Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Poetry | Foreign

I've came across discussions about reading poetry recently, and I find myself thinking about my own relationship with poetry. I admit I don't read a lot of poetry, even in school (I always preferred a good story.) As an English Lit major I had to read the important poets: John Donne, William Blake, W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot to name a few. But really, we read them because we had to; not everybody will come to loves Sylvia Plath (While I appreciate her works, I personally prefer Ted Hughes' earlier works- especially the shamanistic The Crow). Classroom poetry rarely made enough of an impact on our lives for us to carry them with us beyond school.

The irony then, that I discovered the poets I love after graduation.

I'm trying to recall the very first time I really responded to a poem on a deep, personal level. I guess it had to be Carol Ann Duffy.

We were using the anthology 20th Century Poetry & Poetics (edited by Gary Geddes) as a text for a third year module on 20th Century Literature. Carol Ann Duffy was not covered in the during class but some of her poems were in the anthology. I am of the disposition where the only time I do anything with interest is when I don't have to. So naturally, I read the poetry that are not included in the exams. I read Carol Ann Duffy's Foreign.

I cannot understand why this poem touched me. This is not about my situation in life. I should not be able to identify with the poem, but it moves me deeply. It is about me. Is it the universal theme of alien-ness within a cityscape that speaks to me, I asked myself - but this is the conditioned response of an English Lit student. In schools we were taught to approach a poem analytically. Look at rhythm, rhyme, structure, themes and motifs. What does it says? What does it mean? Suddenly, I stumble across a poem that hit me square in the chest. And I am less concern with what it say - but rather, how it makes me feel.

How it makes me feel is that I feel like the man who speaks but his words cannot translate. I try, but I do not understand the strangeness of the world I live in. And sometimes I feel that the world is unreal.

... and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what's the word for this.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years.
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
recites the letter in a local dialect; behind that
is the sound of your mother singing to you,
all that time ago, and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what's the word for this.

You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one night
you saw a name for yourself sprayed in red
against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood.
It is snowing on the streets, under the neon lights,
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.

And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
in your palm will not translate. Inarticulate,
because this is not home, you point at fruit. Imagine
that one of you says Me not know what these people mean.
It like they only go to bed and dream.
Imagine that.

PS: To be fair, I should mention that whenever Christmas preparations start to drive me crazy, I make it a point to re-read T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi. I find that it helps keep the holiday in perspective. Perhaps something from classroom poetry did make a profound impression.

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