Friday, August 04, 2017

I'd (and She'd, He'd, We'd They'd...)

This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.

The observation, in very crude terms, is this:

"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.

This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.

Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.

[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]

Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've just cut the text into lengths.


Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them

I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor


"I'd" is there, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, it's more Mark Doty than John Riley  (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).


So, why? 

There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.

The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.

"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now (though this is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem).

The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry. (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted form -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of  "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.

These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact it's a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it is not, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.


"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."

Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.

Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology. Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.



William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn  ( I would)

Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"

But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)

Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)

Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)

Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)

Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home. (I had)

Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them—  (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway—   (I had)

Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.           
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)

Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)

Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)

Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,  (I had)

Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)

Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)

Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)

Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead,  (I had)

Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"

one-handed, like a man milking,

two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse

which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)

Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"

That's why
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,

why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)

Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)

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