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?

The Poetry of Social Media

I’ve conducted a kind of casual social experiment. I decided to do so in order to get the public’s perspective on what they think poetry is (there are no wrong answers, necessarily: some are academic, some are introspective, some spiritual, some lighthearted jokes). The reason I wanted to ask others, specifically those who don’t study poetry or literature on a higher educational level, is because I feel like the more I immerse myself in poetry, the more I am perplexed by it. So, I was wondering if those who don’t spend as much time thinking about, reading or writing poetry felt similarly as I did or not.

At first, I posted a Facebook status bluntly asking, “What is poetry?” I proceeded to attach the link to our blog, The Contemporary Poem. I posted the status rather early in the day, so I waited until the evening to read the responses. But there was nothing there. Now, perhaps no one saw my status and it got lost in everyone’s BuzzFeed-polluted news feeds, but it could also suggest other possibilities.

Perhaps no one wanted to comment on my status because they were not confident to start conversation on something they didn’t know much about for all of Facebook to see. Or maybe those who did read the status knew I was a writing major and felt intimidated or judged by what I might think. Or perhaps no one cared. Nevertheless, I think this bump in the experiment is a noteworthy one.

So, in order to actually get responses, I tried again. But this time, on my boyfriend’s Facebook. He posted a status reading similarly, but apparently came off more welcoming: “here’s a thinker for you: what is poetry? (input encouraged)”

And, maybe you guessed it already, but he got responses! They are rather interesting:

“Poetry is writing that cuts out meaningless filler. Poetry is difficult to describe because emotions are difficult to describe and it is essentially a way to describe emotions. When you have thoughts and emotions they are better reflected with striking words and imagery rather than story telling and linear forms of writing; not that poetry can’t tell a story.
Ideas always seem so clear in your head and I think poetry is an attempt to capture that mental clarity without all of the clutter and fluff that floods everyday speech and thought. Almost like meditation with words. But then again thats my interpretation, there are lots of different styles of poetry and lots of different people that think and express in different ways.
Try some Japanese Death Poems. The use of language is simple, and brings a sense of tiredness.” -male, age 22

“Poetry is an aesthetic communication of thoughts/feelings… poetry conveys what gets lost in translation. words sometimes aren’t enough.i think poetry is a lot like empathy… i think we can FEEL what poetry conveys even if the string of words doesn’t particularly make sense to us” -female, age 20

“Poetry is painting with words.” -male, age 24

“Poetry is lyrics without the music.” -female, age 55

“When I write poetry,..rhyming always, I do it to memorialize something or someone that I’ve observed doing/being something that moved my heart and spirit” -female, age 77

Disregarding the cliches, we can find a common theme here. People write when they want to express an emotion, scholarly or not. So, maybe the next time I cannot understand what a poet is trying to say, I’ll instead try to experience what they are feeling. Not all aspects of poetry demand reading comprehension or even logic. But it should always demand one of our most human abilities, to feel.