Communicative and Poetic Language:
Taking Those First Steps

This paper was read at the Atlantic Association of Universities Teaching Showcase, University of Cape Breton, Sydney, Nova Scotia, October 2003. It has been accepted for publication in the next edition of the Proceedings of the Teaching Showcase (2003).

In a recent test, I asked my third year advanced reading class, we are currently studying the poetry and plays of the celebrated twentieth century Spanish writer Federico García Lorca, to translate the following sentence from Spanish to English:

Yo quiero una taza de café / I want a cup of coffee.

Most students managed to produce a correct answer, which made me happy. However, there were some disturbing variations: desire for want; a totally inappropriate I would like you to give me; and other minor aberrations.

The second question on the test was slightly more testing. Here it is: Translate the following two lines found in the Romance de la Guardia Civil in Lorca’s Romancero gitano from Spanish to English:

En la noche, platinoche,
noche que noche nochera.

Students who were familiar with the various translations of these lines reproduced parts of the translation from memory. But the difficulties of the passage were not well understood. As the students wrote their test, I scribbled some ideas on a notepad. Part of my analysis now follows:

The key word in these lines is obviously noche / night which recurs five times in various forms: (1) noche, (2) platinoche, (3) noche, (4) noche, and (5) nochera. Instances (1) and (3) see noche / night used as a noun. In the second instance it is employed in conjunction with an adjective: platinoche / silvery night. In the fourth instance, it is employed as a verb noche / to *nighten. And in the last case it is used as an adverb or a comparative adjective: nochera / *more night(ly).

Any attempt to use the noun night and to transform it first into a verb and then into an adverb is clearly doomed to failure.

In the night, silvery night,
in the night which nightens into more night.

Meanwhile, the changed pattern below enhances and changes the rhythm whilst losing the increasing darkness which is, of course, one of the key developments in the original.

At night, silvery night ,
in the darkest night of night.

Since the noun night is clearly the problem, what happens to the translation if we substitute another word for night? The first proposal I put forward was to substitute dark for night. This substitution, while providing a totally inadequate literal translation, actually offers a meaningful poetic one; and this means that the noun dark can be used as a verb darken and as a comparative adjective darker.

In the dark, the glistening dark,
darkness which darkens the dark.

A second possibility is to substitute black for night. Again, the verb / adjective / adverb problem is avoided.

In the black, the silvery black,
blackness much blacker than black.

These translations involve the notion of creativity, not mere translation, on the part of the translator. They allow the translator to examine the possibilities inherent in, for example, platinoche. Variations on this theme included glistening, silvery, star-filled, silver-edged, silver starred.

Now we can start playing with a series of possibilities as the table below demonstrates.

In the night silver edged night
In the dark silver starred dark
In the black silvery black
  glistening / glowing  
  star filled  
night more benighted than night
darkness much darker than black
blackness much blacker than black
  more blackening  
  which darkens  
  which blackens

It is a great pity to reduce the creation of metaphor into tabular form! However, once it is done this way, then it is possible to see very clearly the difference between the basic conversational level of communicative language and the higher communicative levels at which poetic language operates; this, in turn, opens up multitudinous varieties of linguistic possibilities, one of which is that poetry itself is a form of communication, but by means of a different code.

This leads me directly to the third question on that test -- now explain the difference between communicative and poetic language. Clearly, there is no single answer to this question. Further, the question demands an understanding and analysis of language that moves beyond simple communicative skills into more esoteric realms. In short, the question demands thought and understanding, not just memorized definitions.

The last step in this little exercise is to take a definition and to elaborate it first in communicative terms, and then in poetic terms. In Poeta en Nueva York, Federico García Lorca defines forgetfulness this way:

El olvido es tres gotas de tinta en un monóculo.

When I asked the class to describe forgetfulness / el olvido, the majority of the answers were communicative and took the form of linear definitions.

Forgetfulness is when you forget something.

It’s when you lose something.

It’s when you forget where something is.

The next step was for the students to break away from basic communicative language and to attempt to think in metaphors. On the surface, this seemed to be a simple exercise: define forgetfulness, in metaphoric language, as Federico García Lorca might have defined it. The results were very pleasing.

Here are some of the things that forgetfulness might be:

Forgetfulness is

a lone dog tied out in the rain

a chained German Shepherd barking at the stars

grass growing through plastic flowers on a grave

a name eroded by the sand paper wind

a solitary sea bird carving its name on a cloud

a sea gull slicing the sky with its wing

unwashed dishes

a knife and a fork side by side unspeaking

the bike with a flat tire growing dust by the door

the kite’s face locked in the prison of the tree

The recognition and development of metaphoric and poetic language is, in my opinion, one of the first steps that must be taken when leading students out down the road to the adventure of literature.

In our computer driven, prosaic, low-level, communicative world we have all too often forgotten the childhood joys of playing with language in a non-linear fashion. Students must learn, or hopefully, relearn, how to enter this primitive, child-like world where the naming of the familiar objects in unfamiliar ways can engender the intense delight which I saw on student faces at the end of this exercise.

If students learn to approach the written world on their own, and if they can be persuaded to enter the world of metaphoric and figurative language and to understand by employing their own creative processes, then they can be taught to read for themselves, to interpret for themselves, and to open a door which will lead them into a room with different kinds of furniture where they can read, think, meditate, dream, and live comfortably for the rest of their lives.


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