Monday, April 12, 2010
The bastardization of English
Kenneth Goldsmith recently said on Harriet:
"Globalization turns all language into provisional language. The ubiquity of English: now that we all speak it, nobody remembers its use. The collective bastardization of English is our most impressive achievement; we have broken its back with ignorance, accent, slang, jargon, tourism and multitasking. We can make it say anything we want, like a speech dummy."
And yet... though many languages may be the kindred bastards of English, its parent and oldest offspring are quarreling over their real and perceived differences.
Steve Burt, in the pages of the PN Review, recently claimed that "most American poets, alas, are not reading contemporary British poetry." What?! The fact is that it has never, ever been easier for Americans to read work by the UK poets. Books published by Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Faber and Faber, Salt and others are more easily obtainable here than ever before (thanks, in part, to conveniences like The Book Depository and Amazon), and such poets as Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Robin Robertson, and Carol Ann Duffy have large trade publishers here: FSG, Knopf, Norton (let alone good mid-size presses like Graywolf). When the reclusive J.H. Prynne came over to Chicago for readings and talks, it caused considerable excitement; he was lionized by his fans, among which I count myself. I'd add that hardly an issue of Poetry goes by without a poem or review – or at least some mention of – a British poet; and as our circulation ranks as about the highest of any literary magazine in the USA, the claim that poetry doesn’t travel from there to here seems wrong to me.
Now what about the other way around? What do they think of American poetry in the UK? As I recently blogged in a post about the "Atlantic Rift" in contemporary poetry, Fiona Sampson read some recent books by American poets with skepticism and bewilderment. And there's now a Guardian podcast relating to the ostensible break between American and British poets in which some pretty odd ideas about American poets are floated. According to Don Guttenplan, an American editor for The Nation who lives in London and one of the participants in the debate that can be heard on the podcast, Anne-Marie Fyfe, who is also part of the discussion, noted "the fall-out from separate histories, cliques, the post-division era, the supposed continuity of the avant-garde, the very differences of accent, emphasis and daily life etc." She notes dissimilarities too, in the poetry "industry," claiming that American poets are "largely dependent on private subsidy, university tenure, academic reviews; [while] UK poetry [is] still very people-based, democratic, ground-up; resulting American poets now write only for other poets, no concept of a general readership. I exaggerate, of course, but significant differences and significant impact on actual craft."
Frankly, as for what Fyfe thinks, I'm astonished: hardly any US poets get private subsidies or academic jobs (let alone tenured ones); and most litmags here are not connected with academia - those that are have been in dire straits and, like Shenandoah and Tri-Quarterly, are probably an endangered species. And I find it hard to believe that UK poetry is more “people-based, democratic,” etc. than poetry over here - assuming those are real virtues to begin with. And certainly there are proliferating writing programs and cliques in the UK, just as there as here, viz. the ad pages of the LRB and TLS, and the recent blogfeud between Todd Swift and Roddy Lumsden about who’s a British poet.
We have a long way to go if we're going to understand each other, that's for sure. But the good news, it seems to me, is that British and American poets are indeed now really reading and meeting each other; it's only natural to squabble over our differences and similarities (real and imaginary), after a few decades of operating in more or less distinct atmospheres. And so these are tempests, no doubt, in our respective teapots and coffee-makers. I'm happy that things are not so globalized that our writing is or has to be alike. Yet how to explain the rocky oceanic rift that still lies between us?
In 1935 (five years before she published "Stanzas in Meditation" in Poetry magazine), Gertrude Stein delivered lectures before a packed audience at the University of Chicago. She had just returned to the US for the first time since leaving it in 1903 to live abroad. In one of her lectures, "Narration," she said that because American and English literature "completely differ one from the other and they use the same language to tell everything that can be happening it is naturally very naturally not at all the same thing." Daily life in each culture is different, so naturally the narrative of life in each culture is, too:
"And that is what literature does it emphasizes what every one has as the life of the nation which the life of every one in that nation makes it be. That is what literature is as anybody can see if they read the writing as a nation makes it be."
And so -
"Americans and English use the same language but the Americans have not a daily living as any Englishman does and can have. [...] It is going to be very interesting and it is very interesting and it has been very interesting to see how two nations having the same words all the same grammatical construction have come to be telling things that have nothing whatever in common."
Interesting, indeed. And in a stroke of good timing, the University of Chicago Press is bringing Stein's lecture back into print this spring; you can pre-order a copy (introduced by Thornton Wilder!) here.
Kenny says: "we used to renew what was depleted, now we try to resurrect what is gone."
I suppose that for some, the reprinting of old books falls balefully into that last category - and yet there are books that do not perish, and what's contained in them turns out to be an endlessly renewable and useful resource.
See also Hannah Brooks-Motl's recent essay on this subject; click here; and Todd Swift's remarks on the Best American Poetry blog.
Labels: atlantic rift