Monday Poem(s): ‘Speak White’ and ‘Speak What’

We’re instituting a regular feature of highlighting poetry on Mondays, and are starting with two poems which are well known for challenging linguistic oppression in Canada. Michèle Lalonde’s ‘Speak White’, composed in 1968, first recited in 1970, and published in 1974, dramatizes Canadian prejudice in the 1970s (and before), both social and institutional, against the Francophone language and culture. Marco Micone’s ‘Speak What’ (1989) directly references Lalonde’s poem in dramatizing prejudice in Québec society against non-French speaking immigrants. These are selections — you can find the full poems here (‘Speak White’ and ‘Speak What’ ). In the links section, you can find a clip of Lalonde reciting ‘Speak White’, plus a film that was made of it, and also a website which contains resources on ‘Speak What’.
‘Speak White’
Speak white
il est si beau de vous entendre
parler de Paradise Lost
ou du profil gracieux et anonyme qui tremble
dans les sonnets de Shakespeare
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Speak white and loud
So that we can hear you
From St-Henri to St-Domingue
What an admirable tongue
For hiring
Giving orders
Setting the time for working yourself to death
And for the pause that refreshes
And invigorates the dollar
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Speak white
Be easy in your words
We’re a race that holds grudges
But let’s not criticize anyone
For having a monopoly
On correcting language

In Shakespeare’s soft tongue
With the accent of Longfellow
Speak a pure and atrociously white French
Like in Vietnam, like in the Congo
Speak impeccable German
A yellow star between your teeth
Speak Russian speak call to order speak repression
Speak white
It is a universal language
We were born to understand it
With its teargas words
With its nightstick words

Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy
We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the steets of Algiers
And Little Rock

Speak white
From Westminster to Washington take it in turn
Speak white like they do on Wall Street
White like they do in Watts
Be civilized
And understand us when we speak of circumstances
When you ask us politely
How do you do
And we hear you say
We’re doing all right
We’re doing fine
We
Are not alone

We know
That we are not alone

‘Speak What’

Il est si beau de vous entendre parler
de La Romance du vin
et de L’homme rapaillé
d’imaginer vos coureurs des bois
des poèmes dans leurs carquois

nous sommes cent peuples venu de loin
partager vos rêves et vos hivers
nous avions les mots
de Montale et de Neruda
le souffle de l’Oural
le rythme des haïkus
. . . . . . . . . . .
speak what

comment parlez-vous
dans vos salons huppés
vous souvenez-vous du vacarme des usines
and of the voice des contremaîtres
you sound like them more and more

speak what
que personne ne vous comprend
ni à Saint-Henri ni à Montréal-Nord
nous y parlons
la langue du silence
et de l’impuissance
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
délestez-vous des maîtres et du cilice
imposez-nous votre langue
nous vous raconterons
la guerre, la torture et la misère
nous dirons notre trépas avec vos mots
pour que vous ne mouriez pas
et vous parlerons
avec notre verbe bâtard
et nos accents fêlés
du Cambodge et du Salvador
du Chili et de la Roumanie
de la Molise et du Péloponnèse
jusqu’à notre dernier regard

speak what

nous sommes cent peuples venus de loin
pour vous dire que vous n’êtes pas seuls.

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