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Missing the Vernacular

By A.E. Stallings

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.

Comments (4)

  • On September 16, 2007 at 8:59 pm Ange wrote:

    Alicia, I agree completely. The idea that poetry *must* mimic “natural” speech rhythms is not only tired, but it is an nth generation travesty of WCW’s innovations.
    I’m looking forward to hearing more!

  • On September 18, 2007 at 3:39 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for commenting, Ange. It’s certainly an old debate. There’s the controversy over Lyrical Ballads where you have Wordsworth going on about how it was an “experiment” in “the real language of men”—though it is interesting that by “real” he apparently means the language of the lower and middle classes, and Coleridge arguing for the equal “reality” of the language of the imagination. Certainly how language is spoken energizes poetry, but poetry should not be limited to include only such rhythms and diction that certain arbiters determine is how the “people” speak. So often this leads to a homogenous diction and, worse, oversimplified syntax—the dull trudge of rank on rank of declarative sentences. Why not have an intensifying inversion, some tension in the syntax? Why not occasionally strive for the sublime? Why not allow some strangeness into the flavor of the English? The argument against such things seems reductive to me.

  • On September 19, 2007 at 9:37 am Henry Gould wrote:

    This is a fascinating issue you’re investigating. Writing has always been a hybrid : both a “translation” of oral speech, and something in its own right. It seems to me the poet sort of straddles this duality, & intensifies it.
    “Stilted”, “awkward”, “dull” – such negative terms can often be applied to either end of the spectrum (ornamental or “plain-spoken”).
    These and similar failures of style stem most often from the fact that the works that exhibit them harbor no inner necessity. They didn’t have to be written. They are imitations, in the bad sense. A poem that finds an authentic style – that “speaks” – was (it seems to me anyway) at some obscure level, a necessary utterance. (I’m trying to avoid that gol-danged term “sincerity”.)

  • On October 5, 2007 at 8:03 pm Don Share wrote:

    I thought I’d bump this thread up again, on the occasion of the latest installment of Don Paterson’s “The Lyric Principle” in the new Poetry Review (which also features Harriet’s own Danielle Chapman, writing on Paul Auster and C.D. Wright).
    I quote from this new section, subtitled “The Sound of Sense” –
    “‘No ideas but in things’ was bad enough; but the current advice to ‘keep it concrete, keep it simple,’ whatever its other faults, has been a musical disaster. [And this, in a footnote:] ‘Simple’ is often a call for syntax to be kept paratactic and straightforward. Well… tell that to Yeats and Shakespeare. It’s the syntax that betrays the subtlety and sophistication of the thought, and complexity needn’t mean a lack of clarity, or anything like it. Readers, I think, are bored senseless with poem after poem full of expository paratactic syntax; it patronizes them, and all but accuses them of being unable to follow an argument. Up with hypotaxis!”
    Any takers-on?


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, September 15th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.