In an age when the Goliaths of the world’s languages are edging out diminishing pockets of diversity, and languages are estimated to die at the rate of about two per month,* writers are increasingly faced with the dilemma of whether to write in their native tongue or to enjoy a broader audience. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (b. 1930) chose the latter, writing in English instead of Igbo. On the other hand, French writer Max Rouquette (1908 – 2005) decided to write in his mother tongue, Occitan, now considered to be almost moribund. I met Rouquette years ago in Montpellier; he was introduced to me as a living treasure in the Languedoc region, where he lived and wrote, against the odds, in his native language.
Is anyone today writing and publishing poetry in Walloon, the traditional dialect of the French population in southern Belgium? Perhaps writing in relative isolation, but publishing? During the nineteenth century, Walloon’s viability was reasserted, and there was a critical mass of Walloon speakers to make it a vibrant, living language with at least three dialects. Guillaume Apollinaire even learned Walloon and wrote a few poems in it. But that time has passed. It is not spoken much these days, having been largely supplanted by standard French.
Nonetheless, in 1979 an anthology of twentieth-century Walloon poetry was published. It is likely the last printed manifestation of poetry in Walloon, a relic of a nearly-extinct cultural expression.
In a way, we are all Walloon poets writing in a language that is destined, sooner or later, to be learned only by scholars and translators. The language so familiar to us that we may assume it to be immortal, will die by attrition or absorption, or else it will evolve to the point that our words will be unintelligible to our descendents. Language is the original product with built-in obsolescence. Today’s Ashbery is tomorrow’s Chaucer.
A poet once told me that poets should not use slang or name any TV shows because the next generation would need footnotes to understand the references. If there were an English equivalent to the Académie Francaise, I’d nominate her for one of its immortels.
* David Crystal, Language Death (Cambridge UP, 2000)
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The poems below are reproduced from The Colour of the Weather, a translation into English by Yann Lovelock of the anthology of Walloon poetry. It was published by The Menard Press and may still be available at Small Press Distribution.
Gabrielle Bernard (1893 – 1863)
Their skeins stretch
like white silk between the hedges
as October rusts the woods.
Mornings grow cooler,
frost whitens the pastures.
Gossamer down flume-sides
webbed by the dew with pearls . . .
The north wind whispers a winter warning.
Is it white mourning for the bright summer,
this gossamer everywhere,
spun from witches’ fingers over beck and dyke?
dreams of old days to come;
the farms have gathered in the harvest.
Slopes of gossamer . . .
Webs on the bushes,
white shivering weeds of the good season,
trembling on leaves already withered . . .
Gossamered temples . . .
what use is plenty in the barns
when heart and arms are empty?
Albert Maquet (1922 – 2009)
The man who had eyes in place of his hands and nothing in place of his eyes lay bedridden till yesterday.
I brought him a cup of camomile and while I stirred the sugar with a silver spoon his hands watched my eyes while his eyes did nothing.
What time is left he passes
Watching it grow like a flower
His hand glued to the window,
His long thief’s hand.
The others, huddled by the fire,
Drowse and contract
As their frosting dreams
Freeze to the pane.
Make no noise to wake them,
Be still if you enter.
Hand, flower, and window
Are not what you think.
Folk, all the acquaintances I’d had
Would make believe they were dead to cut me.
The others would watch me pass like the plague
From the shelter of their narrow windows.
Wherever I’d be, no-one there but myself.
Nothing hidden but at my approach.
Water, the ponds would rebuff my face
And my shadow itself leave no trace now.
It would be a day that never ended,
As if the darkness flinched back before it.
And so quiet you could hear a fly!
I’d search for a sign to say I existed;
Then feel so alone all at once
I wouldn’t know where to go any longer.
I’d stretch out there full length on the stones
And see the sun through my lids.
I should think of nothing. Let myself get well.
Would hear the sound of my blood pumping madly.
And before I needed to come to myself
I’d take my life up, unwrinkled, at will.