33. Every Rose Has Its Thorns: Poetics and Linguistic Heritage

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Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki


Poetics is an often-overlooked part of linguistic heritage, and getting a handle on it in today’s complex societies is becoming increasingly difficult. Romantic views so popular in the nineteenth century saw language as emblematic of both ethnic or national  identity and the corresponding historical or rural culture that united a society through a common heritage. The idea of culture and ethnic/national identity being homogeneously linked to a particular language remains commonplace, although it does not seem to match up with realities of most cities and the dynamic virtual arenas of the internet. I live on a quiet street in Helsinki, Finland, a country with two rather than one national language (Finnish and Swedish). Like so many mayor European cities, countless languages can be heard on the way to work in the morning. My neighbourhood is considered among the most linguistically diverse: at the elementary school down the street, tens of different mother tongues are found among the students. I recall my surprise when realizing that in my daughter’s second grade class (at a different school), only a quarter of the students had a national language as their mother tongue. This level of linguistic diversity is sometimes called ‘superdiversity’, which seems to be becoming a norm in major cities, but for many of us, this is just daily life. My wife and I are both immigrants who met in Finland with three (non-national) mother tongues between us. In our family, we speak three languages, sometimes in the same sentence: our daughters both speak the respective mother tongue that my wife and I use with them, but Finnish is now their strongest language. Of course, a shared language of communication is important for the functioning of a society, but a plurality of languages can also operate as part of a society and its identity, as well as offering resources for creativity with potential to stimulate language vitality and impact its trajectory of evolution.

Poetry tends to be seen as the highest form of language. This is because, in poetry, language transcends the mechanics of lexicon and grammar, allowing it to blossom with ideals of ordered arrangements of form, texture and musicality. Poetry is thus set apart from everyday speech like the emboldened colour of a rose’s bloom amid a thicket of dark leaves, thorns, and the cacophonous tangles of twisted vines from which it blossoms. And like that rose’s bloom, the ideals of poetics are bound to the language from which they grow. There is truth to the saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but beauty in poetics is also linked to language, and especially to speech communities, in which we learn to recognize certain things as opposed to others that make something ‘poetry’ or at least ‘poetic’. Poetics depends on a sense of language internalized through uses of the language itself, a sense that even native speakers can lack, and it can be especially challenging to learn for a non-native speaker. Poetics –not just individual poems or a particular tradition of poetry– is a remarkably subtle and easily overlooked part of linguistic heritage.

But what makes something poetry or poetic? Abstractly speaking, poetry is customarily distinguished from other uses of language by organization in verses rather than simply in clauses and sentences according to content or function. Versification occurs when organizing principles of form and phraseology are given precedence over more common principles of syntax and prosody in speaking and writing. This can be done with formalized meter, sound patterning like rhyme or alliteration, or parallelism (see further Fabb 2015). Rhythms may be flexible and vary, particularly in so-called free verse, but a poem is characterized by versification of a whole text, whether or not editors organize it as verses on a printed page. When these features or uses of language occur only in some parts of a text but not others, we can recognize them as poetic, such as uses of metaphor or a rhythmically organized description in a novel or an advertisement. However, the key remains the perception of poetics when language is used.

Poetics build on sounds and other features of words that are perceivable to speakers and thus are linked to the particular language, but how poetic devices are perceived or whether they are noticed as poetic at all is something that is internalized or learned. For example, alliteration, the recurrence of the same sound at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, easily passes unnoticed by native English speakers, and is mainly used in contexts like advertising, titles and names. Speakers may sense it as a subtle aesthetic texture, but alliteration is not something associated with organizing language as poetry. Of course, alliteration’s prominent and persistent practice penetrates into perception, but its presence doesn’t make poetry or seem particularly poetic: people will probably perceive it as protusive, peculiar and perhaps even painful. In English poetic creation, rhyme marks inspiration with a smoother collocation in sounds’ organization than the rougher irritation of ongoing alliteration, so that attenuation to its patterned operation, gives, by association, a subtle inebriation in the rising anticipation of an inevitable deviation since all rhymes must end. Both alliteration and rhyme can be made salient, but their perception is within frameworks of the language’s poetics or a community’s sense of poetics.

If we were to jump back a thousand years or so, the situation in English would be reversed: alliteration was central to versification in Old English, as exemplified by the epic Beowulf, and rhyme was the feature with a more limited range of uses. Since that time, of course, the language underwent transformative changes. English is seen as a dominant language today, making it easy to forget its distinctive roots as a bastard child of Old English and Norman French, like a creole produced by the medieval colonization of the Norman Conquest. But the rise of rhyme is not simply a function of language change. Rhyme seems to have spread through Europe from language to language with new forms of poetry that were valorised, gradually becoming a general principle in local vernacular poetics. Finnic languages, where alliteration was a primary poetic principle, seem to have initially resisted rhyme: it appears that medieval rhymed ballads were initially recomposed into alliterative verse rather than immediately adopting the rhymed form (Kuusi, Bosley & Branch 1977: 56–57). We may appreciate poetry individually and subjectively, but such appreciation is normally dependent on shared (or at least overlapping) senses of poetics. This is particularly evident for oral poetry: it circulates through active reproduction by different people rather than as static text codified through writing, so shared frames of reference are essential or poetry will simply not be reperformed.

The spread of forms of expression from language to language and from culture to culture has probably been happening since there were such forms to spread, a process particularly familiar today through everything from the novel to rap music. When a word is borrowed, sooner or later it inevitably gets adapted into the receiving language’s sounds and structures. For example, Finnish distinguishes between long and short vowels, so English yes becomes Finnish jees, while English verbs won’t work in Finnish without an ending, so to scan becomes skannata. Poetics work in more or less the same way, except that, rather than a phonology, we have what can be described as a poetic ecology. It is practical to speak in generalizations about poetics of a language, but those poetics are always linked to different things that people do with language in verse, and the way poetics are used might be quite different in a ballad than in a lullaby or a sonnet. A poetic ecology is comprised of all of the different types of poetic forms and their distribution across genres and contexts of use. Thus, an earlier Finnish poetic ecology was dominated by alliteration to such an extent that it was initially difficult for rhymed poetry to find a place, but the ecology gradually changed as rhyme began to be adopted for use in one genre, and then another, and another after that. Different poetic devices are then understood and interpreted within that ecology. The adaptation of freestyle rap into Finnish involved the assimilation of a form of rhymed versification with conventions for how to organize words and syllables in relation to beats. However, rather than the type of end-rhyme customary in English, Finnish rap employs what is called systematic vowel rhyme, which is found already in forms of pre-modern Finnish oral poetry. In this type of rhyme, a series of vowels are used in the same order although the consonants may vary, as in the series läppäni ässämmis bäkkäril, and ‘multi-rhymes’, rhymes of four or more syllables, are particularly esteemed, as in jätkä vielä – bätläät siellä or tiputusta – vitut susta – kidutusta (Sykäri 2017: 140). How rhythms of language relate to the beat also had to adapt, not least because Finnish has much longer words than English and far fewer particles such as articles (a, the) or prepositions (to, from) – the language is very different.

On the surface, this may just seem like a few formal differences that need to be recognized for the poetry to be appreciated, but its significance runs much deeper. When I first heard Finnish rap in 2000, I couldn’t really appreciate it because I listened to it through the wrong poetics. My ‘feel’ for rap was rooted in hearing people rap and talk about what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ while I was growing up in an American inner-city during the 1980s, back in the days when rap was more on the street than on the radio. Through that lens, I simply didn’t ‘hear’ läppäni and ässämmis as rhyming and Finnish multi-rhymes were completely off my radar, not to mention rhythms. This can be read as an anecdote about problems of interpreting poetry in one language through the poetics of another. However, the significance changes if we turn attention from the encounter to the differences in the poetics of a genre. When rap moves into a new language, it is not simply transplanted unchanged: if it is to continue there, it evolves into something sustainable, an evolution driven by the creativity of those adapting it.

Rather than simply one language and culture influencing a second, these processes occur today within dynamic, multilingual poetic ecologies. In a city like Helsinki, poetic principles like vowel rhyme may be particularly linked to the poetic heritage of Finnish language, but youths with diverse and potentially multiple mother tongues live in rich and flourishing poetic ecologies. They are continuously internalizing and negotiating shared principles of poetics within their multilingual communities. When speaking of a heritage of poetics, language or anything else, we tend to refer to or create ideal and static images of the past that we can connect with the present, with the implication that they are important to preserve it for the future. Such constructions of heritage normally emerge within Romanticism’s mythology of one language and one culture per nation or ethnicity, segregating diversity and devaluing what is other. The multilingualism, which will be the heritage of so many children today, becomes marginalized. More significantly, the valorization of heritage easily produces a competition between ossified images of what culture ‘should be’ and the creativity of innovation that both expresses and stimulates vitality, making inherited culture current through change. Much as change in a language is always built on continuities, so too is change in poetics. The spread of new forms of versifying such as rap attest to the vitality of the languages in which they become used, even as the new poetic form impacts the broader poetic ecology of the particular language. These impacts are perhaps most pronounced and dynamic in multilingual environments where different languages offer complementary and competing resources, facilitating and stimulating creativity in the negotiation of shared frames of reference across communities.

Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. 2015. What is Poetry? – Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley & Michael Branch (eds. & trans.). 1977. Finnish Folk Poetry – Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

Venla Sykäri. 2017. “Beginning from the End: Strategies of Composition in Lyrical Improvisation with End Rhyme”. Oral Tradition , 31(1): 123–154.