Niall Griffiths Inaugural Lecture (Part 2)

On 8 December 2014, Niall Griffiths delivered his Professorial Inaugural Address at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. The text of that talk is serialised here in 4 parts. In the second part, below, Griffiths reflects on the rhythms of the vernacular in literature (see also Part 1).


To return to the search for voice – we look for example and precedent and model. You’re dissatisfied; you’re lost; you’re searching for guidance. You’re told that the way you speak, which is the way you think, is unsuited to what you feel the need to say; that it just cannot curl itself around such big and intricate shapes. Yet it’s the only one you have. There was a time when I enthusiastically jettisoned and rejected anything that gave off the slightest whiff of the established and the canonical. I’ve matured now – Hardy – how shocking he was – and if the classics bore you . . .  read them until they don’t.

Alan Ginsberg and Basil Bunting at Morden Tower

Alan Ginsberg and Basil Bunting at Morden Tower

[T]his re-appraisal, or new understanding, was again prompted by Tom [Pickard]’s  endeavours. He re-discovered Basil Bunting (1900-85): conchy in WW1, brave fighter in WW2; [author of] Briggflats, an attempt to bring the epic form back into English literature; an investigator of the northern psyche – high, wild, windy, lawless […]; obsessed with Wordsworth – to me the epitome of everything I couldn’t stand in writing. Bunting studied phonetics in a historical context: shifting habits of pronunciation, [and] accentual evolution. [He] reckoned that he knew, as near as he possibly could, how Wordsworth would’ve read The Prelude aloud. Read it on radio. Uproar. This was not an Establishment voice. Wordsworth spoke like we speak, he’s our poet.

TS Eliot used this to rationalize his refusal to publish Bunting in Faber, which of course allowed other established voices to ignore what Bunting was trying to do (odd character, Eliot; he whose poetry was so non-traditional, yet who was also a scion of stuffiness). Tom [Pickard][writes of] Eliot: ‘his star shone in English departments like the one gleaming over the Kremlin, and all an internee of the department was expected to do was polish it with his nose’. Ed Dorn, another US writer promoted through M[orden]T[ower] [writes]: ‘most poets have had some connection with the academy somehow. I mean somebody in the academy has noticed and promoted them. This has been the mark of the 20th century. It seems ridiculous to speak of the halls of power of poetry, but in these places where one’s name is nurtured and generated and increased, they exist’. To generalize, then; the academicization of writing is the pounding of it down into a quantifiable discipline, and there is an unofficial patronage system at work.

Perhaps there was, but there is also the notion that the academy, or the establishment, or whatever catch-all term we wish to use, overlaps with the margins in what can be termed the re-discovery of the past in, say, other racial experiences – again, buried voices dis-interred. Sam Selvon was one such – another eye-opening find for me. [His] Windrush [and] The Lonely Londoners [reveal the] Black immigrant experience in 50s London and a language tailored to express that experience:

Oh what a time it is when summer come to the city and all them girls throw away the heavy winter coat and wearing light summer frocks so you could see the legs and shapes that was Selvonhiding away from the cold blasts and you could coast a lime in the park and negotiate ten shillings of a pound with the sports as the case may be or else they have a particular bench near the Hyde Park Corner that they call the Play Around Section where you could go and sit with one of them what a time summer is because you bound to meet the boys coasting lime in the park and you could go walking through the gardens and see all them pretty pieces of skin taking suntan and how the old geezers like the sun they would sit on the benches and  smile everywhere you turn the English people smiling isn’t it a lovely day as if the sun burn away all the tightness and strain that was in their faces for winter …

[Selvon’s] calypso rhythms [were to me] a new kind of English [that helped challenge staid notions of Englishness]. For Kenneth Ramchand, ‘Such notions [as Daniel Defoe’s True-Born Englishman] must be continually revised as new and active components make themselves felt’ (1). And GK Chesterton: ‘And then there is the higher culture. I know that culture. It means losing every democratic sympathy. It means being unable to talk to a navvy about sport, or about beer, or about the Derby, or patriotism, or the Bible, or about anything whatever that he, the navvy, wants to talk about. It means taking literature seriously, which is a very amateurish thing to do’.

Well, a lot has changed in the century since Chesterton. And he had the luxury of being able to have writing as a career; he was in a position to choose it. And the word ‘career’, applied to a writer’s life, should always be used as a verb, not a noun, and to write because you have to, and to spin out of control because you have to, are very serious matters indeed. Here is Mara Kalnins on DH L[awrence], from the introduction to Apocalypse:

his works chart the profound unease many writers have felt when faced with a world in which creative human values seem increasingly to be sacrificed to materialism, to empty social and intellectual forms, impoverishing the quality of life and threatening to dehumanise the individual.

Wilde says the same thing in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’.

So where is the writing from Chesterton’s hypothetical navvy? Where is his voice? Being a navvy does not debar him. [Ron] Berry was a boxer, [James] Kelman worked in a shipyard, and Alan Warner, one of the most interesting writers working today, worked on the railways. He does not polish his writing in the way he once polished boilerplates, and his response to the suggestion that he should is fascinating and worth quoting at length:

“Correct usage,” [John Banville] writes [in a review of The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays], “is a premise for moral clarity and honesty,” warning that “a single misplaced comma can result in disasters.” His warning should be engraved on the walls of every classroom . . . in what used to be called the civilised world. [Such a position is] a total attack on my own and so many other writing cultures. It hurts me to have to reply harshly also, but I think anybody has a right to reply when people start claiming to be moral authorities as well as artists. I actually do believe great artists: Melville, Kafka, Camus, Joyce, Orson Welles, the Brontes, do express great moralities through their work, but this is a gift they must let time bestow upon them, rather than claiming a right to moral authority through the middle class newspapers. So, let’s just notice the intellectual subjectivity and political assumptions of what’s being said by Banville here. Firstly, without qualifying what is “bad writing” it is introduced in connection with “casting off chains of . . . grammar, syntax and spelling . . . ” then Banville quotes a professor of German from Trieste University. Unquestioningly we are told “correct usage” (which of course is not defined), is enshrined as an abstract representation of “moral clarity and honesty” and lo & behold, with Biblical certainly, a misplaced comma along with writing that ignores “correct usage of grammar, syntax, and spelling,” is seriously accused of being dishonest and indeed, morally suspect!!! That’s quite an accusation. Well, if you’re a computer programmer in HTML language a misplaced comma CAN be bloody disastrous! But when it comes to literary linguistic laws of the land being imposed from up on the walls of the classrooms we’re back to an oppression and elitism one had hoped had been long abandoned (n)

I had a similar response when it came to the work of Tony Harrison. I recoiled from his declaration that the common people speak in iambic pentameter. They absolutely and demonstrably do not. Demotic speech, the vernacular, wherever it is heard, from Leeds to Largs to Llanelli, has a rhythm and a beat that evidently escapes the ear of the classicist who needs to dampen the twinge of shame he feels at moving a cultural light-year away from the subjects of his writing. It baffles me why such unique and particular music cannot be appreciated for what it is rather than having a mapable pattern dumped on it.

End of Part 2 (go to Part 3, or return to Part 1)

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