As poetry evolved from an aristocratic activity of the pre-Industrial Revolution period to our more democratized art in the modern era, its focus turned from a search for a higher truth to a search for a personal truth. We use poetry to express that which cannot be said outright about ourselves or how we view the world. Does it do the subject matter justice to say “times are tough,” as Morgan Parker writes in “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood?”
I say to my friend I am broke as a joke.
I am Starvin’ Like Marvin Gaye.
I’m so hungry I could get it on.
There’s far too many of me dying.
Of course not. The emotion, like the person, behind the poem is deeper than a single statement. Unfortunately, the poetic statement is usually locked amid the language of academia. The sentiment changed, but the language being used to express it is still of an antiquated lexicon. Shouldn’t we push our language to go further? Shouldn’t we be able to tell our truth in a voice that is not the academic literary voice, but rather the voice we use to communicate normally, effortlessly and automatically in our real lives?
In his essay “The Poem as a Field of Action”, Williams Carlos Williams writes, “The American student … is bilingual, he speaks English in the classroom but his own tongue outside of it.” In 1948, when Williams wrote his essay, he was referring to traditional British English versus American English; however, when we apply this type of thinking toward modern language we may interpret the quote differently. The language we learn and speak in a classroom, even as American English speakers, is not the same language we use to identify who we are. Built from years of experience and tailored by affectations, colloquialism and regional dialects, each American English speaker’s tongue is specialized in its very own personal version of our language – a boutique English. Why do we hide personalized versions of English when we are writing?
Certainly, some writing, such as engineering, mathematics, literary criticism and other scholarly works should keep to the strict boundaries of formal English. But in art, where, Rainer Maria Rilke encourages us “to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise,” we must express our most personal selves. We see boutique English most often used in music and movies, in which personification of the respective art form idolizes the character above all else. Artists such as KRS-One, with his song “Step Into My World,” provide a lyrical bridge between the academic and personal voice. Literature has hitched its wagon to a more natural voice, but usually within the safety of dialogue; and yes, the use of personal language has turned up in poetry, lumped into a sort of new-wave Modernism or Dadaism, often from poets who are not straight, white males, rarely as a mainstream voice. But why? Why, in an age of Createspace and slam poetry, do we still hide our boutique English from literary writing? Are we so confined to our academic upbringing that we must wear our formal English like a badge separating the refined from the rabble? Put that badge down. You, I and every individual who puts pen to paper in the English language (boutique or otherwise) is a drop in an ever-growing ocean of MFA graduates, street poets and lit-erotica pseudonyms. In order for any of us to keep our heads over the obscurity line, we’ll need to use boutique English as a beacon of individualism and see whom it attracts. Think of it as a lighthouse to call your audience armada home. Boutique English can be broken into two important subsections: personal reference and personal speech.
Personal reference is not personal at all. In fact, what we deem to be personal reference is that which connects us to our communities. It’s more about the way language is received than how it is written. There is no more perfect image, nor can there be anymore. Now there are only personal images, personal references. In a November 2017 Being with Krista Tippett interview, journalist and poet Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “Nobody is gonna hold your hand and explain The Brady Bunch to you … so if they have the right to talk and write like that, I have the right to write about Wu-Tang like that.” Writers and poets must use the contexts close to themselves to express their messages. It is part of being true to ourselves in the expression of our personal truth. The audience is being refined. In the ocean of writers in which we float, defining one’s audience specifically, via reference, is the only method of connecting on a deeper level while maintaining personal, poetic integrity. For Coates, there may be a better reference for family entertainment than The Brady Bunch. For other readers, there may be a more iconic reference to describe a musical conglomeration than the Wu-Tang Clan. The onus is not on the poet or writer to ensure these references are understood. The onus is on the audience to understand and connect to these references. The role of references in all literary forms is to act like a gatekeeper. The audience either gets it or they don’t. The audience either learns the reference or misses out. The writer is simply putting it out there and asking, “Are you with me or not?”
In my own poem, “Between the Stand that Deep-Fries Twinkies and the One that Roasts Corn on the Cob,” I refer to the Puyallup River basin. This reference is mine to use, and it is personal and felt true to what I was trying to go for in the piece. At the same time the reference is used to connect my work with the readers of the South Puget Sound – readers who have lived near the Puyallup fairgrounds. It may connect for any reader who has attended any local fair or it may not. There may be readers who detach from the piece because the reference left them without connection, and that’s okay. Similarly, Eduardo Corral references the Prince song “Little Red Corvette” in his poem “Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tino Rodriguez: 1999.” Does this mean Corral should explain the song to a reader who doesn’t have a working knowledge of Prince?
The criteria for personal reference apply to the concept of imagery as well. Imagery, like reference, needs to be owned by the writer. This might coincide with the trope of “write what you know,” but really should go along with “write what you are.” For example, Raymond Carver’s poetry repeats imagery of water, not unlike the water in this essay. In his poem “The Fishing Pole and the Drowning Man,” from Carver’s collection Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, the image of water is eluded to in the title and in the poem’s line, “to use when we went swimming that time.” Carver doesn’t dwell on the body of water; however, the image as seen through the poet’s eyes is front and center. Carver lives with the water; it is part of his everyday life; the water and its meanings for Carver seep into his work. The reader can choose to accept the image as Carver does, interpret it personally, or maybe not at all.
Personal speech in boutique English is derived from our own references. This may be in response to being bilingual or the benefit of regional dialects or a specific upbringing. Those who have heard the word “ain’t” their entire lives are more inclined to use it in their everyday speech. Writing in boutique English reveals the writer’s true voice. If in one’s everyday life a writer drops the “g” from “somethin’” when speaking, why would the writer express themselves in writing by using the “g?” It isn’t that writer’s “g.”
It may be argued that written poetry is to be visually interpreted and therefore the formal English ought to be used. In other mediums, yes. But in writing poetry and fiction, aren’t writers already encouraged to use auditory aesthetic of their word choice regardless if it is read aloud in coffee house or quietly to once self at the breakfast table? Students are taught to use the sound of words to creative meaning; just not when it applies to their own voices.
Try this: Record yourself asking your mother for money on a Tuesday night. Record yourself buying tacos. Record yourself insulting a coworker. Find situations in which you are the most automatic and natural in speaking. Transcribe it verbatim with all the inflections, conjunctions (standard or otherwise) and mispronunciations. Now use that language, your own boutique English, in your next written work. Read it aloud. This will feel unnatural at first, as you are used to reading through an academic filter. How close is the new written work to the English you use in everyday speech?
If you speak two languages, how do they fit into your speech? How do you use your bilingual tongue to express your true self? Unfortunately, we have a tendency in formal American English, and in literary arts stemming from such conservative language, to hold formal English above all else. The poem “Bilingual Sestina” by Julia Alverez illustrates this point:
… a child again learning the nombres
of things you point to in the world before English
turned sol, tierra, cielo, luna to vocabulary words –
sun, earth, sky, moon – language closed
Alverez uses her reference of being an American-Dominican person to showcase the interplay of English and Spanish in her world. Why is the use of another language or a lisp or colloquialism lesser than? Why use a disconnected method of communication in art? Use phonetics if it expresses you. Use two or three languages, the languages inside you, if it gets your reference and voice across.
This is not to advocate for the sound poetry of Dadaist movement, nor does it mean phonetics shouldn’t be used. In his essay “Cacophony, Abstraction, and Potentiality: The Fate of the Dada Sound Poem,” Steven McCaffery states, “Phonetic poetry has a repositional rather than negative effect upon meaning; it situates the semantic order elsewhere – meaning becomes potential in its marginality.” To illustrate this point in modern poetry, look at “from feeld” by Jos Charles:
the bit provydes
its hors / the rocke
provyded a boye
blessynge gode / i wantd 1
Charles is writing the way he speaks. Phonetically, the most telling of these excerpts is the “d” sound on the “provyded” and “wantd.” The reader hears the thud of “ded” in “provyded” and the slurred “td” in “wantd.” This is not formal English, but a version of Charles’ unconventional vernacular that showcases the disenfranchised LGBTQ community. Though not directly utilizing boutique English as described here, Charles does a good job showing the power of a specialized version of English both unique to the writer and understood by the reader. The piece may be hard to read on paper, though, so why muddle formal English if it makes the poem harder to understand? Because we are beyond the basic art. The rest of the artistic world has been beyond the basic since the industrial age, yet poetry clutched its beloved Sidney as if The Defense of Poesy would save them from rising waters. Those who trust their readers, as Charles has, are certain to understand the expression of a self-actualized poetic when actively using the language as a medium for deeper expression.
Look again at the excerpt from Morgan Parker:
I say to my friend I am broke as a joke.
I am Starvin’ Like Marvin Gaye.
I’m so hungry I could get it on.
There’s far too many of me dying.
Using the criteria for boutique English, Parker has shown a personal depth beyond that of a general reader. Personal reference is shown with the nod to “Marvin Gaye.” Personal imagery is shown in hunger and dying. Though we don’t see a blatant phonetic use of English, we do see Parker using the colloquial “Starvin’ like Marvin” and “broke as a joke.” The line “I’m so hungry I could get it on” drips with voice and implications the reader may or may not totally understand. It isn’t Morgan’s responsibility to make her readers understand. Morgan is showing herself to be who she is, as real and unvarnished as the poem allows. The audience may respond how it will. This type of poetry is how poets will differentiate themselves going forward. Each poem’s references and language are specific enough to call out like a beacon to its audience.
Boutique English will not be everyone’s friendly port. There will always be holdouts to change, especially to the way we writers have been doing things for the past hundred years. Nevertheless, there is so much poetic content being produced every day that we must find a way to identify our audience and express ourselves in a new way or we’ll be lost at sea. Boutique English is a method of distinction. By honing our personal references and letting personal speech shine past our formal-English education, we will redefine what is implicit in how poetic language is used to connect our audience.
Corral, Eduardo. “Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tino Rodriguez: 1999.” Slow Lightening. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2012, pp. 3. Print.
McCaffery, Steven. “Cacophony, Abstraction, and Potentiality: The Fate of the Dada Sound Poem.” The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 118 – 128.
Parker, Morgan. “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood.” Literary Hub, http://lithub.com/all-they-want-is-my-money-my-pussy-my-blood/. Accessed 16 December 2017.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated by M.D. Herter Norton. W.W. Norton & Company, reissued 2004.
Swainston, Joshua. “Between the Stand that Deep-Fried Twinkies and the One that Roasts Corn on the Cob.” Open Thought Vortex, https://otvmagazine.com/2017/01/30/between-the-stand-that-deep-fries-twinkies-and-the-one-that-roasts-corn-on-the-cob/ . Accessed 22 November 2017.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69393/the-poem-as-a-field-of-action. Accessed 26 November 2017.