Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.
Question: Why is English better for poetry than the Romance languages?
Jorie Graham: The romance languages are languages that were far more infiltrated by Latin, and the further north you go and the further you go towards the reaches of the empire, the more the vocal language stayed alive in the midst of the Latin, so that if you get as far as England, which was a place that was never conquered entirely by Latin, you have both Anglo-Saxon and Latin present simultaneously, which makes, although the romance languages are very mellifluous and very beautiful, the complexity of the language as it exists in English is unique partly because at a certain point in the British Isles you would have needed both the Latin term and the Anglo-Saxon term for the same object. And Anglo-Saxon terms tend to be less generalizing and more precise so you would have a Latin word for something that would equally true anywhere in the Empire. In other words, the word for justice, and then you would have 14 names for different kinds of buckets used in the field, some are in the British Isles to milk endlessly different creatures and a specific bucket named for each use.
So you have this already very rich pool, and then you bring that language across to the colonies, and you have a very absorptive greedy English language that begins to basically, unlike many romance cultures, happily steal words from Native American languages and Spanish and Dutch and Portuguese and French, a lot of Native American languages in particular and a lot of Spanish. So that, because it is a mercantile culture right from the start, it wants to be able to buy and sell, it needs every language that it can to do so.
So you have an enormous vocabulary influx into the English language. So you have not only the tens of thousands of words invented by people like Shakespeare, but you also have all the fabulous riches of these stolen words that became absorbed into America. Then, unlike French, for example, that loves to keep its language quite pure, you have this language which is not only impure, and increasingly so, it probably absorbs new words every hour of every day, but it also makes it possible, because it is a language that evolved primarily in a society that was attempting and experimenting in the removal of a class system. And it is only an experiment, it still, you will notice in American English that you are allowed to use high and low diction in the same phrase and not feel like you are using an incorrect piece of language. If you were to begin speaking in Italian or French, a person would know within minutes or seconds, not only where in the country you come from, but also, really, what economic or social part of the culture you belong to.
And, so, the American language is incredibly rich. One of the things that they say about America, that Americans have the largest vocabulary of any language that exists on the planet today, but they have the smallest speaking vocabulary.
So when the French get very irritated and say why is English the universal language, there are so few words in it, it is because, on the average, Americans use a tiny percentage of the actual words that are at their disposal in the language. But it makes for an extraordinarily rich language if you are trying to write poetry.
Recorded on April 3, 2008