Swerving the Sestina
I’ll go and make a cup of tea: coz one,
I’m in avoidance mode today, so two
a biscuit might be nice, a slice or three
of toast, perhaps, with Marmite© on? Before
I make a start, I may as well make five -
no piece of cake, this writing perms of six.
You might well ask ‘What is a perm of six?’
Sestinas are attributed to one
Daniel from 12th. C. Provencal. Not five
months later, troubadours (verb trobar, to
compose), competed to produce the fore-
most trobar clus. The trobar clus is three
degrees above the trobar lev, (and three
times harder, I suppose) but then our six-
mad expert Philip Sidney sighed: ‘O for
Ye Goatherd Gods’, and wrote a double one!
Next, Kipling, Pound and Auden, Bishop too
and Bossa tried some nova lines. Take five.
Sestina’s lines are 39; that’s five
plus thirty-four, or six times six plus three –
the three’s a tercet called an envoi to
confuse things even more – the sestets, six-
line stanzas now become sixains. As one
has never been a blast at maths, this for-
mal style for me’s miscast. Perhaps, therefore,
we’ll look at words that end the lines ( the five
beat lines). The same 6 words end ev’ry one
of all the six-line stanzas, plus the three
contained in envoi (diff’rent order). ‘Six’
came last in this first sixain, needing to
come first in Stanza 2 (alluded to
as retrogradata) occurs before
the six words reappear in envoi. ‘Six’
appears (not unsurprisingly) as fifth
of six of these. One thinks by now, one’s three
parts gone. Don’t want to write another one.
1 thinks this line should end with 1, not 3.
and this 1, 2, should end with 3, not 2
and as 4 this, should end with 5, not 6.
Consider now my bilingual sestina, concerned overtly with ‘writing under someone else’s thumb and tongue’.
Hold on a bit! Owdonabit!
What’s wrong with you? Wozzupwithi?
You’ve heard yourself? Azzierdthissen?
It isn’t right. Snotreet, snotreet.
that dialect. Yonlankyspeik.
Speak properly. Thamunspeikreet.
Try [Λs] not [uz] ...thamunspeikreet.
It breaks my heart snotlankyspeik.
our heritage ... wozzupwithi?
It’s done to death ... snotreet, snotreet
the speech of Kings. Azzierdthissen?
You’re one of those ... Azzierdthissen?
Shakespeare gave prose ...amunspeikreet
the comic bits ... snorrawlusreet
(Drunken Porter’s ... Owdonabit!
part in Macbeth. Wozzupwithi
It’s non- RP, nonlankyspeik?
No poetry is lankyspeik
not even Keats. Wozzupwithi?
and no flat /a’s/ ... ‘amunspeikreet
spit /t/ and /p/ Owdonabit!
and say ‘Fl[Λ]t C[Λ]p. Snotreet, snotreet.
Water/m[Λ]tter ...srotreet, snotreet,
water/ch[Λ]tter ... snotankyspeik,
internal rhymes ... Owdonabit!
and pararhymes ... Azzierdthissen?
And aspirate! Hhhhhamunspeikreet.
How now brown cow? Wozzupwithi?
Your name! Your name! Wozzupwithi?
It’s classical ... snotreet, snotreet.
Pythagoras ... thamunspeikreet...
not ‘tater pie’, yonslankyspeik!
Hypota muse! Owdonabit!
Hold on a bit! Wozzupwithi?
You’ve heard yourself? Itsawlusreet
That dialect! Thamunspeikreet!
My local accent, Boltonian, is polysynthetic. For example, Boltonian ‘itsintinintit?’ translates ‘it is in the tin, isn’t it?’ ‘Bilingual Sestina’ could be described, as tragic-comedic: the tragic element being the disappearance of regional accents and dialects, and the comedy the /Pythogoras punning on my surname. The R.P. lines follow syntactically and semantically, with the dialectic interjections forming a hemi-stichomythic dialogue.184 This sestina read well as a duet, with my supervisor, Professor Glover, providing the R.P. voice.
Unlike the noted male poets, none of the American women formalists seemed perturbed by either ‘entitlement’, or ‘right’ to hierarchical structures. Alvarez, in particular, stated that in using traditional forms, she was not ‘giving up power ... going over to the enemy’. These are assertive terms, however, her phrase, ‘the houses built of words belong to no one’, is problematic. On the one hand, were felony deliberate, it could be seen as audacious theft from Donne, i.e. both telling and showing. On the other, were the allusion to ‘The Canonization’ unconscious, it might suggest a subliminal appropriation of the ‘ownership’ Alvarez refutes. This begs the question of the extent to which the present poet’s ‘increasing consciousness of formality’ reflects her ‘self-fashioning as a female formalist poet’.
This is potentially a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ problem. Sapphic rhythms pre-date many patriarchal forms, and using Sapphics in response to Hacker’s ‘Dusk: July’ places me firmly in a female tradition of formalism. By extension, the poem raises the question of whether Swinburne’s ‘Sapphics’ could be accused of felony. On the whole, though, rather than demonstrating that I am ‘writing under someone else’s thumb and tongue’, the poems in chapter and within this thesis, show the present poet enjoying the freedom that self-discovery brings. I both adhere to, and flout, the rules. On the other hand, introducing the highly patriarchal hemi-stichomythic dialogue into a Boltonian ‘Bilingual Sestina’ indicates a form-conscious female poet
playfully exploiting two complex forms for the purposes of admission into a culture at odds with her speaking voice. This sestina is, of course, based on Tony Harrison’s sonnet ‘Them & [uz]’. This poem, along with ‘On Not Being Milton’, concerned overtly with ‘owned language’, with ‘entitlement’ and ‘right’, is explored, and responded to, in the next, and final, chapter.
Contending Voices: Sonnets by Tony Harrison and Stella Pye
Two of Harrison’s most noted sonnets, ’On not Being Milton’ and ‘Them & [uz]’, are selected because Harrison and I hale from the same Northern working-class background and generation. However, unlike Harrison’s literary and Classical grounding at Leeds Grammar School and the University of Leeds, my first close-encounter with the sonnet form was post-retirement at the Open University, and it was with these two poems. I admired Harrison’s using the sonnet form, with its courtly ancestry, to interrogate perceptions of ‘owned language’, and inherent divisiveness of class and education, in seemingly contending literary and vernacular voices. The sonnets are from a sequence entitled, and carrying an epigraph from, ‘The School of Eloquence’.185 This refers to the radical London Corresponding Society (1792-99). The L.C.S. promoted the primacy of articulation in the working classes, and the epigraph is taken from E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.186 First, consider
On Not Being Milton
for Sergio Vieira and Armando Guebuza (Fremilo)
Read and committed to the flames, I call
these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,
my growing black enough to fit my boots.
The stutter and the scold out of the branks
of condescension, class and counter-class
thickens with glottal and a lumpen mass
of Ludding morphemes closing up their ranks.
Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress
Clangs a forged music on the frames of Art,
the looms of owned language smashed apart!
Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!
Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd of Cato Street conspirator who wrote:
Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting. 187
Harrison precedes his sixteen-line The School of Eloquence sonnets with the first eleven, and the final five, lines from Milton’s 120-line elegy, Ad Patrem. The inclusion of the Latin text invited a look at its translation, and this was interesting in itself. In thanking his father for his University education, Milton stresses the importance of education within the family and within society as a whole. Whilst the ‘door’ of University education opened much later for the present writer, the young Harrison could have found himself in a parallel psychological situation with Milton. Arguably, then, Harrison’s invoking Milton to introduce his sonnets fulfils two functions. The ensuing poems are homage to Milton, to his own father and to his dedicatee poets, all concerned overtly with the power of education. Secondly, the truncated version of Ad Patrem mimics Harrison’s own sixteen-line format, thus casting proleptic doubt upon the words ‘On Not’ (Being Milton).
Harrison saw a further parallel with his own, and the African Colonial, situation. He taught in Nigeria until the outbreak of Civil War, and says:
What Africa did for me was literally to put in perspective my own
education: it was one of the reasons why The School of Eloquence
begins with a poem to Africans ... I found the history of Colonial
Africa a very broad, dramatic portrayal of some of the things that
happened to me. 188
The first quatrain of ‘On not Being Milton’ is ambiguous. It might signal an intention to destroy an unworthy sonnet, or, carrying Pentecostal connotations, to speak in ‘tongues’ within those sixteen lines. Either way, as Rick Rylance states, ‘the opening self-consciously places it in a literary framework.’189 Harrison alludes to Aimé Césaire’s
poem celebrating black belonging. ‘Roots’ carry those connotations, along with rhyming ‘boots’, with its associations with the Northern phrase, ‘too big for your boots’, thus linking Colonial and Northern experiences.
Harrison’s sonnet is organised with a great sense of its musicality. The quatrain may be seen as the overture to the densest mass of lines and loudest sound, the septet. In this section, the oppositional voice of the foundry is uncompromisingly difficult to articulate. Additionally, the rhyme scheme changing from abab of the quatrain to cddceff (ff for fortissimo) hammers home the harsh assonantal slant. The one exception, ‘stress’, stresses Harrison’s self-awareness of his composition. The septet gives way to moments of quiet ease. The celebratory single line, quoting Gray quoting Milton, affords the breathing space for reflection to which Harrison again, self-reflexively alludes in his tercet (‘the silence round all poetry we quote’). The final break, to allow the full impact of the double puns on ‘ham’ and ‘righting’, to sink-in, follows. It is the death-blow to any lingering notions of ‘On Not’. Examine the present poet’s first response to ‘On Not Being Milton’.
On Not Being Harrison
And you: the scholar. Me: the dunce at school,
such arrogance to write these sixteen lines.
AND THIS from Jadum – latter Shakespeare’s fool –
although the most adroit, least asinine
of social commentators. ‘Art for Art’s
Sake’ – Hellenistic – not exactly me,
no Classicist. But not exactly thee,
you want owned looms of language smashed apart,
you cheeky monkey! Some brass neck to swipe
their sonnet form, ‘Miltonic’, it’s avowed –
debatable, but let that pass for now –
to pun, allude, ‘black Martinique’ your gripe.
Cato and Cato Street [we] equably
Resort to … Republic aspiration
(Geoffrey Hill, my later education)
in paradoxical duality.
This poem begs the question whether I am growing ‘too big for my boots’, attempting to refute, yet confirm association with an iconic poet. I profess my sonnet to be ‘such arrogance’, yet in common, with ‘On Not Being Milton’, it is both homage and appropriation.
The sonnet celebrates and uses Harrison’s form to interrogate his use of the form, and with similar contrariness. We each speak in dual-tongues, and this is not obsequiousness. My recent acquisition of a literary voice was as alien from ‘the language that I spoke at home’ as Harrison’s earlier induction.190 I wanted, like Harrison, to harness the energy of iconic poets. After my initial homage to Harrison, (‘you the scholar’), Geoffrey Hill’s poems to Harrison provided that energy.191
AND THIS from Jadum simultaneously denigrates and justifies my writing this sonnet. Hill refers to the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo in his poems to Harrison, and this quotation is from Okigbo’s Labyrinths with Path of Thunder. The sequence, like Harrison’s sonnets, is littered with literary allusion and spoken in ‘tongues’. Its inclusion here links the three poets and their work.
I wanted to emulate Harrison’s harsh assonance in the second section, not to achieve his macho foundry sound, rather to explore his using it. Here again, we contradict: Harrison uses the very artifice of ‘owned language’ he claims to ‘smash’, and I quote ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (my mind’s ear hearing Plath’s incomparably harsh ‘large charge’), yet deny any connection with Pater’s aestheticism, abandoning literary language, (‘Hellenistic’), for vernacular ‘cheeky monkey!’192 Like Harrison, I enjoy the pun, (‘ass/asinine’). Highlighting Harrison’s virtuosity in a single line draws attention to that virtuosity.
The tercet quotes Hill’s quoting Harrison, and in doing so, links me with these celebrated poets in this layered sonnet. The final isolated line reflects Harrison’s, (and my own), self-fashioning in ‘paradoxical duality’. Thirty years on, Harrison’s contending
dramatis personae may, of course, peacefully co-exist, but in 1983, he said, ‘I don’t feel happy in the world of “literature”, and nor do I feel happy – with my education and my identity as a poet – in my old working-class background.’193
Critical opinion on Harrison’s sixteen-line format varies. George Meredith introduced the sixteen-line sonnet. Douglas Dunn points out that they are really ‘not Meredithian’, in that Harrison’s linear layout and rhyme schemes differ from those of Meredith. Stephen Spender claims them ‘all’ to be Meredithian. 194 Marilyn Hacker says they are ‘Miltonic’, and, given Harrison’s claim and counter-claim, her thinking is sound. My next poem outlines some differences between Miltonic and Harrisonian sonnets.
John Milton’s sonnets (mainly) 23
have fourteen lines. 1 fifteen, 1 ‘caudate’ -
derived from ‘coda’ – (think that’s stressed trochee).
For all his sonnets, Milton designates
Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes:
with 5 Italian, 18 English, not
addressing customary English themes,
but politics and poet’s life. A plot
that Harrison revives, re-vivifies
in sixteen-lines: a ‘stronger’ dialogue
is possible, he argues, modifies
both rhyme and linear structure, monologue
with interjections in italics. Rome:
he’s harking back to Roman poet-self –
self-fashioning – uneasily at home
in dual skins, forked-tongued, portrays himself.
There are slightly conflicting views upon the ‘fluency’ of Harrison’s fractured lines. Blake Morrison’s thinks the ‘visually ugly breaking down of sonnets [and] the sheer confusion of layout and typography [means] they must be the least fluent poems in the language’, and they are ‘meant to be’. 195 Dunn perceives the ‘meant to be’ as ‘the better to see clearly in detail, what, in the mass might be fuzzy.’196 My opinion is that
the fracture and dislocation of form is synonymous with the fracture and dislocation inherent to the working-class versus educational-experience, and that Harrison harnesses his lineation and vocal strategies in tandem. I outline these strategies now.
Lineation and Vocal Structures in ‘On Not Being Milton’
What’s hazy in the whole, is crystal claimed
from fragments. A dialogic discourse:
Okigbo burned to rubber – tongues of flame,
Colonial alter-ego reinforced.
Harsh assonance, the artifice he smarts –
in part – against. His battling working-class,
forked-tongue invoked Ned Ludd. A leaden mass
analogy for smashing frames apart
is Edward Ludlum’s name – gob-stopping taw
of clumping plosives. Spit it, gritted teeth!
Explode it from the mouth, and draw the jaw!
The dramatist upon the blasted heath.
Silences of Shakespeare and Okigbo.
Silences surrounding clash and din. Split-
quatrain anticipates his second quote –
the pun on righting. Metaphysic wit.
Milton and Meredith composed caudate sonnets, and my next poem uses the caudate form, for three purposes: to further interrogate Harrison’s binary oppositions, to explore the coda form and to incorporate the ‘woman’s sentence’.197 One of the differences between the male and female sentence in everyday conversation, which emerged from Robyn Lakoff’s research, is that women use more tag questions (for example, ‘isn’t it’) than men. 198 This is so in my everyday conversation, but may not be absolutely clear-cut. The tag can be question, or statement, depending upon inflection. Opposing Heteroglossia in ‘On Not Being Milton’
The tongues of fire, the central metaphor:
dead poet’s voices intersect his lines;
Aimé Césaire’s retour natal defines,
he says, yet blurs, the ‘I’ biographer.
Again, the would-be iconographer
appears to contradict himself, combines
Petrarchan form (owned language – thus refined)
with anarchy. The lexicographer
employs the oxymoron to convey
semantic antonyms – the opposite
of meaning – from the ‘Elegy’ by Gray.
His final line departs from quoting lit,
Tidd’s last statement - in captivity –
a Tony Harrison proclivity.
Précis. Isn’t it?
A rising ‘isn’t’ means uncertainty?
A falling ‘isn’t means dead certainty.
Consider Them & [uz]
for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez
αϊαϊ, ay, ay! ... stutterer Demosthenes
gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –
4 words only of mi ‘art aches and ... ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T. W.! He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’
I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.
‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those
Shakespeare gave the comic bits to: prose!
All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [Λs] into R.P,
Received Pronunciation, please believe [Λs]
your speech is in the hand of the Receivers.’
‘We say [Λs] not [us], T.W.!’ that shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottal, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out ... E –nun-ci-ate!
So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.
I chewed up all the Littererchewer and spat the bones
into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,
dropped the initials I’d been harried as
and used my name and my own voice [uz] [uz] [uz],
ended sentences with by, with, from,
and spoke the language that I spoke at home. RIP RP, RIP T.W.
I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!
You can tell the Receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,
[uz] can be loving as well as funny.
My first mention in the Times
automatically made Tony Anthony!199
This sonnet is dedicated to Richard Hoggart, an academic of Leeds working-class origin, and Cortez, a stand-up comic who incorporated Shakespearean quotations into his routines. This indicates the anomalies of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture aired in the poem. Harrison’s accent was ridiculed by an English master, who deemed it unfitting for reading Shakespeare. In an interview with Hoggart in 1986, Harrison explained
I was not allowed to read poetry by one of the English
teachers, because I used to say ‘Mi ‘art aches and a
drowsy numbness, and he thought of me as a barbarian,
you see. Looking back I can see there was a kind of
aggro in my writing. I wanted to do things, make things
that were classically formed, but in my own voice.200
My next sonnet, using Harrison’s line layout, examines this relationship between the ‘classical form’ of ‘Them & [uz]’, his ‘own voice’, and that of his teacher.
Formal and Vocal Strategies in ‘Them & [uz]
A couplet, coupling Greek with music-hall
Αϊ ay – combined poetic ‘I’s’ are called.
A separate tercet; the form maybe
enacting subject matter. Could it be
the line scheme highlights rhyme scheme (BBC)
The Porter: prose’s lonely licensee.
The sestet’s of a piece, the speech of kings,
with only one discordant chime which rings
mid-stanza – queries lineage of Keats
yet …. Centralized? The R.P. voice repeats
its claim – or does it though, it seems to plead –
(the please believe), is this meant to mislead?
Quatrain: sustained attack has closed the trap,
(the gob) of flat /a/, flat-capped, working chap.
The double meaning, too, ‘trapped in his class
can’t aspirate (aspire) to be ‘cut glass’.
Uncoupled couplet turns the tables; R.
P. speakers lose their lousy leasehold, ta!
‘I’ claims the octave, not αϊαϊ, ay, ay!
A pun on chewing literature, and why?
A self-conceit to spit on Daniel Jones’
accentual divisions. Now his own
(it’s punned with harried, as in ‘Harrison’)
voice speaks – he wouldn’t say ‘one’s own’, but ‘wun’.
The master stroke turns ‘Non-U’ into ‘U’,
It’s Tony, now, and not T.W.
Receivers (smashing pun) can go to ‘ell’,
no longer aspirate[d], then the knell,
the death-toll of R.P.? Wordsworth’s full-rhymes,
the rhyme scheme signals here ‘Identity’!
The sonnet comes full-circle when The Times
has elevated ‘Tony’ Anthony
‘Them & [uz] has been described, reasonably, by Dunn, as the ‘Scholarship Boy’s Remorse and Revenge’.201 When Harrison compares the Colonial experience with his own, it is, perhaps, that in a parallel way in which Nigerian tribes (e.g. Okigbo’s Igbo tribe) were ‘civilized’ into English by Scottish missionaries, Harrison was straight-jacketed into R.P. as a scholarship lad at Leeds Grammar School.
I wanted to convey ‘remorse’ and ‘revenge’ in my sonnet, which, like ‘Them & [uz]’, is a poem of two halves, the one the obverse face of the other. In Part 1: ‘Remorse’,
the couplet highlights Harrison’s ‘coupling’, his uneasily co-existing poetic voices. I found no critical views on Harrison’s rhyme scheme in the tercet, but think it possible that such a form-conscious poet would be aware that his separate bbc rhyme enacted his subject matter, his teacher’s ‘nicely spoken’ B.B.C. R.P. The pun on ‘porter’ and ‘poetic licence’, hopefully make reparation for Harrison’s shame, although, as Harrison knew well enough, the porter’s speech is all about performance (albeit of a different kind), and this is a dramatic sonnet, so perhaps not ‘remorse’ exactly. Harrison’s sestet is given to the dominant R.P. voice, yet with altered punctuation, it could be open to interpretation. Spender notes that were the full-stop omitted after the word ‘kings’ and a comma added after ‘those’, the line ‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those ‘, would read ‘Poetry’s the speech of kings you’re one of those,’. 202 The sestet,
highlighting Keats’s cockney accent puts the supremacy of R.P. in doubt, and the quatrain’s battalion of flat /a/s seemingly conveying ‘remorse’ are, nonetheless, remorseless.
In Part ll: ‘Revenge’, the introductory couplet ‘turns the tables’ aurally, rhyming ‘R’ with flat cap ‘ta!’, and the sestet combines Harrison’s puns with mine as we ‘spit on Daniel Jones’ and his ‘accentual divisions’. The aspirate, like Harrison’s, is vanquished in the quatrain, and the final couplet celebrates his ultimate revenge.
Regional accents are loaded with value judgements, but what is considered a ‘prestige’ accent by some will be considered ‘Non-U’ by others, and the non-prevocalic, or rhotic /r/ is one such accent. It occurs where the /r/ is markedly pronounced before a consonant, (e.g. ‘garden party’) or at the end of words (‘star wars’), rather than before a vowel. In Standard-American English, it is deemed to be prestigious, but not in Standard-English. In the introduction to her paper on linguistics, Caroline Piercy states: ‘except in a small area in Lancashire and in the south west of England, all accents in English are non-rhotic’. 203 The ‘small area in Lancashire’ is Darwen, where families migrated to the cotton industry from Somerset farms during the Industrial revolution. Darwen is approximately five miles from Bolton, where the
prevocalic /r/ is non-existent, and its speakers are generally disparaged. However, I find it a thing of beauty, and was heartened to hear an elderly Darwenian lady execute a perfect iambic pentameter on a local B.B.C. television interview during a visit to the town by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The next sonnet celebrates both this lady’s accent and her command of the iambic line, and concerns itself with the business of writing sixteen-line sonnets.
One Monday morning (wet) in Darwen –that’s
non-prevocalic /r/, where Kate’s on walk-
about. Hence cue words: ‘paint’ and ‘drying’. ‘What’s
the fuss about’? I grumble, ‘All this talk
of competitions, wanting to design
a plate, a mug, or conjure-up a name
for some commemorative cocktail? Mine’s
the ‘usual’, that’s if it’s all the same.’
A grey-haired lady with a grown-out perm,
her Rainmate© concertina’d to a band,
drips dripping off her nose, but didn’t squirm,
face glowing, said she’d shaken Katherine’s hand.
Adopting ‘royal speech’ herself, explained:
‘She’s what we need, she’ll lift us up, this star’
(just what I needed for this last quatrain)
Was that I.P., non-prevocalic /r/?
My following poems take a seemingly light-hearted look at perceived ‘dumbing-down’ at the ‘bastion of R.P’, the B.B.C.