There is a doctoral thesis to be written about the effect on a language’s poetry of whether the language has definite and indefinite articles: ‘a’s and ‘the’s. I was talking to Amy about this the other day. Mandarin, her first language, has no definite or indefinite article. Possibly as a result her taste in English poetry tends towards the succinct and the aphoristic rather than the rolling cadence. Of course, since her command of English is still limited, much of our nuance is lost on her, and often she finds compelling verse that I feel should be confined to the inside of greetings cards.
Balanced lapidary phrases is what she likes.
And just because something is bleeding obvious, she says, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.
She doesn’t use those actual words, of course
Russian also has no definite or indefinite article, but the effect is different, maybe because the preponderance of unaccented case endings to the words encourages a more sing-song form of versification. Just as all Irish songs eventually resolve down to the Bold Fenian Men, so all Russian poems eventually resolve down to Jabberwocky:
‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.…
Or so at any rate it sounds to a cloth-eared foreigner.
Anyway, with her love of didactic poetry I introduced her to the work of Abraham Cowley, the great Seventeenth Century writer, whom I had recently been reading about on my Kindle in Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature: specifically:
Although I think thou never wilt be found,
Yet I’m resolved to search for thee
The search itself rewards the pains.
So though the chymist his great secret miss,
(For neither it in art or nature is)
Yet things well worth his toil he gains;
And does his charge and labour pay
With good unsought experiments by the way.
Cowley is addressing his elusive mistress, I said. And ‘chymist’ means not so much ‘chemist’ as ‘alchemist’.
She looked inscrutable (Say what you like, she says, we Chinese are inscrutable, and we do have yellow skin) and I thought no more about it – until I went to her place yesterday.
I think that I mentioned that after the police attention that she had received she was keeping a low profile at least until the Olympics ® were over, and that the premises were marked by no trading name, merely a portrait of the Queen in the window. Clearly she had decided that the Paralympics ® didn’t count, because there was a shiny new fascia. In big white letters on a red ground it read:
GREAT SECRET MISS
and underneath in smaller white lower-case letters:
neither it in art or nature is
and underneath that in even smaller lettering:
good unsought experiments, by the way
I admired the comma that she had added.
That’s an unusual way of promoting a kefir bar, I said. Great secret miss, is that you?
Could be, she said. Not in art or nature – like all good clubs. In between.
I sat down. There was more to think about here than at first met the eye, and besides, she hadn’t really answered my question.
You’re my great secret miss, I said with mock gallantry.
Then she really surprised me.
Miss wrong. Should be Great Secret Mrs.
Ng? I said, unconsciously adopting oriental phraseology.
I married people.
Mandarin doesn’t distinguish singular from plural either.
You have a husband? In China?
No China. Kettering.
I was glad that I was already sitting down.
You’d better tell me about it.