Why I Love Poetry

This semester I’m taking a course in French phonetics in mild defiance of my department’s new stricter graduation timelines; I’ve already fulfilled the language requirement, and I simply want to improve my pronunciation. It’s fascinating. As I told Lynnette enthusiastically over the phone last weekend, “We’re learning all about where in the mouth you say the different vowels!” Not being one of the family’s language nuts, she said, affectionately and dryly, “How boring!” (Acid criticism from a woman who teaches Thomas Aquinas to grad students.) And we both had a good laugh.

I’m a wholehearted freewheeling amateur when it comes to linguistics, but this course has me hooked–now I want to take English phonetics, and German phonetics, and Italian phonetics, and historical linguistics, and…. I can’t, of course; I’ve got to finish the degrees I’ve started, so instead I occasionally spend sacrament meeting fantasizing about my third, fourth, and fifth Ph.D.s, which (this week) will be in linguistics, philosophy, and French, respectively, and which, my husband assures me, I will pursue in the next life, because in this life I will be graduating in comp. lit. and English and getting a job.

But much as I love phonetics and philosophy and logic and novels, I periodically have one of those experiences that reminds me that I chose the right discipline–literature–and the right genre. A couple of weeks ago my French TA passed out a poem as a pronunciation exercise. I’m afraid I’m unable to restrain myself from quoting it:

Avec le temps le toit croule
avec le temps la tour verdit
avec le temps la taon vieillit
avec le tempos le tank rouille

avec le temps l’eau mobile
et si frêle mais s’obstinant
rend la pierre plus docile
que le sable entre les dents

avec le temps les montagnes
rentrent coucher dans leur lit
avec le temps les campagnes
deviennent villes et celles-ci

retournent à leur forme première
les ruines même ayant leur fin
s’en vont rejoindre en leur déclin
le tank le toit la tour la pierre

–Raymond Queneau

It’s a highly patterned poem that thus vigorously resists translation, but here’s a rough version that inevitably loses a lot and nonetheless takes unwarranted liberties:

In time the rooftop crumbles
in time the tour grows green
in time the fly falls silent
in time the tank corrodes

in time the moving water
unrelenting, frail–
makes rock between its teeth
more pliable than sand

in time the very mountains
return to sleep in their bed
in time the plains and fields
become the towns and then

the towns revert to their first forms
ruins themselves have an end
fading away to rejoin
the tank the roof the tower the rock.

Although little of it comes through in my awkward rendering, such poetry is sheer incantatory magic. Sitting in class listening to this poem’s rhythms, its repetitions, its rules of four, and the tension between its elegiac lament for the crumbling of both human endeavor and natural form and its lyric arrest of time, made me remember: yes, this is what I love. I love the way poetry that’s at once highly formal and syntactically natural insinuates itself in my mind, almost memorizing itself, a torrent of musical images crystallizing into epigrams that stay and stay with me (“les ruines même ayant leur fin”/”ruins themselves have an end”). Prose has its own more expansive rhythms and possibilities of elegance, but for me poetry is the densest concentration of all of language’s best pleasures.

Kiskilili said to me recently that studying her brains out for her exams had made realize, again, just how much she loves Assyriology. Lynnette told me once that when she first discovered theology she loved it so much she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe that deep down everyone else didn’t want to be a theologian too. For me, above all the other fascinating, intriguing disciplines that I hope continue to distract me, it’s poetry.

How did I get so lucky, to live this undeserved life?

14 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’ve blatantly used my graduate program in computer science to further my understanding in linguistics and fake Shakespeare. I made an Ernest Thayer poem one of the centerpiece cases in my master’s thesis (yes, in computer science).

    Once I finish my PhD, I’m looking at either a JD, an MBA, the MA program in linguistics, or a math program. Yes, I’m basically bored.

    And I already have a job.

  2. I dunno how you got so lucky, but I envy you. Your loves are of my heart, as well. In grad school, my Middle English Lit prof held weekly gatherings at his home where those who wanted to could sit around and learn to pronounce the works we were studying with Middle English phonetics. There are VERY FEW people in this world that understand the irresistable attraction of such an activity! Luckily, I do have one daughter who thinks like I do, and asks me all the time to pronounce things like “nightengale” in Middle English. I’m happy to oblige.

  3. Idahospud,

    If you like Middle English, you’ll love Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, where “Thou Kanst buy a Chaucer t-shirte if it plese thee” and enjoy commentary on Brittany Spears or the lolcats craze, rendered, and I mean literally rendered, in ME. Just in case you were looking for another timewaster.

    Eve, I don’t know much about poetry except that I sometimes enjoy it, and that the discipline imposed by meter and form have something important to do with my enjoyment. I’m glad you get to indulge in a pursuit that brings you such pleasure.

  4. La fille que j’aimera
    Sera comme bon vin
    Qui se bonifiera
    Un peu chaque matin

    — Groundhog Day

    If only I could drink wine, this poem would make more sense.

  5. Eve,
    What a nice post. I didn’t know you were getting 2 Ph.d’s! That’s quite a feat. 🙂
    Thanks for the inspiring poetry. My poetry these days is Dr. Suess and the Sneetches, but I can’t complain . . .
    BTW, I didn’t know that you speak French. You should speak to my sis-in-law sometime. I think she misses it.
    PS, I asked Nate to post the translation, lest he look like a snob, but he readily admitted, “I am a French snob.”
    And he is.

  6. Nate’s poem:

    The woman that I love
    Will be like a good wine
    Which (/who) will get better
    A little every morning.

    (Heureusement, je suis moins snob que Nate.)

  7. Dews from heaven …

    Should Holy Scripture use metaphors and similitudes: theology, the poetry of God?

    Why is it that in one place of scripture Christ is a lion and in another a lamb, a serpent and then a dragon, and in another a rock? (cf Boccaccio)

    Figures, types, allegories – how is it that poetry can enlighten by concealing: secrets uttered under a veil, later to be made known openly? Should not truth be clear ?

    Is not the divine poetry of scripture just a gentler form of persuasion than the hardness of the literal, whereby heavenly virtue distills upon the soul as … ?

  8. Oh my. Can I possily describe how high my heart leaps up when I behold this rainbow of a post?

    Idahospud, just two days ago I startled the household with a whoop of joy because I had discovered, in the flood of catalogues that raineth every day, the offer of a DVD : someone reading the whole of Beowulf in Old English, with Celtic harp accompaniment. I ripped out the page and nailed it to the top of my Christmas list, then decided Christmas was too long to wait; we decided it would be an appropriate Halloween gift.

    Years ago, when teaching a Brit Lit course for teachers-to-be, I required the students to memorize the first 18 lines of the Prologue in ME. There was alarm and a bit of grumbling; apparently memorization is no longer very fashionable in most schools. But everyone survived. And on the term teacher evaluation, an anonymous student wrote this:
    “I thought that the assignment of memorizing some lines in a language no one even SPOKE today was about as stupid a bit of educational flummery as I’d ever heard. As it turns out, those eighteen lines were the supreme joy of my semester.”

    Thank you, Eve, for this happy post.

  9. I memorized the prologue to Beowolf in High School. Perhaps it was because my teacher was British, I don’t know.
    She had us call her Good Queen Joan. She was an awesome teacher, and I think I still have parts of it memorized, 10 years later.

  10. Great post, Eve. I’m a poetry idiot, and I have little interest in it. Nevertheless, I love how you describe poetry that almost memorizes itself. I remember memorizing scriptures while a missionary, and finding some passages were so nicely structured that they were much easier to memorize than others.

    I do share your experience of realizing again how much I enjoy what I’m studying. In fact, just last night I was looking at some results of a simulation study and thinking how wonderfully fun it was going to be to explore them. 🙂

    Queuno, if you already have a job, consider yourself banned. This blog is only for people who do not currently have jobs, and have frankly no realistic prospect of having jobs in the future. That’s why Seraphine has been so scarce lately; once she got a real job we were compelled to ostracize her. 🙂

  11. Idahospud, learning to pronounce words in Middle English does, indeed, sound like a dream come true. My sisters Kiskilili and Melyngoch both have a lot more background in linguistics and in the history of the English language than I do, but I’m always happy to listen in on such discussions and ask lots of annoying amateurish questions.

    Mark IV, what a great link. Oh, the Christmas presents I’m gonna buy for ya’ll who have the misfortune to be related to me….

    Jessawhy, I keep trying out my French, such as it is, on your niece whose nursery teacher I am, but she generally looks at me as if I’m speaking nonsense. Maybe someday I’ll get up the courage to assail an actual adult native speaker like your sister-in-law.

    Oh, and don’t be too impressed with the double degree. (Certainly don’t be too impressed until I actually procure them! A degree in the hand is worth two in the moonstruck head, or something like that.) Comp lit basically has to tell us all to please go get another degree so that we can have a tiny hope of future employment.

    Katya, thanks for the translation. We gotta keep those French snobs under control (rumor has it some of them are planning to be lawyers, just to add insult to injury).

    Elouise, thanks! (I heartily approve of such Halloween gifts to oneself, BTW–a most excellent tradition, one worthy of emulation. Let’s see, what can’t I live without? What must I have before October 31?)

  12. The poetry that pleases me most is the type that is very structured … rhythm, meter, rhyme. Sonnets and haikus come to mind most easily. I find that the easy cadences disguise the pure artistry in finding the exact words and phrasing required to convey imagery and emotion.

    I enjoyed verbalizing the poem posted. As yet, I am still learning French in my car by cd, and am unused to seeing it on a page. Even then, I am amazed at how certain pronunciations are derived from the jumble of letters.

  13. Hi I’m a poet and I like poems which are comming from someones heart, and the feelings are expressed in a proper way, a structured writing is not so important to me but, it should reflect someones feelings. I have seen many new poets writing self expression poems a lot.


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