Nick and I were discussing his poetics, and naturally, we considered the nature of the language he uses. Nick is African but was educated internationally, mostly in England. His voice reflects this experience and in trying to describe that voice we found ourselves using the term International English.
We are used to thinking of specific varieties of English and - in the general effort to democratise the language of poetry and to bring Wordsworth's reaction against conventional poetic diction, in other words 'the language really used by men', up to date - we have tended to promote the regional and ethnic over what was called 'standard English' or what Fowler had as the King's (latterly the Queen's) English.
I say we promoted it but I wasn't in any position to promote it, discourage it, or even to ignore it. It was what happened. We moved particularly towards the Caribbean, to James Berry, Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, among others. It was a complex mood comprised of rejection of empire and central authority; a certain tiredness evident in 'Standard English' as owned by toffs; a yearning for fresh, unusual and exotic ways of saying; the integration of West Indian music from reggae and ska to two-tone; the potentially revolutionary excitement of the Brixton Riots; and much else.
But it wasn't just the Caribbean. Tony Harrison had pointed up the difference and tragic tension between working class Leeds and ruling class Oxbridge. The Scots revival was well under way with James Kelman, Tom Leonard and, later, Robert Crawford and W N Herbert. Bloodaxe's The New Poetry put heterogeneity at the heart of its substantial selection.
Language is constantly dying and the best poetic diction of any particular era enters the museum with it. Donald Davie's Purity of Diction in English Verse looked to locate that purity - the idea of such a purity - in particular poets but ended up primarily following the debates of the past. It might perhaps be possible to look for twentieth century purity of diction in poets like Robert Graves, Norman Cameron, Elizabeth Jennings, aspects of Larkin though certainly not all of Larkin, and, nearer our time, in Christopher Reid and Hugo Williams. But even then it might be not so much purity as chasteness of diction that we are talking about. (It was Chris Reid who once wrote in the LRB that the language of Brodsky's later poems simply wasn't English).
I want to speak up for International English because I am, like Nick, a poet removed from his original stable culture, a poet not so much of romantic exile as of displacement. I too write a form of International English, as do a number of others.
I remember the time when people were encouraging me to use more Hungarian words in my poems. Maybe they thought I would be writing in a 'truer' voice, what they might have regarded as 'authentic' or just 'exotic'. I rejected this. I was not exotic to myself. I did not think in Hungarian and it seemed downright inauthentic to go about pretending I was more Hungarian than I felt. It was like asking me to wear a read-white-and-green rosette.
Beyond my own position there lies an interesting question about the possibility of poetry in something as unrooted and dislocated as International English. Was it unrooted and dislocated? I myself thought so. There was a 1981 book titled Airborn, by Charles Tomlinson and Octavio Paz, that I reviewed for the TLS. I wrote that the poems lacked something and suggested it was a little like reading a book in Esperanto. Students of Esperanto wrote in saying I had no idea what I was talking about and that there was a serious body of poetry in Esperanto that was not to be dismissed. They were right, of course: I really didn't know what I was talking about, I simply imagined that a constructed language must lack the depth of association - the history - to be a poetic language.
But then I think of writers in their second language - of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov above all. One can, I think, occasionally hear the odd strange, over-correct construction in Conrad. The ironic flamboyance of Nabokov's language is well known. They too - I suppose - are writing a form of International English, in other words a language that is not really used by men. Their English may be unrooted and dislocated but it is certainly not flavourless.
But what literary language is actually used by real people? I have written elsewhere - in the Dublin Review - how Michael Donaghy once said to me that community was everything in poetry. Michael played in an Irish band called The Slip Gigolos. I did not play in a Hungarian band called the Csárdás Hercegek. I did not think I was writing for communities but for transient individual beings on trains: people in between this state of stability and another. What language did they use? What might they hear?
It may be that 'the language really used by men' is simply a reaction to outworn poetic diction and that we overvalue, even fetishize, what we take to be the language of the street, especially if it is an exciting, politically charged street. We do this while knowing we don't actually speak it. That no one does in fact. It is not the street itself but the smell of the street we want in the poems. We want to smell what's cooking out there.
The great success of Daljit Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover is a product of Daljit doing exactly what I refused to do, which is to produce a knowing lyrical literary pastiche out of English-language Indian speech patterns. That, of course, was possible. There are no English-language speech patterns in Hungarian.
This is a very big box to open but Nick's poems put me in mind of it, and make me wonder how interesting it might be to describe a poetics of International English. I imagine International English as a rambling and tragic-jolly kind of house, like a big run-down hotel or doss house. Some estaminet of Antwerp perhaps, to quote kindly Mr Eliot. Nick might have a room there, as might I.