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’.

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