Language Disconnect: Poetry, Culture, Points of Reference

On Tumblr, whatwillsuffice shared a beautiful poem called "HAVING A COKE WITH YOU" by Frank O'Hara. I have never heard of Frank O'Hara before this, nor the poem, but it is absolutely lovely, because it talks about the experience of being in love. Let me show it to you:

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, IrĂșn, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

 I don't actually get all the cultural references in this. I don't know San Sebastian and I don't know what it's like to stand around a tree on a warm New York night at 4am, and I don't know the Polish Rider or the Nude Descending a Staircase or Marino Marini (I do, however, understand Leonardo and Michaelangelo). This despite the fact that I'm pretty heavily invested in "Western" culture, but I don't get all the cultural points of reference. What I do get, however, is that this dude digs whoever he's with, so much, that he's willing to ramble on about all this minutiae of Stuff That's Important To Him, because the love is so overwhelming, he has to share. This isn't a poem about me or for me, it's about the poet, and the poet's lover, and this is cool. But it is a poem that makes me want to dig deeper and get all the references, because it's about love, written in a way that I would think about love, but unique to this dude.

I lost my taste for modern poetry very early on during my English undergrad, when I had to sit down and read through free-verse stuff that never resonated with me. It was fine when it was at English Lit 101 level, and we had to learn about tropes and literary tools, like what metaphorical conceit is, and what alliteration is. I hated Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath (and I still do) and I did not understand why they were considered geniuses. I've read similar poetry by teens, with more vivid imagery, and more powerful language, but they never got studied in our classes. I especially did not understand nor dig free-verse poetry.

At the same time, I didn't understand why people hated poetry so much. I generally loved poetry because I liked how so much could be packed into so little. I also did not understand how people did not understand poetry. Even when I hated Adrienne Rich, I at least grasped what she was talking about. Which is why I hated her, of course. Understanding poetry doesn't mean you'll like it, it just means you can appreciate what went into its making; there will be no automatic love.

I was one of those fools who thought that poetry transcended borders. Like I said before, I had such great respect for Western writers whose stories and words could resonate all over the world. If an ESL student didn't understand a poem, I chalked it up to their language skills, and figured they'd get it, if they could just parse the poem as sentences, because way too many people read poetry and stop at the end of the line, rather than continuing on to the rest of the thought.

So sometime during my fourth or fifth year, I was also a teaching assistant in the English department. The prof I was assigned to didn't actually have much work for me, so I was borrowed between different profs in the department who could use me. One prof asked me to teach a class for her which involved reading a novel. An engineering department prof asked me to help edit his students' papers. A third prof, however, asked me to specifically tutor a Chinese mainlander student in a Canadian lit class. 

There is always at least one Chinese mainlander student in an English upper-level class at any given time. Sometimes they're there in an effort to further immerse themselves in an English-speaking environment and thus improve their reading and writing skills. Sometimes they're there before they genuinely love English and want to learn more. Sometimes they're there because they love the subject at hand (surprise! they're not all Commerce robots!).

So, I had this student, from Beijing, who had difficulty understanding the texts in her class, because, duh, her English skills weren't that great, and she just Wasn't Getting It. She had to ask her profs constantly what was going on in the story or poem, and they usually didn't have the time to explain to her what was going on in it. 

I should mention that obviously these profs were also white. 

And so when I sat down for the first time with this student, reading a poem about Inuits, the eradication of their culture by white people, and the alienation from their past as a result, I found that it wasn't a language thing going on here. 

Here's the thing about poetry, and indeed, literature, capital "L" or not: it is usually written with a specific audience in mind. It is also written with a particular background. It is not written in a void without culture, or history, or some point of reference. A Trekkie joke goes over the head of a non-Trekkie. Internet memes stated iRL will be missed by people who are not as involved in Internet culture. 

This poem was written by a Canadian, for Canadians. It was meant to remind the audience about the destructive colonization and the subsequent loss. And oh hey, Chinese mainlanders who don't share the same cultural background of course are not going to grasp this!

So, I carefully explained each image in the poem. What it is. What is the story behind each image. I had to draw on what little I knew about Canadian history (which was and still is painfully not enough for someone living in the country). I had to switch the way I speak English (not that this is hard; we Malaysians are impressive code-switchers). I didn't tell her what was important or significant about the imagery.

I didn't have to.

When I was done explaining the last image, which was of a single man carving an ivory ornament for his deceased children, sitting in a camp that should have had more people, she took a moment to absorb it all, and then she exclaimed, "That's sad!"

Which, yes, it was.

Except now that I had actually explained, in minute detail, why, suddenly, all that I had known and taken for granted particularly re: the treatment of First Nations peoples, was magnified, and sitting in the front of my brain, and suddenly, it was extremely sad, even if I didn't share the history. So we sat in silence for a couple more minutes, absorbing the tragedy that the poem was meant to impart, and suddenly she was thanking me profusely (and then asking me how to answer questions about it). 

Sometimes, I wonder if it's because I don't share the same background as Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath that makes me feel alienated from their work, because their experiences are not my experiences, and although I can respect their work, I am never going to be able to fangirl and <3 it as much as many other people I know do. My friend Naoko showed me a poem the other day about a man writing to his niece and nephew about the joy of a life filled with simplicity. She loved it; I wasn't too impressed, mostly because I've been living quite simply all my life, and I'm sort of in a point in my life where I do live simply and it doesn't necessarily make me happy.

But I've got a point of reference that I can relate to in "Having a Coke With You" that doesn't depress or alienate me, that reminds me of happiness and love, and it puts me in a good place. It makes me reflect on how awesome it is to have someone that is so totally awesome, having a Coke with them is better than a ton of other awesome things (except that one thing, because you know, otherwise we'd be wrapped up entirely around our loved ones).

Also, I think it's safe to say that digging someone that much is a pretty universal thing.

However, it is also safe to say that there will be plenty of people who will not get this poem right off, because their minds don't run along the same lines on How To Express Themselves.

Oh, poetry.


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