Canons of French Poetry

How I Am Not Learning French in Eight Weeks or Less

By Sunday, I am undone.

Managing a rapidly-growing poetry blog, working five Facebook pages and three Twitter pages, serving an audience of over 22,000 writers, poets, and insurance adjusters is energizing, but when the week ends, it’s over; I deeply experience the metaphor underlying that well-worn phrase: I can’t think straight.

The first order of business to deal with my bent frame of mind is, of course, a bath. I take my time. I lock the door. I do not bring my computer with me—and not just because of the electricity-conducting nature of bathwater (with or without the bubbles). I need to be alone.

This need for solitude is often surprising to those who know me. After all, I appear to be an extrovert—outgoing, talkative, and rivaling the best of them when it comes to the characteristic New York talk-with-your-hands citizens. Yet, come Sunday, the introvert truth is apparent: I need my space and (I love this metaphor too) I need to unwind.

Sinking into the water, in a quiet room, the process begins. A hundred Facebook updates and comments, a hundred more strings of tweets float away, and my arms begin to move freely. I think of nothing. It is the ideal setup for what comes next: French.

I bought a three hundred page book of Malherbe’s French poetry. I thought it would have English translations. I was about 1/300ths correct in this assumption. There is a page directly before the one that says, “Poésies de François Malherbe.” On this page, I recognize the words public domain and the disclaimer that this valuable book might have missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks.

It’s okay, this imperfection situation; I wouldn’t know anyway if a poem about Henri lapsed suddenly into one about le frère de Louis XIII, due to that minor point about the translations also being… missing.

All in all, it is the perfect arrangement for a Sunday. After my bath, I take up a notebook, a thin-line Sharpie, and my Malherbe. I understand very little of the French, but I begin to copy words…

Il ne faut qu’avec le visage
L’on tire les mains au pinceau
Tu les montres dans ton ouvrage,
Et le caches dans le tableau *

My brain registers… not much, and this is Sunday serendipity. I feel more of my work-heavy self delightfully lighten as my pen makes its curvy, flowing marks across the page. I soak in the sounds and happen to notice the rhymes. I smile because I can’t help but remember avec from fifth-grade French class and dans and mains. Then I smile again at the internal rhyme playing in lines 2 and 3. (Those clever French, to make poeming so simple through the structure of their language.)

My grandmother was French, and sometimes when I was a child I would hear her either sing or swear in French. I learned nothing but the lilt and the intrigue. I have not made much linguistic progress since then; nevertheless, I rather like the feel of it all. And, I might point out, it is important to absorb the lilt and intrigue of the French language, lest one ultimately speak it a little wrapped-too-tight.

It will probably take me ten more years of Sundays to understand what my grandmother sang and swore, and what I’ve been copying for so long from Malherbe and others to come. Maybe in a decade I will, belatedly, surge with political passion or faint from shock or love. One cannot predict what ten years of after-bath French will do to a person.

If I had a need to actually learn French, if it was pivotal to secure my solitude or decipher the bath faucets, I might attempt to accelerate my progress. As it goes, I’m perfectly happy that I’m not learning my heritage Français in eight weeks or less.



Your hands should not, together with the face,
be drawn with the brush
You reveal them in your work
And hide them in the painting