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’.