POETRY AND THE VERNACULAR.

In 1988, Lorenzo Thomas (not the Civil War general, the poet) delivered a lecture as part of the Poetry Project’s Symposium “Poetry of Everyday Life”; here it is, courtesy of wood s lot (where you will find much more of Thomas in the Jan. 14 entry). A few excerpts:

The relationship between poetic diction and the vernacular utterances of everyday life is adversarial and parasitic in both directions. Poets become poets because we, this happy breed, have—through dint of genius—figured out an alternative to the “Shucks, I cudda had a V-8″ syndrome. We live in an age of growing illiteracy in a nation determined to destroy regional dialects and accents and impose a bland least-common-denominator “standard,” “broadcast,” or “edited” American-English on its inhabitants. Curiously, “English as an official language” is the project of a political regime that prates about a philosophy of government decentralization and non-intrusion into citizens’ lives. In any case, I am here to say that poetry is not and cannot be vernacular expression.

No matter what it may pretend to be—and pretend is the signal word—poetry is, by definition, heightened speech. It is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, not dimly unpremeditated slips-of-tongue around the water-cooler. When poetry attempts to depict “everyday life” it is either ventriloquy (and often ironic) or documentary (and usually polemical and satiric)…
Poetry that attempts to depict “everyday life” is really a critical examination of (1) the relationship of candor and premeditated performance, (2) traditions of discourse, and (3) where you live. Williams’ Paterson and Pound’s Cantos approach dailiness in a polar relationship. One man’s ephemera is another man’s civilization. Yet both Pound and Williams, to many of us, are old fogies rummaging in attics: and “everyday life” to some folks is the possible visit to Attica.
Once again, Amiri Baraka pointed out long ago that “the view from the bottom of the hill” is not the same as the view from the top, but that those at the bottom had been sold on the concept that “God don’t ever change.” Right or wrong, that really doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that, in this country, “everyday life” depends on who you are and where you really live. “English as our official language” aside, dailiness is various and if poetry can do anything about it, it is to document and celebrate the variety of the American quotidian.

Pound and Williams are not old fogies to me, but of course I’m an old fogy myself; “to document and celebrate the variety of the American quotidian” is a goal worth pursuing in the face of the bland least-common-denominator “standard.”

Comments

  1. This is a coarsely oversimplified view of poetry. A more generous view would take into account the many forms of poetry, ranging from the vernacular (slam and cowboy poetry; rap) to “high” or “literary” poetry. Even assuming that the author is referring only to “literary” poetry, is great poetry really never vernacular? I find this difficult to believe. Reading this excerpt, I feel the winds of ideology blowing.
    For a more nuanced and knowledgeable view, look at Dana Gioia’s essay at http://www.hudsonreview.com/gioiaSp03.pdf.

  2. I don’t think he’s saying great poetry can’t be vernacular, but rather that you can’t make real poetry just by being vernacular — that language has to be transmuted into poetry.

  3. I think poetry can be about anything and can be written in vernacular or other speech. The idea is for the words, the rhythm and the images to help each other in building an authentic ensemble.

    The relationship between poetic diction and the vernacular utterances of everyday life is adversarial and parasitic in both directions

    Why should it be? In my view and in my experience of poetry that relationship is precisely what some of the best poetry is made of. Without that relationship we wouldn’t know Robert Frost, we wouldn’t know Walt Whitman.

    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
    And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
    And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
    The work of hunters is another thing:
    I have come after them and made repair
    Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there.
    I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
    And on a day we meet to walk the line
    And set the wall between us once again.
    We keep the wall between us as we go.
    To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

    © Robert Frost

    The rest of the poem, called Mending Wall, can be found here. It is one of Frost’s best poems, together with Home Burial, The Death of the Hired Man, and the more famous The Road Not Taken.
    I just don’t believe that there should be a language, called poetic diction, that should be used for poetry and that should determine whether a poem is authentic or not.

  4. But all those poems are in fact “heightened speech”; nobody ever talked like that, in perfectly phrased iambic pentameter chock full of imagery. Can you imagine an actual farmer saying
    “I have come after them and made repair
    Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs”?
    That’s not vernacular speech, it’s great poetry brilliantly imitating vernacular, which is what Thomas is talking about.

  5. I think we agree. And indeed on re-reading Thomas I pick out many more common “ideas” than upon the first reading.

    The problem facing any poet who pretends to be expressive in vernacular language about quotidian concerns is the possibility that readers will be offended by artifice. The fact is that almost all “poetry of everyday life” is written, quite properly, in highly stylized poetic language.

    Quite right. I think that I would identify 1./Poetry that is heightened speech that imitates the local hillbilly (whitman, frost, angelou, randall), 2./Poetry that is heightened speech that does not particularly imitate vernacular speech (cummings, plath, both of whom are magnificent poets, mckay; and writers who use what I consider pompous “poetic diction”), and 3./Non-poetry (shallow writers always out to pen the clever rhyme).

  6. Yes, we definitely agree.

  7. venkatavinay says:

    There is a living chemestry between poetry and society. Each influences the other.

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