If it were a creature it would be a pushmi-pullyu, one face looking back to spoken language, the other forward to the written word; Steven Lovatt on dialect poetry
In 1992 I worked for the now-defunct Birmingham Schools Library Service, a dust-filled brick and plaster honeycomb of offices and exhibition rooms centred on a huge library-cum-warehouse on the edge of the city’s Jewellery Quarter. In winter it was so cold that we wore gloves as we passed like ghosts between the ill-lit, ceiling-high shelving units, pulling out books matched to the national curriculum. In summer we sweated and opened every window, despite the seismic rumbling and slamming from the neighbouring metalworks and the allergenic poplar fluff borne in on sulphurous breezes from the expressway. On breaks I always took a poetry book into the staffroom, and one day it was Grace Nicholls’ I Is a Long Memoried Woman. I opened it at random on a poem called ‘I Coming Back’:
I coming back ‘Massa’
I coming back
mistress of the underworld
I coming back
colour and shape of all that is evil
I coming back
dog howling outside yuh window
I coming back
ball-a-fire and skinless higue
I coming back
hiss in yuh ear and prick in yuh skin
I coming back
bone in yuh throat and laugh in yuh skull
I coming back
I coming back ‘Massa’
I coming back
I read these lines and felt a violent change in my inner weather. I had been hot from stacking the boxes of books for delivery but now it felt like frost was marbling through me along invisible capillaries, out from some rarely touched pith. The hairs on my arms sprang alert as if the ‘skinless higue’ herself had passed overhead. Hello poetry! Hello power of words!
‘I Coming Back’ gives voice to an enslaved woman, forewarning her ‘master’ of her posthumous retribution, except master is hissed out as ‘massa’, and it is the repetition of that sibilance, and the relentless slugging of the dialect ‘yuh’, even more than the vengeful refrain itself, that gives the poem its power. Replace ‘yuh’ with ‘your’ and this terrible force is enervated. I think this was the first time I understood that dialect words in poetry were more than novelty, but could be necessary.
If a dialect is the language of a particular place or social group then all language is dialect, but around five hundred years ago one style of speech became more equal than the others and the rule of ‘received pronunciation’ began, begetting a hierarchy among spoken Englishes that’s still effective today. Poetry was implicated in this process from the start, or at least since Geoffrey Chaucer’s verses, delivered in the dialect of the South-east English Midlands, began to find influence and imitators among London tastemakers. The story of how one English dialect came to be standardised is thus quite inseparable from the wider history of social power and who wields it. Before Chaucer, ‘British’ Englishes were notable for their extraordinary quantity and egality, a legacy of the piecemeal colonisation of the archipelago by small and linguistically heterogenous bands of incomers, and their correspondingly patchwork politics. True, the Normans had made strides towards centralising state power, but their elite language was of course an early form of Norse-spiced French, and thousands of Englishes still chirped up gaily from the demesnes. Even when something like a centralised British state came into being in the fifteenth century, orthography remained erratic, reflecting the great diversity in pronunciation. But scroll forward three hundred years and you find John Dryden, tellingly the first national Laureate, explicitly urging a standard written form. From here on it was downhill all the way for dialects: ‘Received Pronunciation’ (check out those capital letters!) and ‘standard English’, sure of their superiority and mutually reinforcing, gradually tamed the wild bright weed-meadow of Englishes, the ironic twist being that in the end it wasn’t monarchical decree that delivered the coup de grace but cultural democracy and the onset of teevee.
The story of how one English dialect came to be standardised is quite inseparable from the wider history of social power and who wields it
That’s one version anyway, and at least some of it seems undeniable. It’s certainly true that today, since poetry is much more often read than heard, any consideration of dialect poetry must acknowledge that we’re almost always dealing with something written. This matters for several reasons, mostly because it removes dialect language from its natural medium, leaving dialect poetry in an inherently conflicted position. If it were a creature it would be a pushmi-pullyu, one face looking back to spoken language, the other forward to the written word. In theory dialect poetry is elevated by the greater prestige accorded to writing, but those unconventional spellings and the strange sounds they oblige remain embarrassingly unliterary. Particular uncertainty surrounds spellings intended to represent accents, since accents are inherently sonic things and cussedly unassimilable to the alphabet. Yet if the difficulty of representing accents graphically has been one of the causes of their neglect by ‘the canon’, this very resistance has helped preserve our sense of them as somehow earthy and vital. And looked at from the opposite side, it’s sometimes possible to detect a widespread if mostly latent unease about the privileging of the written word, notwithstanding its long eminence. We fear with some reason that it is vulnerable to distortion, hijacking and enfeeblement by commercial, technocratic or political cant. Most of all we suspect that, if deprived of constant nourishment by the living waters of spoken English(es), written English will desiccate, stiffen and grow stale until it is no longer a fit vehicle for the full range and volatility of human thought and passion. This double-think about written standard English is then mirrored (dialectically) in our attitude to dialect. We patronise ‘regional’ accents even as we see them as living repositories of authenticity and ‘character’, rarely stopping to reflect that this salt-of-the-earth quality of dialect sounds and words depends on and is revealed by the contrast with standard English.
And having got to this point of acknowledging that dialects both oppose and gain their force from this peculiar thing called ‘standard English’, I think it’s worth riffing awhile on what ‘standard’ means. It means a flag, the Union Jack that exported a version of English, along with much else, around the unsuspecting multilingual planet; it means a benchmark, something to aspire to; yet also and otherwise a bland and unexceptional thing, ‘mainstream’, ‘normal’ – by definition not ‘first class’; and it means, too, a fixture of the musical repertoire, a tired old song. Even this brief change-ringing on ‘standard’ is enough to demonstrate that its political and aesthetic significations are in practice inseparable, though we can and should sometimes separate them, since political and aesthetic values do not map onto one another neatly and each is important in its own way. Insofar as we’re concerned with its political aspect, though, dialect language is always connected with who owns it – with who, that is, has the authority to use it.
‘I Coming Back’ wasn’t my first experience of poetry in dialect. As I child I’d been read ‘The Lion and Albert’, and sung ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba’ tat’. I knew that these sounds and words, Lancastrian and Yorkshire, were not and never had been mine, but in the absence of any terrible political overtones I had no difficulty enjoying them as pure entertainment. It was slightly different when we went to visit Grandma. She lived in North Staffordshire, whose dialect is supposedly the most authentic descendent of Old English and, more certainly, that spoken by the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who was spacing his or her alliterations at around the same time that Chaucer was unwittingly paving the pilgrimage path to standard English. Grandma had great affection for the Potteries dialect and at Christmas the very first fume of green ginger wine could coax out “Cost kick a bo agen a wo an yed it till it bosts?*” and a few other local set-pieces. Yet Grandma was also justly proud of the elegant directness of her spoken standard English, whose precedence I think she never doubted any more than she could imagine ‘regional’ cheeses as finally anything other than quaint heresies from the ur-cheese: mild processed cheddar.
Smell is the most earth-bound of our senses and to me the Potteries dialect has an odour as well as a sound – it smells of oatcakes in quarry-tiled pantries, the paraffin-lit outhouse, stinging-nettle pollen and the sweet hit of slurry
Nevertheless it was from Grandma too that I learned about the local storyteller ‘Jabez’ (Wilfred Bloor, 1915-1993) whose wonderful dialect tales I subsequently sourced from Keele University and still listen to regularly, sensing through them always an obscure melancholy connection to the lost family acre. For it’s true too, isn’t it, that the felt directness and vivacity of dialect is no delusion? Dialect, we feel, is something that grounds us in particularity, a particularity that many of us now fear has disappeared for good, along with our grandparents themselves and the harder but less meretricious times that were theirs and which we feel in some puzzled and conflicted way deprived of. Smell is the most earth-bound of our senses and to me the Potteries dialect has an odour as well as a sound – it smells of oatcakes in quarry-tiled pantries, the paraffin-lit outhouse, stinging-nettle pollen and the sweet hit of slurry. Next to it, standard English somehow smells of nothing at all, save perhaps the bland antiseptic sterility of the wet-wipes with which we thoughtlessly cleanse our screens of the honest dust our bodies and books are made of.
But what about the main contention? Is it really also true that dialect poetry, starved of its subject matter since Dryden eventually got his way, is by now in terminal decline? Perhaps for long periods over the last two centuries there were grounds for thinking so, at least insofar as the major anthologies can be regarded as arbiters of taste. Taking Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861) as a starting point we find no dialect poetry at all. Perhaps Tennyson would have included some poems by John Clare, say, if the collection had been published a few decades later, but it took the next generation of poets to begin Clare’s rehabilitation. Clare does feature in John Hayward’s Penguin Book of English Verse (1956), but is the solitary dialect poet chosen. By the seventies he is joined by Hugh MacDiarmid, a fixture from then on, who makes his first appearance in Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973), represented there by four poems. Though only one of these is in Scots dialect, Larkin also finds room for a poem by Robert Garioch, which is all the more surprising given Larkin’s later claim that he “hadn’t included dialect poems”, since, as he’d already explained in a terse Preface, he had wished to exclude any poems “requiring a glossary for their full understanding”. Whether you sympathise with this or not, it’s difficult to reconcile with Garioch’s verse (“chairge t’gi’in, it aw comes aff the Rates.’ / ’Ah ddae-ken whu’ the pplace is comin tae / wi aw thae, hechyuch! fforeign po’entates.”), though it’s also no facetiousness to question whether, beyond the obvious difference in appearance, these lines are really that much less obscure than, for example,
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
Larkin, the great jazz-loving racist, famously liked to play the contrarian. He’s to be commended for his inclusion, in the same anthology, of poems by Derek Walcott (including ‘Tales of the Islands’, which includes Saint Lucian dialect in direct speech), but while it’s easy to see what Larkin admired about Walcott I think it’s no less clear why he ignored – not missed. Larkin read everything – John Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford don’, published five years before the anthology began to be compiled. Here’s Agard:
I ent have no gun
I ent have no knife
but mugging de Queen’s English
is the story of my life
I don’t need no axe
to split/ up yu syntax
I dont need no hammer
to mash/ up yu grammar
There was in fact a clear unpleasant logic behind Larkin’s championing of black musicians four thousand miles away and his distaste and fear of Caribbean (and other) immigrants to Britain. Especially noteworthy here is that while the sentiments of Agard’s poem would clearly have been deeply alarming to Larkin even in standard English, they are amplified tenfold, as in ‘I Coming Back’, by the use of dialect.
The low profile of dialect poetry in twentieth-century anthologies says much about how it was regarded by the literary establishment, yet a more refined truth is revealed by the one great exception. 1971 saw the publication of The Faber Book of Popular Verse, edited by Geoffrey Grigson. This anthology is full of dialect verse, the anomaly explained by that word ‘popular’, for which read, as Grigson makes explicit in his Introduction, ‘not literary’. The fact is, of course, that dialect poetry never ceased to be written, but it was only deemed passable in certain contexts; if there seemed a risk of its intruding upon highbrow literary culture, it was usually belittled and dismissed. Here I’m tempted to agree with Larkin that much blame lies with the modernists, but it could also be argued that the fin-de-siecle schism between popular and ‘high’ writing was simply the most widely felt and recent tremor along a cultural fault line that goes back to the seventeenth century at least, this fault itself being, finally, only one aspect of our human nature so prone to jealousy, greed and division. Given that the treatment of dialect poetry is so bound up with pervasive prejudices concerning who has the power and the ‘right’ to be heard, there’s no need to ask why straight white male hegemons have long associated non-standard language with the juvenile, the feminine and the queer. (This isn’t only an English phenomenon. On a recent visit to Valencia a local man confessed to me that he was embarrassed to speak Valenciano because it was tagged by Spanish speakers as “a little girl language”.)
So it is that dialect poetry was smiled on indulgently when used in the nursery yet mocked and proscribed in the high halls
So it is that dialect poetry was smiled on indulgently when used in the nursery yet mocked and proscribed in the high halls. Even now, during a historically unprecedented boom in published poetry written by women, female poets can be forgiven for suspecting that this ‘acceptance’ into the mainstream is at times liable to be both grudging and double-edged. The long association between dialect poetry and alterity and queerness perhaps explains why many female poets seem drawn to its subversive potential. Some of the most powerful and affecting dialect poems I know are the seven poems in Geordie included in Jen Campbell’s The Girl Aquarium. My favourite of them, ‘Netted’, recounts the capture of two queer girls in a homophobic attack:
And then they caught us.
Eyes shoutin like they was radio.
Me hair aal up in their fists
like a cloud […]
Campbell has written that the Geordie dialect is both musical and brutal in a way that standard English cannot be, and both of these qualities are evident in her dialect words and rhythms. Elsewhere, in an account of her poetic process, she has explicitly linked dialect with the forbidden, the secret and the exciting: Geordie “feels like a secret language to me – almost Polari-esque …”
‘Listen Mr Oxford don’ was eventually anthologised in Paul Keegan’s New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000) which as well as Garioch and the ubiquitous MacDiarmid is significant also for its inclusion of Tom Leonard’s ‘Six O’ Clock News’, no less than Agard’s poem a direct attack on RP and standard English, and a great inspiration to dialect poets of later generations:
this is thi
six a clock
man said n
a talk wia
iz coz yi
mi ti talk
In retrospect, Keegan’s anthology can perhaps be seen as a marker buoy for the turning tide of dialect poetry’s fortunes in mainstream publishing. For today it seems to be everywhere, and everywhere feted. Think of Liz Berry’s Black Country (2014) which won the Forward Prize for best first collection, or again of Jen Campbell, recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for The Girl Aquarium. Further north, Shetland dialect seems to be in rude health, with Roseanne Watts’ Moder Dy having recently won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, not to mention that the largest secondary school in Shetland, Anderson High, holds an annual dialect writing competition.
Meanwhile at the other end of the archipelago, a little stardust has been added by P. J. Harvey’s Orlam, a verse-novel in the dialect of her native Dorset. In my own home of South Wales, Mike Jenkins and David Hughes write in the dialects of Merthyr and Swansea, respectively, and Jenkins is editing a soon-to-be published anthology of Welsh dialect poetry, gloriously titled Yer Ower Voices! Wales represents a special case in considerations of dialect poetry, since in parts of the country, uniquely in the UK, bilingualism has been the norm for centuries. It might perhaps be assumed that the long and ongoing effort to maintain Cymraeg as a living language would leave little energy over for concern with dialect forms of English, but in fact the long cohabitation of different Welshes and Englishes within a small country, along with a complicated history of internal labour migration, has produced a rich hybridity that is increasingly being celebrated. Not only accents but English dialect words still differ between places as near to one another as Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot, many of these being influenced in morphology, usage or both by an ultimate derivation in Cymraeg. Mike Jenkins points out that in South Wales “people are not ‘related’ but ‘belonging’ just like the Cymraeg of ‘perthyn‘. You can still ‘lose’ rather than ‘miss’ the bus, just like the Welsh ‘colli‘.” And this is even before we consider the effect of rhythm and cadence. So strongly accented is the English of the Merthyr area that when Jenkins and his family first moved there “we actually thought most people were speaking Welsh.”
I arrange to meet up with David Hughes in Swansea’s Queen’s Hotel, a long-time haunt of poets and other artists, and formerly a place where Swansea dialect would have been thick in the air between the dockers, fishermen and workers at the various foundries and copperworks that made the city’s name. It’s mid-afternoon and the bar is only half-full, mostly with retirees and tradesman on a break. I hear no dialect, though the accent is evident enough. David has arrived before me and thoughtfully bought the first round. We’ve met a couple of times before, at poetry readings and also by chance in the street. He has published two books of poems, Tidy Boy in 1998 and last year’s Working Out. Although mostly in standard English, both collections also contain poems representing the Swansea dialect and accent. The opening stanza of the poem ‘Tidy Boy’ gives a good flavour:
We woz kids tgether, frommer same street.
I sat nex towim ry threw jewnyers.
Ewster goter play up iz ouse a lot,
iz mam never said nuthin much twuz;
iz ole manad buggud off yurzago.
Air woz oney im an iz mam inny ouse.
E wozquiet like, butter tidy boy.
We observe due silence for the first swig and then I ask David what tips the balance one way or the other when he’s deciding between standard and dialect. His reply evinces the familiar blend of politics and aesthetics. The challenge of replicating how people actually speak can be rewarding, he says, but there is also an evident and readily admitted reticence about using Swansea dialect, which since David has spent almost all his life in the city has more to do with social class than location per se. Does he ‘own’ this dialect? Well, it’s complicated. David is “not a Swansea Jack” – not, that is, an unselfconsciously working-class son of the city – and he would never masquerade as one. And when he does use dialect he’s always aware that with this authority comes responsibility. I ask about one of my favourite of the Working Out poems, ‘Livin’, in which voice is given to a local boy diving off a marina bridge for kicks (“I’m shootin down, down / Airza rushin an roarin im my ead / like someone turned both taps on full im myurrs / sorl churnin an bubblin”). David says he’s conscious that dialect is often used only for humorous effect, belying an implicit prejudice that it is too lightweight to convey other kinds of experience. He resists this tendency and, yes, ‘Livin’ might be an example of that. Mostly though, once he’d had the idea for the poem – that is, known it would be about someone jumping into the dock – it would have seemed completely wrong not to use a dialect voice.
This is the kind of answer I come across time and again when interviewing, or reading interviews with, poets who use dialect: politics of one sort or another is always a factor, but so is the artistic instinct for what the poem demands
This is the kind of answer I come across time and again when interviewing, or reading interviews with, poets who use dialect: politics of one sort or another is always a factor, but so is the artistic instinct for what the poem demands. Sometimes, to be sure, these may be barely separable, the poem as an autonomous language-thing being almost entirely determined by the subject or occasion (the ‘content’). Yet when the politics is less pressing, the poem is freer to choose its own clothes. When asked whether he had made a conscious decision to write his poem ‘Valley Prince’ in Creole dialect, Mervyn Morris replied that, no, “It just came naturally […] I drafted it in standard English. I started writing it in standard and somehow that’s not the voice I felt it wanted”. Especially in the current climate of crude pigeonholing (and self-pigeonholing) on the basis of group identity, it’s vital that room is allowed for what Morris here acknowledges.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we should ever think of poetry as ‘free’ of literary and wider cultural traditions, all variously freighted with historically conditioned traps, taboos and obligations. After that powerful experience with ‘I Coming Back’, I began reading as widely as I could among Caribbean-born or second-generation British poets. Many I read used dialect both as a way of maintaining their connection to the places and experiences of their forbears, and also to honour more recent predecessors whose work made this continuity possible. Hence, for example, the dues paid in the writing of Moqapie Selassie, Linton Kwesi Johnson and others to pioneers such as Jean Breeze and Louise Bennett. The very presence of Caribbean poets in Britain is of course inseparable from the barbarity of the Transatlantic trade in human lives that was itself a development of the same centralisation of power which, in a very different manifestation, resulted in standard English. Writing in Caribbean English dialects could therefore hardly fail to be a political act on multiple levels, beginning with the terrible irony of children in ‘the colonies’ having had to learn poems about knights palely loitering by sedgy lakes and so on. The paradox of exposure to (sometimes) great poetry being obliged by an essentially racist hegemony poses challenges to subtlety that our present critical culture often seems unable to accommodate, and in these circumstances one could do far worse then go back to the poetry of Bennett and Breeze, Agard, Walcott and Brathwaite, to be reminded of the infinite unpredictability of human responses to broadly the same inheritance, a complexity which testifies without contradiction both to the omnipresence of cultural politics and the ability of individuals to discover and express their own more-than-political uniqueness through poetry.
I took that job at Birmingham Schools’ Library Service while I was still in my last year at school. In English, where I sat next to my friend Nick, we were reading ‘Lenore’ by Poe, with its arresting opening line “Ah, broken is the golden bowl!” Nick was a great mimic and good with accents, and one afternoon while we were trying to memorise the poem he suddenly shifted to Brummie dialect: “Ah, bostid is the golden bowel!” I think I laughed so hard that I nearly bostid my own bowels, but in much later retrospect I realised that I preferred ‘bostid’, partly because it brought Poe’s rather high-flying register back down to earth but also because the word felt like it had more juice and snap in it than the standard English ‘broken’.
Jen Campbell has said of the Geordie dialect that it “feels truthful,” and this ability of dialect poetry to “cut through pomposity and ‘reflect a no bullshit’ stance” (Jenkins) is surely one of the attributes we recognise and value most about it. Not that there’s any excuse for reverse snobbery: nobody who has attempted to write poetry will need telling that language is a bastard, and whatever else it may be there’s no reason to think that dialect poetry is any more ‘pure’ than most standard usage. MacDiarmid is a case in point, whose avowedly ‘Synthetic Scots’ was an ingenious broth of many different local Scottish dialects plus ‘literary’ words he retrieved and revived from Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary.
Language, in short, is a living thing, and for as long as dialects are valued and nurtured there remains a powerful counterweight to the hollow rhetoric of the board-rooms, syllabuses and consultancies
But if the stuff of dialect Englishes has no claim to purity over standard English we might nonetheless admit that the effect of dialect is often to restore life and colour to a language which in its standard and ‘received’ form increasingly seems blanched, abstract and remote. This condition of our language’s standard form should be of concern to everyone, and it’s worth asking, often, and from as many perspectives as possible, why it should be so. Nick’s dialect rendition of ‘Lenore’ would not have stood out as comical if in school we already spoke with Birmingham accents. But this was a grammar school, where dialect and the local accent had no place. This struck me recently when in turn I was singing ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba’ tat’ to my own son, soon after reading for pleasure some essays of Larkin. Why didn’t Larkin, Auden and Hughes, that great Yorkshire triumvirate, attempt to represent in poetry the speech habits of their native county? No mystery: all were exclusively schooled and primed for Oxbridge. There is, it seems, no escape from the ‘class’ prejudices of English. Nevertheless, at a time when standard English itself is beset by empty new jargons and increasing automation, dialect and standard Englishes, instead of being set against each other, should be valued and renewed together. Standard English needs the vitality, unpredictability and recalcitrance of dialects more than ever before.
In one of his essays on the history of Western thought, Isaiah Berlin writes of the French philosophes that they “proposed to rationalise communication by inventing a universal language free of the irrational survivals, the idiosyncratic twists and turns, the capricious peculiarities of existing tongues”. Then, in a remark that holds as good now as in the era of Voltaire or his own mid-twentieth-century context, Berlin warns that “if they were to succeed, this would be disastrous, for it is precisely the individual historical development of a language that belongs to a people that absorbs, enshrines and encapsulates a vast wealth of half-conscious, half-remembered collective experience.” Language, in short, is a living thing, and for as long as dialects are valued and nurtured there remains a powerful counterweight to the hollow rhetoric of the board-rooms, syllabuses and consultancies. Innit?
* “Can you kick a ball against a wall and head it till it bursts?”
Steven Lovatt would like to thank all of the writers who gave their time during the preparation of this essay, particularly David Hughes, Jen Campbell and Mike Jenkins.