Thursday, February 5, 2009

Learn Latin or GTFO

Martin Earl's poast on blogging a couple of weeks ago at the Harriet blog has been on my mind a lot since. It contains large amounts of proper verb conjugation and rambling on various topics (blogging as a medium, purebred language, a lament for the decline of thoughtfulness in poetry, etc.), but mostly the reason it has stayed with me is because of its disturbing power assertions. I don't know if that's too strong of a wording for what I perceive to be his almost subtle attempts to assure non-privileged language that it has no place on the Internet, that it's current seemingly free-reign is coming to a much needed close. About poetry blogs, he writes:

So many poets, untrained at literary journalism, called up like reservists, and sent greenly into battle. Most of them have never learned that prose is not poetry. They seem to think that as poets they are somehow released from having to grapple with the arduous task of writing pleasing sentences. Anything can happen within a line of poetry, but the sentence is a rule-bound construction. You have to be good at mathematics to write good sentences. Ideally you should have studied Latin and a modern inflected language, German or Finnish, for example. You would do well to have an astrolabe placed to the left of your laptop.
His disdain for vernacular is hidden here by addressing those who are members of the educated class. I mean, this is already a pretty lame approach to writing even on the surface level, and is indicative of his approach to language in general: focusing on enforcing his rules at the expense of addressing content. However, the assertion becomes much more problematic when applied, for instance, to bloggers in developing countries who don't always have a well-educated journalist on hand to conjugate their sentences.

It may seem like I'm stretching things, but to me his assertion is clear: That those who don't wield the privileged class's strap-on English don't get to participate in the conversation. I mean, his problem with the blogs has nothing to do with what people are saying, it's just that their writers don't know enough European languages to be worth his time. The strength of the Internet is in the amount of people who have access to these conversations, but to Earl, this is only a negative thing.

I should mention that I've never previously heard of Martin Earl. The Internet tells me he's a poet and translator. Unfortunately, none of his work is available online without paying for it. The exception is his blogs on Harriet, which he was paid to write. This is important to me because, in this day, for a publishing writer to not have any work available on the Internet means one of two things: he's never written anything that anyone has ever wanted to put on the Internet, or he's fought very hard to keep his work out of the hands of all but paying customers.

Earl's attitude toward language is further revealed for what it is in the comment section as, on a number of occasions, he ignores valid criticism only to correct the verb tenses of a quick typing commenter.

It may seem kind of lame to be attacking some 2 week old blog post made by someone I've never heard of. These are, however, language issues I really care about, and these disturbing undertones of Earl's post were never mentioned by anyone as far as I know. It might appear otherwise, but I don't actually care about attacking Earl specifically. I care about attacking these kinds of attitudes in, not just poetry, but in language in general. In fact, there is even this attitude (in Earl's post and elsewhere) that "bad speech" is OK for poetry, because poetry is just games anyway. The Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard has dealt with a lot of these issues. Here is a poem from Unrelated Incidents:
this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.
Leonard would understand the class assertions being made by Earl immediately. In America, we think of Britain as having many different accents and idioms, whereas we think that America has only one with scattered single instances of pronunciation differences. This is, of course, wholly incorrect. There are numerous idioms that are immediately categorized as "wrong" or "bad English" in most people's minds. Black Vernacular is the obvious example, various Southern dialects also. Leonard writes in The Proof of Mince Pie:

The university (and here I speak specifically about the arts faculties) is a reification of the notion that culture is synonymous with property. And the essentially acquisitive attitude to culture, "education", and "a good accent" is simply an aspect of the competitive, status-conscious class structure of the society as a whole...

...And how often do you hear those letters on "Any Answers" etc. on the radio complaining about the corruption of "our beautiful English language"? The "beauty" of a lot of English poetry (particularly the Romantics) for many, is that the softness of its vowel-enunciation reinforces their class-status in society as the possessors of a desirable mode of speaking. And of course Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" goes down a bomb with the "Any Answers" brigade; where beauty in language is recognised as the property of a particular class, then naturally truth is assumed to be the property of that class also.
The truth is that there is no such thing as the "English Language". It's just a place marking term we think we use for convenience's sake. It pretends to be a generalized term that covers everything, but in reality, it's a very specific term, referring to the minority idiom of the ruling class that we all try so hard to emulate. The "rules of English" are not for the purpose of governing the language (language governs itself naturally), they are for the purpose of governing people, and restricting them.

Controlling what "good sentences" are was enough, for the most part, to restrict speech in the print world. If you couldn't emulate certain "Standards", you didn't have access to the press. This is no longer the case with Internet. Most libraries offer free computer and Internet access, and for instance: I'm writing this from a 9 year old laptop that I acquired at no cost, and am using to steal wireless from across the street.

New methods of coercion are necessary for controlling speech on the Internet ("tiered service" business models for ISPs), and for the most part, I guess it's comforting that Martin Earl only understands print's coercion methods. He'll have a pretty hard time trying trying to pull his shit over on us in this neighborhood.


Anonymous said...

OT - glad to have found your blog as it proves I am not completely nuts.

I said in a moment of madness last year that I'd give a course on Vallejo, Lorca, Stein, and Spicer. Not that I am an expert in all of these people ... it was an intuition to put those four together.

Now they are also all together in this blog. Good.

Iain said...

All except Spicer lived in Europe,
all except Vallejo were gay,
all except Stein were Leftists,
all except Lorca were primary influences on various Language poets (that's kind of a weasel-y category).

Either way, they're all fantastic poets worthy of having enormous amounts of time devoted to their work. Glad I could help justify the existence of a class devoted to them.