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The meanings of dialects in English poetry - from late 19th century to early 21st century

Le vendredi 19 mai 2017 Bâtiment B - Salle Paul Denizot (B0.553)

Despite the fact that, quite recently, and ironically, The Guardian headline read “Regional dialects are Dying Out – It’s Enough to get you Blarting” (May, 30th 2016), dialects have always been – and continue to be - present in poetry. >From The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer already parodied dialect poetry, to the intrusion, within a poem otherwise written in standard English, of dialect lines (as for instance with Thomas Hardy or Simon Armitage), to a type of poetry whose prosody partly depends on the accent picked when read aloud (Cockney in Keats, the Dorset dialect in William Barnes, Northumbrian in Basil Bunting), there are countless cases of using dialect. Today poets like Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, Steve Ely, or Helen Mort, to name but a few, still use some form of dialect in their poems. How is a dialect introduced in poetry, on the page and orally ? What are the tools (syntactic, semantic, prosodic, poetic, spelling, etc.) used by the poet to make his / her accent heard ? One may then wonder if these dialects are eye dialects or even ear dialects. Are these traces of dialect, stanzas or even full poems in dialect, directly voiced by the poet or by a mask ? Are they placed at the core of the poem or literally marginalised in an epigraph ? Are these poetic dialects limited to literary usage or are they also spoken outside poetry, at home, during interviews or in letters (as Pound and Eliot would do) ? And are there any groups of poets who, according to their region, use the same dialects ? The presence of dialect raises the question of the implicit reader and listener, and his / her capacity to spot the dialect traces and to relate these textual nodes to a specific British area (or, possibly, an area of the former British Empire, as in David Morley’s Anglo-Romani). It also, quite significantly, addresses the understanding of the poem. For instance, William Hazlitt declared that he had a hard time understanding Wordsworth’s “mixture of clear gushing accents in his voice, [his] deep guttural intonation, and [his] strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine”. To what extent have recording and broadcasting technology (from the gramophone to podcasts) changed the understanding of dialect in poetry ? The presence of dialect in poetry also raises the question of its poetic value : poetry has traditionally been considered as a genre of and for the elite, while dialects have been seen as the language of lower social classes. To what extent can a poet reconcile dialects with poetry ? One may consequently wonder why poets use dialects in their poetry : is it to make oral transmission easier ? Does it derive from a real concern to gather material on a region and its inhabitants ? Is it a way to give a voice to those who are marginalized from the poetic tradition, that is those whose accents are considered if not barbarous at least unfit for the lyricism too often equated with what poetry should and can be ? Does dialect poetry necessarily belong to “minor literature” as theorized by Deleuze and Guattari ? Behind the question of the presence of dialect in poetry is that of the very definition of poetry. Our purpose is to start a discussion around all these issues. This requires a combination of various methodologies, that of poetry specialists with that of phoneticians, linguists and experts in the history of the English language.