Friday, 8 October 2010
Them and [uz]; some thoughts, now you've written your essays
The title of this poem turns round the more common saying ‘us and them’ which is often used in the context of a social divide, with the lower classes emphatically ‘them’. Here, Harrison reverses the expected order, to emphasise the word ‘us’, which he renders in the style of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), so as to detail its pronunciation. This ‘us’ is spoken with a northern accent, and the difference between it and the southern pronunciation, and the status accorded to each, is the issue on which the poem turns.
The dedication to the poem reveals its split interests between the academic and the sociological. Leon Cortez was a musician of the thirties and forties who wrote popular comic songs. Richard Hoggart (left) is an academic, the author of The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-class Life, and someone who in many respects led the way for writers like Harrison to enter the formal poetic canon of literature. Harrison here accords them equal status, perhaps because they represent two different types of inspiration and example, two examples of ‘uz’ as opposed to the ‘them’ of the establishment. Hoggart is himself from Leeds, and his entry into the academic establishment, and his appreciation of D.H. Lawrence, for instance, would be something that may have inspired the young Harrison, Lawrence being, even in the 1950s and 60s, a writer whose working-class roots, and use of sexual colloquialisms had led to his exclusion from the canon.
The poem focuses throughout on the prestige accorded to Standard English, and Received Pronunciation. Received Pronunciation, or RP, is the ‘neutral’ accent of the dialect of Standard English, strongly associated with the upper register of speech. It is the dialect of Southern England, and also of upper-class speakers. At the time when Harrison wrote the poem, announcers on the BBC, for instance, would be expected to speak using Standard English and RP, and regional accents would have been seen as vulgar or comical. Northern pronunciation, like Harrison’s, would have been mocked as non-standard (in the way that an Irish or a Caribbean accent can still be mocked in certain contexts) and as a boy, Harrison would have been expected to take hold of the ‘advantages’ that his grammar-school education offered him in the way of accent modification. The expectation that he should do this is clearly the starting point for the painful memories that form the basis of this poem.
Throughout the poem, Harrison shows off his extensive knowledge of literature and culture so as to negate and exorcise the demons of self-doubt sown by his upbringing. He also demonstrates his technical skill; while apparently writing freely and colloquially, he creates a finely-wrought structure of strongly rhymed couplets—a traditional form for satiric verse.
The poem starts with a vivid rendition of Greek speech, ‘αĩ, αĩ’, which effectively isolates the reader who cannot read Greek letters. The fact that they are immediately transliterated into the English ‘ay, ay’ only emphasises the inadequacy of the monoglot reader. Harrison here aligns himself with the famous Greek orator Demosthenes, who reputedly suffered from a stammer. Demosthenes is said to have
cured himself of this affliction by walking along the beach, and practising speaking while he had sea-worn pebbles in his mouth (a modern version of this can be seen in the film My Fair Lady where Professor Higgins puts marbles into Eliza’s mouth to help her pronunciation). Using the slang word ‘gob’ faced against this classical reference demonstrates the range of Harrison’s learning and emphasises the extent to which his accent and use of dialect is a free choice, and not, as his teacher seems to have imagined, a lack of education or intelligence.
The incident recorded in ll. 3-5 is especially ironic; Harrison remembers a teacher stopping him during a recital of part of the opening words of a Keats poem, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The opening lines of the poem are: ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains, / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’. Harrison’s rendition of this is couched in imitative accent: ‘mi ‘art aches’, and his teacher’s reaction to this is portrayed as violent. He describes his heart as ‘broken’ by the sound of the recital, and stigmatises Harrison as a ‘barbarian’, explaining that all poetry should be in RP. This sort of moment of humiliation is something often recounted in literature; you might think of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where authority figures similarly mock the protagonist. As in these books, Harrison’s humiliation is exacerbated by the knowledge, gained in later life, but felt instinctively at this early stage, that the teacher is wrong—not just wrong to do this in a humane sense, but wrong in his assumptions about the nature of literature.
The mature Harrison gets his revenge through an interpolation in brackets ‘(even Cockney Keats?)’, which indicates his superior knowledge of poetry: unlike the teacher, he is aware that Keats himself had been mocked by the aristocratic critical establishment of his day because of his London accent. In other words, Keats had been accused of being lower-class and uncouth on the basis of his voice, in much the same way as Harrison had. Aligning himself with a powerful poet in this way, Harrison threatens all his teacher’s judgements; he establishes his superiority in the dialogue, and demonstrates his linguistic expertise by deftly rendering his teacher’s accent in the IPA as [ΛЅ].
Throughout the poem, Harrison remembers his teacher as calling him ‘T.W’. Presumably his initials were used as a means of distancing the teacher from the student. Harrison remembers the language of contempt: ‘He was nicely spoken’. The phrase has the resonance of childhood; it is the sort of comment made about well-behaved children. The teacher’s speech is described as ‘nice’ a word, in this context, meaning not just pleasant, but correct, exact, in a way which infers the manner in which the teacher himself is submissive to the establishment. The teacher describes Harrison’s attempt at reciting Keats as an attack on English itself: ‘can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’ The exclamation here, and the semantic field of words such as ‘glorious’ and ‘heritage’ seek to further distance the young, Northern boy from the well-spoken southern teacher. He is relegated to ‘the drunken porter’, the role chosen for him implicitly appropriate because it is comic and vulgar.
Harrison uses here the distinction between verse and prose frequently found in Shakespeare—that verse is generally used in serious contexts, and prose frequently for comedy—to amplify his teacher’s prejudice. From his point of view, prose is a lower form of art, and the only sort of writing to which Harrison can aspire. His speech—that is, the everyday speech, ‘the language that I spoke at home’ is described as bankrupt—though Harrison wittily refers indirectly to this clichéd expression by saying, more obliquely, that it is ‘in the hands of the receivers’. The teacher’s harsh correction ‘we say’ effectively shuts Harrison out from the elite ‘we’ by virtue of his accent, and he expresses his silencing in ironic colloquialism (‘That shut my trap’) and the use of language associated with servility: ‘I doffed my flat ‘a’s’. The awkward Northern speech is imaged as unsightly, even diseased: ‘great / lumps..to hawk up and spit out’.
In section II, Harrison becomes more explicit about his anger and his revenge on his childhood experience. He decides to ‘take over’ poetry in another financial metaphor (‘We’ll occupy / your lousy leasehold’), and like some fairy-tale giant, ‘chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones’. The misspelling of ‘Literature’ here both enacts the meaning (it is litter, to be chewed up) and mocks insistence on regular spelling with its phonetic imitation. Harrison breaks the rules that he has been taught, that he has submitted to, and recovers his own voice in an entirely literal sense: ‘[uz] [uz] [uz]’. His anger is evident as the pace of the poem speeds up, the emphatic repetitions urging on the solid rhymes as he re-invents himself as ‘Tony’ and forgets his childhood initials.
In the final stanza, Harrison re-asserts his poetic authority. Wordsworth’s Westmoreland accent makes, as he points out, matter rhyme with water—exactly the flat ‘a’ sound that he has had to ‘lose’ as a child at school. He reclaims his status as a Northern speaker, discarding the rules about how to ‘aspirate’, that is, to pronounce ‘correctly’ the initial ‘h’ sound on a word like ‘heart’ in the line from Keats (to ‘drop one’s aiches’ used to be a signifier of low class). Harrison is rebelling, in this poem, against the way in which the poetic establishment had, in his childhood, claimed Keats as a poet of the upper class, and ignored his lower middle class, liberal roots. He is rebelling against a perceived ahistorical cultural rewriting of history in which ‘Standard’ English is privileged over the spoken word of the poet himself.
In a final example of how easily this prioritizing can happen Harrison recounts with wonder and amusement how when he was finally ‘successful’ as a writer, and was mentioned in The Times, presumably in a review, the paper made a hyper-correction; wrongly believing ‘Tony’ to be an abbreviation of ‘Anthony’ they ‘corrected’ it, as he says ‘automatically’. The exclamation at the end of the poem enacts his wry amusement here: the official written word is already, implicitly, smoothing over the perceived roughness of the poet.