Dialect does it

Blake Morrison

  • No Mate for the Magpie by Frances Molloy
    Virago, 170 pp, £7.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 86068 594 2
  • The Mysteries by Tony Harrison
    Faber, 229 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 571 13789 X
  • Ukulele Music by Peter Reading
    Secker, 103 pp, £3.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 40986 0
  • Hard Lines 2 edited by Ian Dury, Pete Townshend, Alan Bleasdale and Fanny Dubes
    Faber, 95 pp, £2.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 571 13542 0
  • No Holds Barred: The Raving Beauties choose new poems by women edited by Anna Carteret, Fanny Viner and Sue Jones-Davies
    Women’s Press, 130 pp, £2.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7043 3963 3
  • Katerina Brac by Christopher Reid
    Faber, 47 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13614 1
  • Skevington’s Daughter by Oliver Reynolds
    Faber, 88 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13697 4
  • Rhondda Tenpenn’orth by Oliver Reynolds
    10 pence
  • Trio 4 by Andrew Elliott, Leon McAuley and Ciaran O’Driscoll
    Blackstaff, 69 pp, £3.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 85640 333 4
  • Mama Dot by Fred D’Aguiar
    Chatto, 48 pp, £3.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2957 3
  • The Dread Affair: Collected Poems by Benjamin Zephaniah
    Arena, 112 pp, £2.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 09 939250 X
  • Long Road to Nowhere by Amryl Johnson
    Virago, 64 pp, £2.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 86068 687 6
  • Mangoes and Bullets by John Agard
    Pluto, 64 pp, £3.50, August 1985, ISBN 0 7453 0028 6
  • Ragtime in Unfamiliar Bars by Ron Butlin
    Secker, 51 pp, £3.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 07810 4
  • True Confessions and New Clichés by Liz Lochhead
    Polygon, 135 pp, £3.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 904919 90 0
  • Works in the Inglis Tongue by Peter Davidson
    Three Tygers Press, 17 pp, £2.50, June 1985
  • Wild Places: Poems in Three Leids by William Neill
    Luath, 200 pp, £5.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 946487 11 1

Poetry written in dialect seems to be undergoing a resurgence. Tony Harrison has made extensive use of Northern idioms. Tom Paulin has been busy raiding Ulster (and, I suspect, Scottish) dictionaries. Craig Raine has produced a manifesto, ‘Babylonish Dialects’, on dialect’s behalf. And several of the books under review here – by Scots, Welshmen and British West Indians – cannot be read without the glossaries which they thoughtfully provide. Such a resurgence may have a socio-political motive: at a time when the Government is imposing ‘centrality’, dialect is a way of fighting local corners, a way for the regions to remind the capital that they are no longer speaking the same language. In other poets, dialect stems simply from a frustration with standard English, which – by keeping a civil tongue in its head – is felt not to get enough said. Whatever the motives, poetry in dialect appears to go against the modern grain: against Imagism, which was also imagisme, a café society for the exiled, a glut or polyglut of purified observations recognising no race or creed; against the Esperanto of Thirties poetry with its depiction of a world struggle between Communism and Fascism; against the Fifties Movement school, which was provincial but not regional, scornful of ‘Lallans mongers’ and ‘Welsh valley babblers’ alike. But the underlying assumptions that Modernism and Europeanism look (progressively) to the future, while dialect and nationalism are (retrogressively) infatuated with the past, don’t square up with 20th-century practice. Lawrence and Joyce held onto their roots even in exile, and there was always MacDiarmid, whose ‘Gairmscoile’ stands the Modernist argument on its head:

It’s soon’, no’ sense, that faddoms the herts o’ men,
And by my sangs the rouch auld Scots I ken
E’en herts that ha’e nae Scots‘ll dirl richt thro’
As nocht else could – for here’s a language rings
Wi’ datchie sesames, and names for nameless things.

Dialect here becomes the true cosmopolitanism: if MacDiarmid is to be believed, it’s possible to appreciate ‘The Watergaw’ without knowing what a watergaw is, let alone what is meant by yow-trummle, antrin, chitterin’, onding, laverock and the other unfamiliar words crammed into that poem’s 12 lines. The argument is suspect, but then so are other things about MacDiarmid’s Synthetic Scots and Caledonian Antisyzygy. More than once he was accused of dictionary-grubbing: the drunk man looking at a thistle speaks under the influence of Jamieson’s – the dictionary, not the Scotch. There’s disingenuousness also in that Whitmanesque world-embrace: like most poets who wrote in dialect, MacDiarmid used it to nourish his identity with the clan (in his case with the ‘commons of Scotland’) and enjoyed the feeling of leaving certain readers out in the cold. (Seamus Heaney expresses a similar tribal exultation in his place-name poem ‘Broagh’ over ‘that last gh the strangers found difficult to manage’.) The attraction of dialect for poets is that it conceals as well as lays open: the private or parochial is smuggled into a public context to general bafflement but local delight. This is what the Beatles accomplished in their song ‘Penny Lane’, which would never have been allowed on the BBC had the Governors understood the meaning of ‘finger pie’ – Northern sexual slang which was taken in the South as a piece of merry surrealism.

Dialect must always be subversive of something, then: but need it serve regional interests? When Craig Raine asserts that ‘all great poetry is written in dialect ... Most bad poetry is written in the dialect of the previous age,’ he may be felt to be cheating a bit: ‘dialect’ here means diction, or idiom, or idiolect. But this fits Raine’s own poetic practice – he has written poems in Polynesian erotospeak and corrupt Anglo-Saxon – which lays claim to dialect as it might to any other specialist language (philosophy, botany, geology – or even nonsense) that can enlarge the poet’s linguistic resources. Perhaps this is the proper unillusioned approach. Dialect can scarcely be the ‘natural’ tongue of any poet nowadays, and in practice faces him or her with familiar choices in respect of obscurity and clarity: how much should the reader be made to take, ought there to be a glossary, ‘ee by gum’ or ‘eeh baah gum’? (The issues are raised by William Neill when he prints two versions of the same poem on facing pages, both in dialect but one a good deal more dialectal than the other.) Since poets are not etymologists they may play fast and loose, as MacDiarmid did when assembling some of his lyrics from single pages of Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary. Yet MacDiarmid’s use of dialect was a political act, an assertion on behalf of the socially and culturally underprivileged. And dialect which is not political in intent risks being merely dandyish – a tease, a riddle, a piece of quaint archaism like Tennyson’s ‘The Northern Farmer’. It’s no coincidence that the main dialect in British poetry today comes from the West Indians and Northern Irish, whose communities have had the greatest experience of political disadvantage and unrest. Black poets here are less reluctant than white to give vent to their frustrations – they don’t recognise didacticism as a ‘problem’.

Nor does Tom Paulin, who as a critic is much concerned with British and Irish politics, and as a poet mixes references to B-Specials with words like glooby and glubbed. Something similar if less intellectually demanding can be found in Frances Molloy’s novel No Mate for the Magpie, which is written in dialect and follows its heroine from babyhood through convent to civil rights marches. The unfamiliar words are few (wheen, wain, sheoghe – the last, ‘changeling’, beautifully applied to the narrator’s father on his release from a long jail sentence), so that by the end the phonetic oddities are scarcely noticeable. This might not have pleased MacDiarmid, who would have wanted us to remain aware that dialect is stubbornly different, but in Molloy’s novel forgetting about the dialect is part of our growing intimacy with the heroine, Ann, who is a sort of feminist Huck or Holden Caulfield abroad among the absurdities and hypocrisies of her elders and betters. One of these is the seemingly kind priest who employs her as a housekeeper: ‘He brought me roun’ the house then te show me me duties, an’ a was not a bit surprised to learn that he had only been tryin’ te con me inte thinkin’ he was poor when he landed te interview me in hes oul raggy suit an’ wile holy shoes.’ Molloy exploits one of the strengths of dialect, its capacity to expose the pretensions of the well-spoken. But where does that leave the standard-bearers of English?

Well, it depends where in England one comes from. Tony Harrison, a working-class Yorkshireman, has probably done more than anyone to revive the use of the vernacular. His poetry accommodates what he calls the ‘hang-cur ur-grunt of the weak’; it has a metrical clumpingness (as of miners trudging home) but also a sophistication that discovers every last pun and nuance in that ur (ur/er/Ur/erred/heard). Nothing is sacred: he wishes RP to RIP; his translation of The Mysteries reminds us that in the Medieval productions of these plays God spoke with a Yorkshire accent (‘Ah wicked worm! Woe worth thee aye!’). It’s held against Harrison in some quarters that he should work with such hopelessly ‘élitist’ bourgeois forms as the iambic pentameter and Meredithian sonnet. But loaded with his grouses and grudges, they’re radically changed: neither form will ever be quite the same again.

Few English poets, even those with impeccable regional qualifications, share Harrison’s grievance. Where does this leave them? Still, it seems, frustrated by the proprieties of standard English. In the 1950s the Movement poets sought to show that a plain tongue could be civilised and elegant, but in Larkin genteel forms are increasingly played off against the demotic: fuck, balls, cock, cunt – this is Larkin’s equivalent of dialect. Nowadays Peter Reading is offering something similar, inserting into a great variety of verse-forms a language that is coarse, prosey and, some say, as they at first said about Larkin, scarcely the language of poetry at all. Reading’s vernacular England isn’t to be found in the quality papers, but in the tabloids and local advertisers. (It isn’t to be found in contemporary British poetry either, except in such anthologies as Hard Lines and No Holds Barred, which solicit contributions from the public and have been rewarded with strong stuff from Andy Pearmain, Pat Condell, Attila the Stockbroker, Dorothy Byrne and Beverley Ireland.) Ukulele Music has three main characters – the poet strumming his instrument, an illiterate charlady, an ancient rambling sea-captain. Together with assorted news-clippings, they bear witness to contemporary brutalities: two muggers slashing an eight-month-old baby with a broken bottle; small boys on a bridge dropping lemonade bottles onto pedestrians; the robbery and rape of a woman of 88; gang warfare, vandalism, uriniferous subways, bent policemen.

Roger Scruton devoted a Times column to a crude misreading of a poem by Reading about Lebanon, a controversy to which Ukulele Music alludes. Reading’s charlady supplies a suitable retort to Scruton – ‘When we want you to chirp up matey, we’ll rattle the cage’ – and Reading himself deals with the accusation of gratuitous violence: ‘Too black and over the top, though, is what the Actual often happens to be.’ The book’s bleak epigraph says that ‘few atrocities of which H. sap can conceive remain unfulfilled,’ but Reading is more like Betjeman than Francis Bacon, and he convinces you that he is neither subconsciously attracted to the degradations he describes nor writing from the standpoint of ‘beetrooty colonels’ who want ‘to get this Great Country back on its feet’. A difficult balancing act, but Reading is one of our most technically inventive poets – the new book uses and discusses a form called Alcmanics (or is it Alcaics?) – and one of the few to describe our current impoverishments.

Christopher Reid’s interrogation of language expresses itself in an interest in translationese. Katerina Brac seems to have arisen from a long immersion in Oxford and Penguin books of verse in translation. Its language is a kind of anti-dialect – English, but a neutral, delocalised English which serves to bring us the work of an imaginary foreign poet. We are never told Katerina’s nationality: references to excessive officialdom and a description of what seems to be a tank or armoured vehicle –

an olive-green van
and its four-ways-facing lily
strafing the boulevards

– suggest that she may be Eastern European, but, as with everything else about Katerina, we cannot be sure. ‘I write poems and make the best of what I have’ is as much as she will tell us. The haunting thing about the book is what’s missing from it, what it refrains from giving away, and absence is also an effect of the language, which isn’t bad but too colourlessly correct, continually alerting us to the poetry that has been lost in translation. This makes us want to read Katerina in the original – except that there is no original, which is precisely the point. If the name ‘Brac’, as in bric-à-brac, suggests that Katerina may be an artistic curiosity, it also suggests dross – and in truth we are never convinced that Katerina is a major talent, though the Faber blurb and catalogue insist that she deserves to be better-known both here and in her own country.

All this may make the book sound tricksy, spoof-like, Nabokovian. But what is likable and impressive is that Reid refuses the obvious supercilious devices. Katerina Brac is not parody, satire or pastiche: the poems are simple and all of a piece, written with the exhilaration of someone who has been set free, through a persona, to be himself. Reid is Katerina’s inventor, not her go-between, yet his book is indeed ‘translation’ – a transcending of former methods and mannerisms. Reid has used exclamation-marks before but never so innocently as to begin a poem, ‘So the muse of history is a man!’ or to end one, ‘How sad!’ And he has used pastoral before, but never so beautifully as in the opening poem about butterflies over a strawberry field:

For a week they came
lighting on our favoured blooms,
as detachable as earrings ...

Such description doesn’t help us to know Katerina, and the recalcitrant reader may feel that, having invented a persona, Reid should have given us more to go on: like Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot, Katerina remains an enigma. There is a new genre here: the taking on of characters who aren’t characterised. Both books refuse to be confessional, preferring to offer their narrators’ observations – Braithwaite, for instance, on cross-Channel ferries, Brac on the reprehensible perfection of Chinese pots:

Forgive me if I prefer the pieces
on other shelves: bottles with cricked
necks, and the jar that dribbles
its glaze like a sloppily fed baby.

Even more moving are the broken patterns
of pots that wanted to be earth again.

Reid has been bracketed with Craig Raine, but the alien quality of this book lies less in faux-naif visual parallels than in the eerie detachment of the language and the strange familiarity of Brac’s landscapes. Oliver Reynolds is another Faber poet with Martian smatterings; his long opening poem, ‘Victoriana’, ends lamely in a blind alley with the image of glue globules on the pages of a book: ‘braille tracks healing the torn paper’. But the poem has a good story to tell – about the visit of Dr Murray to one of his OED contributors, whose home turns out to be Broadmoor – and tells it with chilling assurance, not least in the pacing and line-breaks. Reynolds is learned and laconic and his mind leaps about a bit, a combination which makes some of his poems difficult: the links aren’t explained, the endings can seem inconclusive. A first section of anecdotes and at times aridly worked-out metaphors gives way to a section about family photographs, some of it rewardingly intimate, some portentous – the camera shutter as ‘scythe’ and ‘axe’. The best of the book, apart from ‘Victoriana’, comes in the third section, where each poem has a title in Welsh and records some aspect of the language, including Reynolds’s own struggles to learn it on an extra-mural course, earphones and all:

Each has his reason to be here
Speaking through declenched teeth:
I thought it time to stop
Welshing on the language
And learn about roots,
If only etymological ones.

The word-play shows how far this Welsh poet lies from R.S. Thomas, if not from Dylan. There is no solemn stuff about belonging, no smack of loam or pit-dirt. If the use of language as subject-matter recalls Heaney in Wintering Out, the jokey juxtaposition of national matters and erotic ones is more like Paul Muldoon. ‘Pobl y Cwm’, for instance (‘people of the valley’), records changes in the Rhondda through terrible puns (‘We’ve no news of King Coal’) and an outrageous final conceit:

They’re expanding
The factory at Merthyr
That makes Janet Reger
Luxury Lingerie.

Anthracite is reclaimed
By the dictionary.
We read our future
In the bottom of a D-cup.

Thus my fingers fighting Gordius
Behind your back and up your blouse
Busy themselves with nothing less
Than the plight of Welsh industry.

Those who find this too playful and show-off may prefer ‘Rhondda Tenpenn’orth’. Reynolds had this folding pamphlet of ten poems printed at his own expense for local consumption; it can be bought in Cardiff bookshops. It shows the poet in a more politicised mood, satirical about Government attitudes to Welsh unemployment, more reverent towards place. Reynolds has emerged suddenly, out of a reviving Welsh literary scene, with a book, a pamphlet and a prize-winning poem called ‘Rorschach Writing’. He is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Faber’s blurb informs us that Reynolds is ‘only 28’, and that ‘only’ shows how the maximum age for precocity in poets has been allowed to rise: one can be ‘young’ and ‘promising’ up to 40, a relief for late starters. But Andrew Elliott, in the Trio 4 collection, is ‘only’ 24: the best of these three Northern Irish poets, he is a mellifluous teller of fairytales, though in a downbeat idiom. Fred D’Aguiar, meanwhile, who was born in London but brought up in Guyana, is ‘only’ 25. It shows a bit. The poems in English are awkward in syntax, uppity, rough at the edges. He writes more fluently in dialect, but not with the sing-song confidence of Benjamin Zephaniah. Many of his poems recapture moments from childhood; others feature a larger-than-life mother/grandmother called Mama Dot, whose love, humour, stoicism and superstition are proper cause for celebration:

Old Mama Dot
old mama Dot
boss a de stew-pot
she nah deal in vat
she nah bap
no style
so stop
look at Mama Dot
windin on de spot.

D’Aguiar is not a ‘performance poet’ – the unostentatious play on ‘vat’ and ‘VAT’ makes that abundantly clear. Indeed, he’s a rather crabbed, bookish writer at present, though in ways that augur a good deal. Nonetheless, his poems, like those of Zephaniah, Amryl Johnson and John Agard, need to be read aloud to have their full impact. A white British reviewer should be cautious about praising West Indian poets for their music and rhythm, but the point is only MacDiarmid’s over again: these poets rely heavily on sound to break down English pieties and ‘sense’. More than half their work is in standard English, but they invariably write more interestingly in dialect. Their motives, though, vary widely: from Zephaniah’s angry attack on the good old kicking British policeman –

I got me up and took me to de place fe human rights
a notice on de door said ‘Sorry we are closed tonight’
so I turn round and took myself to see de preacher guy
who told me ’bout some heaven
dat was in de bloody sky,
now I don’t wa’ to kid myself
but I don’t think I’m free
if I’m free den why does he
keep fucking kicking me –

to Amryl Johnson’s affectionate portrait of a granny wrangling with a market stallholder –

De yam good?

Old lady, get yuh nails outta meh yam!
Ah mad tuh make yuh buy it now you damage it so bad

Dis yam look like de one dat did come off ah de ark

She brother in de Botanical Gardens up dey by Queens Park

Tourists with dey camera comin’ from all over de worl’
takin’ pictures dey never hear any yam could be dat ole

– to the ironies of John Agard’s ‘Palm Tree King’:

Because I come from the West Indies
certain people in England seem to think
I is a expert on palm trees

If much of this lacks sophistication, that too seems to be a choice, as if to say: elegance is something the oppressed cannot afford. But there is room for humour.

Certainly the West Indians in Britain offer a livelier counter-tradition at present than the Scots, who have the shade of MacDiarmid to contend with. Ron Butlin’s Ragtime in Unfamiliar Bars shows the dangers of refusing the Penny Wheep challenge: a love poetry of clouds, painted cities and imaginary palaces, the language too often vapid and solipsistic, using reach-me-down Anglophone rhymes like ‘folly’ and ‘brolly’. (A vigorous patriotic exception is ‘Argentina 1978’, in which the poet takes a pass from Bruce Rioch and finds himself with only the keeper to beat ‘and the World Cup as good as on the mantelpiece’: but this is poetry and Butlin is destined to fluff the chance.) Liz Lochhead is a gutsier talent, but the songs, raps and satires in True Confessions, a selection of her stage revues, hit predictable targets and predictable rhymes. Peter Davidson is something else again, a poet seeking consciously to revive the ‘Inglis’ (i.e. Scots) tongue. His small pamphlet includes a ‘gutter song’ but there is nothing populist about the writing. Davidson is an austere, tightly reined and rather academic poet moved by imagery of kirk and court, rather like a Scottish Geoffrey Hill:

Day updawis, shaddois flee
Be thou as the Hairt tae me
Upon the high hill Bethery
Blintering floor o’ Sharon’s rose
Like glaur and stoor warld’s glory goes
Tae haud nor bield it nae man knows ...

For all their delicacy, such poems look antiquated alongside MacDiarmid’s, who meant not to raise Lazarus but to say in Scots what could not be said in English. Davidson’s is not a ‘rouch’ tongue but a courtly one – though such a distinction would not be allowed by Jane Stevenson, who contributes an intelligent introduction to the pamphlet, invoking MacDiarmid and erecting some formidable battlements for her fragile protégé:

The virtues and capacities of the Northern tradition are quite different from the mainstream of English poetry. They reflect, among other things, a greater mutual knowledge and sympathy between the top and bottom ends of the social structure. While they certainly possessed a strong sense of hierarchy, the nobility of Scotland were rarely in the position to distance themselves entirely from the peasantry, even had they wished to. The popular songs and ballads were known and loved by lairds as well as ploughmen. According to Lindsay of Pitscottie, James IV ‘wald oftymeis ludge in poore mens houssis as he had bene ane travelland man throw the contre’, in order to understand his subjects’ point of view ... Some of the vitality of even the most courtly poetry of Dunbar comes from its rooting in native speech-rhythms and metres. This tradition offers the possibility of moving from crystalline elegance to earthy immediacy, with an equal enjoyment of both. An English poet attempting the same feat would risk preciosity, vulgarity or bathos ...

Historians will be able to judge whether this is not an idealised portrait. The familiar populist claim for dialect makes an appearance in the passage, but so does the less usual suggestion that dialect may be fit for a king. The motive here is a perfectly honourable one: Ms Stevenson means to anticipate the charge that Davidson’s poetry looks excessively genteel. But the manoeuvres of the passage are a reminder that dialect can be hijacked by any political group. The Left loves its democratising accents, but it can also become a property of last-ditch patriotism, like the National Front enlisting Camelot and Tolkien.

In William Neill’s Wild Places dialect sometimes looks like mere folksiness, the equivalent of a kilt or Highland fling: it springs from the same nationalistic feeling that makes him write rhapsodies for Burns and Iona, attack the map-makers for having Anglicised Gaelic place-names, and lament that farms have declined to the point where they are run by tractors and women – ‘the wife hersel was loupan roun in breeks.’ But Neill is not simply a crusty Calvinist. A Lowland Scot who gained the Bardic Crown in 1969; a rural poet who sings ironically of being a ‘Laureate of the Bumpkins’; a nationalist no less scornful of his countrymen than of London pseuds – the contradictions get into the poetry, which at its best thinks aloud intelligently and at worst is articulate in its prejudices. The book ends with some anti-English broadsheets, but Neill is most persuasive not as a satirising patriot but as a Hardyesque countryman, who notices morning frost, a caterpillar looped in the road, sunset on the fells. Alan Bold overstates the case for Neill in his introduction, but this is the man’s sixth collection and it does seem remarkable that he is not known in England, even by exiled Scots. It can’t, however, surprise Neill, who would feel uncomfortable if ‘yon Oxbridge-cum-Westminster band’ were to take him to its bosom. It is a familiar problem for dialect poets, for whom the desire to establish the claims of their tongue is at odds with the fear of becoming Established.