Thursday, 8 May 2008


A few years back I had a brief exchange with Ron Silliman concerning the sounds of Anglophone languages. Ron had said some nice things on his blog about an Australian poet (can’t remember who it was) then added that, in general, the recent Australian poems he’d looked at seemed to lack ‘music’. I’d responded that perhaps he couldn’t ‘hear’ the poems as they sounded to the locals, then, when he gave me a considered answer I probably put him offside by intimating that I was only joking. Well I was, and I wasn’t.

Americans are particularly insulated from the sounds of other English-speaking peoples. When Australian (or British) actors work in America they almost always need to become American in order to do so (so that only ‘we’ know they are ‘ours’). The Americans do have, from time to time, a kind of cartoon perception of ‘limey’ accents; hardly ever the perception of Australian or New Zealand varieties. Once when I was travelling in the States some people in the South just thought I was an American from elsewhere, some remote part like the Pacific north-west (is there anywhere else but America?). A friend from Massachusetts, having spent several years in Australia, alarmed her proper Bostonian relatives with an accent that seemed to them to be Texan.

What concerns me about this is that if we can’t ‘hear’ each other, what are we to make of poems that depend so much upon sound? There are often complete vowel-shifts, like the differences (for example) between broad Australian and broad New Zealand accents (‘this’, spoken by a New Zealander, sounds like ‘thus’ to me; ‘that’ sounds like ‘thet’). These differences might be a problem in themselves but a major problem they illustrate only too well is that of linguistic imperialism. English speakers outside the United States hear American accents and intonations all the time; at least enough to be able to mimic roughly the sounds of several different regions. People in Britain are used to regional accents, especially since the BBC dropped its ‘standard’ version. Most non-Americans are constantly subjected to American film, television and popular music; the Americans absorb next to nothing in return (only ten percent of them have passports and many who do travel expect that we all accept $US ).

I realise that it might seem silly to ramble on about this, but what happens on a medium like the web, where we are no longer corralled by nationality and might not even signal where we come from? It’s an area of course, where vizpo is in its element (I think here of work by people like Geof Huth and Mark Young: all power to them), but it may also be a place where the ‘rest of us’ become second class citizens.


Vance Maverick said...

If I may answer in my capacity as a representative have a point, but it's not clear how far it should be pushed. Should I read Wordsworth in 200-year-old Northumbrian? And with what degree of compromise with 200-year-old Southern English? As with any aspect of literature, we should expect readers to know something, but we can't expect them to know everything. Ron S, in any case, is probably not as insular as the Americans in your anecdotes.

Laurie Duggan said...

Point taken. But where does it leave any notion of poetry as 'music'? Then again I guess you could argue that due to changing instruments and notations we don't really know what music sounded like either.