Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Languaging the World

Since I work in a Jewish Religious School, I spend a lot of time with Hebrew speaking people. In fact, the Hebrew teachers are a mixture of UW students, old Israeli immigrants, and local professionals. All of them speak at least English and Hebrew, and many of them speak at least another language.

 

One of the teacher is a 19 year old UW student. She was born in Russia and Russian is her first language. But she also speaks perfect English, with no trace of an accent. And she also speaks Hebrew. And she can speak a small spattering of Spanish. At 19.

 

Last night, to celebrate the end of the semester, I went to a local pub. I sat sandwiched in the middle of 7 or so Hebrew teachers discussing Judaism, teaching at the Hebrew school, Jewish dating sites, Hebrew itself, occasionally speaking in Hebrew, at one point speaking in Spanish.

 

These were mostly conversations I was not a part of, though it was fascinating to listen to.

 

I was thinking about poetry. It’s another language. I speak this language. I used to speak Spanish, not very well, and I can still read with pretty solid comprehension and can usually understand someone speaking to me. I learned a little Greek and then I started muddling the Greek and the Spanish and now I don’t speak either and I can’t even remember the Greek alphabet. (Though I can still order a coffee or glass of wine, ask where the bathroom is, and tell someone that I am going for a walk by the sea. So… you know… the important thing. Or at least, these were the important things when I was there.) I have these languages in me now, a little bit, the trace of them. But Poetry I speak. I speak it well. I understand it. I can teach it like these Hebrew teachers are teaching all the little Jewish kids how to read the Torah.

 

Then I was thinking about something we talked about in grad school… Language is the medium through which we experience the world. I can’t remember who coined this idea… but it struck me, sitting at this table, that they are experiencing this world through this holy language (we’re talking Biblical Hebrew, here, not conversational Hebrew). Their experience of the world, then, is mediated by this language, and thus by their faith. What’s interesting about it is not how important their faith is to their lives, but how language makes that primary in their very use of it.

 

I don’t speak Hebrew. But I speak poetry. Poetry is the language through with my experience of the world is mediated. Does this make poetry my faith? How does this change the way I experience the world?

 

It’s not something I really ever thought about. Even as we discussed it in classes. But it certainly does. A friend once told me I was the most freakishly observant person he ever met. I watch people and the world. Lots of people do, maybe. But the smallest things. Is that my language, Poetry, mediating the world. A scrolling commentary, like the opening text of a movie on the screen, telling me what the world is like, each image, how I translate them into language.

 

1 comment:

Katherine said...

I wonder: conversational poetry vs. a holier poetry language?