Student Question

What is your interpretation of Eileen Myles' poem, "That Country"?

Eileen Myles

That Country

I’ve just
never known
what
to call
that country.
If I say
England
I don’t think

I sound so
smart. I keep
tripping up
on their language which is English
so shouldn’t their
country be the
same. Britain seems wrong,
does anyone
go to Britain?
People go to London
that’s where they go.
There’s really no country at all
just a city
huge, old
haven’t been there for a while.
& UK is just a concept
a fashion statement
an economy
it seems you could have
a relationship
with that
but you wouldn’t go there
you would allude.
Though, it includes everything,
doesn’t it: the UK.
Ireland, Scotland,
England, all of it.
England is right

in there, but no place
else, which is why
I never say it.
But what about the
language they speak.
English. My penmanship
sharpens up. I go to
school.
Slowly the words appear
on a line. Could I
write in that language
Think in it
Do I
am I missing something.
I really think a lot:
The second l in really
staggered into a y
the letters got
drunk. I wanted
to fuck up this
language & blame
its nameless
homeland:
the victors got drunk
they came & came
the words were never
the same again
in the last century
it came to us
to speak American
which means
to speak
where you land
which means
nothing now.
Not proud
but invasive.
Not the language
not the place
not them
not us
neither an island
nor a continent
nor a world
a spin without
a home.

An edgy
feeling. A coin
on its
side
speaking up

Expert Answers

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I've tried not to look at the first answer because I don't want to be influenced.  So I hope I won't repeat it, but I doubt I will because I think that person is actually a literature person and I'm not.  So -- disclaimer here -- I don't know what this is about but you asked for interpretations so I'm assuming you want a variety.  Mine comes from the point of view of someone who's not an English teacher and someone who hates this kind of "poetry."  But here goes:

At first I thought that it was something about identity and that the poet was English.  I thought that it was about how there's nothing that holds the UK together any more in these modern times.  But then after the line "England is right" it didn't seem to be saying that anymore.

So then I thought it's about English as a language and how weird it is because it's come from so many different sources.

And then I thought maybe she thinks that's negative because she talks about "victors" who "came and came" (I wondered if that was supposed to sound sexual) and the words were never the same.

So maybe she's saying that she hates English because it's the language of people who have oppressed other people -- who have come and conquered them.  I googled the poem so I could read it easier and it says she's lesbian so that might make sense that she'd feel oppressed.

So that's what I ended up with -- I think it's an anti-tradition (London is just some old place that doesn't matter) and anti-power (reference to the conquerors).  I think she equates the language with these things.

I'm probably wrong...

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Does she write in free-verse or rhyme and meter?  Is she strong on metaphor, or does she rely on imagery or connotation?I’ve justnever knownwhatto callthat country.If I sayEnglandI don’t thinkI sound sosmart. I keeptripping upon their language which is Englishso shouldn’t theircountry be thesame. Britain seems wrong,does anyonego to Britain?People go to Londonthat’s where they go.There’s really no country at alljust a cityhuge, oldhaven’t been there for a while.& UK is just a concepta fashion statementan economyit seems you could havea relationshipwith thatbut you wouldn’t go thereyou would allude.Though, it includes everything,doesn’t it: the UK.Ireland, Scotland,England, all of it.England is rightin there, but no placeelse, which is whyI never say it.But what about thelanguage they speak.English. My penmanshipsharpens up. I go to       school.Slowly the words appearon a line. Could Iwrite in that languageThink in itDo Iam I missing something.I really think a lot:The second l in reallystaggered into a ythe letters gotdrunk. I wantedto fuck up thislanguage & blameits namelesshomeland:the victors got drunkthey came & camethe words were neverthe same againin the last centuryit came to usto speak Americanwhich meansto speakwhere you landwhich meansnothing now.Not proudbut invasive.Not the languagenot the placenot themnot usneither an islandnor a continentnor a worlda spin withouta home.An edgyfeeling. A coinon itssidespeaking up

The poet uses free verse according to the definition from Webster's

poetry without regular meter, rhyme, or stanzaic forms

There is metaphor used, for example:

penmanship

Sharpens up

and

A coin

on its

 side

There is use of imagery in directing the reader to visualise the idea of England as a possible (or impossible) place, and to appreciate the lack of unity between the language and its homeland. The poet alludes to the fact that English as a language is an amalgam and an evolved concept, just as England has evolved as a culture through invasion and has extended as an entity in our perception.

 the UK.
Ireland, Scotland,
England, all of it.

The most effective technique, however, is the allusion to the Anglo Saxon roots which are still viscerally present within English:

I wanted
to fuck up this
language & blame
its nameless
homeland

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How would you interpret the following poem?I’ve justnever knownwhatto callthat country.If I sayEnglandI don’t thinkI sound sosmart. I keeptripping upon their language which is Englishso shouldn’t theircountry be thesame. Britain seems wrong,does anyonego to Britain?People go to Londonthat’s where they go.There’s really no country at alljust a cityhuge, oldhaven’t been there for a while.& UK is just a concepta fashion statementan economyit seems you could havea relationshipwith thatbut you wouldn’t go thereyou would allude.Though, it includes everything,doesn’t it: the UK.Ireland, Scotland,England, all of it.England is rightin there, but no placeelse, which is whyI never say it.But what about thelanguage they speak.English. My penmanshipsharpens up. I go to school.Slowly the words appearon a line. Could Iwrite in that languageThink in itDo Iam I missing something.I really think a lot:The second l in reallystaggered into a ythe letters gotdrunk. I wantedto fuck up thislanguage & blameits namelesshomeland:the victors got drunkthey came & camethe words were neverthe same againin the last centuryit came to usto speak Americanwhich meansto speakwhere you landwhich meansnothing now.Not proudbut invasive.Not the languagenot the placenot themnot usneither an islandnor a continentnor a worlda spin withouta home.An edgyfeeling. A coinon itssidespeaking up

First, as I am sure you are already aware, this is a poem by a University of California professor named Eileen Myles called "That Country." I am not saying that everything poets in respectable positions produce is good, but I do think that she deserves the benefit of the doubt and the consideration that there may be more going on here than meets the eye.

This is definitely not a classically constructed poem (or even one that easily fits the mainstream definition of poetry) but that is part of its charm (or it's horribleness, depending on your point of view.)  While I don't agree with johnmiltonwesle in his assertion about not calling it a poem, I would agree that it has the definite "steam of consciousness" feel to it.  Maybe that's all there is to it (I for one would feel cheated, but I am not a connoisseur of poetry) and maybe it is more "constructed" than it feels.  Again, I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is not just jerking my chain with self-glorified "everything I write is great" BS.

So what is it about?  Hell if I know, but I can sus out a few things here and there.  It would be interesting to email her and see her take on it...

From what I can gather, the poem is more about language than about places.  From my perspective, the poet seems to be commenting on sort of a "post modern" idea about the function and usefulness of language.  She seems to have three strands going:

  1. Language is imprecise:  She talks about England, Britain, and the UK and how none of them means what she thinks of when considering the place, which focuses on London.  In fact, saying "England" is so imprecise that she is embarrassed because it is so close to "English."  It goes along with the idea that something may have a name, but that name is not that something.
  2. How language changes, adding to its imprecision: She seems to be saying that the American bastardization of "English English" is both a horrible and beautiful thing.  She takes some joy, it would seem, in mauling the "proper" English spoke by natives of England.  The language, it seems to her, is in flux and carries with it a social connotation (if I am making any sense.)
  3. There seems to be a little jibe in there at how words are constructed, such as "really."  Why are 2 "l's" needed in the word when just one would do?  This is another example of form versus function, sort of like "proper" English versus "conventional" English.

That last bit about the coin...well, that's anyone's guess.  Is she saying that conversational (American?) English has an "edginess" to it that proper English does not?  I can't help but see the image...a quarter.  That is an "edgy" coin because of all the ridges.  Speaking up?  This usually means to talk out against something you feel is unfair.  Is that the point of the poem?  Perhaps.

So, as you can see, this is a tough one.  Good luck!

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Whats your interpretation of the following poem?I’ve justnever knownwhatto callthat country.If I sayEnglandI don’t thinkI sound sosmart. I keeptripping upon their language which is Englishso shouldn’t theircountry be thesame. Britain seems wrong,does anyonego to Britain?People go to Londonthat’s where they go.There’s really no country at alljust a cityhuge, oldhaven’t been there for a while.& UK is just a concepta fashion statementan economyit seems you could havea relationshipwith thatbut you wouldn’t go thereyou would allude.Though, it includes everything,doesn’t it: the UK.Ireland, Scotland,England, all of it.England is rightin there, but no placeelse, which is whyI never say it.But what about thelanguage they speak.English. My penmanshipsharpens up. I go to       school.Slowly the words appearon a line. Could Iwrite in that languageThink in itDo Iam I missing something.I really think a lot:The second l in reallystaggered into a ythe letters gotdrunk. I wantedto fuck up thislanguage & blameits namelesshomeland:the victors got drunkthey came & camethe words were neverthe same againin the last centuryit came to usto speak Americanwhich meansto speakwhere you landwhich meansnothing now.Not proudbut invasive.Not the languagenot the placenot themnot usneither an islandnor a continentnor a worlda spin withouta home. An edgyfeeling. A coinon itssidespeaking up

The poem's narrator is struggling with how to name England because he is not from there. He thinks he is supposed to say "England" and then to know what it means. But he only sees a large city like any other large city.

He cannot use English properly even though he goes to school and studies.

He is angry because of the hypocracy of England, the surpremacy of English as a language and the power of the British.

He wants to make mistakes in English, and in a way, butcher the British, as a way to vent his anger against the British for "controlling" the use of English.

He is American.

He is angry because there is an ache inside of him for a place to call home, where English has a home. (This is an unstated assumption but there is a feeling of yearning that runs underneath the poem, that this "home" for the language is what he is searching for.)

However, language has no home. The land(continent) people arrive on is called America or England but it is only a name.

He says he wants to "fuck up this language and blame its nameless homeland".

In the poem he does this. He uses the rules of the English language inappropriately. And he is blaming it on who?

In short, he cannot blame it on a place(country) or a civilisation that owns English because it does not exist.

The poem is a comment on language. It asks: who has the permission to claim a langauge as it's own and therefore make its rules? And who has the right to judge the people who cannot speak it properly or write it properly?

The answer is: no one owns a langauge or a continent.

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