Thursday, 7 June 2007

Letter 2

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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England


I first encountered the poetry of William Barnes when I was sixteen. I had been in Barnes House at Sturminster Newton school and had no real idea of what he wrote until I bought some books at the Dorset Bookshop in Blandford Forum. It was a charming, overflowing bookshop run by two elderly ladies who had published a book about Barnes. What was striking about Barnes was that he wrote almost exclusively in the Dorset dialect. Here was the language that my parents, grandparents, the local farmers, farm workers and villagers, more or less used.

When skies wer peåle wi’ twinklen stars,
An’ whislen air a-risén keen;
An’ birds did leave the icy bars
To vind, in woods, their mossy screen;
When vrozen grass, so white’s a sheet,
Did scrunchy sharp below our veet,
An’ water, that did sparkle red
At zunzet, wer a-vrozen dead;
The ringers then did spend an hour
A-ringen changes up in tow’r;
Vor Lydlinch bells be good vor sound
An’ liked by all the nåighbours round.

The habitual ‘v’ for ‘f’ and ‘z’ for ‘s’ was still in common use.
I grew up, as did my daughters, saying, ‘Oh-arh’ and ‘Look at that girt bull’. I come from the same peasant stock as Barnes and at seventeen I was writing a strange poetry inspired by Wordsworth, Barnes and the puns of radio comedy.

I want to talk about Barnes, his context and the English poetry canon. This general overview may cast some light on the narrowness of the canon and the relative instability of late twentieth century English poetry.


William Barnes has three aspects that are noteworthy. He wrote for a specific and local audience, the rural poor and dispossessed and put that focus above anything else. By choosing not to conform to national English he reduced his potential audience considerably. However, his dialect poetry did sell in quantities and has never been out of print. It is still widely available in different editions. Indeed, in the past forty years his position in relation to the canon has improved. There has been a Selected Poems in the Penguin Classic series, edited by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.

Secondly, his work as a linguist and as a theorist of English language is significant and similar to the seventeenth century Levellers who also wanted the removal of the Norman-French system of government.
Thirdly, he was also a political economist seeking a way out of worst effects of industrialisation. In other words, there is more to Barnes than might be thought.

The poet, John Ashbery, in a handy book entitled Other Traditions, based on his Norton lectures, delineates the value of six poets outside the canon. These include the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare, who is listed in the Cambridge History of English Poets, among the Lesser Romantic Poets. He is there with some fascinating figures, such as Barnes, Thomas Love Beddoes and George Darley. Clare is the poet that famously wrote

I am – yet what I am, no one knows or cares;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes –
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host
Like shadow’s in love-frenzied stifled throes –
And yet I am, and live – like vapours tossed

Now I don’t wish to suggest that Barnes is better than Clare. Rather I think that both have been sorely neglected because they deal with the rural poor and dispossessed. Clare lost his mind as a result of his problems and has only recently thanks to Ashbery, Jonathan Bate and the Clare Society found his way closer to the canon. A similar resurgence is happening for Barnes. They are, both, though, still outside the canon.

There is a view of the origins of English literary language that late fourteenth century and early fifteenth century poets took the wrong course within vernacular English as it slowly emerged as a distinct language. At that time the bulk of the population spoke Middle English dialects influenced by successive invaders, the Normans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The official languages of government were French and Latin and they dominated the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman dialects. The dialect of London, of the City of London that is, became the first English literary language through borrowings from other languages, the power of print and the position of its users during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The London poets, Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve and so on, had to make difficult choices about which dialect to write in. It is this borrowing from other languages that so upset Barnes.

One impact of the London poets’ choice of literary language is that a cultured English person should know the parts of language that are reliant upon knowledge of Latin, Greek or French and can use them for purposes of power. Similarly the ability to quote from other language in conversation is seen as the mark of a powerful person. Obviously the less well educated and poorer people would not ordinarily be able to fully understand such a person.

This affectation towards the quoting of other languages is not confined to the English. Here’s Hugh Fox, the American poet, writing about when he first met Charles Bukowski in 1966 and saying

‘You’re the first writer I’ve ever read that used English the way I used it in Chicago when I was growing up. You know, you get a Ph. D., fall in love with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, think that if you write a page without Greek, Sanskrit and Italian in it that you’re a fucking fool, …’

Here is perhaps a key to why Barnes and Bukowski are not acceptable to the English canon, despite tremendous popularity and much academic interest. They use localised versions of English. They write, as it were, in another language.

‘John Bloom In London’

John Bloom he wer a jolly soul,
A grinder o’ the best o’ meal,
Bezide a river that did roll,
Vrom week to week, to push his wheel.
His flour wer all a-meåde o’ wheat;
An’ fit for bread that vo’k mid eat;
Vor he would starve avore he’d cheat.
‘’Tis pure,’ woone woman cried;
‘Aye, sure,’ woone mwore replied;
‘You’ll vind it nice. Buy woonce, buy twice,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

Athirt the chest he wer so wide
As two or dree ov me or you,
An’ wider still vrom zide to zide,
An’ I do think still thicker drough.
Vall down, he coulden, he did lie
When he wer up on zide so high
As up on end or perty nigh.
‘Meåke room,’ woone naighbour cried;
‘’Tis Bloom,’ woone mwore replied;
‘Good morn t’ye all, bwoth girt an’ small,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

Noo stings o’ conscience ever broke
His rest, a-twiten o’n wi’ wrong,
Zoo he did sleep till mornen broke,
An’ birds did call en wi’ their zong.
But he did love a harmless joke,
An’ love his evenen whiff o’ smoke,
A-zitten in his cheåir o’ woak.
‘Your cup,’ his daughter cried;
‘Vill’d up,’ his wife replied;
‘Aye, aye; a drap avore a nap,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

When Lon’on vo’k did meåke a show
O’ thei girt glassen house woone year,
An’ people went, bwoth high an’ low,
To zee the zight, vrom vur an’ near,
‘O well,’ cried Bloom, ‘why I’ve a right
So well’s the rest to zee the zight;
I’ll goo, an’ teåke the rail outright.’
‘Your feåre,’ the booker cried;
‘There, there,’ good Bloom replied;
‘Why this June het do meake woone zweat,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

Then up the guard did whissle sh’ill,
An’ then the engine pank’d a blast,
An’ rottled on loud’s a mill,
Avore the train, vrom slow to vast.
An’ oh! at last how they did spank
By cutten deep, an’ high-cast bank
The while the iron ho’se did pank.
‘Do whizzy,’ woone o’m cried;
‘I’m dizzy,’ woone replied;
‘Aye, here’s the road to hawl a lwoad,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

In Lon’on John zent out to call
A tidy trap, that he mid ride
To zee the glassen house, an’ all
The lot o’ things a-stow’d inside.
‘Here, Boots, come here,’ cried he, ‘I’ll dab
A zixpence in your han’ to nab
Down street a tidy cab.’
‘A feåre,’ the boots then cried;
‘I’m there,’ the man replied;
‘The glassen pleåce, your quickest peåce,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

The steps went down wi’ rottlen slap,
The swingen door went open wide:
Wide? no; vor when the worthy chap
Stepp’d up to teåke his pleåce inside,
Breast-voremost, he wer twice too wide
Vor thick there door. An’ then he tried
To edge in woone an’ tother zide.
‘’Twon’t do,’ the drever cried;
‘Can’t goo,’ good Bloom replied;
‘That you should bring theåse vooty thing!’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

‘Come,’ cried the drever, ‘pay your feåre;
You’ll teåke up all my time, good man.’
‘Well,’ answe’d Bloom, ‘to meåke that square.
You teåke me up, then, if you can.’
‘I come at call,’ the man did nod.
‘What then? cried Bloom, ‘I han’t a-rod,
An’ can’t in thik there hodmadod.’
‘Girt lump,’ the drever cried;
‘Small stump,’ good Bloom replied;
‘A little mite, to meåke so light,
O’ jolly Bloom the miller.

‘You’d best be off now perty quick,’
Cried Bloom, ‘an’ vind a lighter lwoad,
Or else I’ll vetch my voot, an’ kick
The vooty thing athirt the road.’
‘Who is the man?’ they cried, ‘meåke room,’
A halfstav’d Do’set man,’ cried Bloom;
‘You be? another cried;
‘Hee! Hee! woone mwore replied.
‘Aye, shrunk so thin, to bwone an’ skin,’
Cried worthy Bloom the miller.

That was ‘John Bloom in London’ read by Paul Hart. It gives an idea of the original sound. Indeed, Barnes read his work in and around Dorset and was in regular demand as a popular oral entertainer. He developed a large following and enjoyed a longer performing career than Charles Dickens.

Barnes was a self-educated polymath. Described by Rev. Francis Kilvert in his Diary as ‘half-hermit, half-enchanter’, he was far from being an orthodox Victorian churchman. He was more in the visionary tradition of Milton and Blake through his conception of Paradise and out of touch with the direction of Victorian England. He saw Dorset village life as an Other England, an Eden more or less outside of industrialisation. He believed in the holiness of everything and saw God in everything, in all religions. He believed in an everlasting God, without any reliance upon a totalising theosophy. He was anti-Imperialist, spoke out against the Crimean and Opium wars and studied sacred texts in their original language. I went to school with direct descendants of Barnes and Hardy. Although the boy that I most remember is Terry Loveless, a rebellious relative of the leader of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, those farm workers who were arrested for forming a Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers and deported to Australia in 1834. Indeed Hardy can be read as the successful echo of Barnes celebrating a people that live in rhythm with nature and it is the most obvious place to start in seeing the traces of Barnes mark. However, that tradition lived on beyond Hardy.

From the late 1970’s until the mid 90’s I met various members of the extended Powys family in Mappowder, mid-Dorset. This was the family that produced several writers, poets and artists. John Cowper, of A Glastonbury Romance and Weymouth Sands fame, Theodore, Llewellyn, Philippa, Lucy and Lucy’s son in law, Gerard Casey. All were thoroughly intellectual and otherworldly. All were deeply imbued in profound spiritual and literary study. They were not fans of Mrs. Thatcher or President Reagan. They were part of the ongoing inheritance of non-denominational visionary poetry.

Visiting the Powys family was an education. Lucy Powys, youngest sister of John Cowper, the dedicatee of A Glastonbury Romance, had been born in the nineteenth century. Although bedridden, she gave me the second strongest handshake I ever received. A formidable intellect, she chopped at my simple assertions with the discreet charm of an executioner. Taking tea in her summer garden, she was surrounded by butterflies and birds that would congregate around her wheelchair. She was certainly of the same ilk as Blake and Barnes in terms of seeing the living sacrament in all creatures and moment. Barnes, though, was less of a neo-Platonist than her.

Like Barnes, the Powys’s had lived in Dorchester, (Casterbridge in Hardy’s novels) a town that in the seventeenth century that had been the most godly of Puritan towns. (See David Underdown’s study Fire From Heaven Harper Collins 1992). This was a town where power had been exercised according to religious commitment rather than wealth or rank and there was a tradition of unorthodoxy that Barnes and others fed into. Barnes did not smoke or drink alcohol. Instead he studied philology and the religions of the world. He was a founder and first Secretary of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club. This society still exists at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. His dialect poetry was written for, and concerns the lives of, Dorset agricultural people. Out of the impact of enclosure, the agricultural depression and poverty that so impacted upon John Clare, Barnes developed a middle way between capital and labour in his Views of Labour and Gold (1859). His vision of an economy where no one was ever over-worked or idle is a late echo of the seventeenth century dissenters, the Levellers and Ranters, as well as a precursor to the arts & crafts socialism of William Morris. He was a believer in small holdings as opposed to the division of labour and time work discipline ethos. The popular image of Barnes in a smock only gives part of the man. Yes, he was anachronistic, an oddball, he was also a man thinking for the future within a divine universe.

Barnes believed in the local as the starting point of the self and his really big vision, even more than the ‘small is beautiful’ idea, was in the need to restore the English language to its Anglo-Saxon roots. Anglo-Saxon politics were libertarian. You find the Barnes influence in Hardy and the Powys family here. Like Blake, Barnes drew inspiration from ancient Britain with the addition of knowledge of ancient Egypt and Hindu mythology. Barnes was something of an anthropologist and it is no wonder that he was sought out by Tennyson, Browning and other literary figures as a sage. He represented a tradition far removed from the authoritarian Anglo-Norman politics that dominated Victorian England.

Barnes recognised Saxon English as the local language of speech and poetry, carrying with it an alternative culture and civilisation. This is the context of his dialect poetry and the main reason for his exclusion from the canon. He produced glossaries and wrote books on grammar and philology in Saxon English. He had an international reputation as a linguist having become familiar with some seventy languages. He created a simplified Anglo-Saxon English replacing Latin and French words with new ones. Thus ornithology became ‘birdlore’, pathology, ‘painlore’, optics, ‘lightlore’ and so on. Essentially he used English prefix’s and suffix’s for foreign ones, thus many for ‘multi’, with multiple being replaced by manifold and ‘ism’ being replaced by ‘hood’, so that equality becomes ‘evenhood’. He also translated Latin roots into English so that ‘flect’ became bend, ‘pose’ became put, with ‘preposition’ becoming ‘foreputting’ and so on. He also added to Saxon English by creating new words. ‘Suchness’ for resemblance, ‘allsome’ for universal, and so on. Some of the words he created and used have been adopted and are now part of the language. ‘Earthlore’ for geology is used by New Age shops and is part of the back to nature movement, although interestingly it is not in the Oxford Concise Dictionary. Also ‘gawk’ from the Dorset dialect, meaning to stand and stare about idly, is well used, albeit recognised as a colloquialism by the Oxford Concise. There are many other examples. He made good use of the dialect and there are many words that have been incorporated into the language. It would be interesting to know the full extent of Barnes success in this. Thanks to Barnes we can say that the differences between Saxon and Latinate English and the power of each are relatively well known and that for poets word selection, based on knowledge, power and effectiveness, has become an issue that the canon is struggling to recognise and deal with. Barnes’ new words have survived but are resolutely kept outside Standard English.

The English poetry canon can be defined as the works and authors represented in the histories and anthologies published by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. The nature and status of the canon has been challenged since the 1970s on a number of areas, such as the relative absence of women, black, working class and other minorities, and these have been to some extent addressed. However, the position of dialect English, of poets like Barnes and Clare, and of the counter-Movement poets of the Sixties, is untenable. Whole traditions are excluded. Essentially those Sixties poets that absorbed the rich heritage of American poetics from Pound, the Imagists, William Carlos Williams, the Objectivists, New York School, Black Mountain, San Francisco and Beats have been ignored and marginalised despite international success and the achievement of a published Collected Poems. The impact of those diverse poetries was enormous, in stark contrast to the neo-Edwardian Movement poets in terms of developing a counter-culture of poets, poetry magazines and presses in both high and low modernism.

Mainstream English poetry remains conservative, insular and nationalistic. Consider the continued mainstream gloss of Basil Bunting, with his use and celebration of the Northumbrian dialect, or Sorley MacLean, the Scottish Highlander who wrote in Gaelic, both barely recognised in their own lifetimes. Indeed Oxford University Press (OUP) in New York, but not in Oxford, published by far the most representative anthology of Twentieth Century British & Irish Poetry, edited by Keith Tuma in 2001. It was if Oxford washed its hands of such brazen openness to the Other. Indeed, J.H. Prynne, one of the most important Sixties poets, refused to allow his work to appear in the volume as an on going protest against the OUP. Similarly, I have received hate mail for publishing many American poets and essays on Anglo-American poets and attempting to restore historical accuracy. The OUP and Oxford English Faculty have been slow to recognise that the continual refusal to address wider readings of post 1950 English poetry has been a public disgrace and disservice. It goes back to the mid 1970s backlash against the Sixties poets and the re-writing of recent poetic history by such post-Movement poets and their successors to suit their own ends. Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) notoriously summarised the Sixties and excluded the dominant influences on English poetry. Their aim was to establish an alternative to those Sixties poets, with their various art, centred on a few good poets from Belfast. Unbelievable, you might think, but sadly true and successful. Their anthology also excluded women and ethnic poets. Motion is now Poet Laureate and subsequent histories and anthologies largely excluded what Professor Eric Mottram termed the English Poetry Revival until the mid-90s. Such deliberate misreading is slowly being undone.

William Barnes alerts us to the need to study the roots of words and of the need to cultivate local distinctiveness within a wider, international perspective. Like Barnes, I take solace in the knowledge that the English were not always so insular.

David Caddy

3 comments:

Sue said...

Thank you, David, for such an inspiring letter. I truly enjoyed listening in and felt stirred, both by your words and the poetry of Barnes.

Malaika said...

I love Lucy Powys!!!! She's wonderful.

Thanks, David, for all that information.

izzy said...

it's wonderful to read of my great great aunt lucy. i could whitter on about her for pages. how her mind, spirit, wit and grip where strong even when her body was weak.when i visited her she would hold my hand, only to let it go, to serve earlgray tea. her love of family and friends. how she would always ask after my friends, even though she'd only met them once! she was both graceful and 'full of grace' as anyone you'd wish to meet.