Monday, September 26, 2016

Contemporary Poems in a Shakespearean Soundscape: An Experiment with 'Original Pronunciation'

This year I have had the pleasure of being poet in residence at Anne Hathaway's Cottage (pictured), as part of Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.

In some of the new poems that I've been working on, I conducted an experiment that, as far as I know, has never been tried before. Inspired by David Crystal's research on the sound-system (or phonology) of Shakespearean English - known as Original Pronunciation (or OP) - I have composed new poems in OP, rendered on the page phonetically, in the manner of dialect verse.

Why? For a number of reasons. The phonology or sound-system of any language has operative effects akin to music - and the attempt to invoke and direct the energies of those effects is fundamental to my practice as a poet. I wanted to release and make more vivid through OP some of the more latent qualities in the English that I use every day. And the peculiar quality of OP itself, in which people from all parts of Britain and the Anglophone world hear something of their own voice blended in strange yet familiar patterns, transcending the false borders bred into us, has a political appeal for me, too.

Elizabethan literary taste valued fresh imaginings of familiar tales: as we know, Shakespeare took up well-known plots and made them something more than the stories they told. I decided to do the same with my experiment in OP - and I knew who I wanted to hear speaking this language.

I present below the first two parts of a five-part OP sequence with this working title: 'Caliban Retaurrns to the Uylund'.

After the events of The Tempest, Caliban is taken to Milan, to live as part of Prospero's household ('This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine') - but twelve years on, Caliban has been sent back to the island, entrusted by Prospero with a secret task.

Caliban Retaurrns to the Uylund

I. Landfahl

I duyve from the ship hwen I suyt ’err:
the crew cry ‘hwairle!’ but I knohw betterr:
it is muy motherr uyle and I swim
through cloth o’ gohld and sinkin rohbz
until muy skin is ahl a gill agaihn:
muy guarrdians soon a daih beyuynd.

I beach on a waihve and laff in the wash:
I wearr the jelluyfish I caught for a cruwn
with ahl its stings aluyve, still pulsin
luyk the pinches uv ’is spirits did:
such is muy kingship, and I embraihce it.

I listen for the worrms in the sand:
their music mixes with the sea’s breathin
and glints through thought luyk sunluyt: theh hear
muy tears and knohw oo has retaurrned to weep
agaihn, and watch the sandbahrdz blohw luyk smohke
abeut muy earrz, blue as the shark is hwuyt:

that’s a riddle that he tohld, hwen fahrrst
he cahld muy muynd to his, as nou I knohw:
I wonderrd at him, and that, his daughterr.
Hwen she taught me speech luyk theirrs, I asked him:

‘Hwerr is muy motherr?’ Hou pairle he lookid then.

II. The Graihve uv Sycorax

I foller a seed afloaht on the wyind
and fuynd the tree hwerr he feund herr,
led by me: I knew nohtin uv death
soh hwen she stilled I took ’err, sleepin
as I thought, to hwerr she hwisperd
at the moon, hwich listened, crairdld eerr,
at rest in the bohnz uv branches ohld
as she: and I, a chuyld, would earr ’err
anserr, and silverr ohverr in that seund.

I remember hou muy motherr’s boduy
did not staih as I ’ad left ’err, but kyled
up and reund the tree, and scairlid luyk a snairk:
this was hou he met ’er. His uyes
wer wuyld: not with terrorr: something moorr
than uyes should ohld: I guess he spuyd not just
a witch, but the tip and mirror uv his ohwn
moorrtalituy, moorr than natrul
as it was. For the fahrrst tuyme I saw him
in full pohwrr: his cloahk a deeperr nuyt
than ahl the darrkness I had knohwn, aluyve
with its ohn constellairsiuns as he cast
his vise in shairps that muvd along muy flesh:
his staff with its invisible ’and
ohpend muy motherr’s meuth: his earr ahl uye
to what ’er dead tong tohld. I kept his daughterr
wahrrm till dawn insuyde a wolfskin coaht:
she had cruyd to see ’err f─âthrr soh
unfixed through thohz cohld ohrrz, soh unluyk
the self she knew. I saw muy motherr
shrivel to a blackened thread uv skin:
watched him buruy her spent forrm in emptuy luyt
pegged buy the roots uv that hwuyt tree
in a suylence I have not aird since.
He was tenderr with her in his waih
and seemed to moorrn her as his ohn lairt wuyfe
for ahl he lairterr rairvd uv soorrseruy.

I saw him come eerr ohn last tuyme bifoorr
we sairled for his dukedom and Milan
and nou I knohw the raihzen. Twelve yeerrz on
he tohld me that the arrth hwerr he had buruyd
his brohken staff would be bohth bahrd and bahrrk:
I fuynd the tree is featherrd rairven black.
Forgive me, motherr: I begin to dig.

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