Conventionally, we use the term ‘vernacular’ to describe dialect ‘spoken by ordinary people in a particular country or region’ (Oxford English Dictionary); or ‘language spoken in one’s mother tongue, not learned or imposed as a second language’ (O.E.D.). This second definition is instructive: it reminds us that a great deal of what we call correct or Standard English, and its sister, Received Pronunciation, was a system imposed on some speakers after they had left the first world of home and embarked on formal schooling. Many books on dialect ask us to discriminate between merely slipshod or slovenly English and genuine dialect, but I think it’s fair to say that formal schooling has had a part to play in the fade-out of vernacular language in this country, especially in mainstream poetry [i]. A linguist might chastise me for speaking the obvious in bold strokes, but I’m no linguist. My interest in the vernacular is imaginative. I’m concerned with the life lived and the language that expresses that life. I’m interested in how language expresses sensibility – and by sensibility I mean our ‘ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences’ (O.E.D.). A question occurs to me: is there something that could be referred to as a ‘vernacular sensibility’?
I find another definition of vernacular useful. It refers to architecture that is ‘concerned with domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings’ (O.E.D.). Apply this to language and what you might have is the notion of a language ‘lived’ or ‘lived in’, rather than one dressed up, or groomed for display. Some years ago I was commissioned to write a series of poems and songs that celebrated the lives of those who lived and worked on the South Yorkshire waterways [ii]. They ranged from the navvies who built them, to the boatmen who plied them on keels, barges and narrowboats. It seemed natural to me to accept that if I wanted to reconstruct the lives of these workers, I’d have to partially reconstruct their language too. But how? The canals belong to the leisure industry now, to holiday barges and the cabin cruisers of weekend boatmen, not a workforce hauling coal, grain or sugar in all weathers. It’s not as if I could stroll down to a canal-side boozer and listen to the banter or shop-talk of boatmen. I had a hard time collecting source material – particularly material on how boatmen spoke, what they might have talked about, or how they might have felt about it.
After I’d exhausted the internet and the public libraries, my breakthrough came closer to home. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a private passion for the waterways. He’d built his own cabin cruiser in retirement, and many of our holidays took place on his boat, ‘Jasmine’. He’d handed this passion on to my mother and in her own retirement she’d taken a practical course in riverboat navigation at Goole. What’s more, she possessed a small library of out-of-print books on the history of the waterways. One of these, Memories of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation by Mike Taylor (Yorkshire Waterways Publications, 1988) contained many first-hand accounts of real boatmen talking real boats. Two of my poems were based on incidents recounted in this book. At the same time, it was clear that the memories in Taylor’s book had been smoothed into Standard English. Something of the idiom and speech inflection remained but, equally, the unique sound and texture of vernacular had been sanded away. As well as crafting these memories into appropriate verse-forms, I wanted to try and restore something of that texture.
There were two pitfalls I wanted to avoid. Firstly, I’m aware that Yorkshire-isms are often played for laughs and, more to the point, audiences often expect them to be played for laughs. The cod Yorkshireman of popular myth is a farcical creature – a combination of forthright opinion and obdurate, ‘muck and brass’ nous. Think of the Monty Python sketches, or the send-ups of Geoffrey Boycott on the Test Match Special blog-sites. Even Arnold Kellet’s Dalesman anthology, Yorkshire Dialect Classics, slips into this. David Battye’s Sheffield Dialect and Folklore since the Second World War: A Dying Tradition has a cover that almost makes it look like a collection of seaside postcards. You could take this further than Yorkshire, of course. The cod Geordie, Scouser, Brummie and Cockney are also figures of fun in popular mythology. It’s not easy to find examples of poetry in those dialects that are expressive of something more complex – inclusive of sensitivity, intelligence, or even dignity. (I said ‘hard to find’, not that they don’t exist.) One of the most beautiful and complex poems of the 20th Century to my mind is Derek Walcott’s ‘The Schooner Flight’ – a poem written in an intelligible hybrid of Caribbean patois and literary standard. I think it’s revealing that there is virtually no equivalent of this poem in 20th Century English vernacular, or at least not beyond the somehow ‘fringe’ lyric. Eliot employs a Cockney vernacular in ‘The Waste Land’, but argument rages as to how sympathetic this is. Even Peter Reading’s virtuoso performances up and down the English registers have a tendency towards grotesque when he uses vernacular. In the language of English poetry, the divisive gene is stubborn.
The second pitfall I wanted to avoid was creating something in language that had the feel of a local museum piece – full of inkhorn-isms. I took out several books on Yorkshire and South Yorkshire dialect and combed them for words to put back into the mouths of my reconstructed boatmen. My choices were economical. I took a couple of pieces along to a poetry workshop and was sobered to discover that a participant from the south struggled to make sense even of dropped aitches and ‘the’ abbreviated to ‘t’. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard Ian McMillan make the (valid) point that dropped aitches can be the stuff that northern stereotypes are built on. Neither view has deterred me altogether. As for the doubt raised by my southern friend – if readers can be expected to look up allusions, or go out of their way to bone up on the hard science or other specialisms that are more the standard of contemporary poetry, surely they can be expected to show a bit of dialect the same respect. On the other hand, I’m aware that there’s something stultifying about having to look up every other word in a poem. There’s something counter-productive about that too, especially if you’re aiming for the effect of a spoken rather than bookish language. Ironically, the reader’s experience can feel more like a dictionary exercise – and who goes to poetry for that? In the end, I chose only the odd word – ones that I felt conveyed a physicality or texture, even if the reader didn’t know what the word meant. ‘Nithered’ for example, meaning ‘cold’; and ‘radged’, meaning ‘angry’. These aren’t words I use in speech, but I get some shiver of recognition when I say them aloud. I tell myself I can intuit the raw energies they contain.
I’ll return again to the imaginative. I am doing little more than claiming certain sounds make me feel certain things. However, part of the job of the imaginative writer is surely to explore the relationship between language and felt experience – even communal experience across generations. A vernacular contains an unconscious and cultural DNA for a social group – held together by that group, independently of formal institutions or legislation. I suppose there are different ways of approaching this link to identity. There is the approach I associate with a writer like Hugh McDiarmid. ‘Lallans’, his synthesis of vernacular Scots and more literary language, was a project you might associate with a modern idea: if you reform language you can reform individual or cultural consciousness. On the other hand, there is the idea you might extract from the metaphor in Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’: that the vernacular is a resilient strain that persists and erupts from beneath the more cultivated ground. These possibilities might represent progressive and conservative tendencies, respectively. To adapt a phrase from Philip Larkin, ‘it’s hard to lose either / When you have both…’ [iii] Perhaps I try to walk a fine line between the two, sometimes tinkering, sometimes leaving be. I feel the same about form.
So what might I mean by a ‘vernacular sensibility’? My sense of it is something like this: precise, but not clinical; tested, but not over-refined; astute, but not intellectually rarefied. Something not smoothed of its rough edges but certainly trimmed of its fat. Crucially, an immersive sensibility based on living in, coping with, and sometimes relishing the everyday world as it is. Unlike mindsets that are more genteel, or politically correct, it’s seldom about projecting a brittle vision of how the world ought to be. And yet, it yields a clay that can be moulded into beautiful and robust shapes – a clay inflected with quartz and crystals that gleam in oblique light. This, above all, is its enduring value to me.
[i] I am aware of (and have enjoyed) recent volumes that counter this tendency – volumes like Liz Berry’s Black Country, and the Punjabi-English ‘Punglish’ of her one-time mentor Daljit Nagra.
[ii] These poems will be published in my next volume from Longbarrow Press, The Navigators. They will also feature in an upcoming collaborative performance between myself and songwriter Ray Hearne. Details of both will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the near future.
[iii] From ‘Toads’, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press, 1955)
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Matthew Clegg and Ray Hearne will lead a walk along Mexborough Canal (reading and performing poems and songs) as part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). Listen to Matthew Clegg introducing and reading his poem ‘Attercliffe’ (from the forthcoming collection The Navigators) on the towpath of the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal: