I warned you about it last month, and now it's happened: this week I think I did more writing than reading, and in the rush of finishing up other sorts of prose about poets and poetry, I plumb ran out of new poetry-related discoveries of the sort that one would blog. I hope to bring back a few from what looks to be a very crowded AWP, but at least I've recovered enough to use the blog for what I've decided (in a literary context) fits blogs best: ideas & connections too unlicked to make confident essays, too chatty or too critical for poems, and too personal or spontaneous to become reviews. More Scots, Scotland, and Scottish poets again, and the telephonic origins of "Hello!"-- plus previews of upcoming interests-- as usual, below the fold.


After waiting a while I've finally found that book by the Scottish poet Jen Hadfield. About all I'm ready to say at this point is: she's good. She's got an eye, she's got an ear, and she doesn't sound like anyone else: she also seems to want to sound Scottish (perhaps even a particular local dialect within Scotland), and she enjoys making poems about invented characters (e.g. "Ghosty," who appears a few times) and about the roadways of the far North (British roads have M-, A- or B- designations much as US roads are I-, US- or state routes). Here's the prose poem "A970" (since I can't indent prose here, I use quote marks to distinguish the start of each graf, and the end of the poem):
"Ghosty is Francis Assisi for engines, loves the lot: the starling valves of mopeds, the coltish GTIs Lorries, awnings slack on knobby hips. For her, the hatchback shies around these Clydesdale tyres. She palms the hot tread above her head.
"Now the Girl Racer is the darling of the Sumburgh road, swung up like a diabolo and flourishly caught again. Other cars slide down its line like loveless beads of rain.
"Now she splits the rock candy of the cliff-road, spreading the speed limit through her prism. The miles mount up like lazybeds."
And here's the start of "M74 Glasgow to Carlisle" (yes, the numbers on the lines are her own):
1. Used to be arch about Lanarkshire, all iron and bile
2. then crook of silthills aroused my girl, as I drove her through Sanquhar.
3. I showed her a kestrel, pendant from the sky's collarbone.
4. Looking for a place to love, all the hills subsided.
5. I didn't ask, how is it with you now?
She's a poet of geography, of eros between women, of youthful memory, of particular harsh once-pastoral landscapes: most of all, though, and more than slighty older and more celebrated Scottish poets (Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson), she seems to me a poet who uses a language that's not stilted, not backward-looking, but is recognizably non-English, and certainly non-American, a language that sounds both regional (at times national) and hers.
Reading her does not just make me want to read more of her; it also reminds me of reading Mary Dalton, who does similar things (though more programmatically) with Newfoundland English (for a Dalton refresher, start with the interview here). And then it reminds me of poets (at the moment, Terrance Hayes, though of course not just him) who are doing similar and formally neat things with parts of Black English, without being exclusive or cultural-nationalist about it.
And then it reminds me of the book I finally finished last week, Seth Lerer's Inventing English, which made clear the resources earlier English poets got from the regional and class connotations of words and ranges of words; makes clear what poets lose by way of regional and class connotation as American English comes to seem more standardized (exhibits less variation across class and region); and also makes clear what poets today gain as American English takes in more and more words (makes possible perhaps more variation within class and region, makes more words available to a given speaker), as we coin or borrow new terms for new things.
Terms that become, sometimes, as common as "Hello"-- a word derived, apparently, from mariners' greetings ("hallo!") at sea, but brought into standard American English by Edison, along with-- and, initially, for exclusive use on-- the telephone, so that early uses of "Hello" in literature (such as Mark Twain's) have oddity, novelty, almost to the point of technophilia, around them.
Where can American poets without a particular word-hoard of their own-- poets who think they've been raised in unremarkable locations, who don't feel they have or don't want to use linguistic features identified with their ethnicity-- find the riches of diction, the private store of energy, accessible, it seems, to poets like Hadfield with neat regions of their own? Wherever they look, if they (we) teach themselves (ourselves) how to look. Somewhere in your own word-hoard, there are terms around which you might-- if you get very lucky and work the right way-- construct poems which, in retrospect, make those terms, those words, your region's, your group's, and your very own. You might start by asking: what do you know-- not what have you lived through, not your life-experience, but what sorts of knowledge do you now possess-- that's not already represented adequately in well-made English-language poems?
Coming up next (between now and AWP, weather permitting): the paradoxical idea of language poets' memoirs; the unforeseen troubles of sudden popularity, in high school cafeterias or in the big table that is contemporary poetry; the uses of Catullus; Frank Bidart; and a long-awaited (that is, I've been waiting to write it, even if you haven't been waiting to read it) rant about the greatness, and the unavailability, of New Zealand's national poet, James K. Baxter, who was to Kiwi readers what Whitman and Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg were to Americans, all at once, and whose continued absence from American publishers' lists is a scandal second only to the parlous state of our voting machines.

Originally Published: January 27th, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...