Whose English Is It Anyway?

(This is a very overdue reposting of a poem commissioned for The Verb as part of the BBC’s 2014 Freethinking Festival. The delay, apart from the usual reluctance to appear to be self-publishing anything beyond the lightest or most spontaneous of creative work – most of which appears over on my Tumblr site, should you be interested, he continued shamelessly – has been caused by me thinking about the role of commissioned pieces in my work. 

In a way that resembles how blurbs come about, rather than more straightforward freelance transactions like teaching or reviewing, the commissioned poem is about your public persona or personae – how you are perceived as a writer. Beyond the crude divider of perceived status, some sense of matching poet to project or fellow writer goes on in both commission and blurb by the editorial or curatorial body. For that reason, I’ve been wondering whether to present this and similarly generated works with pieces I associate directly with being a ‘public poet’ – more specifically the Dundee Makarship.

What this poem has in common with some of those pieces is a particular sense of the plurality of the audience – something of communality if not yet representation that the commission shares with the poem or text appearing as part of public art, but which separates it from the intimacy of lyric that most poets regard as the only valid core of the poetic gesture.

Here the poetry is in the plurality, in that the subject is the political and cultural consequences of thinking of Englishes and indeed Scottishes, rather than a singular proper English, and a bunch of mutually incomprehensible provincial dialects. Imagining those Englishes and Scottishes rhizomatically, as Deleuze might, allows us to think of a democracy of regions, rather than a Londoncentric hierarchy, with the implication that what is thought in dialect must be as improper as its orthography.

Because there is a manifest parallel between hierarchising language and privileging one mode of writing poetry over another, I’m inclined to preserve the variousness of types of more public poems, and present this piece by itself for the time being.)

How we speak is who we are
if you hear what I mean,
but is English without anguish,
the way Westminster dreams?

If the language was London
it’s a giant cut-glass shard,
but if English is an engine
then it’s thrumming to depart.

Let’s head through the Heptarchy –
the nations that we were –
where speech is like cryptography
and the code begins oo arr

Have mercy on us, Mercia
where Big Geoff Hill once played
where Shakespeare’s vowels once were shaped
and also those of Slade.

Here’s stone-head Brigantia
she’s blocking Ro-ome’s gutta –
a goddess for the Geordies
but what, pet, would she utta

in to-ones like wor Cheryl
on mattas of state,
like once the Jocks aal leave wuh
let’s follow – why wait?

Here is the language
nearin the border,
beginnin bewilderment,
Scots and disorder…

Gin the ingyne rins on Anglo
wi a Saxon heid o steam
then Furst Class is a quango
whaur they don’t know what we mean…

‘Oh Darling, look, there’s Ber-whick,’
a Norman type remarks:
‘They’re still at war with Russia,
but then so are we – what larks!’

The issue’s comprehension
but not of what we say,
the issue’s why should 45
declare we waant awa

– Thon rhyme’s agley twixt mooth an lug
the wey a politician’s shrug
isnae solemn like a vow:
whit noo, Paw Broon, eh? What now?

Faur ur we noo and fit is at soond?
– The Doric: at spik o baith quinie an loon
Aiberdeen wey, an twal mile roon:
the nor-east o someplace – mebbe the Mune.

O please stoap the trenn – Eh waant tae get aff;
meh leid is disgracefuhl, meh heid’s gaein saft.
Tho this virus crehd ‘Inglis’ mutates beh thi mile,
it’s no spoken beh money, it’s no spoken beh ile.

Faur owre, faur owre, fae New Aiberdour,
whaur Trump pleys gowf wi an affy shower
o bankers an lairdies an gangsters an Tories
wha aa unnerstaun: own the words, own the story.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to Whose English Is It Anyway?

  1. This was brilliant when I heard you read it on the verb. Thankyou for posting it.

  2. Joan Hewitt says:

    This is an important poem, as well as hugely enjoyable, Only this morning I was thinking about the way we read/ perform our own poems, after being sickened by the actors on Poetry Please making decent poems sound inauthentic,NO, actually , nauseating .

  3. Pingback: Meeting the Makar – Lewis Brown

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