“I’m a poet,” the teacher told us as she settled into her desk, unwrapping herself from interminable purple swaths of scarf. Her name was Isabelle Macor-Filarska, and she had the just-so air of someone who wanted to be considered finer, or more highfalutin, than wherever she happened to find herself, say, before a class of Alliance Française students whose adventures in French were nothing compared to her own linguistic exploits.
She certainly looked like a poet, if a poet were costumed in flowing dresses and armfuls of bangles from a modern-dress La Bohème, one where the characters had better food, heated garrets and were perhaps inoculated against tuberculosis. “And I translate,” she added. “From the Polish.”
Well, well, I thought. And here I just wanted to learn a little French. Isabelle wanted to be anything other than our teacher, even if that’s what she was stuck doing for a few hours every day that autumn.
Isabelle told us that she not only wanted to instill in us a better working knowledge of everyday French, but a finer appreciation for French literature (and, perhaps, Polish poetry in translation). So in addition to reading the usual newspaper articles and discussing them, we were to read and try to understand passages from short stories and, perhaps, poetry.
And our written assignments were not the multiple-choice grammar questions we’d been given in other classes, but exercises in style. “French is a language of fine expression,” she said, “and I want you to learn how to be precise in describing what you feel.” This to a class whose students would have been happy learning to describe what they did for a living in order to put it on a résumé, but that wouldn’t have been sufficiently poetic.
One writing assignment included painting in expressive terms a particular scene we’d witnessed in Paris. I chose a night near Denfert-Rochereau, where I was living at the time, as I climbed the stairs from the metro and beheld a large yellow moon above and a scrum of taxis gleaming on the streets under the lamplights. I tried to search for words beyond the common, thinking Isabelle would be impressed with my eagerness, but I’m sure that I mangled the meanings of some of what I looked up in the dictionary: My essay was riddled with errors. Isabelle handed back my assignment with two disdainful fingers, as if the very touch of the paper on which I’d written had offended her delicate literary sensibility. I wanted to tell her that I’d translated it from the imaginary Polish, but she didn’t seem the type to take a joke.
She asked me, “What level of French have you reached?”
“C1,” I said, which at that time was pretty high (I don’t know if the classifications have changed since then.
She didn’t seem to believe me.
“You said you were a writer.”
“Yes,” I told her. “But in English. That’s why I’m here. To get better at French.”
Isabelle looked doubtful, as if she couldn’t believe I’d been able to earn a living in my mother tongue since I was evidently unable to describe in a sufficiently poetic manner a scene in the language I was trying to learn. She then passed on to another middling student.
I’ve since gotten much better at written French. I worked with, and continue to work with, a private tutor specifically on my writing, since at Alliance Française, or specifically in the class of this poet slumming as a teacher, we weren’t being taught to write but being scolded for not writing as well as she’d imagined we should be able to write after a few months of study.
Most of us weren’t there for writing, of course. This wasn’t a literature course, alas for the poet, but language learning and grammar. In other classes we’d been given exercises in writing the particularly roundabout locutions that make up French business correspondences. And these were helpful for those students who were in France to start a new life at a new job. But my job wasn’t in French, and any writing in French that I do consists of letters to friends. I didn’t want to become one of those people whose written French, in emails and such, is mocked for its moronic formulations and misuse of idiomatic expressions. But we weren’t given that kind of assignment. We were asked to be poets on the fly. Maybe if she’d asked for a haiku, instead of 200 words, I might have come up with something more suitable.
Still, if I were being taught by a poet, I realized my assignments would be judged by a different scale so I would have to bear with her disapproval during the course.
But what struck me was how Isabelle preferred not to be known by the profession that paid her but by the calling she aspired to, as if Wallace Stevens had introduced himself during a life insurance board meeting not as a business executive but as a modernist poet.
I didn’t read Isabelle’s poetry even though she mentioned that she had privately printed a collection of it – I wondered if she’d eventually set up a little display of volumes for sale on her desk – and I chose not to attend the several literary evenings where she’d be reciting her recent translations, to which she’d invited us students. I wanted to benefit from Isabelle’s expertise in passing on to us her knowledge of French. I wasn’t particularly interested in her skill in fashioning alexandrines. At least not in the context of my time at Alliance Française. She might have been a poet, but at that moment I was a student of French.