Friday, November 19, 2010

Heather McHugh: Do You Eat English?

Here's a great passage from American poet Heather McHugh (in Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryants Voigt, eds., Poets Teaching Poets), who was deservedly given this year the MacArthur Award—

[Her essay "Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination"] first took form as a lecture given in Bergen, Norway (a place where, as no tourist agency likes to tell you, it rains 305 days a year; in some senses, every destination is unexpected). I was there for one academic quarter, without the benefit of any knowledge of Norwegian, and it reminded me of the general truth that poets bear a naive or estranged relation to language. For example, it kept striking me as concretely evocative that the word for speak was snakker: "Snakker du engelsk?" smacked of "Do you eat English?" (not the fast food of choice, in America). And every time I saw that perfectly innocent Norwegian phrase meaning "Very good," I was subject to a sudden sense of titillating oxymoron: the Norwegian reads bare bra and cannot help packing, in an American eye, considerable wallop.