Hello, my fellow poets, hope you all had a good start to your week.
Now, it may not have escaped your notice that we are a pretty diverse bunch of writers. We span the globe and all time zones, we write in a variety of styles, and, for quite a few of us, English is not even our mother tongue. Does that have en effect on our poetry? You tell me in the comments below.
But what I do know is that in English-language poetry there are many influences from other continents and from countries where English has become the dominant language but is not the first language of most people. All of these push at the boundaries of possibility, and since poetry is all about invention and reinvention, all about playing with language, it seems to be a natural outlet for language to be changed, refreshed and updated. Through non-standard uses of English and the influx of the vernacular or the amalgamation of cultures in places such as Australia, America, India, the Caribbean and Africa, we have a patchwork mosaic of new possibilities. Let me share some of these with you.
1) Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Britain but lived in Jamaica during his formative years. He was even in an institution for youth offenders for a while and never finished school. Now he is one of the most widely taught contemporary poets on the school curriculum, has been awarded honorary doctorates from a number of British universities, and turned down an OBE from the Queen (he is a staunch Rastafarian and supports a republic of Britain).
Listen to the poet explore his Jamaican and Barbadian roots in this ‘song’ poem Reggae Head and read the transcript here.
2) Sujata Bhatt is an Indian poet who emigrated to the US when she was 12 years old, completed her MFA at the University of Iowa and has worked as a creative writing tutor in Canada and Britain. Her native tongue is Gujarati and she uses it very effectively in the poem Search for My Tongue, in which she includes phonetic Gujarati verses, letting the music of the phrases wash over the readers. Here are the first lines of this moving poem:
You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
3) John Agard born in Guyana of a Caribbean father and a Portuguese mother, talks about feeling split but also about being judged for his ‘between cultures, between races’ status. In his most famous poem Half Caste he criticises the use of the term, which was quite current in Britain when he first moved there. See how he imitates the cadence of the Caribbean accent with the orthography that he chooses.
standing on one leg
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas/
wha u mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather/
well in dat case
nearly always half-caste
4) Finally, Thomas Sayers Ellis incorporates the language of rapping and black American argot from his native Washington DC in his poem Vernacular Owl, of which just a small fragment below.
Us am, an ambulance full of …
as round as we bald.
Why the young Brothers so big, what they eatin’,why they blow up like that, gotta wear big white tees, gotta wear white-skin sheets, like maggots, like lard, the domestic oil of death and klansweat, who blew them up, doctored,who pickin’ them off like darkcotton, make them make themselves a fashion of profitable, soft muscular bales, somebody got to clean this shit up.
To see the poet in action, watch this video recording of him reading his poem ‘My Meter is Percussive’.
So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these often disruptive, non-standard uses of English in poetry… and what do you find most challenging about writing in English (if it’s not your first language)?