FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 04/25/2012

Reading Poetry As a Second Language

April 17, 2012             Volume 5, Issue 7

Faith + Ideas=  an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Moises Park

As a high school ESL student in Chile, I was assigned to read poetry by John Donne, the 16–17th century British poet. I panicked. I also wondered if I should quit learning this language altogether and just be satisfied with what I then thought were essential English skills: understanding the lyrics of The Beatles, Queen and Nirvana. Nonetheless, I followed the instructions of my English teacher and read Donne’s poems out loud, over and over again. As I did, I found something captivating about the sound of those verses, even in my heavy Spanish accent.

The first lines of the poem are still engraved in my mind: Batter my heart three person’d God, for, you / as yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seek to mend; / that I may rise, stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to breake, blow, burn, and make me new. After my first reading, I figured out that it was about God, maybe. Beyond that, I was lost, and began guessing at the meanings of the words. Still, for days, I couldn’t stop repeating breake, blow, burn. I thought that it was the best way to describe drastic change; somehow I understood the artistic care for the expression, the careful choice of monosyllabic verbs that started with the letter b and how they cleverly meant renewal, repentance, sanctification. The rest of the poem was a riddle, but no matter. I was hooked.

I think of that experience each April during National Poetry Month. And as a result, I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps an International Poetry Month would be more appropriate in our increasingly global world. Here’s why:

Twentieth century Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro was a key figure behind a literary movement called Creacionismo (not to be confused with the theological term). Poets, he said, should be creators, small gods (pequeños dioses) who create worlds through their words. He proposed that one verse should “open a thousand doors”; in other words, when one reads a verse there should be multiple interpretations.

But in second language learning, reading poetry means opening the dictionary a thousand times. Reading poetry in any language can be difficult. At times it might seem easier than prose and drama, simply because of the brevity. Poetry in a language that is not one’s native tongue, though, means we have to read a line repeatedly. This is not usually considered the best strategy towards fluency, but now as a language and literature professor, I’ve begun to see poetry as a means to something beyond proficiency and fluency: the ability to guess.

By guessing, the language learner is forced to imagine creative scenarios, allowing translation to be a rightful vehicle to err creatively. Of course, reading poetry in a second language is first a translation exercise, yet it is also an act of creativity. Initially, we guess at a meaning—like I did at Donne’s—often falling into false interpretations and seeing the poem as a riddle. In fact, the words read and riddle have similar roots. So, especially in poetry in a second language, reading means guessing.

But by guessing many interpretations (translations) of words, our imagination kicks in and we begin to create alternate worlds that the poet (small god) might—or might not—have intended. A world of ideas is discovered that never was in the original language.

Perhaps, the greatest value of studying poetry for anyone is noticing how careful poets are in selecting their words. But when the reader can’t yet recognize an adjective from a noun, or a verb from a name, they miss the adventure of exploring a poem’s landscape. Even if they jump from dictionary consultations to the alien language, guessing a word’s meaning creates a path to deeper discovery.

Sure, it’s satisfying to know the real meaning of a poem’s verse, but exploring the many possibilities and interpretations allows readers to consider new meanings. That experience is a thousand doors monolingual readers will never have access to.

And how much more satisfying for a language student to finally understand, to close some doors and find new places altogether. How much greater the moments when readers suddenly arrive at understanding without translation! The hours of dread, the intimidation of codified verses, finally turn into befriending the alien language.

Guessing is never gone in poetry, but the panic time is shortened, tamed as the reader masters the language and opens a door to something so exciting he picks up another poem. Then another. And then international poetry month happens all the time. We keep reading, guessing, partnering with the creationist poets by discovering worlds, until the verses continue to breake, blow, burn in our minds, long after we’ve read them.

Moises Park is an assistant professor of Spanish at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Hamilton, MA.


Moises Park