The Poetry of Non-Native English

by gigigriffis

I have a special fondness for poetry.

I don’t mean that I read lots of poems (though, certainly, I do enjoy my T.S. Eliot and Edwin Arlington Robinson). I don’t mean that I’m very familiar with modern poets (or even, let’s be honest, so many historically famous poets). I don’t even mean that I write poetry (though it’s happened before).

What I mean is that I love the poetry of everyday language. I love new ways of describing things, of thinking about things, of seeing things. I love the idea that things other than poems can be poetic.

Like my friend, Ivan, who took me under his wing when I was in Croatia this past winter, driving me down the coastlines on his motorcycle, walking me through his favorite parks, feeding me crepes and burgers and fast food wraps.

We were walking along the shoreline once, watching as the ocean slipped mischievously up onto the path ahead of it, leaving a trail of seaweed in its wake. Suddenly, Ivan was concerned. He didn’t want me to think that his favorite walkway was a dirty place.

“You know that’s not dirt, right? It’s…” And here he paused to search for the word. “It’s vegetables from the sea.” He said.

Vegetables from the sea.

What an unexpected and wonderful way to describe seaweed.

Seaweed I hadn’t even really noticed until that moment.

I burst into happy laughter, baffling poor Ivan for a few moments before I explained myself.

“Seaweed. The word is seaweed. But the way you said it is so much more poetic. So unexpected. As someone who loves words, who loves language, I can’t even tell you how much joy I felt when you said that.”

It seems silly, I know.

But, like I said, I have a special fondness for poetry—for describing things in new and surprising ways, for the rhythm and rhyme of a sentence, for playfulness in language.

So many of my foreign friends are poets in my mind. Being the speaker of a second language almost forces you to become one.

Even if you have a perfect grasp of English (or Spanish or German or French, etc.) grammar and sentence structure, you will probably occasionally find yourself searching for a word. Seaweed, after all, isn’t something you talk about every day.

And in searching for that word, which may not be in your vocabulary, you are forced to look at the idea you are trying to convey from all angles, to find a way to describe it. It’s a challenge and the resulting poetic descriptions offer an unexpected look at the thing being described.

Instead of passing by the idea of seaweed, Ivan and I stopped there and discussed it. The seaweed became a focus, not just a passing comment. I was forced, by the poetry of the description, to pause for a moment and consider the seaweed.

I love that.

And this poetry, this pause, this ability to look at a simple thing from another angle, describe it in a new way, consider it for a longer moment, doesn’t just happen when my friends are searching for the right word.

It also happens when I speak.

Like yesterday, when I was explaining that one of my intentional self-improvements in the last year has been an attempt to be bolder. And my friend Inge asked me what bold means.

It took me a few moments and ultimately I had to look up the definition because I wanted to make sure I explained such a powerful little word properly.

“To be bold is to be ‘not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring.'” I explained, eventually, with the help of Dictionary.com.

“Like bravery, it’s not about a lack of fear, but about doing things anyway. Choosing to do something beautiful that is also scary. Choosing to be vulnerable. Saying ‘I love you’ first. Or going in for the kiss. Or publishing that book. Or sending in that first magazine pitch. Risking rejection or failure for something worthwhile.”

“I think this is my new favorite word,” she said.

Afterward, thinking about the conversation, I was transported back to my childhood, when I first started to love language desperately, to love its ability to communicate and delight. When I first decided that I wanted to be a writer.

This is one of my favorite things about traveling and living abroad. The poetry of conversation is amplified, turned on its head. And I’m certain that because of it, I am a better writer, a better conversationalist, and a better human being.

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8 comments

Jamie August 14, 2014 - 1:43 pm

Beautifully written, and so true! I can’t wait until I start my travels so I can come across these moments myself.

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gigigriffis August 14, 2014 - 3:30 pm

Thanks!

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Ali August 15, 2014 - 6:18 am

This makes me smile. Living in Germany, I often find myself trying to explain something with my very limited grasp of the language, and it’s definitely a mental exercise to figure out how to say the thing I can’t say. My non-native German poetry, I suppose. I sometimes go to acupuncture here, and his English isn’t great, so we talk back and forth that way, in both broken English and broken German. Always entertaining.

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gigigriffis August 16, 2014 - 12:53 am

Yes!

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) August 16, 2014 - 3:54 pm

Living with someone who has French as a more prominent language to my English … although we are both flawlessly bilingual has that same daily effect. And I totally understand what you have so very, fully, and beautifully described here. When in Bulgaria, with folks that barely spoke any language I did … language was amazingly interesting. And I may add … it wasn’t just poetry it was also … dance. Our hands and bodies really had to get into the action … to fill the space where words failed. Because they can fail. It was… well … poetry in motion.

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gigigriffis August 17, 2014 - 12:53 am

Yes! I love that: a dance.

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Breanne August 22, 2014 - 4:40 pm

It’s like MacGyvering together a sentence. “I have restaurant vocabulary and know how to check into a hotel, but I need to describe my hometown. And… GO.” One of my favorite things about trying to speak another language. If you love words and can be humble about it, it can be a creative exercise like no other.

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gigigriffis August 23, 2014 - 12:11 am

Agreed!

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