Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Poetry of Language: Ilan Stavans

Scrambling for pen and notebook, I missed the exact words, but the gist of what Ilan Stavans said casually last night -- before beginning his stunning lecture on dictionaries, Spanglish, and why bilingualism is an American paradox -- was this: The finest poets are the ones who cut to the heart of the language. They are the ones who know how to display the riches of the tongue.

Stavans writes over a wide range (two novels, eleven books of nonfiction) but is not a published poet. He is instead a reader of poetry. Moreover, he straddles two areas of expertise that draw on his personal and linguistic background as a multilingual Latin American Jew who, upon arrival in the United States, embraced and appreciated and analyzed the diversity of speech in America (north and south). He has a strong sense of story, collects the Jewish ones, and lectures vividly without notes.

Last night's talk was "On Dictionaries." Consideration of the Academie Fran├žaise, Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language, and the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Noah Webster's early American one, led Stavans directly to his own work with the emerging tongue that he calls Spanglish (he's published a dictionary of it). He points out that the 42 million Latinos in the U.S. are learning English at the same rate as any other immigrant group -- but that, in part because of the waves of immigration, they are not giving up their native language. Spanglish is hence a wonder of what's now called code switching and code mixing, zipping from one tongue to another as the topic and meaning fit better there (and occasionally to hide what one is saying from others, as immigrant parents have often done in the past!).

Moreover, digging into how the English language itself is going to change in our newly "global" world, Stavans asserted that "No language is ever pure, no language is ever static; they need to improvise. Just like jazz, they need to be contaminated."

He wasn't "going" into bilingual education in his talk. An audience member popped the question. The political insight that Stavans shared at that moment hits at the hypocrisy and poetic poverty of monolingualism (which, as one bumper sticker declared, "is curable"). Stavans said:

"In this country, if you speak two languages, such as Spanish and English, and are a member of the upper class, you can get a Rhodes scholarship. If you speak the same two languages and are a member of the lower class, you will be penalized."

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