Language Studies and the Arts: Foreign Languages

Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplines, is a blog that explores poems centered on the professional disciplines in which we, as academics, scholars and professionals, have made our lives.

Building a discipline-specific discussion around a poem should be manageable for everyone. You can devote just 10-15 minutes of one class towards one poem. You’re not going to be teaching poetry, you are simply going to be discussing ideas. The best poems unearth the essential nature of their subjects. At the core of poetry is the idea of what it means to be human and that’s an idea everyone can relate to. You’ll be surprised at the variety of responses you’ll get from your students. Some students will find little gems of meaning and connections that you don’t even know are there. And students may be given an opportunity to write their own poems as well. Have fun! Think expansively! And remember, Poetry, like the moon, is for everyone.

Gianna Russo
Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing
Poet-in-Residence, REBUS
Editor in Chief, Sandhill Review
Director, Sandhill Writers Retreat

Language Studies and the Arts: Foreign Languages

I had more trouble than I anticipated finding a poem about foreign languages. Fortunately, I finally stumbled on this gem by the relatively unknown Irish poet Olivia McMahon. I love the catalog of images and the pacing almost perfectly matches the experience of finally “getting it”: that glorious, unfettered moment when a foreign language is internalized.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think McMahon open with the changing jigsaw puzzle image? In what ways is or isn’t it appropriate?

  2. This is a sort of “catalog” or list poem that is based on comparisons for the process of learning a language. Which item in each stanza is the closest match to your own experience of learning?

  3. Look at the organization of poem. What is the purpose of the stanza breaks?

  4. The language of this poem is quite simple. Why might the poet have made the choice to use everyday diction and vocabulary?

  5. What does this poem say about the value of perseverance?

Professor, create your own question here:

Writing prompt: Create a list poem based on the steps of conquering a difficult task. It could be about learning a language, but doesn’t have to be. Make a list of all the steps involved and use similes for some of the steps, the way McMahon does (this is like that). Set the line where you finally succeed apart by itself for emphasis. Feel free to share your poems with me at gianna.russo@saintleo.edu.

Learning a Language
by Olivia McMahon

Learning a language
is like doing a jigsaw puzzle
of a million pieces
with a picture that keeps changing.
It’s like getting lost in a foreign city
without a map.
It’s like playing tennis without a ball,
like being an ant in a field of grasshoppers.
It’s being an acrobat with a broken leg,
an actor without a script,
a carpenter without a saw,
a storyteller without a middle or an end.

But then gradually
it’s like being out in the early morning
with the mists lifting.
It’s like a chink of light under a door,
like finding the glove you were looking for,
catching the train you thought you were going to miss,
getting an unlooked-for present,
exchanging a smile.

And then one day it’s like riding a bicycle
very fast downhill.

The poem is from McMahon’s chapbook Domestic Verses, published in 2005 by Koo Press.

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