The Poetry Place

Contemporary Speech Patterns

I am reading Ruth Padels’ very engaging book, 'The Poem and the Journey'. One of the most interesting sections concerns a debate in the Times (2004) between an amateur poet and Simon Armitage. The amateur likes structure, uses rhyme, and longs to turn Armitage’s ‘Birthday’ into a villanelle. Armitage finds the amateur’s poetry doesn’t ‘bear critical scrutiny’ and one of his main criticisms is that the poems do not use the speech patterns of today.  

(Much as I admire Padel, I find the description of the amateur poet throughout as a ‘businessman’ and his writing as ‘verse’ rather than poetry rather sneering. Why cannot he be termed a writer, or even a poet, even if she doesn’t approve?) 

My issue, though, is with this notion of using contemporary speech patterns. It’s a debate that goes back a long way (Lyrical Ballads, Pound, Eliot and so on). But Padel seems to conflate the failure to use contemporary speech patterns (good) with the use of archaisms and clichés (bad).  

If we look at Armitage’s poetry we do hear these speech patterns – but is that all we hear? Isn’t there something enhanced about his language: ‘I reach / towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky / to fall or fly’ (from ‘Mother, any distance greater than a single span’)?

Or listen to this, from Gillian Clarke’s ‘Cold Knap Lake’:
Or is that troubled surface something else  
shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows  
where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness  
after the treading, heavy webs of swans  
as their wings beat and whistle on the air?
All lost things lie under closing water  
in that lake with the poor man's daughter.

Contemporary speech patterns? That doesn’t seem a very helpful benchmark. Armitage is one of the most colloquial of poets and yet even there we hear heightened language. As Padel says, ‘in a poem every word has got to play an interesting lively part’.  Indeed.  If we rely too heavily on a desire to reflect contemporary speech patterns, I’m not convinced we can achieve that aim.

Poetry has always been ‘different’ to spoken language. Its oddities, its compression (and sometimes its expansion and digression) are not what we hear around us – and that is part of what makes it powerful. 

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