April 26th, 2010 12:40 EST
Where is our deaf politicians' and pundits' respect?
It was Edith Piaf who brought home to me the great beauty of the French language. Specifically, it was her pronunciation of rose in La Vie en Rose "that shyly rising, reverberating e.
I can`t remember when I first heard her, but it was early in my life. The song was written in 1945 and Piaf had been well known since her discovery in 1935, the year after I was born. I`ve never learned French well enough to speak it fluently, but I read it, and even in this state of abject deprivation my debt to it is incalculable.
That single word, that inflected e, opened a world of possibilities to me. I understood immediately that in our multicultural milieu Americans, particularly writers, are inheritors of a fabulous treasure of argot and patois. Regionalism, pronunciation, emphasis, pause, cadence, meter "and so much more "were all set out before me as the instrumentality of ideation. There were not just different languages but immense variations within a language. By delighting my ear Piaf had sensualized it to every other human being. My New York rose sounded to me sadly pedestrian compared to her Parisian rose.
Slowly, as I trained my ear to savor the speech of fellow Americans, their accents and mannerisms crept into my poetry and fiction. When I joined the Navy and found myself in a boot camp company populated mostly by Appalachians I was more excited by what I heard than the job of becoming a sailor.
Soon I heard the inestimable Patsy Cline and the eerily haunting high lonesome sound that permeates a broad segment of American culture. I heard a mountain twang that I was sure came from the heat songs of summer nights. I had never heard anything like it, attuned as I was to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. And as I think back to that encounter with country music I realize how much I owe as a writer to Sinatra`s impeccable diction. I remember deciding as a young writer that Bing Crosby`s boo-boo would not cut it for me, but Sinatra`s clarity would take me by the hand.
The mountain recruits would ask me to repeat phrases or just say something so they could savor my New York patois, and I would ask them to return the favor so I could hear that twang and that enchanting interrogative in their declarative sentences. I was fascinated by their ability to draw extra syllables out of familiar words. It was not unlike Piaf`s e.
This is exactly what we`re not doing as a people, not listening to each other, not marveling at our differences, not cocking an ear to our many ways of experiencing life. Rather we`re insisting on sameness and being right at all costs. It never occurred to me those Appalachian boys were speaking correctly and I wasn`t, and I don`t think it occurred to them that I didn`t know how to speak English. We were brothers in arms getting a helluva kick out of our differences. Did we kid each other? Yes. But we didn`t try to punish each other for not conforming to our peculiar ideas of what it meant to be American, which is exactly what so many radio haters and politicians are trying to do today.
And now we`re losing that admirable virtue as a people of relishing our differences. It is, after all, what enables us to appreciate our films and our entertainments. New Yorkers know they don`t sound like Josie Wales, and Americans who do sound like Josie Wales know they don`t sound like famous athletes or singers from the East Bronx. But some of our pontificators think they know exactly how to sound and woe to the rest of us who don`t. This doesn`t strike me as very American.
I hear in my own poems and stories the unmistakable influences on English of Yiddish speakers, of Sicilians whose first language was Italian, of Russians, Poles, Czechs, Germans, Chinese, Dominicans, French, all enriching English in their marvelous accents and creating new speech patterns, new expressions, new linguistic demeanors. I hear them celebrating a language that has been evolving for many centuries, a language for which there is no authorized version.
I know that the gestures of Sicilians speaking in Manhattan have influenced my writing. I know that Yiddish word play has influenced it. I hear a tailor from Tashkent in my poetry, his plosives and syncopated way of stressing each phrase as he tries to master the language. I fondly imitate him. I hear the unique way of seeing the ordinary implicit in African-American speech, in rap and hip-hop.
I could attend university for a lifetime and never learn as much about the evolution of language as by listening to our own people in the streets. But if I were to say that there is a right way and a wrong way to speak English, to sound, to sing, then all those riches would ebb away and I would be left with some damned fool`s idea of English, namely my own.
And all this I owe to Edith Piaf and that that quavering e in the word rose.
Wouldn`t it be wonderful, I thought in boot camp, to speak English the way these Tennessee boys do. But when some of them asked me to write letters for them to loved ones I realized they were thinking it would be wonderful to know English the way this stranger from Noo Yawk knows it.
This is the legacy, the heritage we`re in danger of losing with our mindless polarization and our disastrous insistence on being right. I`m amazed, as I look back, that I never thought I spoke better English than those Yiddish speakers on Second Avenue. Instead, I thought they had access to a humor that would always elude me. I never thought I spoke better English than the Sicilians who came to my stepfather for help with this and that. I thought instead that they had a way of emphasizing and confronting language that ran away from me like water.
So why do so many of our politicians and pundits think they know so much and are so right? Where is their curiosity if not their decency? Where is their respect for others?
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com