And After the Vernacular
The vernacular is never the end in itself; it’s only where poetry begins. The major shifts in poetic language have been shifts down; but the major poetry has been what explored the space just beyond the normal use of language. Dante in ‘De vulgari eloquentia’ may have advocated the vernacular as ‘illustrious, cardinal, aulic, and curial’ (all positive terms!), but it is a vernacular ‘which belongs to every Italian city yet seems to belong to none’. Vernacular poetry does not mean the common use of the common language, but a crafted use of it. Coleridge said (Riviere knows where, though Google doesn’t) ‘I would like to write poetry that affects not to be poetry’, and in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote of a language ‘really spoken by men’. But he was adamant that it is only a ‘selection’ of that language ‘made with true taste and feeling’, and so ‘entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life’. Both Dante and Wordsworth lead us to the same point. No sooner have we realized the poetic importance of a new vernacular, we find ourselves with a different, equally difficult question: how can we go beyond the vernacular whilst staying within it? In this sense, poetry is the craft of crafting new uses of new language.
Language, at any given moment, can be conceived of as a sphere. At its deep center is the idealized form of the vernacular, the way of using language that is so normal that it is abnormal: it is never actually spoken and never clearly known. Regular speech occurs in the middle-space of the sphere, where that center is pulled towards real life in a thousand different directions; there are a thousand different ways of speaking the contemporary. Eventually we come to the edges of the sphere – its infinite edges, for though the edge of a circle has a finite length, there is no limit to the number of points on it. At these edges are the extremes of language, its oddities and idiosyncrasies at any given time. These are the sorts of things that poets often like to pick up on, push further, and transform into poetic techniques.
Does a poet work at the edges of language or at its beating heart? Does he or she seek to speak in that elusive vernacular, or to deal in the small curiosities of very-present language? Of course, the answer is both, and in between both. On this model — a conceptual model, of course, not a clear historical one – there is a cycle of the vernacular, with a few core stages. Sometimes poets seem to be stuck, glutting on the edges of the sphere of language, obsessed with the light of an old vernacular; they experiment and jitter on the edges like moths dancing their totentanz on a lightbulb. Then, a poet or group of poets, likewise experimenting on the edges, realize that their edge can be reconceived of as the centre of a new sphere, accessible from ordinary language. This new vernacular takes the place of the old vernacular at the heart of the sphere, and the poets crusting on the edge wake up again. They begin the process of travelling back and forward through the sphere; they make life in the veins between the heart and the skin, bringing together the vernacular with the literary. A poet in the truest sense of the word is always doing a dynamic act.
The textual vernacular, opened up by our virtual sociality, seems to offer itself up as a way to move poetically on. There was a Romantic sphere, then an Imagistic one, and now the textual vernacular of onlife offers premises on which a new sphere can be built. As soon as there is somewhere big and beautiful to move to, it is in everyone’s interests to move on. We will be able to give the poets of the past their place by giving them their time: twentieth century poets will not be able to be distinctly twentieth century poets till twenty-first century poets do something fundamentally timely too.