Another Year of Poetry Without Borders

May 12, 2017
By Jianxiong Zhang, Cayden Ehrlich

What's the experience of hearing a foreign language you know nothing about? Poetry Without Borders answers this question.

The college-wide Poetry Without Borders event took place at the LOME (Weitz) on April 27, 2017. Poetry Without Borders is an annual event during National Poetry Month on Poem in Your Pocket Day that was started at Carleton by German professor Juliane Schicker, who encountered the event while at Penn State. It’s organized by the professors of the German Department and student volunteers from the GERM 103 class. It invites everyone, including students, faculty, and staff to read and listen to poems in different languages. This year, 28 participants read 22 poems in 10 languages, with the poems ranging from as far back as 7th century BCE all the way to just several decades ago.


While the English translation for each poem is projected on a screen so the audience can follow along, the most interesting part of the event is the sound of foreign languages. The Greek poet Hesiod’s “Theogony” (lines 1-35) was performed by three students in unison, chanting in a clear musical rhythm. The Chinese poem “Yangzhou” was performed along with an accompanying music piece composed at the same time as the poem was written. “The music flows freely and is not with any rhythm, so it’s not very difficult [to read and play at the same time]. [...] It is common that Chinese poems are associated with music,” Gus Holley ‘20, who performed the poem, said. The participants’ emotional performances help audiences resonate with the original poet from either as far as thousands of years ago, or as close as from the 21st century. “Even if you don’t understand the poem, you can feel the meaning behind it while listening,” German professor Josiah Simon said.

Poetry Without Borders is not only a celebration of literature, but it also shows us what role poems can play in language learning. “Poetry could be treated as another form of pedagogy. Poems put linguistic depth and cultural richness into a short space,” Simon said. “It’s a great chance to get out of the rigid language structure and to see the creative ways of using a language.”

Most performers read poems in their non-native language. We don't always have to understand a word literally, but can also learn from its rhetorical reference. Old poems tell us the history of the language, and the new ones show us how it is used today.

After hearing poems and the sound of foreign languages, performers and audience members as well as the event organizers mingled with each other and exchanged thoughts. Thanks to the German Department, student volunteers from the GERM 103 class, all the participants, and especially to Juliane Schicker for bringing the event to the Carleton community.