In Their Own Words
I did not expect, amongst the gales and glooms of November, that I would be reduced to helpless laughter by an article in a train magazine. My husband had been reading about the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway, a steam service set up long after I left my home county. After praise for the charm of the station and the friendliness of its staff, the reviewer remarked dolefully: "This line is a long way from a lot of places".
In his famous early recording of "The Charge of the Light Brigade", Tennyson sounds a very long way from his listeners, shouting his lines heroically through the hail of crackle and time. I have heard this distant voice several times, most recently in a radio programme about the Poetry Archive.
This ever-growing store of poets' voices was established, admirably, by Andrew Motion, through skills and experience entirely foreign to me. Andrew remarked in the programme that Tennyson had a Lincolnshire accent. Indeed, the old man was barking out his "Half a league"-s with the North Midlands' short "a", a world away from the long-drawn-out vowels of the South and "Received Pronunciation", once the standard fare of the BBC. Why had I not noticed this before? Perhaps, because it was so familiar. Tennyson was a clergyman's son, and I was fascinated that he had been allowed to speak in the accents of his father's poorer parishioners. His vowels could have been my shepherd grandfather's. All the Lincolnshire clergy of my youth, even the locally bred, drawled like the grandest Radio 3 announcer. The past is a country full of surprise.
Poets must write for their own voices. They must, at least in private, mutter through their own work. Lines which have seemed a long way from my own rhythmic understanding often come alive when I hear their author read them. Crudely, Northern poetry often moves at a slower speed. Ted Hughes' lines have weight and take their time. I think Wordsworth's lines also need to be given a measure of time for their simplicity to work upon the mind: "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course/ With rocks and stones and trees".
I, therefore, should be a slow reader. Any of the patient radio producers who have tried to stop me gabbling will now be frowning in confusion. But the English are, ethnically, a mess, to the eternal embarrassment of the malevolent right wing of our politics. My mother's father, who had Welsh blood, was a small quick man who talked as fast as a train. So did my mother. So do I. Despite decades in the South, my voice still cherishes Tennyson's light vowels, and it has a falling away at the end of words which is not well suited to the making of political points, or to the emphatic reading of poetry. This goes, I think, with Lincolnshire's sense of being a long way from the centres of power, with a lack of contact with people in a remarkably empty county, and a lack of confidence in organising and initiating. If the Poetry Archive had been left to me, it would be a note in a drawer. But my uncertain consonants did spill out of the drawer into a poem:
The Lincolnshire accent
It is a voice even in men
A child who now has lost the note
His mother sent.
It starts in warmth but then the vowels
Begin to blur,
Give words no end. A lamb's wide cries
Crumble to air.
My uncle's voice, my grandfather's
Sift quiet through death
A Scunthorpe girl speaks in the news.
I hold my breath
(Published in Bricks and Ballads, Carcanet, 2004)
Yet I was lucky, I think, to keep any accent at all. In my part-time passion for folk music, I have noticed that the younger singers (like the marvelous Jackie Oates, from Devon) often have strong regional accents, which give their singing a confidence lacking in the R P voices of an older generation, whose vowels sometimes drift rather desperately towards the mid-Atlantic. The older voices sound uneasy with their songs; a long way from anywhere.
Let us slide into the deeper seas of local language: dialect. Have you ever heard anyone say "pronksum"? No, neither have I. But - allegedly - Tennyson might have done, as it was a nineteenth century Lincolnshire word for "donkey". Tennyson wrote dialect poems, lovingly reproduced in my youth in the fat Christmas supplements to "Lincolnshire Life". I tried to read them, dutifully. In places, they sparked into life, but, ploughing through line after careful line, I found them as thick as porridge. I have just read "Northern Farmer: Old Style: - and so can you, here.
Tennyson, I read, wrote this in his fifties, and went on to write more dialect pieces. Now living in the South, he loved to read these poems aloud. Even his Lincolnshire readers were surprised by them. A farmer's daughter (allegedly) remarked: "That's Lincoln's laborers' talk and I thought Mr. Tennyson was a gentleman." Now, also in my fifties, I can hear true echoes, in Tennyson's lines, of my own grandfather: "I'm not afeard to die. I've been straight". I am moved by Tennyson's faithfulness to the scraps of speech, around which, far away in time and place, he built his poem. I laughed at the account of the sermon sounding over the farmer's head like "a buzzard-clock" - and no, I don't know what a buzzard clock is*. I am still further away from these voices. I wish I liked "Northern Farmer" better as a poem. It is late, slack, rambling Tennyson; how metrics seduce or repel us! But do read it yourself, and tell me what you think.
Lincolnshire dialect in my childhood had thinned from thick porridge to a kind of thin gruel, with a few plums. I knew, heard, and understood these, but was discouraged from using them. They were not to be found in school textbooks or in the pronouncements of the BBC. I could not have written Tennyson's Northern Farmer. I did, later, love the eloquence of dialect in Clare. "And croodling shepherds bend along/ Crouching to the whizzing storms". Surely any reader of "February", in Clare's "Shepherd's Calendar", will have already have seen the shepherd bent below the hailstorm before knowing that "croodling" means to "cower from the cold".
But poets far younger than me, like the brilliant young folk singers, do not cower from dialect. They embrace it. I have just come across two excellent examples. The first is a set of poems called "The Hoxton Stories", based on tapes from her grandfather, "on a bleeding' Chi-neese recorder" by Karen McCarthy Woolf. I think that single phrase will give you a sense of the mingled skill and wit of speaker and poet. One of the stories can be read - or heard.The second poet, one of my great discoveries of 2011, is Liz Berry, whose pamphlet from tall-lighthouse, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, I recommend without reservation. I have heard her read unpublished work alive, rich and as wickedly funny as dialect poems from the Black Country should be. Her thoughts on dialect, addressed to other young poets, can be read here.
Finally, I did not think that I would ever sympathise, in print, with Margaret Thatcher. But I too come from Lincolnshire, and I think that her much derided voice may have been the product of a particularly destructive breed of Lincolnshire elocution teacher. Clearly, in her childhood, she spoke in dialect which I knew but never used. For once, under pressure in the Commons, she used the Lincolnshire word for frightened, "frit". Here is a poem for that occasion, for all those who have suddenly found themselves transported a long way, back to their own words:
Yet all I took from it was words.
How strange! It was a solid place.
Potatoes, like an old man's face,
clay-caked, fell ruddy from the spade.
Huge sheep, the fruit-crammed pies they made,
now dwindle like the summer's birds.
What did they say? "It's fairing up."
My grandfather, his hot blue eyes
pure Viking, watched clouds sweep from skies.
His younger son said "last back end"
for autumn, leafless, with no friend.
Silent, I stirred my steaming cup.
My mother sighed. They would not fit:
old words, new money. In my head
I hear what Margaret Thatcher said,
puzzling note-takers. M Ps bayed,
she lost taught tones, Hansard's "afraid",
shrieked, to our schoolyard, "I'm not frit!"
(Published in Modern Poetry in Translation)
*and the buzzard clock is - thank you, Web - that big, bumbling beetle, with a disconcertingly loud hum, which is more tamely called a "Dor Beetle".
Alison Brackenbury was born in 1953, and is descended from a long line of British shepherds and farmworkers. She may be Britain's only poet in a boiler suit, as she has worked for over twenty years in her husband's family metal-finishing business. Her most recent collection is Singing in the Dark, Carcanet, 2008. Her eighth collection, Then, is due to be published by Carcanet in April 2013.
Alison is extremely interested in poetry on the Internet. She publishes new poems via her blog at www.alisonbrackenbury.co.uk, and via her Facebook Group, called Poems from Alison.