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The Trouble with Dialect

By Harriet Staff

Over at Slate, poet Robert Pinsky has a thought-provoking piece on America’s least known most famous poet, Edgar Guest (1881-1959). Back in the day, Guest sold a million copies of his book, hosted a weekly radio show, and had his poems syndicated in newspapers across the country. Today, few people remember his name or his folksy, sentimental verse (reputedly skewered by Dorothy Parker in a rhyme that referenced a common test for syphilis: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.”)

Pinsky is less interested in Guest’s fleeting fame than in the fact that he wrote in dialect, a literary technique with a limited shelf life and a sometimes icky aftertaste, especially when employed by a relatively well-off British-born dude to evoke the simple, home-spun language of rural Americans. Pinsky gently dissects the strange blend of reverence and condescension at work in Guest’s poems:

Guest’s lyric style is calculated to imply that uneducated country people have special access to wisdom and a special grasp of what’s most important. His immense appeal for generations of readers was rooted in that populist idea, that true feeling and insight come from plain, unschooled country people.

But Pinsky pushes his argument further, raising interesting questions (and providing few answers) about the enduring use of dialect in politics and music:

This example from poetry gives a fresh way to think about things so familiar we barely notice them: political candidates who drop their G’s, or popular singers from American (or British) cities who perform in the dialect of rural Tennessee or the Mississippi Delta. Even the exaggerated, defiant spellings of hip-hop may share something with the calculated, artful misspellings of Edgar Guest.

Read on for more analysis and t’ git a look-see at the poems. And speaking of hip-hop, the debate over its merits as poetry continues.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, October 6th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.