By Leo Mercer
The vernacular is where the life is, and poetry begins in life. Sam Riviere writes: ‘Historically, any significant shift in poetry has been a shift ‘down’ – to the demotic, the current vernacular as experienced by readers’. This is the move that Dante made, and Chaucer; Coleridge, and Wordsworth; Frank O’ Hara in America and, in England, Larkin and Harrison. The turn of the final quarter of the twentieth century was to regional and international vernaculars, a hodgepodge potpourri of local Engli.
The key to the contemporary vernacular is that it is, in Charles Whalley’s phrase, a ‘textual vernacular’. Most of our communication at the moment is enacted through written rather than spoken word — text, email, facebook, etc — and the idiosyncrasies of our language are rooted in this. The slang is made up of acronymics and abbreviation; typos are cool; non-alphabetical characters (such as punctuation-formations) are unofficial additions to our language.
‘Yesbut, is this poetry?!’ might tip many of our tongues upon seeing the product, and it is fair that it does so: even though it is formally true that anything can be poetry, this is only boringly true. Anything can be poetry, but not anything is poetry at all times. For something to be considered as poetry, there needs to be an intellectual infrastructure of justifications in place that enables us to perceive the poetic in it (we always already consider the old poetry as poetry because we inherit the old justifications for seeing it as poetry).
This is why ‘The YOLO Pages’ — and the alt-lit trend in general — is important. The first poetic users of a vernacular are engaged less in high craft than in an unexpected imaginative act, a sudden apperception of the most poetic in what was thought of as the most mundane. Regardless of the quality of the collection, it raises consciousness to possibilities that are around us but ignored. It is a game-changer, without necessarily being the winner of its own game (which is not to deny its quality, just to be frank about my inability or hesitancy to judge). Like the reviewer in the TLS wrote in 1917, commenting on the unexpected anthologies of Imagism in the 1910s, we can say that this poetry ‘fills us with hope; even when it is not very good in itself, it seems to promise a form in which very good poetry could be written’.
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.
Written language has many features that the spoken word does not: physical space, distinct lines, font, colour, and so on. As language becomes less audial and more visual, the poetic is found in the look as much as the sound of a poem. Herbert — in shaping his poems — was conscious of the fact that poems are produced to take up space as well as time; they are works of art as well as pieces of music. What begins as a matter of presentation leads on to new possibilities of phrasing, and thus back to the music of the poem: we can think differently when writing than when speaking.
Beyond all this, the defining feature of written language is spelling. The disparity between spoken and written language has been a puzzle ever since there was a disparity between them, yet writers have rarely found poetry in the puzzle. H G Wells wrote that ‘for the most part, people do not know that there is so much as an art of spelling possible’. That was in 1901, in a delightful essay — ‘For Freedom of Spelling: The Discovery of an Art’ — which has been far less influential than it should have been. Its closing direction has remained ignored: ‘Spell, my brethren, as you will! Awake, arise, o language living in chains!’
‘Free spelling’ is one of the techniques that internet poetry is opening up for future poets to use as a matter of norm. Wells’ prophecy – ‘the liberation [from the dungeons of a spelling-book] I foresee, with the glow of the dawn in my eyes’ — has found a context in which it can be made sense of and explored sensibly and sensitively. The best pieces in ‘The YOLO Pages’ are those that are creative with spelling. Tom Hank posts, ‘one coll thing bout the sun is that it come back for mor every day even when thinges on this planet get very bad // remeber today that were all under the same sun // nice. // have a grate day im tom’. Horse ebooks tweets: ‘We re very lucky today’. The basic point is tweeted by steve roggenbuck: ‘hope u have fun teling people to conform to standardizsd spelling & gramar rules !! im gona have fun actively choosing how i present my words’. The internet shows us that, in normal writing, we have no need for standardization: we can read typos fine, and can moreover enjoy them.
Like free verse, free spelling is not free in the sense that there’s no method; but the method is personal intuition as opposed to external authority. It leaves the poet with the creative job of spelling for him or herself. It makes a live choice out of what was a dry norm: received spellings are as instable as received metres. This is a difficult freedom, not a lazy one.
Spelling is an art whose craft is underdeveloped. There are more than many possibilities: getting rid of letters nd doubl leters and making trippple letters; inventing typos (lief is livelier than life); new contrctions nd expanansions; sight-rhymes (neway / norway); removing and adding psilent letters; respelling words (a storie has a happy ending but a storry does not) and playing on features we know from elsewhere (excitedlie). New spellings can represent their meanings, bring humour, create resonances, make references, deal in a sort of visual assonance (for egg. th threee of them designd nd sang in joyfull surpluss). Spellings from different periods can be drawn upon and, as different communities develop their own spellings, textual accents will develop, and there can be spelling in an x-style or y-style.
I felt a physical something inside, much like hearing a perfectly balanced Shakespeare phrase. ‘I am amazed and know not what to say’. Similarly, I made a typo whilst attempting to spell which:
Its unexpected beauty struck me: something about the parallelism of wh and ch in its spelling. There is, then, such a thing as emotional spelling. We can reach it if we feel the freedom to spell as we like, and attune ourselves to picking it up. Steve Roggenbuck’s ‘I am liek October when I am dead’ works because the typo has been incorporated into what is already a powerful image with a convincing music: the typo serves the whole and helps to create the overall feel – equipping us with the experience of beauty that helps us survive our self-realization of morality, perhaps.
You’ve spent the whole of your time reading this essay missing the letters for the words. With spelling, we have roped ourselves into another rote; a new spelling is fresh, spesh, happie like a new krispy kreme flavor (and isn’t it sad that it is branders and marketers, and not poets, who play with spelling most?). At its best, free spelling will help us transition to a performative poetry, one with passionate enactment of emotion rather than passive description. A poem can be – both to eye and ear – a large-scale onomatopoeia. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is good for imagists and sleep, but for a living poetry we should ‘make, not show’. As an artist, the way to respond to beauty is to make beauty, to add joy to any joy we have felt. I felt a fizzical sumbthing ingside ☺.
Ultimately, the best free spellings are the truest: spelling can be a deeply expressive technique, not merely experimental. Aram Saroyan’s famous ‘lighght’ is ultimately unconvincing, from this standpoint, because it fails to enact what it represents. It does not generate the feeling of light, as might, say, liet, lite or liht. Far better would have been nighght, which gains from the density and darkness of the spelling, the emphasis on the guttural, earthy gh. A blak night is far eerier than a black one – something about the lack of the c, but also the emphasis on the k (whereas i would find a darck one quite comical). Allone is lonelier than alone. I wouldn’t mind being out alone on a black night, but may all the police in Manchester be on duty if I’m out allone on a blak nighght.
The past can help us into the future. The vibrancy and instability of language in the middle ages echoes the situation in our language today. Ultimately, Chaucer is the role model: someone who heralded the English vernacular in its infancy, and someone whose work is full of beautiful spelling. Looking at works through the history of our language makes us realize the contingency of spelling, and the joy of free spelling. Now we experience spelling as static when in reality we have caught it posing for the camera; it has been on a journey that will not finish. There is no more an end to the history of spelling than there is an end to history. Simon Horobin writes that the history of English spelling is a cultural achievement; the future of English spelling is a cultural achievement in the making. If we can bring to the poetry that makes expressive use of free spelling — when it doesn’t seem odd to remark that one poet developed a very consonantal language for her purpose, another pushed the letter q to places it had never been taken, another found unexpectedly joyful ways to spell clichés — then we can be happy in the knowledge that we used a stand-out feature from the language of our times to create something timely and timeless.
Leo Mercer is President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He poetweets free spellingly @the_poetweet.