Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Storied Tongue

(Friends-under 10 places left till we reach capacity at this years Great Mother Conference - nine soul-stirring days on Psyche and Eros with myself, Coleman Barks, Alicia Ostriker, Tony Hoagland, Gioia Timpanelli, Fran Quinn and many more. Final sign up at:

Something fairly brief, but very close to my heart this week:

“ No one had told me that the language that was the real glory of English literature was still being used in the field by unlettered men like these.”

The novelist Adrian Bell on the farm workers of the Suffolk countryside.

As a young man, Bell was taken on for a farm apprenticeship. Although having received a public school education, in the eyes of the farm workers he lacked real knowledge, barely able to handle a hoe. What he did possess was an ear for poetry and an open attitude. One day he had to lead a horse between the rows of young plants, still tender. When asking for advice, the horseman looked him in the eye and said: “You lead that mare as slowly as ever foot can fall.” In the literalness of the image – a direct observation from the horseman’s world - Bell also immediately sensed an earthy poetry; in its taught rhythm and true substance. That was the beginning of a lifetime's admiration and learning for the young man from such men. Indeed he says: “I didn’t begin my true education until I had the privilege of listening to the powers of expression of Suffolk farm-men who had left school when they were twelve years of age”.

The great collector of oral accounts of England’s old rural communities, George Ewart Evans (1970), agreed with Bell. He claims that the sweet observation, but also poetry, of the horseman’s advice was very typical of many men he met in the field. They rarely spoke in abstract language, but let the image lead the talking. He describes how rare it would be to hear a phrase like ‘early summer’, far more likely ‘beet-singling time’ or autumn would be ‘sowing the winter corn’. He recalls showing some healthy apples to an old woman who replied ‘those apples will keep till apples come again’. The rhythm is pronounced, the thinking keeps close to apple itself, but also lends a kind of wistfulness to the wider thought – ‘till apples come again’. The increasing lack of visual image in much language and a growing montage of abstraction (this is several generations on) saw Evans declaring that English has lost much of its ‘tactile nature’, it was simply less enjoyable to listen to. He made a clear distinction of the generation born between 1880 and 1890 as the last to generally speak with this deep, descriptive cadence. What I would call a ‘storied tongue’.

A place where some clarity was lost was when very direct questions were asked. Then the questioned individual used all skill in their formidable arsenal to avoid coming down strongly on either side of an argument. This was largely due to a generational build up of caution around sticking your neck out in a small community. It simply meant vulnerability, and when you are living on the breadline that is something you could ill afford. This reached amusing proportions when, after a day in the fields, a worker nursing a pint, rather than giving an opinion directly, would give it as if describing a previous conversation where the same subject arose. So you would say “I said” in the past tense, rather than “I think” in the present. This defuses the intensity of the opinion somewhat, despite everyone knowing this other ‘conversation’ is fictitious, because everyone used the same mechanism. So if it caused too much of an adverse reaction, you could always say you had re-considered since.

These escape-clauses were also to do with a certain kind of manners. You didn’t want to apply pressure on a neighbour or leave them without the possibility of a graceful retreat. Evans describes the borrowing of a scythe between old friends; this had been going on for decades but the borrower never asked straight, he always offered a verbal ‘out’ for the other by asking: “I suppose you ain’t got an old carborundrum, Charlie?”
(Carborundrum is a kind of rub for the blade).

A flat out error would be met by a gentle: “I fare (incline) to think to think you’ve made a mistake, Bor.” If under intense questioning, the farm hand could resort to two standards: “I don’t fare to recollect anything about thet” or “thet were afore ma time”. This is very similar etiquette to tribal groups I have enjoyed meeting across the United States. Direct questions are simply seen as a little unsophisticated, a little gauche; everything gets answered, but in a longer, round-about and certainly more elegant way.

When the farming system truly changed around hundred years ago, the hub of families working in close proximity started to change. And when that changes, language changes, aspirations change. My daughter goes to a tiny rural school, only half a dozen lanes away from the geography of this story (please note: this refers to another part of essay not shown), a school full of farmers' children. So far I have not heard one Devonian accent, and these are Devon children! Not only is the phrasing identical to children all over the English speaking world, the actual accent itself seems to be leaving the mouths of her generation. You’ll catch it in a local pub, or between two old boys at the greengrocer’s, but all now speak a language of American and Australian soap operas. The accent is a kind of generic south English, the north holding onto more regional flavours for now. As is always the case, it has taken only years to dissolve something that took hundreds of years to build. It’s not happening, it’s happened.

The elegance of old culture farming language is another example of cadence slipping under the net of official changes within English diction. The unlettered tongue retained all sorts of delicious, concrete, descriptive, ingenious phrases and descriptions – true wealth. As Evans rightly claims:

And a sympathetic, although not sentimental listener, has the feeling that some of the speech of Chaucer, of Spenser, of Shakespeare, or Tussar and of Claire kept wonderfully alive into the Twentieth Century.

In the continuing questions that arise around the revival of storytelling, I cannot stress highly enough my belief of a return to the storied tongue of these earth folk. Of the apples that returned, and the winter-corn, of the dusk as wine-red as the beloved’s cheek. This is soul language, rooted in things.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013