Part of any poet’s ongoing labor is thinking up and filing away possible titles. Some must do this for poems (I remember reading that John Ashbery begins every poem with a title—which may be why, since writing is a process of discovery, his poems often have no clear relationship with his titles), but for me titles almost always come after the poem is written. But I do collect potential titles for future collections.
Today I filed away a new one: Native Tongue. I like it because it comes from a poem by my current favorite poet, Shuntaro Tanikawa, which is enough of a reason; but the lines that contain the phrase make it glow with an irony I like very much—an irony I know well from my own experience writing poems:
We live in a native land where even our native tongue seems alien.
And that is our true home.
Nevertheless, Shuntaro and I continue writing poems! Based on the poem these lines come from, “A Key of Words,” and other poems it shares space with in Shuntaro’s collection The Naif, he wonders as often as I do whether or not poetry is worth writing. The bottom line is that it’s some kind of obsession, a second order need (as opposed to first order needs like food and water) without wish we wouldn’t be able to live in our “native land.”
Here’s Shuntaro on the habits of mind that lead one into poetry; the poem is called “Pea Pods”:
The first thought I hae when I waken
is of things I have to do.
“Have to do” is not the same as “want to do.”
If only I knew what I really want to do.
So thinking, I write a few letters
and bike to the bank to pay bills.
I think I don’t need to feel ashamed
that I’ve never spent a completely idle day;
but then that doesn’t seem something to be proud of, either
the pods strewn in the wastebasket are beautiful.
Why does such a trivial thing attract me,
even today while people are dying and being murdered?
This world holds nothing but all kinds of facts.
Though there seems to be no rhyme or reason binding them,
in that may well be hidden what we call poetry.
The Naif, by the way, is translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura, the dynamic duo who have translated nearly all of Shuntaro’s books that are available in English. (A few have been translated by Harold Wright.) The Naif is published by Katydid Books, a small press based in Santa Fe, NM.