Tuesday, June 23, 2015

`Free of Obedience to Its Time'

“I call the language that arises from poetic integration Wholespeak – when I make up jargon of my own, at least it’s funky! – while I term the greyer, flatter speech of functional prose and rational dominance Narrowspeak. Wholespeak is or should be at its peak in poetry, even paradoxically when the poetry isn’t declamatory or intense; Wholespeak can be a quiet presence, and still alert people in an instant that it’s there.”

I’m no poet but I find the way some poets arrange words on the page to be interesting and useful in practical, amusing and rather mundane ways. Nowhere is it written that daily language – the language of emails and conversation, the language we use when ordering meals or disciplining the kids – ought to be vague, repetitious and dull (like so much contemporary poetry). Even the most putatively egalitarian among us judge people by the way they speak. The sound of hemming, hawing and the relentless mustering of cliché alert us to slack-mindedness or strategic obfuscation.     

“Patches and flourishes of it are frequent in ordinary colloquial talk, but apt to be much rarer in intellectual or journalistic writing. It is by no means confined to verse, of course; even without the marvellous armature of line-ending and enjambment, prose can be infused with the breath-altering tension of Wholespeak.”

And the best of it is. I was reminded of this when reading “London Calling,” a review by Edward Short (thanks for the tip, Mark Marowitz) of a new abridgement of Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65). My first reading of the work, in 1975, was a revelation. No one at my university had ever mentioned Mayhew (among so many others). A friend who was a dedicated reader and had never gone to college alerted me.  This was Dickens without the sentimentality and bombast, but with comparable verbal energy. Mayhew writes well and his people sing poetry, often pure Wholespeak. Here, chosen from the thousands of stories collected by Mayhew, is the account of a ham sandwich seller (“His look and manners were subdued”):

“Once, a gentleman kicked my basket into the dirt, and he was going off – for it was late -- but some people by began to make remarks about using a poor fellow that way, so he paid for all, after he had them counted. I am so sick of this life, sir. I do dread the winter so. I've stood up to the ankles in snow till after midnight, and till I’ve wished I was snow myself, and could melt like it and have an end. I’d do anything to get away from this, but I can’t.”

The first quoted passages above are from “A Defence of Poetry,” a speech Les Murray gave in 1998 at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. Murray often writes the way Mayhew’s people speak, a mingling of common sense and vivid electric metaphor. Mercifully, his poetry is almost never poetic in the banal sense. In “The Instrument,” a poem from Conscious and Verbal (1999) he quotes at the end of his speech, Murray writes:

“Only completed art
free of obedience to its time can pirouette you
through and athwart the larger poems you are in.
Being outside all poetry is an unreachable void.”

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