Imagining “Mornings without Grammar” with Dr. Jeffrey Angles

It’s easy to complain about the complexities of grammar – but what would happen if you woke up in a world without it? Would you be able to communicate at all? This is exactly what JCMU Japanese language instructor Nagatomi-sensei and WMU Professor of Japanese Literature Dr. Jeffrey Angles invite you to imagine below.

Don’t many of us consider grammar to be an unglamorous part of learning Japanese?

Children, if they are in a linguistically rich environment, “acquire” it naturally, over months and years. Can we afford to spend the same amount of time in such an environment just like them, though?

The critical period to “acquire” another language may have long passed. However, we can utilize our first language as a reference point to “learn” to function as an adult. Our brain functions more effectively and efficiently when we link what we already know to something new.

Learning grammar enables us to find similarities and differences between languages. It helps us as a roadmap when we are getting lost. It shows us shortcuts. As we move on, we rely less on the map and explore more scenic routes.

To many of you, what I mentioned above is not new and sounds anachronistic.

The following poem may change your perspective on Japanese grammar.

I would like to introduce you to the work of Dr. Jeffrey Angles. He is a poet, translator, and professor of Japanese literature at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. His collection of original Japanese-language poetry Watashi no hizukehenkōsen (My International Date Line), published by Shichōsha in 2016, won the highly coveted Yomiuri Prize for Literature, an honor accorded to only a few non-native speakers since the award began in 1949. He is the first non-native speaker ever to win the Yomiuri Prize in the poetry category. I am honored to present one of his poems:

Mornings without Grammar

握手するとき わたしたちの手が

The labyrinth of language is dark and deep
So I form an alliance with grammar
Who happens to be much taller than me
Perhaps we’d best join forces
As we clasp our hands, trying to forget
Past hostilities, his hand is that
Of a giant, mine that of a dwarf

そして 何度も右に曲がったり

Grammar is the first to speak
Still filled with mistrust
We keep the conversation simple
As we turn left and right
Over and over again
I realize at some point, I’ve left
The route entirely up to him

ある日起きたら 文法はいない
暫くして 文法はまた現れる
肩を並べて歩くと 二人とも
声が高くなって 筋肉が溶けて

But one morning, grammar is not there
Led by the unusually bright morning
I search for him but to no avail
Left with no choice, I walk on alone
Before long, grammar returns
As we walk shoulder to shoulder
I find we are now the same size
The more mornings grammar is gone
The more my doubts well up within
Grammar has lost his fierce appearance
His voice grows high, his muscles melt away
As if time is flowing backwards
Leaving an adolescent beside me
Meanwhile, more days pass without words

すぐ 歩けなくなる

And now, grammar is already an infant
Soon, he will no longer be able to walk
His words descend into baby babble
Navigating the labyrinth has
Become my responsibility
Although I have neither map nor compass
The morning light still dazzles

光に導かれて 近いうちに
そして そのとき

Before long, led by the light
I will find the exit
And in that moment
I will proudly set foot outside
The labyrinth of language
While I carry deep inside of me
The fetus that once was grammar

I would like to conclude this blog post with Dr. Angles’ message for us:

“The differences between Japanese and English grammar are great enough that most of us non-native speakers find ourselves thinking about them each time we sit down to write, but in the process of writing numerous essays and articles in Japanese over the years, I slowly felt my fear of making grammatical mistakes slip away. This poem is about the discovery, made right about the time that I started writing my first poetry in Japanese, that I had become comfortable manipulating the rules of language, just as the rules of language had manipulated me in the past.”

AnglesDr. Jeffrey ANGLES (1971- )’ s work as a scholar of modern Japanese literature and cultural history is visible in numerous publications and articles written in both English and Japanese. Most important among these are the monographs Writing the Love of Boys (University of Minnesota Press) and These Things Here and Now: Poetic Responses to the March 11, 2011 Disasters (Josai University).

In addition, he has published dozens of translations of Japan’s most important modern authors and poets. He believes strongly in the role of translators as activists, and much of his career has focused on the translation into English of socially engaged, feminist, or queer writers. Among his numerous book-length translations are Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako (University of California Press), Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Itō Hiromi (Action Books), Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Itō Hiromi (Action Books), and Twelve Views from the Distance by Takahashi Mutsuo (University of Minnesota Press). His most recent translation is an annotated, critical edition of the modernist classic The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu (University of Minnesota Press).

His translation of Tada Chimako won both the Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature and the Landon Translation Prize from the American Academy of Poets.  He has also won major grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN Club of America.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.