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Missing the Vernacular
I guess I should introduce myself. I am an American poet (I grew up around Atlanta, and went to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia), but I have lived the past 8 years in Athens, Greece. (My husband is Greek—the old story.) There are problems and privileges in being an ex-pat poet. I am largely out of the loop for a lot of the professional poetry/MFA world in the US—AWP and so on. I think that is probably a privilege not to have to deal with all that. I can glimpse the Parthenon from my son’s playground. But there are problems, too. A poet lives in her mother tongue, and I live in exile from it. That isn’t to say that English isn’t all around Athens these days—in pop songs, television shows, movies, bad and agrammatical slogans on billboards and t-shirts. But I miss the real thing—the American vernacular, American as she is spoke.
I wonder if I am getting too far from it, and what that does to a poet. Greek grammar, words and expressions creep into the speech of nearly all the ex-pats I know here. I am trying to convince my son, for instance, that the phrase is to “turn on” a light rather than to “open” it—but perhaps it is a losing battle.
I am thankful for, say, the American energy of Dr. Seuss. There’s a little gem of a story, “What Was I Scared Of,” (about a spooky pair of pale green pants with nobody inside ‘em) that has some zippy quatrains like:
So I got out. I got out fast
As fast as I could go, sir.
I wasn’t scared. But pants like that
I did not care for. No sir.
That idiomatic use of “sir” there always makes me smile—though I suppose it is the vernacular of another generation.
I also recently reread All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and was electrified by the vernacular verve of the narrating voice. I first read it in high-school English class, when I was about the age, even younger, of Jack Burden in his summer flashbacks. Then I read it carried along by the story. Now I was rereading it at the age of Jack Burden as a narrator. A lifetime of difference. And now I was reading it as much for the language and the almost epic similes as the story.
Can a poet long survive cut off from the sources of his language? There are always books, but is it the same as overhearing real conversations in the mother tongue?
Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT of that camp that believes a poem must sound exactly how people think people talk. I don’t know it’s a charge that gets leveled against free-verse poems much. I suppose people think that if you are writing free verse and you use an inversion or elevated syntax or an archaism it is conscious and deliberate, arch perhaps or playful, whereas the assumption seems to be if you are doing it in a rhyming poem, it is because you are less than competent, and not in control. Surely we should get beyond that by now.
And I weary of hearing in on-line workshops, that a phrase shouldn’t be used because it isn’t how people speak—it isn’t “what we would say.”
For one thing, if you were to write a sonnet exactly the way some people speak, every rhyme word would be “like”. (And unless you are Romeo or Juliet, you probably don’t speak in sonnets anyway. It is all artifice.)
Do I think the “plain-spoken” impetus in poetry has gone to far? Yes. “Plain-spoken” often just means dull and listless and unimaginative writing. Real plain-spoken people are more imaginative than that. “Idiomatic” after all, is Greek for “individual,” for “peculiar.”
I remember a thousand years ago being in Athens, Georgia behind a women in line at a take-out place. The man behind the counter asked her if she was in a hurry. “Oh,” she said, “Just a slow hurry.”
I miss that.