The Multi Cultural Week presentation, World Poetry, at SFCC, was far better than it sounds like it would be. My sincere condolences to anyone who may have missed it.
Pablo Naruda, the famous poet from Chile, wrote the first selections. They were read in clear Spanish, by a professor in bilingual multicultural something. She had some cool stuff to say about Naruda and his history. She read a bunch of Naruda, with a second language accent that is clearer to me than the accents of most native spanish speakers. Language use in poetry is very complex, so even knowing how to figure out the literal meaning of each sentence doesn’t give one full grasp of the poem. I was able to follow along in a sense, but not well enough to grasp whole meanings or poetic subtleties.
A modern Chinese poem was read in it’s original mainland Mandarin, by SFCC professor Ping Ping. It used an analogy of two trees to talk about love, and contrast it to common beliefs about what love is. The english translation made it look like mediocre poetry. Listening to the Mandarin reading, however, I found it beautiful. I say it was beautiful without really understanding the poem. The vowels, inflections, and eight main consonants of Mandarin have always seemed pretty to me, even in a technical manual. When I stopped myself from reading the translation, or trying to pick out individual words I recognised, I was able to enjoy the sounds and flow in ways that a native Mandarin speaker may have missed. It made me think of language’s potential beauty apart from actual meaning and context.
In English, and presumably other languages, poetry is usually written to be attractive on several levels at once. There is rythm, rhyme, phoenetic sounds, and internal repetition of sounds. These qualities of good peoetry can all exist apart from the meanings of the words. Other qualities such as the ideas being conveyed, allusions, analogy, and culturally specific creative language uses are all dependent on the actual meaning of the words.
A multi-lingual math teacher from Southern India (She was arguably the best public speaker in attendance) read some truly ancient poetry in Sandscrit. They were classics I seem to remember reading translations of. The language sounded just like Hindi, and a little like Gujarati to me. I was able to recognise a few words, and found that to be an annoying distraction. I was busy wondering how the suffix on “vidya” changed when it was plural past-tense and forgot to truly listen to the poem.
The philisophical style of these classics was similar to the Taoist classics and Ecstatic poems of Kabir and Rumi that I’ve always loved. The tone is instructive, but not condescending in this style of poetry. I like Vedic, Ecstatic, Taoist, and Escoteric Judaism poems a lot. It’s hard to find parallels to this kind of poetry in the English language. When I read English translations of non-English poetry, I always wonder what I’m missing. In Hebrew religious poetry, and in some old Latin stuff, there’s an element of numerical puzzles that point to other meanings and interlock various word patterns. In Chinese poetry, there are subltle wordplays that depend on the visual forms of the characters. Wordplay like this cannot survive translation well.
A long nostalgic lament for a homecountry , read in Arabic by a Saudi student, was paricularly moving. This old poem was about how beautiful the poet’s motherland was and how much he missed it. This foreign student who had been in the States for quite some time was reading the poem with genuine feeling. I got a little teary eyed.
An Irishman who was fluent in Irish Gaelic read an old poem (also a lament) typical of old Irish poetry. When he was talking about the history, and how language and education was passed down secretly during English opression, another peculiarity of Earth poetry occured to me: In Chinese and Arabic cultures, where literacy is ancient and historically widespread, rhyme and rythm are not major elements. This is a broad generalisation, but it sounds like cultures with a long history of education and literacy produce poems that are more dependent on the ideas being conveyed, and less dependent on repetition of sounds. In the Irish and Tibetan selections, there was obvious and well thought out rhyme and rythm scheme. Ireland and Tibet are both countries that were subjugated by other countries. Both countries have had times where few people were literate in the native language. Luckily, both places had an abundance of monks who tend to have a lot of time on their hands, and write everything down. Rythm and rhyme schemes in poetry are entertaining and pretty, but that’s probably not how they started. They serve as an aid to memorisation. In British Isles regions, where most cultures made little use of writing before Roman times, rhyme schemes and organisation of syllables would have been very important. The ability to memorize stories and poems is especially important when a culture is in danger of losing native language and traditions.
The kind of rythm schemes evident in classic Japanese forms were probably developed for different reasons. It was nice to hear some Basho haikus read by a native Japanese speaker. She seemed really nervous, and sped through the readings but it was still cool to hear. In Japanese, haikus sound even shorter and simpler than they do in English. There is a peculiar elegance in lofty, classical Japanese poetry forms. I expect there is some depth, phoenetics, and wordplay that doesn’t survive translation. So if they are good in English, they must be even better when understood in their own languge.