Checking Out Me History

I’m just writing about this John Agard poem for my next e-book and I thought I’d share a little about his use of patois… I like John Agard’s choices. If he’s writing about a general subject, he chooses Standard English forms, and if it’s personal to him, dialect sits right with him… so here’s an extract of what I’ve been writing…

The poem is written in first-person narrative, from his perspective. This allows us to see things from his point of view, especially when he polarises it with ‘me’ and ‘Dem’. We’ve got a choice: do we want to stand with ‘Dem’ who have ‘purified’ and ‘cleansed’ history, literally ‘white’-washing it, or do we want to see things from his point of view? This is a big theme of Agard’s poetry, about colour and race and culture, and ultimately, his view seems to be that he wants to be seen as an individual and to be free to make his own choices. In this poem, he wants to see ALL history in order to pick out what is meaningful to him, not be given a white-washed version of it.

He also chooses to write in a form of patois – the dialect of his home region, informal language if you like. Patois is a word that’s come to mean ‘English from overseas’ – where dialect is ‘English from the UK’ – I don’t like that distinction. It’s as if it’s okay for Norfolk and Newcastle, Lancashire and Cornwall to have their own dialect, and we’ll call it dialect and celebrate it as holding on to out roots, and look at Standard English dismissively, as if it’s somehow foreign to us, but Patois – that’s a whole other thing. In reality, it’s just dialect words and regional accent. I don’t like that word Patois because it has connotations for me of something ‘lesser’, like ‘dialect’, but worse. It literally means ‘rough speech’ – and it’s as if it hasn’t managed to throw off it’s ‘roughness’, whereas dialect comes simply from the word meaning ‘discourse’ or conversation. It’s like ‘Standard English’ is the acceptable ‘standard’ – the level to which we should all aspire, the ‘polished perfection; then ‘dialect’ comes next, like some quaint throwback to the past: either you use dialect grammar and accent and words because you’re ‘too dumb’ not to, and – for example- you don’t know that you can’t say ‘I were’ in Standard English, or else you use it anyway, kind of ironically, knowing it’s ‘wrong’ but proud of your roots. Then it’s as if the UK has abandoned its Empire and Commonwealth territories and whatever ‘they’ speak is like a lesser dialect. How very rude!

Here, John Agard is choosing the root I do: to use dialect and be proud of it, because it’s your heritage. It’s part of the very fabric of you. Standard English is a nice way to communicate with people in a ‘standard’ agreed way, those who might not share your understanding of your dialect rules. Standard English is very helpful in bringing together English as a global language, and making sure that Indian-English speakers and Australian-English speakers, and Canadian-English speakers and English-English speakers and Scottish-English speakers (ad infinitum!) all play by the same rules, otherwise we’d have to learn everyone else’s dialect rules and words as well, but dialect is ‘who you are’. John Agard often chooses dialect and dialectical spelling to reflect his accent when he’s making a point about himself. I find his dialect poems the most personal of all. It’s like we see the real him.

It’s a choice he’s made that felt right for this poem, the content of this poem.

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