Local Languages: The Forms of Speech in Contemporary Poetry
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Robert Frost’s legendary description of “the sound of sense” to define his poetics has for decades sounded like little more than common sense. His idea is now taken to be fairly straightforward: the inflections of an utterance resulting from the tension between demotic speech and poetic form indicate its purport. However, our accepted notion of Frost’s formulation as simply the marriage of form and meaning misconstrues what is potentially revolutionary in it: if everyday speech and verse form generate tension, then Frost has described a method for mediating between reality, represented by speech, and art, represented by verse form. The merger is not passive: the sound of sense occurs when Frost “drag[s] and break[s] the intonation across the metre.” And yet Frost places speech and verse form in a working relationship. It is the argument of this dissertation that poets reckon with what is often understood as discord between poetry and reality by putting into correspondence forms of speech and the forms of poetry. The poets I examine–Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tony Harrison, and Lucille Clifton–are concerned with their positions in local communities that range from the family unit to ethnic, religious, racial, economic, and sexual groups, and they marshal forms of speech in poetic form to speak from those locales and to counter the drag and break of those located social and political realities. They utilize what I call their “local languages”–the speech of their particular communities that situates them geographically in local contexts and politically in social constructs–in various ways: they employ them as raw material; they thematize them; they invent idiosyncratic “local” languages to undermine expectations about the communities that speak those languages; they devise generalized languages out of standard and nonstandard constructions to speak not just to and from specific locations but to speak more broadly about human experience. How, these poets ask, can poetry respond to atrocities, deprivations, divisions, and disturbances without becoming programmatic or propagandistic and without reinforcing false preconceptions about the kinds of language suitable for poetry? They answer that question with the living speech of their immediate worlds.
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