Language of poetry2 July 2009 at 4:27 AM | Posted in News | 6 Comments
Giulio C. Lepschy ends his lecture on “Mother Tongues and Literary Languages” with a brief discussion about what he calls “the language of poetry”: “I am not convinced that an Italian native speaker is better qualified than an English Dantist to understand The Divine Comedy or that a native speaker of English is better suited than an Italian Shakespeare scholar to understand Hamlet. The real difficulty seems to lie not in the native language nor in the control we have of the idiom we use for everyday communication (be it a first or a second language) but rather in the nature of poetry. Here, we are touching something that concerns an essential quality of language, but in a sense that escapes the technical tools we employ as linguists. From this viewpoint no one is a native speaker of the language of poetry.” (p. 27)
Here is the point where literary critics can start where linguists stop. First of all, there is no question that one does not have to be a native speaker of the natural language/s of a poem in order to read or analyze it, because that would lead to a situation were only Italians can read Dante or the British (or other native English speakers) can read Shakespeare. (Professional literary critics do not read Dante or Shakespeare in translation.)
What is a problem here is the question of the existence of a language of poetry. Those that believe in literary competence clearly also believe in the existence of such a language: the whole point of a literary education is to learn the language of literature. There are those that say, however, that poetry is for everyone, educated or not, literarily competent or not: poetry, after all, antedated literary criticism or even literary education. Nobody today wants to return to the days of Literature (with the capital L) and literature (not capitalized); nobody wants to talk about High Culture and Low Culture. There is an undeniable difference, however, between Dante or Shakespeare and the writers of poems printed on greeting cards or included in blogs. Are we talking about two different languages of poetry, or are these dialects or varieties of the same language? Intriguing question.