, the whole body of voice and ear, the whole body of language and the ability of the page to be its own sonic syntax; they articulate and rotate joints that seemed fixed; they are bawdy and triumphant and they more than work. They TwERK.”

2 Replies to “Language is not Neutral”

  1. I think what I meant in class was not that I didn’t/couldn’t appreciate a poem written in other languages; just that I felt her work was made inaccessible to me by the confines of the page. Not knowing the languages used (esp. if she had not provided the footnote, but even with the footnote I don’t know which piece is in what language or how to find accurate sources on those languages) also makes it difficult to find pronunciations.

    Like McSweeney says, Diggs’ poem works “the whole body of sound, the whole body of history, the whole body of voice and ear” and I couldn’t agree more that this poem is about the history of these people and about the sound of these languages. And I think the sound is so critical to the beauty of this piece, simply by the way we talked about the sounds we could comprehend, i.e. ‘linguistic skittles’ or ‘lavender Labrador’. But the rest of the sound is trapped in the page – I really don’t know if I can agree with what McSweeney says next “the ability of the page to be its own sonic syntax”. Isn’t there a reason we couldn’t talk about the rest of the syllables with any complexity; that we didn’t even discuss the actual sounds those letters made? Isn’t it because the page was unable to convey the message of those sounds to us, and as such trapped those words within the page – not letting us bring them out into our verbal medium, the discussion?

    There are languages that share a root with English – German, French, etc. It is possible for me to ‘guess’ with relative success at the sounds of a German poem because many of the sounds are so very similar; the language is similar. I could talk about the sound of the poem even after reading it because, through a similar language (English) I could begin to hear those sounds appropriately. But perhaps other languages – the tonal languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and many of the ones used in this poem – I have no common ground to start from, sometimes not even the same characters.

    It doesn’t mean this isn’t a great poem; it just means that – without a reader – the poem-on-the-page loses a lot (in my opinion) of meaning to many (not all) readers. People who speak those languages, or ones that share a common base, will reap more from this poem on the page than those of us that don’t, without a verbal reader present to help them. And this is the question of accessibility: to me, Digg’s work seems almost completely inaccessible on the page. This is not bad, it just means her audience is narrower; if this is her intention, which I would hazard a guess that it could be, then that’s 100% fine, and just something to be aware of.

  2. I think this is an important point about the confines of the page – one way to see Diggs’s poem is the way we might see a musical score which contains everything you need, if you know how to read it, and almost nothing, if you don’t. Complicating Diggs’s own poem is the idea of gibberish and the made-up, of that which is just sound as opposed to that which is semantic and sonic.

    And it’s that which offers me one sense of “sonic syntax,” which is to say that perhaps we’re looking for an alternative to grammatical syntax, and an alternative even to rational and logocentric response to poetry and language – “body” taken not as metaphor but as physical, with the desired response to the poem happening not because we can trace etymology etc. for language, but because we can feel its vibrations.

    Still, you’re right to suggest that much remains removed from us, providing we note that “us” in that sentence names a group that doesn’t share Diggs’s languages; other readers in another room won’t have the same remove. And that is perhaps where we do have to hear this one: the page is a wonderful technology, but it isn’t always as transcendent as we would have it be!

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