Monday, 20 December 2010

International English as a Poetic Language

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.


Jee Leong said...

This issue exercises me too, and so I read your thoughts with much interest. I don't like the term "International English" because it smacks of business English, which, in its instrumentality, is the opposite of poetic language. "International English" is also a misleading gloss on the varieties of Englishes. I prefer the term "English hybrids" for insisting on the organic/cultivated variegation in language change. The term also puts "English" in its right adjectival place, so that "English" describes instead of existing as some kind of essence.

Could such Englishes, unrooted and unlocated, be poetic, or, to put the question even more sharply, could such Englishes be capable of the highest poetic achievements? Our doubt stems from their lack of history (unrooted) and lack of place (unlocated). But these Englishes have many histories and many homes, which to my mind is not the same as saying they don't have history and home. I do not inhabit my history and home just by living in them (when I was living in Singapore, I was not truly living it); I have to imagine them, to have some idea of them. So the poetry seems to me to lie in the imaginative grasp of time(s) and place(s), and not in time and place per se.

I agree that poetic diction needs to be refreshed from time to time with language as used by real men. I share your skepticism about the street. I think that street language is no longer street language when used in a poem: it has been transformed. I think of poetry as a realm separate from the workaday world. Our ordinary speech may be iambic in places but no one speaks a sonnet. Sometimes the rarefied air makes poetry shiver and reach out for the warm company of men, and that is to the good. But if it lives on the street, then it becomes nothing more than the street, chaotic, mundane, commercial, violent. To quote Mr Eliot, poetry needs "a vision of the street as the street hardly understands."

George S said...

It's a good point JLK. I was aware of the connotations of International English and English Hybrid is a decent alternative. I wanted to distinguish between English, as spoken in those parts of the world where English is one of the official languages (possibly reimported into England), and the English that is learned essentially from outside the language, as one might learn it for the 'business' of, say, surviving in England in simple transactional terms. What I wanted to describe was a non-colonial language that can't be fully identified with a language community.

Your second paragraph ends rather wonderfully, because you're right, I feel, regarding the imaginative grasp of time and place.

But maybe my notion of language as a hotel of some kind, a place where one does not lie in a bed of one's own house, is not without its poetics. In fact, that precisely is the poetics that fascinates me.

I take it you are a writer yourself. Am I right?

Gwil W said...

I used to think international english was what came on a sheet of paper with diy prepack furniture from scandinavia but we've moved on since then and now it appears everywhere - buy a simple electrical device in the EU and it comes to you with a booklet in 23 languages - one of these languages - the one that's somewhere between maltese and orkney is the international english

Gwil W said...

I should add that I wrote a poem some years ago about this international english problem. The poem was the story of someone who sat on a bed with a cup of tea patiently waiting for a newly delivered wardrobe to self-assemble.

George S said...

I would quite like to use the term International English and throw it back in the face of its generally accepted meaning, Gwilym.

By the way I have taken Poet in Residence off the links as you advised - what is the address of your new site?

Gwil W said...

Wow, gulp, blimey. I nearly had a panic attack just there. But now I see you've correctly taken 'Bard on the Run' off and that's OK.

My 'Poet in Residence' site should definitely STAY on your links.

The new thing I mentioned is a blog for kids poetry. It's called Poetry Rat but you don't need to link to that. It hasn't really got going as yet. Under the pseudonym Petra (i.e Pet rat) in the new year I'll be trying to get some new material together for children to read.
Poets like yourself will be in my sights. :) I've put one sample poem up to give a clue as to the sort of thing I'll be looking for.

Jee Leong said...

I keep waking up in my hotel and finding myself in England. Perhaps that's why I migrated to the USA. On the theory of diluting the influence. I like airports too: they are poetic.

George S said...

I like airports too: they are poetic.

I suspect they're the same long poem.... As to hotels:


When Sisyphus enters the hotel
he drops his bags. He rings the bell.
This is, he checks, Pensione Hell?

Charon emerges through a door.
It is all that and something more,
What can we do for the signor?

Sisyphus glances at the stairs.
You could relieve me of my cares
by taking my baggage. Your affairs

are strictly your own. I assume
you’ll want the very topmost room.
Here are the keys.
It’s like a tomb

up there and Sisyphus sleeps alone,
or would if he could. He’s stretched out prone
and wide awake. He hears the stone

muttering in its metal box
sealed in the biggest case. He blocks
his ears. The bed he lies on gently rocks.

Hotel life. Baggage. Minibar.
TV. Remote control. They are
migrating souls who’ve travelled far

to get to places such as these
as if they cured some vague disease
but were themselves diseased. The keys

are weighing down his pockets. Night
comes on suddenly like a flashlight
or mysterious loss of appetite.

The bedside phone. The trouser press
in the cupboard. Emptiness
in drawers and bins. Last known address.

The stone rolls out along the bed
and comes to rest beside his head.
He thinks, therefore he must be, dead.

The bill arrives some six months later.
The room yawns open as a crater.
The stone comes down the elevator.

(from Reel, 2004)