İstanbul’da bir güz. Tarifsiz bir hüzün:
toute épreuve n’est qu’ébauche. Schlafwandlerstadt, awash
amid the mist, ambula por la bruma, iroxx
liżar tal-fwar mal-lampa, qui nulle part n’y allume…

from Hüzün

(Extracts from the preface to the book Mużajk, an exploration in multilingual verse, Edizzjoni Skarta, 2008).

Breathing between languages

January 2005, Madrid. Having spent the first five months of a two-year stay in Qrendi –the village in southern Malta where I had spent part of my childhood– I returned to Spain to hand in the first draft of my thesis and to visit family and friends. As enchanting as I find the city of Madrid, particularly for its architecture and cosmopolitan lifestyle, the constant hubbub, hustle and bustle of the metropolis briefly brought back the feeling of disorientation and claustrophobia I had lived through the previous year. Working in the centre of Madrid had been an interesting albeit remarkable nightmare: commuting from one building to another across an asphalt jungle, craving the scent of open air as an escalating sense of closure pressed against the insomnia-ridden self, the urbanisation of the human psyche rapidly broadening the inexorable rift between man and nature… I could feel Madrid’s diverse cultures being swallowed up by the increasingly uniform appearance of the city streets. When plurality becomes uniformity, the charm and appeal of variety tends to be lost. Uniformity is different to unity: the former is monotonous and bland, whereas the latter allows mutually distinct voices to coexist in harmony and interact to different degrees. In the metro, in the crowds, amid the heavy traffic, I could hear phrases in various languages echoing around my head. Seizing their rhythm as best I could, I sat down and attempted to combine each utterance in a logical sequence, exploiting their sounds whilst trying to maintain a serious tone. I thus wrote my first multilingual sonnet, In città, documenting the paradoxical sense of meaninglessness I felt in the city and expressing contentment for having rediscovered the guileless delight of village life. Although not altogether satisfied with the result, the poetic exploration had begun. […]

After a painstaking initial period of trial and error, I found that what had seemingly started out as exploration and exercise soon evolved into experience, and above all, expression, which is of course one of the more fundamental reasons why a poet puts pencil to paper. Beyond the rather fruitless, now unimportant question “Which is my country?”, the newly crafted style of multilingual verse offered a solution to the long-dragging dilemma posed by the questions “Which is my language?”, and more significantly, “In which language should I and must I write?” Whilst the inclusion of Maltese confers the poetry that local feel and essence which any work claiming a degree of supranationality should harbour, the braiding of languages in the mużajki or mosaics (Mużajk is the title given to the project, but the name of the form need not be written in any one particular language) allows me to listen to the voices within and around me without the pressing need to translate all thoughts, ideas and emotions into a single tongue.

The only monolingual poetry I produce today is written in Maltese, yet even as this poetry grows and diversifies, I still feel that it has something missing – part of myself, part of my past and present experience, part of my personal view on the human condition and the exhilarating multiplicity of our world. The poems of the Mużajk project will rightly be considered more symbolic than realistic –there is certainly no claim here for an overall linguistic hybridism in practical communication–, yet they are the product of a poet who, like millions of individuals in our era of Weltverkehr, breathes more comfortably between languages and cultures than within the often more artificial limits of a forged national or regional identity. The blend of languages should thus be seen as a proposed means for expression, necessarily constituting an important part of the meaning, yet not the exclusive end of the poetic act. […]

Macaronic verse and the mosaic

The first, most obvious reason for naming these poems mosaics is that each composition is a mosaic of languages, and thus of poetic decisions seeking a successful interaction of the different tongues. This is by no means a novel intention in world literature: as K. Alfons Knauth explains in a seminal article on literary multilingualism1, the combining of two or more languages in the same text is a practice that has existed for centuries, in a broad myriad of forms. Multilingual poetry is not a fashion which came and went, but a constant, varying, evolving presence, so vast and chaotic that a decent survey of characteristic examples would require more than several pages. […]

To mention only a handful of the perhaps more well-known examples (at least in Europe), we may begin with the Hispano-Arabic jarchas glossing the moaxajas of 12th century Al-Andalus; also in the Middle Ages, we find non-liturgical carols written in a mixture of vernacular and Latin, which were particular popular in the land we today know as Germany. Later, in early 16th century Italy, we find the comic multilingual verse of Tifi degli Odasi and Merlin Cocai (pseudonym of Teofilo Folengo), the latter baptising the new light-hearted genre as ‘macaronic’ in reference to what he called “pulmentum farina, caseo, botiro compaginatum, grossum et rusticanum” (a vulgar, rustic mix of flour, cheese and butter). This burlesque, satyrical poetry mixed Italian with Greek and neo-Latin, and contained a high incidence of neologisms invented on the spot. Today, the word ‘macaronic’ is often taken to denote any literature made up of more than one language, regardless of its humorous or serious nature and intent; strictly speaking, the macaronic is only one of many modes or moods of literary multilingualism, although it is not always easy (nor even important) to discern where a line can be drawn between what should and should not be identified as macaronic. While a number of the Mużajk poems could indeed be written in a macaronic tone, the classification of the entire project as macaronic will depend on the breadth of definition given to this term. […]

Macaronic poetry is often used as a vehicle for humorous social criticism, but also as a ludic exercise and linguistic challenge, or simply for the delight of hearing different languages in unison. One example well-known to English poetry is A. D. Godley’s Motor Bus, written in a mixture of English (both modern and old-fashioned) and Latin; another example, a love poem written by Lord Byron in 1810, closes each verse with a refrain in Greek. Ezra Pound -unfortunately not the most open-minded nor planetary of polyglot poets- went as far as including Chinese characters in some of his Cantos -as well as quotations in European languages other than English-, whilst T.S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land contains well-known lines in German and Sanskrit. Closer to our times, one of the main inspirations for my multilingual experiment is the technique of ‘collage’ used in many of Franco Battiato’s popular songs of the 1980s. Chanson Égocentrique, Up Patriots to Arms and Cuccurucucú Paloma all combine Italian lyrics with lines in other languages, whilst other celebrated tracks by the Sicilian songwriter end with a free stanza often containing references to the lyrics of other popular international singers. See in particular the delicious nonsense ending of Passaggi a livello, built on four-syllable words and phrases in six different languages:

Good vibrations, Satisfaction, sole mio
Cinderella mit violino, Lux eterna
Galileo, douce France, Nietzsche-Lieder
Kurosawa, meine Liebe
mister Einstein on the beach

Nevertheless, in all of the mentioned examples, we find that one language provides the main framework of the text, which is then peppered by the use of other languages to add an exotic and very often comical and ludic effect. In this respect, the mosaic is intended to be different: except in particular circumstances, there is an attempt to balance the use of each language as equally as possible, such that no single tongue takes prominence over the others, each one forming an integral part of the poetic fabric. That said, depending on the theme, influences or starting point of each mosaic, there are a few poems where one or two languages have a more dominant presence: such is the case of Ciao amore ciao, with references to traditional and modern Italian love songs, as well as Bateau Ivre, partly inspired by Rimbaud’s symbolist poem of the same name (but without the article).

The sonnet: a natural choice

The second formal reason for the title mosaic is the characteristically square or rectangular shape of the poems, a defined window attracting the eye, creating an effetto fuga liberating the thoughts and emotions of the poet. As I have been carrying out research on the origins of the Spanish sonnet for a number of years, it was only natural that I would choose this poetic form for my multilingual project. I had already written several sonnets in Spanish, juvenalia of which today I would only dare publish one or two. The sonnet has a certain geometric attraction to it: appearing to the eye as a rectangle or square depending on the number of syllables per line, the sense of harmonic proportion given by the two parts of the Italian variety (8+6 or 4+3, a proportion not far from the golden ratio φ, omnipresent in nature) conveys an idea of unity and completeness. Charles Baudelaire himself once said that the sonnet possesses une beauté pythagorique; in fact, according to today’s most widely-accepted theory, recently developed by Wilhelm Pötters on the basis of research previously carried out by Ernest Wilkins, the invention of the sonnet in early 13th century Sicily may have been partly inspired by Archimedes’ approximate fraction for π (22/7), and thus by the form of the circle2. The dimensions of Iacopo da Lentini’s original sonnets –14 lines by 11 syllables–, which would be perpetuated by thousands of poets in different languages way into the 19th century and beyond, are closely related to the numbers of this fraction, whilst the area of a rectangle of the same dimensions is equal to that of a circle of radius 7 – which in medieval Europe was of course considered a magic number. […]

Just as ancient and modern decorative mosaics often have a square or rectangular shape, so too do these poems. In effect, they are not written in hendecasyllables but in alexandrines: each line is made up of two hemistichs of seven syllables each (or six when the accent falls on the last syllable, as always occurs, for example, in French and often in Maltese and English due to the phonetic nature of these languages), thereby giving the mosaics the form of a 14 by 14 square. Sonnets written in alexandrines were of course common in 16th and 17th century France, as well as in modernist poetry in the Spanish language, one of the principal exponents being the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. I chose this syllabic line not only because I had used it quite extensively in my Spanish poetry, but mainly due to its flexibility and adaptability to each language, as well as the ease with which it can be split in the creation of internal rhyme3.

Je suis, je est, je sommes

Beyond form, the other reasons behind the title Mużajk relate to the natural development of the multilingual sonnets in terms of content and scope. The poems in this booklet are taken from the three phases that have surfaced in their progression. The first cycle of mosaics, sixteen of which appeared in the Maltese anthology Ħbula stirati in July 2007, is centred on very personal and at times philosophical expression, written in the five tongues I grew up and studied in. These poems could easily be considered as the documentation of a ‘fragmented’ or ‘multiple’ identity; however, as Amin Maalouf very sincerely expounds in his essay Les identités meurtrières (1998), identity cannot be compartmentalised, nor can it have any clearly defined set of boundaries. The identity is not several but one, made up of all the elements (which we could call tesserae) that have shaped and continue to shape it.

In a review of Ħbula stirati, veteran Maltese poet Albert Marshall very validly poses the question whether the mosaics are the zealous attempt of a poet-linguist to break down the insular walls of the Maltese language so as to broaden his audience, or whether the poems aspire beyond the demands of recognition and consumption and look more to transcend the slavery imposed ipso facto by the regime of ‘a single language’ on the free spirit of the poet. The first supposition may not be entirely false, yet the second is much more accurate.

The second phase of the Mużajk project explores the theme of ‘otherness’ –as exemplified by Rimbaud’s celebrated dictum “je est un autre”–, and introduces the concept of the ‘guest’ language sown into the fabric of the five main tongues. Without abandoning personal expression completely, the compositions of the second phase are mainly poems of people and place, often related to a city or village I have visited, at times meditating on and reacting to the predicaments of particular communities facing the dangers of rampant capitalism or the institutional violation of human rights. They are poems that look onto the world as a vast, changing mosaic of deeply interrelated fragments, a possible antidote to Campbell’s tomato soup –that cultural soup so ruthlessly promoted by ‘multinational’ private enterprises–, and consequently also to the static notion of nation state. In fact, the ‘guest’ language is not necessarily one which is legally recognised as a national or regional language (Roam, for example, opens and closes in Romanesco, the local parlance of the Italian capital city chosen by poet G. G. Belli); in this respect, I am convinced that language always belongs more to a people than to a nation, and I fully agree with the axiom of Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich defining language as “a dialect with an army and navy” (a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot).

The Basque-inspired poem Gonbidapena, an invitation to celebrate the arcane origins and universality of the word in the world, is the opening of a new third cycle in the mosaic. This phase moves more into the semiotic, with the ‘guest’ language or script being taken as a symbol for a wider, more earthly value or ideal, with special attention to ancient or endangered tongues. The successive editions of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing do not paint a pretty picture: with around half of the world’s 6000+ languages threatened by the fangs of globalisation (a frighteningly misleading word which I take to mean little more than the neo-colonial expansion of materialistic, resource-greedy ‘Western’ commerce and lifestyle), the vivid, vibrant and various colours of the global mosaic appear set to fade into a uniform grey devoid of minorities. Despite the increase in world travel and the breathtaking geographical precision offered by today’s gadgets of navigation, at least in the more assumingly ‘developed’ regions of the world, humanity’s planetary awareness does not appear to be developing at the same rate. What can poetry do to attempt to reverse the ramaging damage of climate change, or the demise of bio- and linguistic diversity, for example? Poetry’s contemporary definition as an unpractical practice can easily push us into the trap of believing that it is useless, and thus dry out our creativity and potential completely. Instead, I prefer to believe that poetry is a task which essentially works on consciousness, and can thus be a vital albeit subtle means to increase people’s awareness and thereby continue to lead them on the road to action, even if only at the individual level.

In this sense, the Mużajk project is still taking infant steps – I am fully aware of the eurocentricity of the poems contained in this book, made up solely of ‘Western’ languages (not including the indigenous tongues of the Americas). Yet whilst the range of languages and the scope of the message continue to expand and exude, I hope that the aesthetic quality of the poems will not need to be sacrificed. Whether or not the mużajk or mosaic can be a humble (or not so humble) manifesto taking unity in diversity another little step forward, towards a poetry which is at once local and supranational, remains to be seen, and this I believe will ultimately depend on the content more than on the mere form.

More so than to be read, the mosaics are written to be performed and heard. Recordings of a small selection of poems can be listened to on this website. I hope you enjoy the mosaics as much as I enjoy composing them.

Antoine Cassar
Luxembourg, November 2008

1 Knauth, K. Alfons, 2007. “Literary Multilingualism I: General Outlines and Western World” in V.A., Comparative Literature: Sharing Knowledges for Preserving Cultural Diversity, Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO (Oxford: Eolss Publishers).

2 See Pötters, Wilhelm, 1998. Nascita del sonetto: Metrica e matematica al tempo di Federico II (Ravenna: Longo Editore); and Wilkins, E. H., 1959. The Invention of the Sonnet and other studies in Italian literature (Roma: Ed. di Storia e Letteratura).

3 This type of line is known in Maltese as the vers Martelljan, used for example by Ninu Cremona and Rużar Briffa. See Friggieri, op. cit., pg. 442. Together with alessandrino, Italian uses the labels martelliano and doppio settenario.