About thirty years ago I was casting around for an 'ism' word that would describe what I thought I was doing as a writer, something akin perhaps to 'realism', 'cubism' 'dadaism' - or even 'priapism'. I came up with the word 'extrilism'.
Extrilism = exile, extrication, expropriation, inexplicable extrapolation from experience...&c
When I first came to Berlin in 1976, English was an unknown language in the general population. It was nowhere visible. The movies were in German; the radio ditto; there were no newspapers or magazines in English on the news stands. Nobody (except professors in the university and allied soldiers) could speak it.
On arriving at Tempelhof airport (it is now a field where citizens go windsurfing) to take up a new job, I calculated that my only German phrases, Danke schön and Heil Hitler!, would not get me very far. I would have to learn the language. I was thirty-six years old and I had grown out of ordinary methods of study. I love libraries, but not for sitting in and taking notes. Classrooms are all right if I'm doing the talking. I therefore chose as my method the technique of total immersion - that's to say, listen and absorb. The adult brain doesn't absorb language like a child's, and beer, red wine and a bar stool are essential accompaniments to adult educational processes. Oh, and the ability to smile. It is safest, when addressed by unknown persons in a foreign language, to smile. You don't know what they might be saying.
For all purposes of citizenly interaction I was a deaf mute. I didn't mind being a deaf mute. People talk too much as it is, and it's easy to phase out a language you don't understand and think of something nicer. Even when I can think of something interesting to say - and that happens rarely - I generally prefer not to say it, and to think instead about how I might have improved on it if I had said it. That's why I'm a writer.
In due course I learned German. I usually describe it as gutter German to indicate the places I learned it in - dubious bars, brothel cafés, shabby jazz venues in Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg, and their ilk. Mostly I was looking for a drink and a Fräulein and never had any trouble finding the drink. Conversation with all kinds of interesting characters went with it. I remember being in a bar in Wilmersdorf the day John Lennon was shot, and I recall expressing the fervent opinion it was a damn shame it hadn't been Rod Stewart. Mein Gott, warum haben die nicht Rod Stewart erschossen? The phrase 'forcible ejection' was given a new definition in response to this utterance. Yes, those are the kind of people I associated with.
It's all different now. English is everywhere. I've just been walking through an estate of three- and four-storey apartment buildings, pleasantly surrounded by trees and greensward. It was erected about forty years ago, and they have suddenly christened it City Village. Notices describing the layout of the 'City Village' are everywhere. Why? Why not Stadt-Dorf? (And why christen it anyway?) Because everything is now in English. On my favourite department store entrance the other day it said Mid Season Sale. A hoarding proclaims Rooftop terrace for sale. A van goes by with City Clean on the side. (Or was it Citi Kleen?) So many advertisements on television are now in English that my neighbour says she doesn't understand them. You can now see movies in the original version, with or without subtitles. English has arrived to the extent that young Germans tell me they want to write in that language - and they do. They write poems in English! When I say it is almost impossible for native speakers to write poems in English, they still persist. What's wrong with writing in German, I ask them, and they say something pathetic like: 'When I was at school we never learned to have fun with German.'
Do we now need to be taught to have fun?
You may be thinking: 'What's he complaining about?' He's a native English speaker. Is it not more congenial to have one's native language around one? My answer to that is no. I left England precisely in order not to have English around me.
It is indeed congenial to sit in a pub with a friend and talk one's own language - but it is far from congenial to have to read the obfuscating, cliché-ridden discourse of politicians, or listen to the barbarous chatter of journalists on radio and television. ('This is the age of austerity' they announce. Austerity? To someone who was a child in the nineteen forties and came of age in the fifties this use of the word is an insult.) I wanted to escape all the second-hand opinions, the insightful analyses of our situation that were neither analytical nor insightful, the ludicrous puffing of second-rate poets and novelists, the dreary novels and poems themselves, the jingoism (it was the nineteen seventies) and its accompanying hot air regarding 'national identity' and what it means to be English. Public use of language seemed to me to be corrupted; it was no longer possible to be straightforwardly serious. You had to choose between po-faced punditry and lame humour.
Going to a foreign country, I thought, would allow me to escape this; it is much easier to ignore barbarisms in a foreign language. Unfortunately I had not reckoned with advertising, that repulsive mud-slide of inanity whose favourite swamp is English. Advertisers' English is now everywhere and knows no language barriers; even on German television, some brain-dead barbie model will shake her glossy hair at the camera and say in my own tongue: Because you're worth it.
Why does this induce murderous rage in me? Because this kind of language is coy, knowing, duplicitous, lying, fraudulent, and posturing, and each of these words means something different. Advertising tries to assure us our worst instincts are the right ones. It is inane, as I said, but it is also Machiavellian. Clever people earn large sums of money prostituting the communicative resources of language. And what can we do about it? Nothing. It's a free country. Where does this shoulder-shrugging despondency come from, this passivity in the general public that allows this and related language abuses to continue without any show of resistance?
Some while back I read an article about the nineteenth-century author of Death's Jest Book, Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Beddoes, who was a medical student, went to Belgium, where he could learn about and practise something that was forbidden in England at the time: anatomical dissection. Later, pursuing his researches, he ended up in Germany, to the detriment apparently of his literary work. Certainly to the detriment of his parochial fame. The writer of this piece, the poet Alan Halsey, put forward the suggestion that taking up residence in a foreign country is tantamount to committing 'writerly suicide'.
This puts an interesting slant on the lives of such writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Grahame Greene, W.H.Auden, Samuel Beckett, to name only a few English speaking writers. And what about Shelley and Byron? Actually, the reason for taking up residence in a foreign country is, for those writers who choose to do it, usually experienced as a stimulus to the imagination. Mastery of a foreign language, for example, gives a new perspective upon the possibilities of your own language; possession of bilingualism is also a form of power. The home environment may be experienced as too suffocating, unwelcoming, or simply rejecting. There may be economic reasons too; a writer whose native language is English can usually find work teaching it in a foreign country.
Let me remind you of that no doubt apocryphal British citizen who was said to have returned from a first visit to Paris complaining that the degrading argot spoken there was simply a conspiracy to confound the home-loving. Linguistic nationalism dies hard in an island nation. In the course of a review in the Guardian of the novel Vertigo by W. G. Sebald, translated from German into English, the reviewer, Stuart Jeffries, commented "...(it) has been translated from the German by Michael Hulse. But Bavarian-born Sebald has lived in Britain since 1970 and is currently Professor of Modern German Literature at UEA. Could he not have written his books in English?"
It obviously didn't occur to Jeffries that W.G. Sebald might have preferred to write in his native tongue. He may also, quite explicitly, have been writing for a German audience. The reviewer, of course, could not possibly have made a remark of this nature if the writer had been Irish or Welsh writing in his native language. Political correctness would have ensured that.
That strange mental miasma called Britishness considers its British islands to be somewhere neither in Europe (in fact, very far away from Europe and utterly different) nor quite in America either, though closer to the second because of the illusion that we all speak the same language. In Britain, it's residence on this or that adjacent island that counts. Thus cultural organisations - such as the British Council - find it difficult to accept that there might be British writers who choose not to live in the UK. Difficult to accept their Britishness, that is. Now, I'm an English poet who has chosen to live in Germany. What worries me about the underlying ideology of Stuart Jeffries' remarks on Sebald is this: when he says: 'If you live here you should write in my language' he also seems to be implying: 'if you don't live here, you needn't bother to write in my language any more because I'm not interested.' I still have a copy of a letter from the Arts Council of Geat Britain in response to a request for a grant to finish a book of poems; I was told that living outside the UK disqualified me. This ruling, the director of the Arts Council informed a friend of mine, is designed to keep back 'a flood of applications from expatriates'.
I'm not sure that expatriates are at all the same as extrilists.
Those writers who choose to write in a foreign language are almost entirely prose writers - Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, for example. Their reasons for doing so may be literary, or extra-literary, or simply fortuitous. Samuel Beckett observed that he took up writing in French (and living in France) because by writing in a foreign language, he would not be bothered by questions of style. That's a slightly disingenuous statement, I think, but you know what he means. Beckett was too close to his own language. Its sticky intimacy was a deterrent; he wanted to write without cloying pieces of domestic fluff adhering to his paragraphs. Vladimir Nabokov, who had a traditional English governess as a child, had English forced upon him - not by his governess, but by exile.
A case of involuntary extrilism, therefore.
Where poetry is concerned, the matter is always different. The way in which you learned your mother tongue, the domesticating and intimate process by which the world was mapped out by language, constitute the nexus of feeling and awareness you draw on for what you want to write. I don't want to imply that this isn't also the case for workers in a prose medium. Mallarmé pointed out a long time ago: Verse is everywhere in language where there is rhythm, everywhere, except on posters and page four of the newspapers. In the genre which we call prose there is verse of every conceivable rhythm, some of it admirable. But in reality there is no prose: there is the alphabet, and then there are verse forms, more or less rigid, more or less diffuse. In every attempt at style there is versification. That is absolutely true, but we have no difficulty in telling the difference between poems and prose (and not just because of the line-breaks). Louis Armstrong once responded to a query as to how you could tell if musicians were playing jazz or not: 'If you gotta ask, you'll never know'. By the time you've grown up, that has to be true for poetry as well.
The intimate nature of the mother tongue is crucial here. I once gave a contemporary poem by an English poet to a class of German university students ,and afterwards an excellent translation of the same poem into German. The effect was palpable. My students immediately proclaimed the poem much better in German than in English. This, I think, couldn't have happened had we been discussing some paragraphs from a contemporary novel.
In a poem, the medium is the message. That is to say, the language is the message. In every line of a true poem, the associative power of words - powers of ambiguity, allusion, archetype, assonance and archaism, to begin only with the first letter of the alphabet - is struggling to make itself manifest. This is why reading poems in a foreign language can be very difficult and why it has to be worked at. Everything has to be explained and footnoted and, like jokes, some of the immediacy vanishes. When I gave the students the same poem in German, without that veil of impenetrability, they felt the poem connect at the level of the solar plexus, which is where poems should connect. That is what they experienced as 'improvement'.
If you have taken the trouble to learn it, the desire to write in a foreign language will always arise. But the obstacles to writing a poem in it are great. Sometimes, through one of extrilism's paradoxes, writers who might very well desire nothing more than to adopt a host language may simply not be able to. Think of R. S. Thomas, who wrote prose in his adopted Welsh language, and complained about having to write poetry in English; he was unable to do so in Welsh. German Jewish writers exiled in Israel during the second world war, and who did not feel competent to write in Hebrew, were faced with an intolerable situation. How were they to write in a mother tongue that had coined the expression Endlösung?
I've written poems in other languages, but never with the natural facility or sense of language plasticity I have in English. This is not to say that I don't sometimes find my own language a horrible straitjacket, or feel deeply wounded, outraged, by the lying and meretricious uses to which it is put. Perhaps that is what galvanises poets to linguistic protest. I write in English because I am compelled to by all the circumstances of autobiography. But the air in which I write is full of German and it keeps me sharply attentive to my own language's power to enact transformations. The thought that English is well on its way to becoming a 'world language' - i.e. a language of business transactions, political chicanery, manipulation and deceit - fills me with despair. Poetry is a medium for the transformation of life, my own and others. I have never been able to see it otherwise. The language of poetry, of true poetry, serves to provide a measure by which the language used by everyone else needs to be measured. What happens when that language loses its purchasing power as local currency is a disaster, yet most are oblivious to this. C.K Ogden's Basic English is alive and much too well. It lives in Germany, and pretty much everywhere else. So you're a linguistic nationalist too, I hear you say. No. I'm a linguistic extrilist. I belong to the party of my friends, the streets I grew up in, the language of the playground, and the fightback against 'social control'.
Foreignness is otherness, and you need to breathe some of its air if you're going to be a poet; it is in the 'making strange' of poetry that the so-called 'real world' becomes real in the mind of the beholder. The American poet Jack Spicer advised budding poets to 'read weird stuff'. Foreign is weird; weird is foreign. That is its invigorating essence. But the strange and somehow overlooked fact is that extrilism - so far from being writerly suicide - is actually a way of connecting back with that street you grew up in. It's a way of taking you out of the meaningless trap of realism, of thinking that you are writing about 'what you know' when you can't possibly know it, and into a place where the reality of what happens is transformed into what it really is: itself, the strange stuff of existence.
I'd say residence in a country which doesn't speak your language, at least for a while, is helpful for acquiring that essential part of a writer's equipment: the extrilist slant on life. If the foreignness of life doesn't get into your work, it will turn into cliché, routine. It will become (that deadening phrase) 'an imitation of life'. You could put me at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Philip Larkin, who said: 'I do believe that people get pallid if they change countries.' Pallidness, blandness - these are the enemies, yes. But when contemporary writing turns out, as it too often does, to be pallid and bland - it's because, imaginatively at least, it never leaves home. You have to leave it to find it.