Continuing the trend of the last couple of posts, I wanted to share another cultural artifact that speaks to Esperanto’s global reception. This time, I have a poem for you: “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” by Srikanth Reddy. It is a relatively new publication, coming from Reddy’s 2005 collection Facts for Visitors. As I understand it, the poem is less about the Esperanto language than the Esperanto mindset, and can be read as a reminder of why humanity needs a language like Esperanto.
The poem begins by tricking you into thinking it is a grammatical primer. Between its title and its first few lines, you would be forgiven for believing the poem is going to teach you how Esperanto works. The opening lines: “The grammatical rules of this language can be learned in one / sitting. / Nouns have no gender & end in -o; the plural terminates in -oj / (pronounced -oy) & the accusative, -on (plural 0ojn)” (1-4). Reddy quickly throws a wrench into this otherwise straightforward grammar, however, for the persona in the poem quickly botches the grammar s/he has laid out: “Ma amiko is my friend” (9), s/he writes, when mia amiko would be appropriate; “La bonaj amiko estas ie. The good friend is here” (14), s/he says a few lines later, failing to make the subject and descriptor agree.
I must assume, per Stephen Dedalus’s instruction in Ulysses, that errors in art are volitional and are the portals to discovery. Otherwise, this poem would seem like a fatuous attempt to appropriate Esperanto for aesthetic purposes. What is going on here, then?
Reddy briefly restores the facade of Esperanto education in the next section of the poem, dropping a block of prose that talks about some aspects of Esperanto’s past and present. The section after that seems as if it will continue discussing Esperanto history – “Esperanto is an artificial language / constructed in 1887 by L. / L. Zamenhof, a polish / oculist” (29-32) – but soon reveals that Esperanto history in an ancillary concern, joining the persona’s recollections to Zamenhof’s great achievement. The other half of Line 32 marks the first time the persona acknowledges him-/herself, and situates how s/he first encountered the language: “I first came / across Fundamento Esperanto, the text / which introduced this system / to the world, as I travelled abroad / following a somewhat difficult period / in my life” (32-37). The persona here has invoked a major theme in Esperanto-language autobiography: how and why one became an Esperantist. I won’t spoil the details of the persona’s story, as they’re rather humorous. However, it worth noting that the poem shifts in this moment from a grammar lesson to something less concrete – and, arguably, something more pressing.
In the next section, the persona discusses purple martins, birds that s/he describes as “the Cadillac of swallows” (56), all of which are “dying or dead” (57). Again, we are treading in metaphorical territory – the purple martin is known for competing with (and losing to) sparrows and starlings for living space, but it is not classified as a threatened species. Reddy’s persona seems to be calling attention to their vulnerability, which s/he accomplishes by ascribing high intelligence to them: “Brainscans of grown purple martins suggest / these creatures feel the same levels of doubt / & bliss as an eight-year-old girl in captivity” (58-60). The rest of this section recalls a story of a man who devoted his life to building shelters for the purple martins, a task which the persona finds admirable, and seems to regret not undertaking him-/herself. This section, then, links the concepts of labor and doing good by it, establishing them as central themes in the poem. The persona’s observation of his/her own inertia when it comes to doing good works explains why the word “sitting” occurs as its own line early in the poem – there is something appealing about a language that, at least by the persona’s understanding, can be learned lazily. Thus, the poem posits another connection: Esperanto is joined to labor. Since labor is only discussed in terms of working good in the world, the poem suggests that Esperanto’s purpose is also to bring about more good.
The final section, as I read it, lays bare the persona’s hand, and reveals why s/he has been obsessing over purple martins. The persona bemoans Esperanto’s “competitor” languages – “Interlingua, / Klingon, Java & various cryptophasic tongues” (92-93) – and declares that Esperanto needs to produce an epic in order to be saved. The remainder of the poem is devoted to describing what this epic should entail. Before launching into this description, however, the persona mentions what the epic ought to do for humankind: “Through its grandeur / & homegrown humility, it will spur men / to freeze the mutating patios so the children / of our children’s children may dwell in this song / & find comfort in its true texture & frame” (94-99). The imagined Esperanto epic will accomplish what all great art should – comfort people through its greatness, its “true texture & frame,” and benefit them thereby. In this manner, the work of writing the epic is likened to the act of building houses for purple martins. Both are ultimately charitable works, done for the benefit of others.
I realize you could probably read the poem as a critique of Esperanto if you were so inclined. The lazy protagonist who never accomplishes anything, talks a big game but never follows through, and doesn’t even grasp the language s/he purports to champion could well be a caricature of the Esperantist. But I read Reddy’s poem as an explanation of what motivates the Esperantist. It is less a fixation on proper grammar than it is a philanthropic outlook. For every language has a grammar that would-be linguists can dissect, but few languages have a mission behind them.